Believe Nothing You Hear, and Only One Half That You See

Edgar Allan Poe? Dinah Craik? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following hyperbolic proverb encouraging skepticism has been credited to the master of mystery and the macabre Edgar Allan Poe:

Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear.

Did Poe craft this saying?

Quote Investigator: The short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” by Edgar Allan Poe appeared in the November 1845 issue of “Graham’s Magazine”. The tale was set in a private hospital for the mentally ill, and the adage was spoken by the nominal head of the institution. Emphasis added by QI: 1

“You are young yet, my friend,” replied my host, “but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.

This was the earliest strong match known to QI. Hence, Poe is the leading candidate for coiner of this expression although the phrasing differed slightly from the popular modern versions.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In May 1849 a Buffalo, New York newspaper published an account from San Francisco, California about the ongoing gold rush. The correspondent called the statement an “old saying” and expressed disagreement: 2

I will write to you from the mines and then shall be able to speak of my own knowledge. I believe all that is told, for this reason, that more than all I have heard has been realized by observation, and the old saying that you are to believe nothing you hear and but half you see, will fail here.

In November 1849 a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper printed a different account from San Francisco that was a bit more suspicious of the gold rush: 3

The accounts from the mines are very contradictory; you can believe nothing that you hear in this country, and only one half of what you see; but I am perfectly satisfied that there is gold in abundance here, and that it is to be obtained only through the hardest kind of labor, hardships and privations.

In 1872 “The Raleigh Daily News” of Raleigh, North Carolina printed an instance without attribution: 4

In regard to the outlaws it seems we must adopt the old rule—“Believe nothing you hear, and but half you see.”

In 1942 H. L. Mencken included the saying in “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”, but he provided a citation that appeared after Poe’s tale: 5

Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.
DINAH MULOCK CRAIK: A Woman’s Thoughts, 1858 (Quoted as “a cynical saying”)

In 1966 Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong crafted the hit song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. The most popular rendition was recorded by Marvin Gaye for his 1968 album “In the Groove”. The lyrics included an instance of the saying: 6

People say believe half of what you see
Son and none of what you hear
But I can’t help but be confused
If it’s true please tell me dear

In 2014 the “Chicago Tribune” printed a review of the movie “Stonehearst Asylum” which was loosely based on Poe’s story: 7

The key line in the script comes straight out of Poe: “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.”

In conclusion, the earliest close match appeared in a tale written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1845, and he may be the originator.

Image Notes: Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The Three monkeys; author: John Snape; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Lighter whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to twitter discussants Benjamin Dreyer, Iain MacDonald, and Max Maven. MacDonald suggested adding a citation for “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.)

Notes:

  1. 1845 November, Graham’s Magazine (Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art), Volume 28, Number 5, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether by Edgar Allan Poe, Start Page 193, Quote Page 194, Column 2, George R. Graham & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1849 May 28, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, (Communication from W. R. A. in San Francisco, California on Feb. 28, 1849), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1849 November 17, The Examiner, (Communication from San Francisco on August 29th, 1849), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1872 March 23, The Raleigh Daily News, State Matters, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Belief, Quote Page 96, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. YouTube video, Title: Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Uploaded on Apr 12, 2007, Uploaded by: Luke Gibbons, (Quotation starts at 2 minutes 9 seconds of 3 minutes 19 seconds)(“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1966. Popularized by Marvin Gaye on his 1968 album “In the Groove”) (Accessed on youtube.com on August 8, 2017)
  7. 2014 October 24, Chicago Tribune, The inmates run the asylum: What could possibly go wrong? by Michael Phillips (Tribune Newspapers Critic), (Movie Review of “Stonehearst Asylum”) Section 4, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)