An awful day in history

On 1 April 1909, the citizens of Pittsburg (between 1891 and 1911 the 'h' was omitted) were the victims of a rather cruel April Fool's joke. An afternoon edition of one of the city's newspapers (the Pittsburg Dispatch reported the story so probably wasn't the hoaxer) informed them that Japan had invaded the United States:

The report reached Pittsburg about 2 o'clock this afternoon [1 April 1909] through the medium of the early edition of a facetious afternoon which appeared on the street with a flaring red line, 'Japanese Strike Awful Blow to America an [sic] April 1. Japs Invade America, Destroy Fleets, Capture Cities, Slay Inhabitants and Make April 1 an Awful Day in History.'1

The scenario was that a Japanese fleet had bombarded and destroyed San Francisco and Oakland, as well as sinking American ships and landing ground forces. In addition, 'gigantic aerial Japanese monsters' -- presumably meaning airships (though you never know) -- 'were crossing the Rockies, hurling bombs on the earth below and leaving devastation and ruin in their wake'.2 A later bulletin brought the news that recent president Theodore Roosevelt had deposed the captain of the Hamburg (which was taking him to safari in Kenya), and had turned the ship around to bring help to his stricken nation.

The hoax led to dramatic scenes on the streets of Pittsburg:

Within half an hour after the 'news' appeared upon the streets the down town thoroughfares were black with people. Smithfield street, in front of the publication office of the paper was one seething mass of humanity, fighting and struggling to get within reading distance of the bulletin boards [...] So great had the crowd become at this time that extra police had been called to keep order. Men clawed at each other, tore clothes and fought.3

A police detective named George Cole even began recruiting his colleagues into 'a volunteer military company'.4 Others didn't want to wait so long for the violence to start:

[...] one lone Chinaman sauntered down the street. He was not a Japanese, but he was yellow, and the mob was in a mood to vent its spite. But John Chinaman saw them coming and he is possibly running yet.5

The crowds eventually got the idea that they'd been hoaxed after the constant repetition of the date, and then dissipated.

So what was all this in aid of? Did the newspaper want to lampoon fears of Japanese invasion? Or to dramatise the danger of Japanese invasion (a la the Kaskowiski affair in New Zealand a generation earlier)? Or simply to increase circulation? There was certainly some antagonism between Japan and the United States, at both the popular and government levels. White Americans (and Canadians) in the west of the continent were anxious about the level of Japanese immigration. This led to the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907, in which Japan had agreed to stop its citizens from immigrating into the United States in return for the United States not banning Japanese immigration. (I know.) Japan's destruction of the Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905 had signalled its emergence as a naval power; the United States responded in 1907 by sending the Great White Fleet on a voyage around the world to demonstrate its power (it returned only in February 1909). Later in the year (I think; the preface is dated March) Homer Lea published his future-war novel The Valor of Ignorance, which in part portrayed a similar scenario to that which so startled the people of Pittsburg. (Though without the airships.)

But then Lea's book apparently was not well-received or widely-bought (except in Japan); and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, from which the above extracts are taken and which was a lot closer to Japan than the Pittsburg (whatever it was), mocked the very idea of a Japanese invasion in its headlines:

PITTSBURG IS SCARED SOME
Afraid That a Jap Fleet May Come Down Upon Them.
WHAT A FUNNY THOUGHT
Any Old War Fleet Would Have a Hard Time to Reach Us.

Either way, the whole affair seems not to have attracted much attention. Apart from the one Alaskan newspaper, it was presumably covered in the Pittsburg Dispatch and the New York Herald which are cited as the sources for the story (but which I can't find online for this period). It seems to have also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. Otherwise the Japanese invasion of America attracted surprisingly little attention.

Still, whatever the hoax's lack of impact on the rest of the country, it seems to have had one in Pittsburg, even if it did soon vanish from memory. A date which should have lived in infamy, perhaps.


  1. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 12 May 1909, 5. It was reprinted in full in several New Zealand newspapers: e.g., Evening Post (Wellington), 19 May 1909, 2. It also appeared in truncated form in an Australian newspaper, which is where I originally found it: Queenslander (Brisbane), 29 May 1909, 10

  2. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 12 May 1909, 5. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

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3 thoughts on “An awful day in history

  1. Japan was the emerging power of the time, as is China now. Noteworthy both from Far East Asia. The fear of being technologically surpassed was alive, at least at a sub-conscious level. The beating took by Russian few years before created much astonishment. One main difference is that USA where a raising industrial power at the time, now a steady, if not a declining, one.

  2. George Shaner

    Having minored in history at the University of Pittsburgh I wish I had something snappy to say about this incident, but I don’t.

  3. Pingback:

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