The Hoax You Didn't Realize Dominated The 80s
It's a lot easier to help someone in need when helping is a wildly popular viral trend. No one would have cared about ALS if the Ice Bucket Challenge didn't turn raising awareness into a fun meme anyone could do. Want people to give teddy bears to underprivileged children? You can ask them to donate, or you can tell them to throw 28,815 of the plush bastards onto the ice at the same time during a hockey game:
See, what sounds like a fun idea can become a mess once it actually happens (how many kids got skate-slashed teddy bears in their stockings that year?) because no one is paying close enough attention to what they're doing. Sometimes the thing that looked like a sweet idea turns out to be really, really stupid.
This is exactly what happened in the summer of 1982, when a boy from Paisley, Scotland, named Buddy was on the receiving end of a global effort to make his dream come true. Buddy had leukemia. He was 8 years old, and doctors said he had only 18 months to live. Buddy wanted to do something special with his remaining time. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for having received more postcards than anyone in history.
Buddy, circa 1984.
That's not the most exciting world record ever, granted. But Buddy wasn't going to be jumping the Grand Canyon on a rocket cycle anytime soon, so postcards it was.
Cameron Black was the head of a local CB radio fan club. He heard of Buddy's record attempt and offered his post office mailbox as a receiving address. CB radios were a leftover from the height of their popularity in the 1970s, and it was on their free public radio bands where word of Buddy's plucky world record attempt spread, one person at a time. The possibility of posting cards ignited in people all around the world a desire to help make a little boy's last wish come true. Just one month later, more than 1,000 postcards arrived.
A few months after that, Black had 180 stuffed mailbags in his living room. He was getting 20,000 cards per day. Airlines would encourage passengers to send postcards. Newspapers, radio shows, and TV networks did the same. The story made it to President Ronald Reagan, and even he sent Buddy a postcard.
Over the next five years, Black received over 5 million postcards from people all over the world. It was beautiful. It was an astounding display of human kindness, of our generosity and selflessness.
"Breaker! Breaker! Come in, Sasquatch! This is Major Monkey Funk: We've got
a chemo-cowboy riding the pale horse to Forever Sleep. Send postcards. Copy?"
And it was all based on a lie.
Buddy didn't exist. It was a hoax. Sometimes the story began in 1983. Sometimes he was in a hospital in Leeds. Sometimes he wasn't a Buddy, he was a Colin. And that picture up there that I told you was him in 1984? That's me in 1989. Yes, even I'm in on it. No one knows who started the story of Buddy. Cameron Black heard it from his CB radio friend who either made it up or heard it from some other liar. The only thing about it that was real was the millions of postcards that kept pouring in. When people around the world found out they could do a little good by sending a measly postcard to a sick kid, they jumped at the chance like it guaranteed a spot in heaven.
By 1987, word of Buddy's nonexistence had spread. It didn't stop people from sending postcards, but at least word was getting around. That's why the story of Mario Morby is so weird. Mario was a real 13-year-old boy who had real pelvic cancer. He was receiving treatment in Birmingham Children's Hospital in Sutton Coldfield, a town in Birmingham, England.
The hospital recruited Mario for a fundraising campaign. See if this sounds familiar: Mario would declare that he was trying to break the world record for having received the most postcards. As we learned with Buddy, people go into violent orgasmic fits of satisfaction when they send dying kids postcards. So you know what happened next: The number of postcards pouring in could be measured only in increments of ass-loads and shit-tons. Some of the postcards came with messages of well wishes and support. Others were less nice, like the ones calling Mario a fakey-fakerson for being just another fake cancer boy who wanted postcards for his fake world record. Even though, again, Mario was real.
Even worse: Mario didn't know his cancer could kill him until he read the postcards.
So this is the scenario we're in: Millions of people were sending postcards to help a fake dying boy set a world record as a real dying boy was attempting to set the same record at the same time with no knowledge of the fake dying boy. It's like a fairy granted Buddy's wish to be a real boy, and then gave him cancer because fairy dust contains asbestos.
Luckily, Mario's cancer went into remission. Then the cherry on top: He received 1,000,065 postcards, giving him sole possession of the world record most coveted by cancer-riddled dying boys. I guess Buddy got 10 million, but he's disqualified on account of not existing.
But all records, even ones set in honor of a dying boy's last wish, are made to be broken by even more ruthless dying boys who have chemo'd-up ice water in their veins.
At 9 years old, Craig Shergold, also a Brit, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Six operations did nothing to stop his tumor. Doctors said he had a year to live. Craig's family must have figured being encased in a chamber of get-well-soon cards cured one boy, so why not two? As the Shergold family put the word out about their postcard campaign through a chain letter, there was one thing standing in the way of Craig's attempt at pissing neon-orange urine all over Mario: Guinness, in their infinite wisdom, had retired the "most postcards received by a cancer-kid" record to prevent copycat dying boys from putting their families through the hassle of sorting through a million postcards
"Lastly, dying boy: Don't forget to kick that other dying boy's ass! Give 'em hell! XOXO"
Donald McFarlan was the editor of the Guinness Book of World Records at the time. When Craig's parents reached out and begged him to un-retire the record, he explained that these record attempts can spiral out of control, fast. It sounds fun now, but if Craig died (as doctors insisted would happen soon) the letters wouldn't stop. They would continue to arrive, indefinitely -- a constant reminder of their child's death, the cruel irony of the "get well soon!" messages tormenting them for years to come.
