Mencken’s Tub Tale and the Holocaust

Allan Callahan

Mencken_s Tub - bathtub

On December 28, 1917 noted writer H.L. Mencken had a piece in the New York Evening Mail entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” He said that on that date, seventy-five years before, one Adam Thompson, a Cincinnati cotton broker, had installed in his home the first bathtub in America. This, said Mencken, brought forth a storm of protest, because bathing then was looked upon as an affection and a menace to health and morals, even by medical societies. He said that Boston passed a special ordinance against bathing, state legislatures imposed prohibitive taxes to prevent the act from spreading, and that there was a strong public outcry when President Millard Fillmore installed a tub in the White House. But in the end, bathing caught on, and carried the day.

The story was, in Mencken’s words, “a tissue of heavy absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious.” But it caught the public’s imagination. Quack doctors used it to show the stupidity of mainstream doctors, while the latter used it to prove medical progress. Editors used it as an example of their knowledge. It appeared in government bulletins and standard reference works. Important men repeated it, including the Commissioner of Health for the City of New York and the president of the American Geographical Society.

By 1926, however, Mencken, having undergone a spiritual rebirth and put off sin,” felt that the joke had gone on long enough. He confessed publicly that the story had been a hoax, and pointed out why a critical reader should have realized this. This confession was printed in thirty newspapers “with a combined circulation, according to their sworn claim, of more than 250,000,000,” and the public gullibility received many editorial rebukes.

But it didn’t work. Within a month the yarn was being reprinted in the very papers that had run Mencken’s confession. He came out with a second confession, but it seemed to have no more effect than the first. He tried once or twice more to set things straight but it was no use and he was called a meddler and a liar. People were as determined to believe in the bathtub myth in those days as they are in the Holocaust myth today.

Also ignored was the fact that Mencken was somewhat of a humorist. But if the believers had just stopped to think, they should have realized that the tale was preposterous, as much so as the Holocaust tale is. Bathing universally condemned in America in 1842? State legislatures imposed prohibitive taxes against it? Boston passed a special ordinance forbidding it? Preposterous.

Yes, but no more so than many of the tales told about the Holocaust. Ground where some Jews and others were killed never stopped trembling for months afterward, and also occasionally spurted geysers of blood? Some camp inmates had no water and had to “drink mud?” At Belzec, people were gassed in buildings which figured out to about 30 people to the square metre? (About like getting 30 people into a phone booth). Also preposterous.

These tales, and many others just as outlandish, are all cut out of the same cloth. People swallow the wild Holocaust stuff because they have been mentally conditioned to accept it. They were not mentally conditioned to believe Mencken, but believed him anyway, even after he told them that the “tub tale” was a fake. It seems to be one more proof that some people want to be deceived.

SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, June 1997

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