ONE of the most successful hoaxes that ever slid unchallenged into the mind of the great American public was perpetrated by Sam Davis, now Controller and Insurance Commissioner of Nevada. Some years ago, in company with Thomas McCrossen, he started at Vallejo, California, a paper called The Open Letter. At dinner one night with Woodford Owem, then Collector of the Port, Mr. Davis defended his ability to imitate the style of any modern poet so closely as to defy detection. A friendly wager followed, Mr. Owens naming Bret Harte as the poet to be imitated.
Within a week Mr. Davis had written 'Binley and 46' and had published it in The Open Letter over the name of Bret Harte. An accompanying editorial paragraph explained that the poem had been found by Mr. McCrossen in a trunk which Harte had left in a San Francisco lodging-house many years before. So "Binley and 46" went the rounds of the press. Even Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper gave it a full page, with illustrations by Matt Morgan. The authenticity of the poem remained unquestioned. As for Harte, he said nothing. When the hoaxers thought the joke had gone far enough they exposed it in The Open Letter. The feelings of readers who had been tricked were, as the poet has said, various. Many showed indignation; others laughed - but Mr. Davis had won his wager. His principal embarrassment has been the impossibility of undoing the hoax. Despite all efforts to establish the real status of the poem, despite the innate absurdity of a situation in which an engineer who takes his locomotive out into a blizzard with no fireman and then freezes to death beside a roaring furnace, there are people living who still regard "Binley and 46" as one of Bret Harte's masterpieces.
UPON Wasatch's peaks of snow
From out the sky no star ray shines
At first they only sighed,
'Twas eleven o'clock near Bridger's
Soon Binley had mounted his iron steed,
Then over the winding track he sped,
Then down the grade like a courser
Now old Binley feels the thrill
But now the engine is running slower,
Thicker and faster the drifting snow
Next morning a snow-plow forced its way