This mystery writers' prank would make an incredible sociological experiment

There's an old joke that has been making the rounds for hundreds of years. It has been ascribed to heads of state, heads of the church, Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It would make an unconscionable experiment. And I want it to happen. Do you dare discover it?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was supposedly the orchestrator of a cruel joke. One night, bored and idly toying with wicked thoughts, he decided to send a note to five of his friends. The note would be delivered anonymously. It would have no signature, and would contain no information. It would only say, "We are discovered. Flee!" At his next dinner party, his social circle was abuzz with the sudden, and total, disappearance of one of the people he sent the notes to. The person was never heard from again.

That seems to fit, doesn't it? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has an association with macabre mystery that makes the story seem right. But it didn't start or end with him. Edgar Allan Poe also was said to have done such a thing. He might even be said to be the better author to pair with the story, since he had more of a devilish sense of humor - though the story isn't as impressive because he has less reputable friends. Actually, neither man probably did this. The story of the notes is an old joke going back centuries. Supposedly it was used by politicians of one party to get members of the other party to flee before an important vote. It was also said to be by a bishop to rid himself of those of his priests who were corrupt - the punchline being that all of the priests fled.

It is just a joke, but there's a reason why it's associated with so many mystery authors and so many tests of virtue. What better than such a note to illuminate the secret lives that some percentage of the population are living. Depending on the joke, that percentage is between twenty and one hundred. But how can we be sure if we don't try it? I can't help but wonder, and so this is one of the few jokes that I would love to see turned into a sociological survey. What percentage of the population, were they to receive such a note, would take the advice? What percentage would react in any way? Obviously, the idea is flawed. It wouldn't just measure for deep dark secrets, but for extreme gullibility as well. The fact that not everyone falls for the 419 email scams doesn't reveal that very few people aren't interested in money, only that very few of them believe that a foreign prince is eager to give them his. And even if the study did work, it would be unconscionable. At least a few people, if they thought their secrets were discovered, would react very badly. Since the entire point is to send out these warnings at random, they'd be sure to alarm a few of these poor souls, and the forward march of science surely isn't worth it. Still, it's such a delicious joke, and such a fun idea. I can't help wanting some academic institution to do it.

Maybe just to the politicians.

Top Image: Tiberiu Ana