"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 19, 2017

Joseph Mulhattan, King of Fake News

Here lies what's left of liar Joe,
A truly gifted liar,
Who could outlie the liar below
In realms of flame fire.
He lied in life, in death he lies,
And if, his lies forgiven,
He made a landing in the skies,
He plays the lyre in heaven.
~mock obituary for Joseph Mulhattan that appeared in "The Cambrian" in 1901

Anyone who has spent even a brief amount of time looking through 19th century American newspapers quickly learns that they are full of highly entertaining, but utterly fictitious tales. The annoying truth is, the "better" the story is, the more likely that it was the work of a hoaxer.

If you yourself have read any of these tales, it may interest you to know that it was very likely the product of one man: Joseph Mulhattan, perhaps the most underrated practical joker in American history.

Mulhattan was born sometime around 1853 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the late 1870s, he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he got a job as a traveling salesman for a hardware manufacturer. He spent much of his time on the road, which, as it happened, gave him the ideal opportunity to pursue his unusual hobby. Mulhattan had a gift for writing, a warped sense of humor, and a fondness for alcohol. Combine those three qualities, and you have the perfect formula for mischief. He would enliven his travels by composing phony news items, ones that were both so outrageous and so seemingly sincere that they readily fooled people into thinking they were genuine. Mulhattan would send them off to various newspapers (most often the "Pittsburgh Leader" and the "Philadelphia Public Ledger,") secure in the knowledge that most newspapers cared little if a story was accurate, as long as it boosted circulation. Have you ever encountered old news accounts of Texas planters using monkeys to pick cotton? The petrified corpse of George Washington? The amazing crystal cave containing ancient mummies in stone coffins? The little girl who was carried away in the wind because she was holding a bundle of toy balloons? The largest meteor known to man falling in Texas? The discovery of the Star of Bethlehem? You can thank Joe Mulhattan for all of them.

Although he used various pseudonyms in his work, (most often "Orange Blossom,") word of his singular talent eventually spread, causing this once-obscure salesman to be lionized as "the greatest liar in America." In 1891, the "New York Times" described Mulhattan as "known in every city in the United States and has probably caused more trouble in newspaper offices than any other man in the country. His wild stories, written in the most plausible style, have more than once caused the special correspondents of the progressive journals of the United States to hurry from coast to coast to investigate some wonderful occurrence which only existed in the imagination of the great liar."

