Rumors Before The Internet

by Jonathan Chait | November 11, 2009

Forty years ago, the rumor that Paul McCartney had died, and that the Beatles had covered up his death while for some reason scattering clues of it in their albums, leapt from the counterculture to the mainstream, where it briefly transfixed millions. The key event in the rumor going viral was a Michigan Daily article by student Fred LeBour. Michigan Today recounts the story:

On the morning of October 14, the university community awoke to the shocking and incredible report that one of the world's most popular and beloved entertainers was no more. The headline blazoned across the second page of the Michigan Daily proclaimed the awful news:

"McCartney dead; new evidence brought to light." ...

LaBour never expected his article to be taken at face value, and was astonished when the national press picked it up as a serious piece of news. "The story was quoted extensively everywhere," he recalls. "First the Detroit papers, then Chicago, then, by the weekend, both coasts."

After this the rumor truly seemed to catch fire. Suddenly LaBour's playful inventions were being soberly discussed on the evening news of all three major television networks, and in prestigious national magazines such as Time and Life.

Exactly why LaBour's story was so influential is unclear. It was not the only article on the rumor, nor was it the first. The rumor was also being heavily promoted on alternative radio. But many agree with Beatleologist Andru J. Reeve, who opines that LaBour's story was "the single most significant factor in the breadth of the rumor's spread."

LaBour recalls being worried about his unintentional role in sending the rumor spiraling out of control. "But after a few days," he says, "the theatrical aspect became clearer to me, and, shy as I was in the face of all the attention, I began to enjoy the ride."

The culmination of that ride was being invited to Hollywood in early November to participate in an RKO television special that featured celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey conducting a mock trial in which he examined various expert "witnesses" on the subject of McCartney's alleged death.

"I was a nervous college kid, way out of my league," LaBour recalls. "I told Bailey during our pre-show meeting that I'd made the whole thing up. He sighed, and said, 'Well, we have an hour of television to do. You're going to have to go along with this.' I said okay."

Good to know the mainstream media wasn't any more responsible in those days.

 

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