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The Great Ostrich Race

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Weaponized foreign propaganda excluded, and with some unfortunate exceptions, these days "fake news" is code for any given article or broadcast that puts you or something in which you believe in a bad light.

But back in the mid to latter part of the so-called Gay '90s (as in 1890s) fake news was simply fake news. It especially tended to occur on slow news days. Few decried the practice and, assuming no malicious intent on anyone's part, almost everyone laughed about it.
Indeed, this was a time in American history when a little mirth was generally well-appreciated. The nation was just coming off its worst financial depression to that point in history, a severe economic downturn sparked by the Panic of 1893. A year later, millions of Americans had no jobs. The wealthy minority of "haves" continued with the luxuries of the gilded era while the "have-nots" were in many cases practically starving. Some former breadwinners resorted to suicide.

By the second half of the decade, while painfully fresh on most people's minds, the situation had improved, if slowly. Still, money-more specifically whether to continue the gold standard-stood as the preeminent political issue of the day. In 1898, at his residence in Austin, former Gov. James E. Hogg for a time hosted his friend former U.S. Senator William Jennings Bryan. Famous for his "Cross of Gold" speech, Bryan was making what would prove his second of three unsuccessful presidential bids.

Walter D. (Doc) Hornaday and Asher G. Smoot, two Austin journalists, had managed to hold onto their jobs through the depression. They supplemented their modest newspaper salaries by filing Austin and Texas-related news articles with various out-of-state newspapers. Back then the practice was known as "stringing," since writers got paid based on the pasted-together inches of published text they produced.

Needing something to write but having nothing to write about, Hornaday hatched an idea. Why not, he suggested to his colleague Smoot, write up an imaginary ostrich race between Hogg (who at roughly 300 pounds likely would have killed any ostrich he tried to ride) and Bryan. The would-be president was no toothpick himself. Surely everyone would get the joke.

Smoot, then on the staff of the Austin Statesman, hesitated at first. He had never heard of such a thing as ostrich racing, but Hornaday explained it actually had become something of a national fad. Naturally, there were ethical issues to be considered. In the end, both journalists decided most readers would take coverage of such a purported event with the proverbial grain of salt and they proceeded to craft their bogus reports.

The two young men filed stories with their respective big-city clients, including the New York Herald and Chicago Tribune. The advanced non-existent event, which faster than a long-legged running bird became "The Great Ostrich Race," would match Hogg and Bryan in a race from the Capitol south down Congress Avenue to the Colorado River. The only truth in the whole matter was that Hogg did actually own a pair of ostriches, given to him when he was governor.

The phony stories delighted gullible readers and therefore editors. Soon Hornaday and Smoot began receiving telegrams from New York and elsewhere requesting more details on the big race, especially comments from the two contestants. Editors also wanted to know what odds the gamblers were laying.

Of course, the two scribes had not consulted with Hogg or Bryan. The former governor had begun his career as a newspaper editor in East Texas, and apparently was more appreciative of a good joke than Bryan.

"I wouldn't mind having an ostrich race with Mr. Bryan," Hogg told Hornaday after word of the initial stories reached Austin, "but he seems a little bit sensitive about what he has...been reading. I suggest that you and Smoot lay off of him for a while."

Hornaday consulted with his partner in journalistic crime and they came up with a solution that not only would put the figurative head of the ostrich race into the sand, it would make them a little more money. As quickly as they could get the words down, the two newsmen wired their newspapers that the race had been canceled because one of the ostriches had suddenly taken ill.

The journalistic shenanigans on Hornaday and Smoot's part had no adverse impact on their careers. Hornaday stayed with the San Antonio Express until 1917, when he went to work for the University of Texas as that institutions first media relations person and held the job until he retired in 1938. Smoot left the Austin Statesman to be co-founder and general manager of the morning Austin American in 1914, but died at 46 the following year of natural causes possibly triggered by overwork.

Smoot's father, Rev. Richard Kelley Smoot, happened to be the cleric who had officiated at the Austin wedding of Athol Estes and William Sydney Porter (latter far better known as O. Henry) in 1887. The budding short story writer, who by 1898 was on his way to federal prison for bank embezzlement, surely took a little cheer in reading about the Great Ostrich Race concocted by two fellow wordsmiths with a sense of humor.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 18, 2018

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