A fake place becomes real

Cartographers will sometimes insert fake locations in order to catch plagiarism of their maps. But sometimes those fake locations then become real.

​Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When your business is about presenting facts, how can you tell if someone else has copied those facts? For the compilers of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, maps, and books of trivia, one solution is to seed the text with fake entries. Anyone who copies your work copies the trap entry too. And then you have effective and irrefutable evidence of plagiarism.

There are a lot of examples of such traps, and I’ll probably write about some others in later posts, but today I’m going to talk about the curious case of Agloe, New York. It was a fake place first, then it was a real place, now it’s back to being a fake place again.

The Catskill Mountains of New York state are perhaps most famous for being the proving-ground for a generation of New York stand-up comedians (Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles honed their craft playing in the many hotels of the Catskills). In the 1930s, a couple of cartographers created a fictional point on their map of the area. They named it Agloe, which was a combination of their own initials.

The fake location remained on their maps for decades, but by the time the trap was sprung it had become useless. In the 1950s, a general store had opened up at that point of the road: Agloe General Store. The owner had probably seen the name on that map, and assumed it for their own shop.

Another map company included Agloe on their maps, and the original source tried to claim this as proof that their own maps had been copied. But because by this time the fake location had become real, their accusations were seen as baseless.

The general store is long gone now, and Agloe has disappeared from the world again.

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