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Edward Owens: Wikis


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Edward Owens is a fictional character, part of a historical hoax created by students at George Mason University on December 3, 2008 as a project in a class dealing with historical hoaxes called "Lying About the Past". The story of Edward Owens, purportedly a 19th- and early 20th-century American oyster fisherman who became a pirate, appeared in several online venues, including Wikipedia and "Pop Candy", a popular-culture blog written by Whitney Matheson at USA Today.

Description of the hoax and aftermath

To create the hoax, the students built a website blog about the fictional Owens who supposed lived from 1852-1938 in Virginia. The blog was purportedly created by a student, "Jane Browning" as a serious research project, but the student depicted was also a fictional creation. Briefly, the blog asserted that Owens fell on hard times during the Long Depression that began in 1873 and took up pirating in Chesapeake Bay to survive the economic downturn. He was said to have robbed smaller commercial vessels and wealthy pleasure boaters from Maryland using a punt gun to threaten his victims. According to his fictional last will and testament published on the students' website, once the local economy improved in the early 1880s, Owens and his crew went back to oyster fishing and ceased their criminal activities. The students conducted considerable historiographical research and added details to the story about the fictional pirates, and their supposed activities and locations, intended to give it verisimilitude. They also filmed videos of the fictional student conducting research into Owens' supposed residence. The videos were then posted to Youtube. The students also established a biographical Wikipedia article about Owens (stating in the blog that "Jane" had been required by her professor to establish the Wikipedia article) and made other efforts to add realistic touches to their fiction, including through postings on the internet.[1]

On December 18, 2008, after some media outlets (including "Pop Candy", a popular-culture blog written by Whitney Matheson at USA Today)[2] and academic colleagues,[3] as well as hundreds of internet users, had been taken in by the hoax, the professor of the class decided to announce that the story was a hoax. The professor, T. Mills Kelly, had previously used Wikipedia in his classes. He stated that he intends to teach this class again.[1] Since the hoax was revealed, several teacher blogs have discussed the hoax and whether teaching by using hoaxes is a good pedagogical technique.[4] Criticism of the project has included the assertion that creating the phony Wikipedia entry was counterproductive because it "infected [Wikipedia] with a credibility bug"[5] and that the positive feedback that the phony "Jane" received "have the same vacuous, cheerleader, you-against-the-world quality of comments about fanfiction or vacation snapshots or real blog posts".[6]


  1. ^ a b Howard, Jennifer (18 December 2008). "Teaching by Lying: Professor Unveils 'Last Pirate' Hoax" (). The Chronicle of Higher Education.  
  2. ^ Matheson, Whitney. Pop Candy blog,, December 4, 2008
  3. ^ "The Last American Pirate", December 4, 2008
  4. ^ See, e.g., "Teaching with Hoaxes", The Clutter Museum, January 11, 2009; and "The Hoax of the Last American Pirate", (Almost) me, PhD, December 25, 2008
  5. ^ Feldstein, Michael. "The Pirate Hoax", e-Literate, December 20, 2008
  6. ^ "Calling Off the Alert", Boston 1775, December 22, 2008

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