Origins: In 1934 a particularly vicious rumor campaign aimed at disrupting sales of Chesterfield cigarettes went into effect. Up and down the Atlantic seaboard, then all across the U.S., the whispered tale was heard: "A leper has been found working in the Chesterfield cigarette factory in Richmond, Virginia."
Fear of contracting leprosy through smoking product handled by a leper kept customers at bay. Liggett and Myers (the tobacco company which produced Chesterfields, among other brands), fought back by getting the mayor and the Board of Health of Richmond to issue an official statement that Chesterfield factories had been investigated and nothing had been found to support this rumor. The city officials said they could "state with authority the malicious, malignant, underhanded and unfounded rumors pertaining to public health now being
The announcement did little to slow the spread of the rumor. Like the work of the broom-wielding sweeper who follows the elephant,
Liggett and Myers also offered $1,000 rewards to the first 25 people who furnished them with satisfactory evidence as to who was spreading this tale. Though the company proved unsuccessful in tracing the story to its source, they did determine that the rumor appeared to be the work of professional rumormongers hired by their business competitors.
Rumors about contaminated workers and cigarette factories had been around before becoming attached to Chesterfield; Liggett and Myers were merely the latest
The leper rumor wasn't the only image attack Liggett and Myers had to do battle with. Around the same time the "leper" rumor was circulating, the firm was combating false whispers that it had contributed more than half a million dollars to Adolf Hitler. They'd done no such thing, but the angered reaction raised in those who heard this rumor ran unchecked. Fear needs an outlet, and this rumor gave those concerned about Hitler's growing power a target for their apprehension:
Barbara "deviled by a rumor" Mikkelson
Last updated: 9 May 2009