He even merited a place in Thomas W. Herringshaw's 1888 biographical dictionary, "Prominent Men and Women of the Day," where our hero shared space with the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Czar Alexander III:
In 1884, as a joke, Joseph Mulhattan was nominated for president of the United States, by the drummers' national convention, held in Louisville. Kentucky, on the ticket of the "business men's reform patty." 
Mr. Mulhattan professed not to regard his nomination as a joke, but spoke of it quite seriously. In an interview at the time he said: "There are two hundred and fifty thousand drummers in the United States, and though we do not expect a large vote this time, we shall make a good showing, and organize for the next campaign. This year we had to do everything inside of a week,and we did not have time to get properly organized. The drummers are good canvassers, and they will s t n m p the country from Maine to California; so, you will see, we shall have lots of stump speakers on the road. We may carry a state or two, and thus throw the election into the house, and in that case the present political parties will have to compromise with us. I have always been a democrat, but now I suppose I shall have to call myself the leader of the business men's reform party. In 1888 the drummers propose to down the bummers." 
...Mr. Mulhattan is a remarkably bright and clever business man, is genial and tender-hearted, sunny of disposition, truthful, excepting in joke, and a practical philanthropist. A year ago he organized the Kentucky humane society, and has worked hard since to promote the success of this benevolent enterprise. 
He is still a bachelor, having, as he says, refused all offers of marriage and never made one. In personal appearance tins ex-presidential candidate is very pleasing. He is a small, and shapely man, about five feet five inches in height, and weighing one hundred and thirty-five pounds. His hair and beard are dark, and heavy dark eye-brows reach across his nose. He speaks with astonishing rapidity, and is quick in all movements. His blue eyes give the impression of comprehensive observation. Slanderous attacks on Mulhattan would fail of their purpose; he is a good man, and is highly esteemed wherever he is known. 
The expression "the greatest liar in America," as applied to Mr. Mulhattan, must be understood with modification. It has been given him on account of the harmless weakness with which he beguiles the monotony of selling hardware all over the country east of the Rocky mountains. "Joe Mulhattan" is known everywhere in connection with the authorship of newspaper yarns as surprisingly clever and impossible as the creations of Baron Munchausen. They are as entirely harmless as brilliant in conception and treatment, such as only a pure-minded and educated gentleman of exceptional endowments can write As a rule they have been used without remuneration to the author, who has sometimes done graver work for the magazines and newspapers for pay, and with the conscientious regard for trustworthiness which characterizes ail Mr. Mulhattan's merely business operation. Apart from these his genius takes wing and indulges in flights which amaze by the sublime range of their unveracity. Hence the epithet applied to this American Munchausen, which he never resents, because his unassailable character as a business man and good citizens gives the proper limits to its application. 
"The champion liar of America,'' a variation in phraseology which some affect in speaking of this ex-presidential candidate, is credited with the enormous feat of "laying out" Tom Ochiltree, who, with characteristic chivalry, acknowledged his defeat. Threats were made of sending him to congress in Tom's place on this account, and he had to leave the district in order to avoid what was, at that time, an undesirable consummation. The story which produced such momentous results is briefly outlined as follows: A huge meteor fell from the heavens, crushing houses, people, cattle and trees by its stupendous weight. So enormous was its ponderosity that its fall imbedded it two hundred feet in the earth, and left seventy feet in height still exposed to the light of day. This meteor was red hot, blasting everything about it, and from huge fissures in its substance proceeded sulphurous gases of baneful strength. The Fort Worth Gazette published this incredible fabrication in collusion with its author. An associated press agent read the account, in his hunger for news swallowed it, and telegraphed it to the main office in New York, from whence it was distributed the length of the United States. The morning after its universal publication, the Gazette received one hundred and fourteen telegrams of inquiry respecting the alleged phenomenon, of which several were from Europe; and letters asking for further information poured into the office for months. Even more horrifying was the alleged discovery of five skeletons found in a carriage in a lonely place on the wild prairie of Texas. This little story had the distinction of being illustrated in several weekly publications, and is most devoutly believed by a great multitude which no man can number. 
When the readers meet with a circumstantial account of hidden rivers being found here or there, of vast bodies of water deep under ground, the haunts of eyeless sharks and whales and other monsters who swim in its waters of untold depth, upon which icebergs float, he is exhorted to think of Mulhattan; and the ethnologist and geologist are warned against believing all they see in newspapers about newly discovered works by prehistoric man. 
How many persuasively written and circumstantial fabrics of lies Mr. Mulhattan has written probably only their author knows. Recent oft-repeated accounts of John Wilkes Booth having been seen in many places, which have caused great excitement,had their origin "on the road;" and that biggest of all "sells," his "great national joke," as Mulhattan calls it, was characterized with his usual felicity of expression. Everybody remembers it, and the time of its origin, 1876. A proposal was published all over the country to remove the bodies of Washington and Lincoln to the centennial exhibition, and charge fifty cents a head to view them.
Modern-day aficionados of Mulhattan's work have made a parlor game of guessing which colorful old newspaper stories are really creations of The Master. The most intriguing theory is that Mulhattan invented the disappearance of "David Lang." Lang was purportedly a resident of Gallatin, Tennessee who vanished into thin air while crossing a field. The story became a staple of various popular Fortean books (most notably Frank Edwards' "Stranger Than Science.") It is only in recent years that the tale has conclusively been established as fiction, probably inspired by Ambrose Bierce's short story, "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field." No one knows for sure who first morphed Bierce's fiction into the supposedly factual "David Lang," but for many years a rumor has persisted in Tennessee that Mulhattan was behind the hoax. If so, it's probably his most influential achievement.

It is pleasant to note that on at least one occasion, this menace to the public prints was actually a force for good. In March 1888, Mulhattan read a small news item in the "Richmond Climax." It stated that a local plasterer named Patrick Cunningham was bitten by a snake. Fortunately, he was given an antidote to rub on his wound, with the result that Cunningham "limps a little yet, but will not die, although he was scared badly enough."

A nice little human-interest story. It appealed to Mulhattan. He thought that the tale just needed that little something extra. And he was more than willing to provide it.

