Chicago always was a newspaper town. At any one time the city had as many as 11 daily papers. Each one of them was fiercely competitive. If you were in the news game, you were ready to do anything to top your rivals--anything fair or foul, or even funny.
Melville Stone started publishing the Chicago Daily News in 1876. His father was a Methodist minister, and Melville himself had the look of a clergyman. But he knew how to run a newspaper. And he liked to win.
One of Stone's competitors was the Chicago Post & Mail, owned by two brothers named MacMullen. When their paper began losing ground, the MacMullens began stealing stories from the Daily News.
The first edition of the Daily News came out at noon. Within two hours the Post & Mail was on the street with much the same copy. Most of the time the MacMullens didn't bother to change a word.
Then one day, Stone's paper landed a major, exclusive story--a "scoop." There was famine in Serbia.
The Daily News printed a long, lurid account of the suffering Serbs. The situation was becoming desperate, the country falling into anarchy. The mayor of Belgrade was quoted in the original Serbian, saying "Er usr ofsiht la etsl liws nel Lumca meht"--which translated as "Our city is powerless to help all the people."
Sure enough, the Post & Mail pirated the entire story in its 2 p.m. edition. They printed everything, including the Serbian quotation. That was all Melville Stone wanted.
Now the 5 p.m. edition of the Daily News revealed that the original story had been a hoax. There was no famine in Serbia. The quotation from the mayor of Belgrade was bogus. Read backwards, it said: "The MacMullens will steal this for sure."
All the other papers picked up the story of Stone's joke. The MacMullen brothers became the laughing stock of Chicago. Within months, the Post & Mail folded.
Melville Stone later moved to New York and became head of the Associated Press news service. He died in 1929. His Daily News died in 1978.