Did Paul Harvey Invent the Urban Legend That Could?

This week, four journalists recycled an urban legend telling the sorry fates of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Yesterday, Chatterbox examined the degree to which each was suckered by the tale and also the willingness each showed to identify as their source a phantom e-mail that, Chatterbox observed, had been “floating around for a decade on the Internet and on newspaper letters-to-the-editor pages.” In fact, it’s been floating around since before the Internet–and even Chatterbox–was born! James Elbrecht’s bracingly thorough Signer’s Index Web page follows the text upstream as far as 1956, when it appeared in a book by Chicago radio personality Paul Harvey entitled The Rest of the Story.  (Harvey has since published several other books with that title; it’s the name of one of his daily broadcasts.)

According to Elbrecht, the How the Signers Suffered spiel contains a lot more errors than the ones Chatterbox previously identified. If Elbrecht is right–and he makes a convincing case that he’s done his homework–Chatterbox didn’t grade Ann Landers, Jeff Jacoby, and Jonah Goldberg harshly enough. (To read Elbrecht’s critique, click here. Goldberg mostly fesses up–but also calls Chatterbox a “hall monitor”–in this “Fray” entry. And Jacoby kisses Elbrecht’s ring in this e-mail to Jim Romenesko’s Media News.)

Harvey initially titled his essay “We Mutually Pledge.” Subsequently he republished it under the title “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor.” He even released a spoken-word recording of it. Although the phantom e-mail doesn’t track Harvey’s text word for word–actually, several variations of the phantom e-mail are in circulation–it is essentially the same. But did Harvey write it himself, or was he recycling an already-familiar Fourth of July peroration? (Harvey’s usual historiography, after all, consists of tearing items off the AP wire.) Harvey, alas, had gone for the weekend when Chatterbox phoned his office.

Then there’s the Rush Question. For years New York radio personality Rush Limbaugh III has attributed to his father, Rush Limbaugh Jr., authorship of a speech similarly titled “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor.” (He recently published it on his Web site.) A portion of this speech resembles the Harvey version and the more recent knockoffs. Here’s a snippet:

Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. … Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word. Their honor, and the nation they sacrificed so much to create is still intact.

As Chatterbox observed earlier, the “nine died of wounds” and “five were captured” factoids aren’t correct. (To read Elbrecht’s dissection of the Limbaugh version, click here.) The larger question, though, is: Does Daddy Rush’s speech predate Harvey’s 1956 essay? That wouldn’t establish him as the original author of the urban legend, of course. Still, Chatterbox will try to find out.

[Correction, July 14: In asserting that the “five were captured” factoid is incorrect, Chatterbox abbreviated to the point of being incorrect himself. What the earlier item said, and what Chatterbox should have repeated in full here, is that it’s untrue that five were captured and tortured (a false claim in the phantom e-mail and also in Daddy Rush’s text–torture surely being what Daddy Rush meant when he referred to “brutal treatment”). Five signers were indeed captured, as is pointed out in a dyspeptic article in Suck that excoriates Chatterbox for making this error and, in general, for being “the hobgoblin of little minds.” But, to clarify once more: These five signers were not tortured.]