The Mysterious Case of David Lang

Often, I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s old dictum: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” And, of course, there’s George W. Bush’s attributed quote on the same question: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” In the course of my research on various topics, I’m often amazed at what people accept as the absolute truth without a speck of proof. And it shows the value of putting in that extra effort to track the truth down.

As a teenager, I was fascinated by the books of Frank Edwards —Amazing But True Stories, Strange World, UFOs–Serious Business. And they were incredible stories of UFOs, modern tools found embedded in million-year-old rock. But what really attracted me was the story of David Lang; he had been a farmer from about sixty miles away —practically in our back yard. It was a mystery that I could explore.  But the story first.

For many years, David Lang’s story ranked as one of oddest on record. Lang, a farmer in Sumner County, Tennessee during the 1870s and 1880s, was out in a field near his home one soft, spring evening, just before sundown. As the rattle of a buggy sounded on the lane, he looked up to see his brother-in-law and a local judge riding towards the house, where his wife and children were outside as well. Lang started across the field to meet his visitors. And then something truly bizarre happened.

Lang disappeared in full view of the judge, the brother-in-law, his wife and children.

A full-fledged search was launched, but no trace of David Lang was ever seen again. That winter, the children noticed that at the very spot where their father was last seen, the grass had turned yellow in a perfect circle. They claimed that, once, they heard the distant sound of their father, calling for help from deep within the yellow ring.

In the 1960s, the story reached worldwide circulation through Edwards. Reader’s Digest carried the story in the 1970s.  The Disney Channel also ran a program on the story. Always presented as the truth.

But there was a real problem.

David Lang never existed. Sumner County records show no Lang family at the time in question. Indeed, county officials in Sumner County are still at a loss to explain how the story came to be universally accepted as fact. The judge cited could not be found. It was, completely and totally, a tall tale, but one that fooled not only a lot of people, but Reader’s Digest, which has always boasted a world-class fact checking department.

Nobody checked the facts until long after the tale was in wide circulation. And even then, people refused to believe that it was made up. In actuality, it is based on Ambrose Bierce’s 1909 short story “The Difficulties of Crossing a Field.”

For me, the story of David Lang (or non-story) is a cautionary tale, reminding me to never accept anything at face value.  On a sidenote, I suspect that Bierce would get a big laugh at his story’s bizarre journey.

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