Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Yes, fake news is not just a modern phenomenon. It happened on Guam in 1902.

On the 9th of November, in the morning, the Court House in Hagåtña was the recipient of an anonymous letter, delivered by unseen hands.

The letter claimed to be from a fisherman who was casting his talåya at Alupang Island on the night of November 5. He said he saw, in the darkness, a little canoe approach the island, while he stayed quiet and hidden. A man and a woman landed on what little beach the island has. The man told the woman he was going to kill her. The woman asked for pardon. The fisherman author states that he recognized both persons as lovers living in the same house, but unmarried.

The letter goes on to state that the woman was killed and buried at the beach in Alupang.

Well, despite the questionable origin of the letter, the court officials decided they had to act. They formed a group to go out to Alupang and investigate. Those participating were the judge, Pancracio Palting; the island attorney, Tomás Anderson Calvo; the bailiff Lucas Camacho and the American Naval forensic physician, Dr HM Tolfree. Seeing the little island for themselves, they noticed nothing to suggest a murder nor a burial. There was only a little bit of sand that could have been dug up for a grave, the rest of the islet being made of hard coral rock. There was no trace of a freshly dug grave.

Returning to Hagåtña, the court decided to make a public announcement, not specifying a murder, but the receipt of a letter making a serious claim of a crime. The announcement insisted that the author of the anonymous letter make himself known within two days. The two days came and went, and no one showed up claiming to be the author. An announcement was made giving the author another three days. Still, no one showed up.

Alupang (or Alupat) Island today

The court's last move was to call on Pedro María Duarte y Andújar, a Spaniard married to a Chamorro who had been a government official under the Spanish administration and who kept working for the government even under the American flag, to act as a handwriting expert. Duarte was asked to study the writing and suggest a possible author, comparing the writing to the many documents kept in the island's archives.

It took Duarte some days, but he finally wrote a report, stating that he believed the letter was written by a Chamorro, but one with a good knowledge of Spanish. The grammar was basically good but the spelling was not. He suggested that the spelling was bad on purpose, to hide the identity of the author. Based on the handwriting he knew of many local people, he suggested three names as possible author of the anonymous letter.

Part of the Actual Letter written in Spanish
The grammar was OK, the spelling was not

All three people were brought to court for official questioning. All three denied being the author and of having any knowledge whatsoever about it.

The three suspects were let go. It was all a hoax, but one that cost the government a week or more of investigation.

As Duarte said, the perpetrator either wanted to distract the court from actual business, which may have included a case against the author, or to play a humorless joke on the government.

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