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Politics

The First Greek Media Criminals in the United States

February 5, 2018

The public recognition that fake news exists finally entered the national discourse during the last presidential election. Far from a mere conspiracy theory, fake news is, now openly, recognized as “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media, or social media.

Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person and/or gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention. Fake news and Greeks have crossed paths in North America many, many times.

One of the earliest such openly fake news accounts, long taken out of context, has assumed such a level of acceptability that, today, this event is presented to schoolchildren as simply an initial meeting of two different waves of Greek migration to the United States as a fairy tale or news report that intentionally ignores past events this account serves its purpose well. Still, as we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth.

This tale begins in Greece. In 1870, Greek brigands kidnapped three English and one Italian aristocrats who were touring near Marathon. Ransom was demanded and protracted negotiations took place. Given the lengthy exchanges, this incident saw extensive coverage in the world press and other media of the day. Finally, when the ransom was not forthcoming, the four captives were killed at Dilesi, a coastal town in eastern Boeotia. These events prompted an immediate crisis between Greece and Great Britain. The brigands were captured and executed by the Greek government.

Not long after the 1870 events, a photograph entitled “Severed heads of Greek brigands,” was issued by the London Stereoscopic and Photograph Company. It is unclear whether it was a cabinet card photograph meant as a gruesome souvenir or a stereo-view card meant to be seen through a stereoscope, or in fact both. Nonetheless, the card was readily available, to the general public.

Far from a long-forgotten affair, the crime is well recognized as a pivotal event in Modern Greek history. While many writers have addressed this incident for a modern overall survey of events and their aftermath, Romilly Jenkins’ (1907-1969) “The Dilessi Murders: Greek Brigands and English Hostages (Prion: London, 1998) is often pointed to as the most thorough English-language presentation to date.

During the 1821 to 1829 Greek War of Independence, Greek brigands were cast as the heroes of the conflict. The events surrounding the Dilessi kidnapping and murder forever after cast any and all “Greek brigands” into the category of murderous bandit. As such this single crime had immediate and telling consequences. Ultimately, whatever claims Greece had made about having a cultural or even spiritual superiority to the Ottoman Turks was overturned by this murderous incident.

In 1870, the daily American press offered a flurry of heavily detailed accounts, first around the kidnapping, then the murders, and finally something of the aftermath. As part of that news coverage, a host of overview articles concerning the nature and manner of Greek brigands also appeared. But, then as now, other news stories soon took the Public’s interest, elsewhere. But the damage was done. In the average American’s mind the Greek brigand had changed from the long-standing hero of poetry and even song to a bootless cutthroat.

Then, on June 1, 1872, news of the Dilessi murders returned to America’s front pages. On page two of the New Orleans Republican (NOR) we are provided the core account from which all others draw. Interestingly the NOR begins its news report with the opening statement that “We publish the following from the paper,” the Ancona Gwarnie “stating also the fact that the story is disputed by a high Greek official in this country.” Who, as will become clear shortly, is Demetrios Botassi.

Under the NOR headline, “Greek Convicts Shipped to the United States” we learn the following:

“Nine Greek criminals of the worst description, among them four highway robbers and two murderers, have recently been liberated by a degree of the Greek Minister of Justice from the Penal Colony on the Island of Corfu, on condition of their emigrating to the United States, and are now on their way to this country.” Then, quite curiously, the nine individuals are named and none of these names are those involved in the Dilessi Murders. Given all the prior press on these kidnappers, one would think this one mistake would have given this account away as a fabrication. Yet quite the reverse. Newspapers across the nation reprinted this account.

The level of national alarm concerning this announcement can be judged by the fact that: “President Grant forbade the landing of Greek criminals in this country. While America is an asylum for the oppressed of all nations, we do not want all nations oppressed with thieves and brigands to shove their oppressions off upon us. We may well thank General Grant for his prompt efforts to prevent this foreign outrage (Emporia News (Emporia KS June 7, 1872).”

The American press carried this story for quite some time but once the ship identified as carrying these criminals to New York City arrived and no such criminals were aboard – the tale simply faded away. Throughout this fake news blitz, Greek Consul of New York City Demetrios N. Botassi was publicly denying any and all claims of Greek criminals being sent to the United States. And, as in all “news” accounts, this false tale of Greek criminals sent to American shores simply faded away.

All the above is prologue to a much-cited, read and oft-reprinted August 4, 1873 New York Times feature story (Monday Volume XXII No. 6826 page 2 column 7) involving Greek Consul Demetrios N. Botassi and an unidentified Greek worker, just as the new arrival stepped off the boat at Ellis Island. Without knowing about the 1870 Dilessi kidnapping and murders or the later 1872 fake news accounts on Greek criminals appearing in the American press, this exchange between Botassi and the laborers appears on its surface extremely benign.

Yet, it is clear Botassi was engaged in what we now call spin-control. Which was also obviously part of that dedicated Greek politician’s duties. The exchange between Botassi and the new arrival was brief and to the point:

“When did you arrive?”

“This day.”

“Any particular profession?”

“None.”

“What do you expect to do?”

“Anything, your Excellency.”

“Have you got any money?”

“Not a cent, your Excellency.”

“Where are your lodgings?”

”Our traps are at the door; we shall go anywhere your Excellency will send us.”

“Can you speak English?”

“Nothing but Greek, your Excellency.”

What follows this exchange is a quite detailed account of Greeks then living in the United States. The merchant class, to which Botassi belonged, was also included in this description. It is this news report that presents an accurate and balanced view of Greeks then living in North America.

When I was growing up in the 1950s-1960s, the vast majority of the new Greek arrivals I met claimed to be radical in their politics. Furthermore, these same individuals were not shy about asserting that Greeks they met in North America were incredibly, if not criminally, naive when it came to politics. Since those halcyon days I have come to learn of the historical lies and distortions, by omission and commission, in textbooks, historical markers, and monuments.

History does not belong to some privileged class alone. It is not a possession of the state. Our history is just that and we must care for it as any other cultural creation of the Greeks in the United States.

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