Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

The Affairs of Dame Rumor

According to the Independent, 6 April 2007, the opening of the Primark clothing chain's new flagship on Oxford Street last week descended into chaos as several hundred shoppers, drawn to the opening by wild, fast-spreading rumours of spectacular bargains, formed such a crush that the store had to be opened early and customers restricted to a 25-minute time slot to prevent the risk of injury.

As is so often the case, the exact nature of the mysterious "rumours" that had drawn so many people to the store proved difficult to pin down‚ though some, inevitably, suspected Primark's own PR agents of hatching a stunt. The Independent reported that many of those queuing to get in had heard that the opening would be marked by a half-price sale. BBC News, meanwhile, said that a number of those drawn to the store had come in the belief that every item in the store would be on sale for a mere £1, for a limited time, at least. In fact no special discounts were available at all, and many shoppers left hot, tired and disappointed.

The speed with which tall tales of this sort can travel never ceases to startle me, and there's no doubt that modern technology, not least text messaging and the internet‚ can play a key part in their spread. But it's also worth remembering that wild and influential rumours are by no means a purely twenty-first century phenomenon.

One of the first books to chronicle the appearance, spread, mechanics and influence of such stories was an excellent but now forgotten study by an early PR man by the name of David Jacobson. His The Affairs of Dame Rumor, published in 1948, is a thought-provoking precursor to the popular books of Jan Harold Brunvand, which introduced many people to the field during the 1980s. Densely packed - the book runs to nearly 500 pages of smallish print, and includes one chapter that is nearly 200 pages long - it is is also surprisingly modern in tone and content.

One of the pleasures of browsing the book is the chance to spot stories that are still doing the rounds in various forms today. Reports that the Red Cross was charging people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina for its help, for example, turn out to mirror rumours that date all the way back to the closing days of World War I. Other familiar stories collected and dissected by Jacobson include reports of Mexican boys being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the United States (1945) and the bizarre mid-19th century belief in the existence of 'Jay Cooke's Banana Belt' - mythical lands of tropical plenty allegedly discovered in the unexplored American midwest of the late 1860s.

In passing, Jacobson reports on several barely-remembered paranormal tales (he knew of and had read Charles Fort), including a personal favourite of mine, the Holy Bambino of Bari (1866-69) - a bleeding wax statue in the south of Italy. The author's notes on the flying saucer craze (which was less than a year old at the time he wrote) are of some historical importance, as is his commentary on the numerous war rumours that had swept the US between 1941 and 1945.

The Affairs of Dame Rumour isn't hard to find; many online second hand book services (my preferred supplier is bookfinder.com) list copies at £7-£10. If you have any interest in urban legends or what Charles Mackay memorably termed the madness of crowds, you should consider investing in a copy.

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