Beginning in the early 1800s, Congress allowed publishers to send their newspapers to other publishers for free through the US Postal Service. This newspaper exchange was an important program to encourage freedom of the press. Unfortunately, it did have at least a couple of unintended consequences.
Land promoters sometimes threw together a tiny newspaper in their otherwise barren community to extoll the virtues of their particular tract of sagebrush. Knowing no better, editors of newspapers in other parts of the country would pick up the story and run it just as if it were true. “I read it in the newspaper” was likely proof for many that something was so. If this reminds you of people “doing my own research” on the internet today, you are not alone.
Land scams probably caught more people a thousand miles away than they did Idahoans in neighboring communities. That doesn’t mean the practice of sharing stories from other newspapers was always a positive thing. For instance, readers in Sandpoint probably didn’t care much about what an average citizen in Blackfoot was doing, even though it might be exciting news locally. But newspapers would pick up quirky or scandalous stories because they knew that would interest their readers. This tended to skew the news toward sensationalism.
I recently ran across a story with an Idaho connection that had made the rounds. It was quirky, sensational, and certainly a complete figment of someone’s imagination. I saw it in an 1866 issue of the Vincennes Times, a newspaper in Vincennes, Indiana. They had picked up the story from the Newville, Pennsylvania Star of the Valley. It seems that a young man visiting Idaho about four months previous had been drinking from a small pond. While quenching his thirst, a snake found its way into his mouth and slipped all the way down into his stomach.
The young man did not feel good about it. He was sure he was about to die, so he went home to Pennsylvania to do so.
The victim consulted several medical men about his snake-in-the-stomach problem, complaining especially that he couldn’t shake a feeling of cold in that region of his body. Several things—unlisted—were tried without success. Finally, a doctor prescribed an emetic. The young man vomited up an 18-inch-long snake, which tried to take its revenge by trying to strangle him when it came out.
And that’s the news for today.