The whole Shergold family did a jerk-off hand motion while saying, "Pfffft! Yeah. OK," and they did it anyway. Somehow, word of McFarlan's resistance to un-retiring the record leaked out. Millions of people politely suggested that he reconsider for the sake of a dying boy's last wish. But a lot of other people were huge dicks about it, as McFarlan explained:
"I received quite a lot of hate mail, including one that said, 'If you have children, I hope they die of cancer.'"
See? The Internet didn't invent those people. Strangers have been threatening other strangers since at least 1990.
Shockingly, wishing cancer upon even more children worked. Craig was allowed a shot at Guinness History. From here, you know how the story goes, but this time it was out of control. Within two years, Craig received 16 million cards. Every Thursday he and 30 friends and family members would gather at a local soccer team's club house to sort through the 50,000 to 100,000 cards he received per week. Buddy may have been sent a card from Ronald Reagan, but Craig also got a card from Reagan ... and one from George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and singer Kylie Minogue. To top that, Craig got cards from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Madonna, the king and queen of America in 1989.
"DIJ YA GET DA POSECAAAD FUH DA DYING BOY? ... YES HE IS SO WEAK HE CANNOT GET HISS OWN CAADS."
It was so big, even John Kluge heard about it. Don't know who he is? Well, before Bill Gates snatched the title from him in 1995, John Kluge was the richest man in America, with a fortune estimated at $5.2 billion. If Kluge hadn't sold his collection of big market TV stations to Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox, the Fox television network probably wouldn't exist today.
"So, technically, this is the man who brought you Temptation Island."
Kluge wanted to do more than send a card. Think about it: Being a billionaire is a superpower. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark couldn't save lives if they were incurring overdraft fees or couldn't pay off their student loans. So Kluge pulled the strings only rich people have access to and got one of the top neurosurgeons in America to perform a risky surgery on Craig's brain.
"Haha! Why, yes, Craig -- I suppose I do look like a retired cruise ship captain
who has some saucy stories to tell!"
The entire egg-sized tumor (which turned out to be benign) was removed, and Craig went on to live a happy life. Guinness stopped counting cards at around 33 million and just gave Craig the record so they could shut it down for eternity. If you'd like a visual companion to Craig's story, below you can watch The Miracle Of The Cards, the terrible 2002 made-for-TV-movie adaptation starring Kirk Cameron that suggests it was a miracle from God that saved Craig, rather than a billionaire who could bribe a tumor into walking out of Craig's head.
There's no way Donald McFarlan could have predicted that Craig's world record attempt would have eventually led to the world's richest man saving Craig's life. But he was right about one thing: The cards weren't going to stop coming.
Craig underwent his life-saving surgery in 1991. The chain letters his family wrote to get the campaign going kept circulating beyond their control in the years to follow. In 1992, famous newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers told her readers that it had been over a year since a billionaire beat cancer out of Craig's head, and it would be nice if people would stop sending her chain letters about it. But they kept sending them.
"Ann Landers should take my advice and shut her goddamn mouth."
By 1995, Craig's story had found its way onto the Internet, and the cards were a pain in Craig's ass. He begged for the cards to stop, but the world didn't listen, because everyone was too busy patting themselves on the back for sending him cards. 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2003 -- it wouldn't stop. Remember how Guinness stopped counting the record at 33 million? As of 2013, the count was 350 million. Cards are still being sent to the woman who now lives in Craig's childhood home. We have no idea what she does with all of them. The Make-A-Wish Foundation had nothing to do with Craig's card campaign, but to this day they still get thousands of letters sent to their offices addressed to Craig that they immediately forward to recycling centers so they can be turned into more Craig cards that will be sent right back to them.
Craig, with his favorite postcard.
Wondering what happened to Mario Morby? Don't worry, I didn't forget him, and neither did the rest of the world: Morby's story is still making the rounds, and it's still inspiring people to briefly feel like their lives have meaning because they mailed a postcard. Even weirder, his story keeps evolving: Sometimes his name is "David." Sometimes, instead of being from England, he lives in Florida, dooming different post offices to be buried under millions of cards from an eclectic array of gullible saps.
In spite of a global effort to turn Buddy's myth into a reality, or Mario and Craig's reality into myth, all three of them -- even Buddy, in his own weird, nonexistent way -- achieved the immortality they were looking for. The irony of it is that hardly anyone will remember the records. Chain letters and spam emails have suspended their accomplishments in time, rendering them perpetually incomplete. The records will be forgotten. But their attempts will outlive them all.
For more hoaxes people have taken as truth, check out why the Mummy's Curse is bullshit in 5 Myths That People Don't Realize Are Admitted Hoaxes, and see why some dummy paid $4 million for Hitler's fake diaries in 7 Outrageous Hoaxes That Actually Worked.
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