A few days later, the "Lexington Transcript" printed the new and improved account of Cunningham and the snakes:
Lexington, KY., March 23.--The Transcript has received the following special dispatch from Richmond, Ky.: 
"Patrick Cunningham, of this place, is death to snakes and venomous reptiles of all kinds. The snake that bites him dies in great agony, frothing at the mouth and swelling to almost double its former proportions. Cunningham has discovered a poison more deadly than that of the reptile, but harmles as a lotion for the human body, and the moment the fangs of the snake come in contact with it a powerful electrical current is generated that drives the snake's own poison through every blood vessel in its body. Blood-poisoning is the result which, with the terrible electrical shock causes almost instant death. 
Cunningham killed during last summer over 17,000 snakes in Madison county, and realized quite a handsome sum by his wonderful skill in driving these offensive reptiles from the premises of our citizens."
The article described how Cunningham had discovered the "deadly lotion." He was born near Calcutta, India, while his parents were doing department work there for the English government. "It was in the jungles of India that Cunningham discovered from the natives the formula for making the deadly lotion, so fatal to poisonous reptiles...Cunningham says he will keep on killing and driving the snakes until there is not one in the state of Kentucky, if the people will pay him for it."

The report concluded, "I have stated in this article nothing but actual facts, without the slightest attempt at exaggeration. If any of your readers doubt in the least they can address Col. Shackleford, or Shackleford & Gentry; E.W. Wiggins, of Wiggins & Best; P.M. Pope, Mr. Willis, the postmaster, or any other reputable citizen of Richmond, or Mr. Cunningham himself, and they will find the statements herein made are nothing but wonderful facts, and they will find that in the matter of exterminating snakes from the soil of old Kentucky Mr. Patrick Cunningham is indeed the modern St. Patrick."

Mulhattan at work, "The Tennessean," March 23, 1888

The story was picked up by the wire services, and soon appeared in newspapers across the country. In Iowa, it was read by the administrator of the estate of a John Cunningham, a recently-deceased relation of Patrick. As it happened, this administrator was very anxious to find the now-famed snake-slayer, but until reading this article, had no idea how to get in touch. As John's nearest living relative, Patrick stood to inherit 3,000 acres of Iowa farmland. And this felicitous twist was all thanks to Joe Mulhattan.

Unless, of course, this sequel was yet another of the old fraud's taradiddles.

It is sad to say that Mulhattan could not invent any happy ending for his own personal story. His drinking gradually got out of control, to the point where, in 1901, he spent time in an Inebriate Asylum. Two months after his release, he was arrested for stealing money from a man in a saloon. The following year, he was found drunk and unconscious outside a Louisville hotel. In 1904, he was again arrested for stealing a coat. A reporter who saw him at this time wrote with what one can only hope was gross exaggeration, "This outcast, ragged, stuttering, downcast man is the same Joseph Mulhattan who ten years ago was the richest, most popular, and best commercial traveler in the United States... The purple and fine linen of his heyday are changed to noisome rags. He sits on a rickety bench, his smeared face in his dirty hands, his bleary eyes staring at the mud daubed shoes in which he has been tramping the streets and alleys of San Francisco. His nose is red and shriveled, his face and body bloated, his limbs dwindled and shaky, his hands like talons."

We know little about Mulhattan's final years, which is possibly just as well. The man who was once America's most famous prankster moved to Arizona, where he took up prospecting, with mixed success. On December 14, 1913, the "Bisbee Review" announced Mulhattan's appropriately outlandish death:
“The waters of the Gila river brought to a close Friday afternoon the career of Joe Mulhatton [sic], commonly regarded as the biggest liar in the world. Mulhatton, who has been mining a number of years in the vicinity of Kelvin, started to cross the Gila at that place late in the afternoon. The stream was swollen and Mulhatton was swept off his feet. Several persons on the ground saw him drown, powerless to give aid. His body was recovered a short distance below and buried a few hours later.”
Was this news report true? Or was Mulhattan hoaxing everyone right to the end?

I prefer to think the latter was the case.


  1. As no independent death notice exists he may still be alive.

    He'd tell us but he knows we wouldn't believe him.

  2. Quite an accomplishment, in a perverse way. Such a man must have lived a lonely life, though, as no one could know if his truths were fiction or his fictions true.


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