A plaque that has been shared thousands of times online commemorates a drunken fight between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, all over the Oxford comma. Only problem is… the story isn’t true.
The plaque recounts a fight in 1968 between the two authors, who “came to blows over a disagreement regarding the Oxford comma.” Claiming the altercation even showed up in Kerouac’s novel “Doctor Sax,” as well as a local police report, the whole affair smacks of exactly the kind of fight the two iconoclasts might actually have engaged in.
While writers and editors have been known to come to blows over the use of the Oxford comma (that is, whether or not to add a comma in a list before a final “and”), there are a few issues with the report. It notes the fight as happening at the Lowell Athenaeum (which never existed), it cites that the incident appeared in “Dr. Sax” (which was published nine years earlier, in 1959), and Burroughs never actually showed his face in Lowell, Massachusetts, let alone hung out there with Kerouac.
The plaque, one of a few faux historical markers at Mill No. 5, is a marketing creation of Constantine Valhouli and Jim Lichoulas III, to help promote their commercial venture, a conversion of old industrial space into a hive of new businesses, galleries, studios and tech labs. The developers really intended it as a lark—little did they anticipate how quickly two dead writers could create an online viral ruse.