Legends of E-Mail

They’ve been passed around

Wild public rumors are nothing new, but some rumors in particular seem to flourish on the Internet. Here are some famous people who have been the subjects of e-mail hoaxes, blunders and just plain misinformation.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Irascible author KURT VONNEGUT was the victim of a famous brouhaha of 1997, when a document circulated under the label “Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement address at MIT.” It became known as the “sunscreen letter” because its whimsical advice to graduates began: “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.” Though vaguely Vonnegut-like, the advice was actually written by columnist MARY SCHMICH for the Chicago Tribune. Schmich had no connection to Vonnegut, Vonnegut was not that year’s MIT commencement speaker, and nobody ever figured out how the bad attribution got started.

Susan Lucci

Is soap opera star SUSAN LUCCI really the daughter of actress Phyllis Diller? No. But that allegation is part of a popular list of “odd facts” still circulated by e-mail and posted on sites across the Web. Lucci and her associates have consistently dismissed the statement and note that the All My Children legend has never even worked with Diller.

Art Bell

Did paranormal talk radio host ART BELL really say on the air in 1998 that “Filipinos make me puke,” that Filipino men “have an enormously perverted affection for Japanese cars” and that “Nothing good has ever come from Philippines and I don’t believe anything good ever will”? Of course he didn’t. But an email claiming he did made the rounds every year for a while. It got a fresh boost in 2001, when columnist Leah Salterio of the Philippine Daily Inquirer published excerpts from the email as if it were fact. After objections by Bell’s lawyers, and by fans who pointed out that Bell’s own wife was of Philippine ancestry, the Inquirer retracted the article and made a full apology.

St. Chad

SAINT CHAD went from obscure bishop to hot topic in the fall of 2000, during the disputed presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Many of the disputed Florida ballots contained small bits of punched-out paper known as “chads.” That prompted an e-mail rumor that by great coincidence, St. Chad had for centuries been the “patron saint of disputed elections.” Nicely ironic, but untrue. The Catholic church does have a saint named Chad, but he was never the patron saint of elections.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair

From Saint Chad to atheist stalwart: MADALYN MURRAY O’HAIR stars in one of the Web’s longest-running phony e-mails. The letter attacks O’Hair for promoting FCC “petition 2493,” which (it claims) would ban all religious programs and even Christmas music from the public airwaves. In truth a petition 2493 really did exist, but it did not seek to ban all religious programs, had nothing to do with O’Hair, and was rejected by the FCC in1975. O’Hair herself disappeared in 1995 and was declared dead in January of 2001. That hasn’t slowed the e-mail; in fact around 1999 the letter was updated to claim that CBS planned to cancel the show Touched by an Angel because it mentioned the word “God.”


16th-century mystic NOSTRADAMUS may have predicted a lot of things, but he did not predict the World Trade Center disaster of September 2001. In the days after the tragedy an email circulated quoting eerie predictions “from Nostradamus,” but all were phony — either composed of bits and pieces from various other Nostradamus predictions, or else taken from other sources entirely.

9/11’s Tourist Guy

Another macabre remnant of the September attacks was THE TOURIST GUY. Dressed in a stocking cap and parka, the unknown man appeared in a bogus snapshot which seemed to show him standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center as a jetliner prepared to crash into the building below him. (The photo was supposedly “from a camera found in the wreckage.”) Several elements (including the cold-weather dress) made the fakery easy to spot, but Web jesters jumped on the bandwagon by circulating doctored photos of the Tourist Guy posing in front of tornadoes and at the scenes of other disasters.

Gordon Sinclair

Canadian GORDON SINCLAIR also gained new fame after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. His flag-waving piece “The Americans” was sent around the world in e-mails which identified Sinclair either as a TV broadcaster or a Toronto newspaper writer who had “recently” published the essay. In truth, Sinclair delivered the piece on his daily noontime radio broadcast in Toronto in 1973. He died in 1984, but “The Americans” continues to live online.

Ollie North

Still another 9/11-related email concerned former Iran-Contra defendant OLIVER NORTH. The email reported that way back in 1987, North had testified to Congress that he had installed a $60,000 security system at his home to protect his family from Osama bin Laden. According to the letter, after questioning by a buffoonish senator, North called bin Laden “the most evil person alive that I know of.” The letter ended with a kicker: “If anyone is interested, the senator turned out to be none other than Al Gore.”A fine story, but not true. North did discuss a home security system with a Senate committee in 1987. But North did not mention Osama bin Laden and Al Gore was not part of the committee. And in fact, North had not paid for the security system — he had taken it as an illegal gift, which is why Congress was investigating it in the first place. The “terrorist” Ollie North was concerned about was named Abu Nidal.

Captain Kangaroo

Did TV’s gentle CAPTAIN KANGAROO win the Navy Cross for bravery as a cursing, hard-charging Marine captain? Did he fight alongside actor Lee Marvin in the bloody battle of Iwo Jima? No and no. A popular e-mail yarn has Marvin calling Keeshan “the bravest man I ever knew” while chatting with late-night host Johnny Carson, but Keeshan never fought with Marvin at Iwo Jima. Keeshan did join the Marines in 1945, just before his 18th birthday, but World War II ended that year and he never saw combat.

Mister Rogers

Lovable children’s TV icon MISTER ROGERS was not a top-rated sniper during World War II, the Korean War, or any other war. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he never served in the military. It’s also not true that he wore his signature cardigan sweaters to cover military tattoos running up and down his arms.

Little Kevin Archer

KEVIN ARCHER was a Houston, Texas 3-year-old who died after using the play area of a McDonald’s fast food restaurant. At least, so claimed an email circulating online, beginning around 1998. According to the story, Archer was pricked with a heroin-filled needle hidden in the restaurant’s ball pit; the letter further stated that the story was reported in the Houston Chronicle on 10 October 1994. The story is not true and the ‘Kevin Archer’ involved does not exist.

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