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"Lately on campus there has been much conjecturing on the present state of Beatle Paul McCartney. An amazing series of photos and lyrics on the group's albums point[s] to a distinct possibility that McCartney may indeed be insane, freaked out, even dead."
These words, which initiated the "Paul is dead" hoax of 1969, sound like the type of speculation that typically appears in the National Enquirer, Weekly World News or the Drudge Report. But they actually make up the first paragraph of an article that covered the top half of the front page of The Times-Delphic on Sept. 17, 1969.
Tim Harper's Times-Delphic article -- "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?" -- was the first documented source of the hoax, according to a document on the Rec.Music.Beatles Web site (http://rmb.simplenet.com/public/rmb.html). Harper's article and a Sept. 23, 1969, article in Northern Illinois University's Northern Star inspired other journalists to pursue the story, the document said.
Who was the source of this speculation? Harper does not disclose his source in the article, but he told an interviewer from the RMB Web site that he learned of the rumor from Dartanyan Brown, a fellow T-D staff member. Brown heard about the rumor from an unknown musician, who recalled hearing about it in California, the document added.
But the exact origin of the hoax was unknown, Harper's article said.
"We probably will not know the truth around this entire intrigue for some time," the article said. "We may never know. Nevertheless, it is something to think about. It's still unclear just how the whole deal was originated, or who discovered it, but if it did originate recently or locally, we may find out soon."
The only "sources" Harper identifies in his article are Beatles albums that seemed to hint at McCartney's so-called death.
"The Sergeant Pepper Album, obviously, signified the 'death' of the old Beatles who made girls scream when they sang 'yeah yeah yeah!'" the article said. "The new Beatles blew grass and dropped acid, criticized religion, studied under Maharishi in India, and had a new sound.
"This album also started the hints that all was not right with the Beatles, especially Paul. On the front cover a mysterious hand is raised over his head, a sign many believe is an ancient death symbol of either the Greeks or the American Indians. Also, a left-handed guitar (Paul was the only lefty of the four) lies on the grave at the group's feet. ...
"Then came the group's latest album: 'The Beatles,' with an all-white cover. With this record the whole mystery became even more spooky. On the tune 'Revolution No. 9' there is a part where a lone deep voice repeats 'No. 9.' When this is played backwards a voice quotes 'Turn me on, dead man,' and 'Cherish the dead.'..."
When looking back at this article, it's easy to dismiss it as a harmless report that misinformed a few people on a small university campus. But all media organizations -- including those on college campuses --have a lot more power than people like to think. Harper's article, which was based on pure speculation, inspired other journalists to pursue this article, and it wasn't long before word of McCartney's possible death spread to different areas of the country.