Since just before last year’s vitriolic presidential election, a new phrase has entered the American political lexicon. It has become a rhetorical strategy all its own, almost like a brand new logical fallacy in that it does not hold up as an argument under any kind of scrutiny. It is a complete rejection of a source implying it holds no truth or any worth, but this dismissal is not based on research, fact or logic but rather only on the basis that one dislikes what the source has to say and therefore contemptuously applies to it a nonsensical label meant to completely undermine its authority. This label? “Fake news.”
The idea of false or misleading information propagated through journalism is not new. Listeners of course may recall our episodes on the Reichstag Fire and the propaganda surrounding it, which made its way into history books for a long time. Indeed, even the phrase “fake news” isn’t new. A quick look at the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that it had been used infrequently in the 19th century and then, during the 20th century with its rampant government sponsored, wartime propaganda campaigns, it can be seen to spike in contemporary literature. Of course, one can also see that the phrase’s prominence in social and political discourse today dwarfs its use in the past. And of course, there is a reason for this, an inciting incident, so to speak.
As the 2016 presidential campaigns heated up, sensational and outrageous news stories started to show up in social media feeds, spread by users themselves who found that these stories reinforced their suspicions about or prejudices against a candidate. The problem was that these supposed news stories were actually hoaxes perpetrated by degenerate trolls and opportunists seeking to garner advertising clicks through viral distribution of their fraudulent articles. After the election, the suggestion that these pervasive hoaxes may have helped to sway the electorate caused social media giant Facebook to take measures against this so-called “fake news,” thus bringing the term into common modern parlance and cementing its place in the zeitgeist. Then a funny thing happened. The new president of the United States, who had himself indulged in some of the conspiracy-mongering common of these hoaxes, began to misuse the term “fake news,” and its accepted meaning began to evolve. No longer did the term refer only to recognized hoaxes, false stories propagated anonymously and pretending to come from respectable news outlets by hiding behind slightly altered domain names. Now it was an epithet, a new political barb to sling at any legitimate news outlet that may be publishing unfavorable news or following an editorial direction that proves inconvenient for one’s agenda.
With the idea of fake news drifting so far from its intended definition, it becomes important to put things in perspective, and the examination of history is uniquely useful for doing just that. Therefore, let us go back to the 19th century and the beginning of fake news in the form of newspaper hoaxes in order to better understand what fake news really is. And in looking into this topic, there is no better figure to examine than Joseph Mulhatton*, the Liar Laureate of the World.
The history of newspaper hoaxes provides a nearly perfect analogy for the actual fake news of today. These false stories were often printed despite their dubious nature in order to increase newspaper sales, just like the fake news economy that culminated in 2016 was driven by revenue, although sometimes these hoaxes were mistakenly printed because they fooled editors or were purposely run as satire, making them comparable to articles in the Onion, which are sometimes misunderstood to be hoaxes rather than jokes. The big difference here is that these articles did not appear in publications devoted solely to satirical writing, nor in disreputable publications masquerading as real newspapers, but rather in otherwise trustworthy news outlets. New York’s The Sun, while more willing to print unsophisticated content as a penny paper, nevertheless prided itself on being politically independent and certainly wasn’t in the business of printing boldface lies until, two years after its 1833 launch, it became complicit in a hoax that claimed an astronomer had discovered life on the moon. Not only were various forms of animal life detailed, but a civilization of winged humanoids as well. There are a variety of reasons why the editor of The Sun may have perpetrated the ingenious and complicated hoax. Perhaps it was to increase circulation, which certainly seems to have been accomplished. Perhaps it was meant as a trap for the more respected papers, tempting them to reprint a falsehood that could thereafter be revealed to discredit them, although none took the bait. Or perhaps it was a satire all along, poking fun at the implausible ideas of certain fringe astronomers, but it had quickly gotten out of editorial control. Regardless, this affair certainly serves as the first major example of a newspaper hoax, and it may have exerted some influence on the subject of our story in the form of inspiration.
And inspiration for newspaper hoaxes was by no means wanting. In 1844, with his wife ill and creditors hounding his trail, Edgar Allan Poe came to the offices of The Sun in New York with a fanciful story in hand, perhaps encouraged by their embroilment in the Moon Hoax not a decade earlier, and sure enough, the newspaper published his story. Thus the Great Balloon Hoax was born, detailing the astounding transatlantic journey of ballooner Monck Mason in just 75 hours. And during the life of our central character, young Joseph Mulhatton, who was born sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s, another famous newspaper hoax appeared that may have encouraged him in his lies. In 1874 the New-York Herald, which ironically had been the staunchest and most vocal critic of The Sun regarding the Moon Hoax, printed a story about animals escaping the Central Park Zoo and running amok throughout the city. The article caused a general panic among readers, and despite the fact that at the end of the story it admitted to being a fabrication, the Herald was roundly denounced for its deception of the public.
