During the height of California’s wildfires last week, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, Admiral Harvey Johnson, held a faux news conference in which his own staff members posed as reporters. All of the questions and responses were prearranged. Legitimate news organizations were given a live video feed and a phone number where they could “listen in.”
It may sound like something from Pravda or Fox News, but this charade was planned and executed by a U.S. federal agency. “Heck-of-job, Harvey.” This is far from the first time our own government has tried to deceive the public, remember Jeff Gannon, the gay porn star turned reporter in the White House Press Corp or the colorful terrorist threat level warnings that were elevated following any unflattering news about the administration?
Of course, this is not the first time someone has been passed off for something they weren’t. P.T. Barnum and Robert Ripley both made fortunes presenting items of questionable authenticity to a gullible public. Many a traveling medicine show filled their pockets as folks looking for a miracle cure bought bottles filled with anything from watered down alcohol to tinctures made from opium or cocaine. Let’s not forget the barkers enticing folks into the sideshow tents at the circus with promises of “wonders never before seen.”
Such was the story of Jilson Setters.
Jilson Setters came to public attention in the February 1930 edition of American Magazine. In an article entitled “Blind Jilson: The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” written by Jean Thomas. As she recounts in her article, Jean Thomas was working as a traveling court stenographer in the mountains of Kentucky when she happened across the blind fiddler.
“In a windowless cabin, hidden away in a high cranny of the Kentucky mountains, lived Jilson Setters, who, for all his sixty-five years, had never seen a railroad. Neither had he heard a phonograph nor a radio. His home-made fiddle and his ‘ballets’ were good enough for Jilson Setters and mountain folk.”
from: “The Last Minstrel” by Jean Thomas, The English Journal, December, 1928
Jean Thomas explains how she arranged for an operation that gave Jilson Setters his sight. The modern world was a wonder to behold for this blind mountain man who had lived a primitive existence in the mountains no different than that of his pioneer forefathers. Jean Thomas arranged for Jilson Setters to journey to New York for a recording session for RCA Victor and the Library of Congress. Acting as his agent, Thomas arranged many concerts for Jilson Setters to play at New York’s high society functions. She took him on tour playing for academics and society leaders in major cities across America. The pair even made a trip to London to play at Albert Hall for the elite of England, including King George V.
The music that Jilson Setters played was touted as untouched English ballads as they were first played in the American wilderness by the first settlers. Jilson Setters, his family and neighbors, had lived such an isolated life in the hills of Kentucky, that his music represented the purest of early American music. Jean Thomas founded the American Folk Song Society and held the National Song Festival. By 1934, Thomas was dressing in Elizabethan garb and Setters had become her primary performer, just one of many, which she took on tour as part of her National Song Festival.
Jean Thomas had subtitled her 1930 American Magazine article “A True Story That Is Stranger Than Fiction,” but nearly all of the story was of her own fabrication. Thomas had created the incredible story of Jilson Setters, including his name. James William “Blind Bill” Day was recruited for the part of the imaginary Jilson Setters. There is no place in Kentucky known as Lost Hope Hollow, which was another of Jean Thomas’ creations. Bill Day was actually from the town of Cattlesburg, Kentucky. Also, Day was not blind from birth as Thomas had claimed, but suffered from failing sight due to cataracts. Jean Thomas arranged to have his cataracts removed from his eyes and began to teach Day to play English folk songs from the Elizabethan period.
Bill Day (as Jilson Setters) recorded several sides for Victor and the Library of Congress in the late 1920s. He toured the high society of America and England, including playing for the king. Under Thomas’ guidance, he continued to tour until shortly before his death in the early 1940s. Not until after his death did anyone find the truth about Jilson Setters.
From a Library of Congress recording. Scratchy and poorly recorded.