Who Was Tom Collins?: Internet Trolls Before the Internet

It’s been a rough week here at Casa McD, so last night I settled in with an Adult Beverage and a couple episodes of Archer (these two things go together like peanut butter and jelly) and decided to look up a man who brought so much happiness to my life: Mr. Tom Collins.

Turns out he didn’t exist, but was just an early example of pre-net trolling:

In 1874, people in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the United States would start a conversation with “Have you seen Tom Collins?” After the listener predictably reacts by explaining that they did not know a Tom Collins, the speaker would assert that Tom Collins was talking about the listener to others and that Tom Collins was “just around the corner”, “in a [local] bar,” or somewhere else near. The conversation about the nonexistent Tom Collins was a proven hoax of exposure. In The Great Tom Collins hoax of 1874, as it became known, the speaker would encourage the listener to act foolishly by reacting to patent nonsense that the hoaxer deliberately presents as reality. In particular, the speaker desired the listener to become agitated at the idea of someone talking about them to others such that the listener would rush off to find the purportedly nearby Tom Collins.

A short time later, someone called someone else Hitler, and another person responded to a thorough explanation by saying “TL/DR.” No one at the time understood what this meant, even the person saying it, but it seemed important.

Further proof that trolling has deep roots in human  behavior.

PS: He’s also a Catholic Bishop.


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.