At this juncture let us focus on the subject of this study, who by the time of the Central Park Zoo Escape Hoax was already well on the path to establishing himself as an accomplished hoaxer. Even in his youth, the impulse to spin tales appears to have been strong in him. Depending on one’s opinion of religion, one may speculate that his tendency to spread false narratives was either developed out of rebellion against his father or was a predisposition inherited from him, for his father was a Presbyterian minister. Regardless, before he had even reached his majority, he had a major hoax under his belt, for it seems he spread the rumor of a series of stagecoach robberies outside of Pittsburgh, where he was attending high school at the time. The newspaper journalists of the area became convinced that an outlaw gang was at work, and in order to scoop an exclusive, they took to riding in buckboard wagons all around the area, hoping to be held up themselves. Eventually, after hours and hours of uneventful wandering, they concluded that the story had been a prank.
Out of high school, Mulhatton went to work for a Pittsburgh hardware company and began to travel as their salesman, or drummer. His travels took him far and wide, and before long he had taken up with a Louisville, Kentucky, hardware company as their drummer, which sent him even farther abroad, to the American South and the Southwest. He was quite successful in his salesmanship on account of being a fast-talker and quick-witted and largely because of his genial nature and the fine figure he cut, a well-dressed young man with well-groomed dark hair and beard and sharp blue eyes. And it was perhaps this respectable demeanor that helped him to dupe and corrupt so many newspaper editors, for along his extensive travels, as a hobby or perhaps a compulsion, he took to writing and publishing brief fictions in area newspapers. This was the era when Joe Mulhatton developed his reputation as the Modern Munchausen, the Monarch of Mendacity, and the Liar Laureate of the World.
His hoaxes began with some similar themes: in 1875, he wrote that the bodies of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were to be exhumed and displayed at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition as a way to raise funds for finishing the Washington Monument, much to the outrage of some. Then a couple years later, in 1877, he presented a story about Washington’s body being disinterred due to some necessary repairs being made at Mount Vernon, at which time it was discovered that the corpse had petrified and resembled a statue. Additionally, in Texas, another story supposed to have been penned by Mulhatton related the discovery of two petrified bodies, those of a cowboy and an Indian, frozen forever in mortal combat. This fantastical discovery is even said to have drawn the interest of that great showman of oddities, P. T. Barnum.
During his early years in Kentucky, he revisited the theme of his first hoax and in 1878 wrote again about outlaws in a series of letters to papers. Under the pseudonym “Orange Blossom,” he cast himself as a drummer local to the town of Big Clifty who had confronted some highway robbers on a bridge and cast them over into the water. Thereafter, in “Orange Blossom’s” letters, he referred to himself as the “Hero of Big Clifty” and detailed how he was lionized and celebrated throughout the region as the guest of honor at picnics and barbecues. Some years later, in 1883, this story seems to have gotten Mulhatton into quite a spot, as reports surfaced of his being kidnapped by bloodthirsty criminals who wanted to know if he was this “Orange Blossom” hero who claimed to best outlaws and intended to murder him for the fame it would bring. According to the tale as printed in newspapers, Mulhatton was being marched to a skiff on a river when, using knowledge of knots and escape artistry he had apparently learned while travelling with some famous showmen, he surreptitiously freed himself of the ropes tying his hands but did not let on that he was no longer bound. On the skiff, then, he made his move. He shouted, and when the outlaws sprang to their feet, he rocked the boat violently to send them falling overboard. They thrashed in the water, grasping at the sides of the boat, but Mulhatton took up an oar and methodically bludgeoned each of them, leaving a trail of blood in the river two miles long. A gripping yarn, certainly, but considering Mulhatton’s proclivity to spread tall tales, this too likely never happened.
