[Published in Fortean Times, no. 182, May 2004, p. 75.]

Flash mob precedents

The recent flash mobs in New York City, San Franciso, and elsewhere [FT171:9] are not new, and are neither as elaborate nor as interesting as some of the earlier ones. US radio personality Jean Shepherd, probably best known for the 1983 film A Christmas Story which he co-authored, spoke to a late night radio audience of "night people". In 1956, paralleling the Rome flash mob described in FT, Shepherd asked his listeners to go to bookshops and request a non-existent book by a non-existent author: I, Libertine by British WW II Commander Frederick R Ewing.

The point was that "day people" are persuaded of the value of things by made-up lists, which don't necessarily have any foundation. The repeated requests allegedly put the non-existent book onto the bestseller lists of multiple newspapers, and the hoax was ultimately exposed by The Wall Street Journal. Shepherd and Theodore Sturgeon then wrote the book (under the Ewing name) for Ballantine Books. At another time (between 1956 and 1960), Shepherd called for a "milling" of listeners at a particular date and time in front of Wanamaker's burned-out department store at 4th Ave. and 9th St. in New York City.

I've assembled a small amount of information on Shepherd and flash mobs, with links to other online sites on Shepherd, at http://www.discord.org/~lippard/flashmobs.html.

Jim Lippard
Phoenix, Arizona