While digging through the archives in 2013, I stumbled across a fantastic story in the Dec 3, 1888 edition of the New York Times about a cave in Connecticut known as Sutcliffe Cavern. According to the article it had been discovered four years earlier in North Stonington, Connecticut while digging out the cellar on the Sutcliffe farm. It soon became a popular stop for local pleasure parties.
I had never before heard about this cave before nor do I live far from North Stonington. I thought I found a real treasure, and couldn’t wait to rediscover it. Anxiously, I read on and the details of this cave soon revealed that it was a treasure, but not the kind I first thought it was. The article claimed that Polly Sutcliffe, Known local as “Aunt Polly”, believed that a pot of gold was hidden in her basement. She had dreamed about the gold for three weeks. When laborers began digging the cellar for her home they soon broke through into the cave. The article says that the cavern “is known to extend under ground for five to six miles in various directions.” This is the point where the story began to strain my credulity. Even if I take into consideration that my knowledge of local geology is limited, the idea that what would be the longest cave in New England had appeared to have been forgotten, was hard to believe. I also noticed that it contained names and themes similar to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain–something that made sense much later in my research on this cave.
Still intrigued, I read on. The article claimed that, “Indian skulls, hunting implements and amulets had been found in the cavern.” Eventually, a hunter named Milo M. Anderson had found an entrance to a cavern two miles west of the Aunt Polly’s home, while tracking a mink. He pulled away some stone in a crevice, causing an avalanche. Having, “narrowly escaped burial,” he soon found himself at the opening of an enormous passage that treaded uphill toward Aunt Polly’s home.
After further investigation I found two more stories about the cavern published in the December 5, 1888 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript and the January 13, 1889 edition of the Troy Daily Times. Both stories mentioned how the cave would soon be fully explored, since it couldn’t be done previously due to foul air and lack of ventilation.
Though by now I knew this story was completely facetious, I was curious as to why three newspapers in the northeast reported this story. I soon found that fanciful stories like this were not uncommon in the 1880s.
In the 1800s the demand for newspapers increased. One of the most significant developments in journalism during this time was Penny Papers. The content of these one cent daily papers was driven by what would sell. They introduced local news, human interest stories, court reports, scandals and sensationalism to journalism.
When there wasn’t enough news to fill their pages of these newspapers it was common for the editors to invent stories. Though many were completely fictitious stories, some were jokes and hoaxes for readers’ entertainment. Writers worked hard to make the stories as interesting and believable as possible. They would mix familiar sources, real details and actual quotes with the fabricated ones. As part of the fun, writers would often include clues that would reveal the stories were fictitious. More often than not, readers were interested and entertained by the sensational details of these stories, they never noticed the clues. The 1800s were an era of exploration and inventions. Reports of fantastic discoveries were common and well accepted.
The story about Sutcliffe’s Cavern had all of the expected ingredients of a hoax. It even had the subtle clue to reveal it was a hoax. Mark Twain, a Connecticut resident at the time, had published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer only twelve years earlier. The use of names and other elements from his novel was the clue for the sharp reader.
Though It was disappointing to confirm that the cavern wasn’t real, I had now found a new kind of cave to explore, and it wasn’t long before I found another hoax cave. I’ll save that story for another day.
~ Strange New England
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