In addition to preserved corpses and murderous outlaws, Mulhatton also appeared to be fascinated with the massive Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and a number of articles about the discovery of gargantuan caves that rivaled that great cave in size, containing underground rivers and astonishing artifacts, have been attributed to him. He wrote of a cave in Pike County, Kentucky, containing virgin gold, with an underground river rippling over a bed of diamonds and the skeletons of cave-dwellers laid to rest in stone sarcophagi. So convincing was this article that it precipitated a rush for purchasing land in the area, and again P.T. Barnum is said to have shown up, looking to procure the remains of one of these cavemen. Then again, in 1878, Mulhatton wrote of the discovery of another massive cave, this one lacking the gold and jewels, but no less rich in artifacts and mummies, this time described as presenting “every appearance of the Egyptian mummies,” and therefore implying some kind of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. Here again, a magnificent underground river was reported to flow—three of them, in fact—making it possible to admit a vessel, and according to the story, a local businessman had even begun to make plans to offer underground steamboat rides. In 1880, in Wyoming, he spun the tale of another grand cavern, this one housing a strange tribe of white natives with Egyptian-like customs who were kept from leaving their subterranean home by the local Sioux tribesmen on account of some superstitions that they came from beyond the vale. A reporter from Omaha was so intrigued by this story that he went to investigate and found himself taken prisoner by those selfsame Sioux, who during his week-long captivity soundly disabused him of the notion that the story was true. And again, in late 1881, a report appeared of a Leitchfield, Kentucky farmer who was accustomed to storing his milk and butter in some small caves nearby his farmstead. Finding them too small, he essayed to enlarge them through demolition only to uncover a far larger cavern beneath. This one too contained a grand underground river, teeming in this account with eyeless fish, and again, there were mummies of an Egyptian sort, but this time Mulhatton took it further, claiming that the farmer discovered an entire pyramid in the cave, an exact replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and inside, altars and decorations adorned with Masonic symbols. A final series of lies about caves purported that the famous Mammoth cave had been sold to the English, a report that greatly upset many but was promptly followed by the comforting update that the transaction had been cancelled upon the realization that the cavern would be very difficult to ship overseas.
But preserved corpses and caverns were not the only recurring elements in newspaper hoaxes attributed to Joseph Mulhatton. Several of Mulhatton’s stories revolved around the unlikely and, frankly, unethical, use of animals for commercial ends. In 1876, he placed ads in Kentucky presenting himself as the agent of a major furrier in New York who was seeking cats because of the sudden and unusual demand for their fur. On the promise of fetching top dollar, a great many area farmers choked the streets of Leitchfield on the appointed day, their wagons laden with boxes full of stray cats. Upon learning it was a hoax, Mulhatton’s fuming dupes released their cats, causing such a nuisance that the township was forced to implement a “shotgun quarantine,” a euphemism for open season on shooting cats. In a sort of reprisal, someone who knew which hardware firm Mulhatton worked for sent them a crate, that, when opened, spilled terrified felines out to fill the business with hissing and mewling. In another hoax, he claimed that a cotton planter had trained geese to weed his fields, each wearing a gourd full of water around its neck so that they could keep hydrated. And then, yet again, he claimed that a Flagstaff shepherd by the name of Green had trained kangaroos to tend his flock, an arrangement that had worked out so well, owing to the animal’s agility, that he had arranged for a great many more kangaroos to be sent to him for training as herders. This, of course, stirred the ire of cowboys and shepherds alike, for how dare he give their jobs to some hop-along Aussie beasts!
Nor was this the sole controversy he caused over the use of animals as labor. In 1887, he wrote about a farmer who had imported South American monkeys to work in his hemp and cotton fields. Here Mulhatton seems to have been poking the hornets’ nest, going into detail about how compliant the monkeys were and contrasting that tractability with the hot-headed field laborers who had rioted over this usurpation of their livelihood. Of course, no such riots had ever transpired because there were no such monkey field hands, but this did not stop the story from travelling far and wide, until newspapers in England were lamenting America’s bizarre labor problems, suggesting that this did not bode well for the working classes.
And finally, another favorite motif in Mulhatton’s hoaxes was that of the meteorological or astronomical. He had an especial fondness for frightening newspaper readers with accounts of the impact of meteorites, or as they were sometimes then called, aerolites. In 1883, outside of William’s Ranch in Texas, a meteorite descended like a ball of fire and struck with the force of an earthquake, shattering every window in town, according to Mulhatton’s piece. It killed many head of cattle, destroyed the home of a Mexican herdsman and his family and buried the occupants themselves! Afterward, still steaming, one could ascertain its great size, for even though mostly buried in the earth, it still towered 70 feet above the surface and covered about an acre of land. In fact, so convincing was this account that many came to look for the meteor, even scientists from far away. According to Mulhatton, many of these seekers became lost in the brush and had to live off the land, while others, not finding the meteor and not wanting to return without a report of it, simply bought parcels of land and remained for the rest of their days, but one can take this further tale of Mulhatton’s for what it’s worth. And indeed, even if one were unaware of Mulhatton’s history of hoaxes, it would be impossible to credit the fact that he claimed to have witnessed another meteorite strike near the Ripsey mines in Arizona, in 1896, for unless the meteorites were attracted magnetically to him, the odds alone challenge the credibility. This time, he described nearby houses shaking like leaves, with cupboards jarred and the dishes within upset. Even larger than his previous meteorite, this one was supposed to have been 2 acres across, striking the ground with a sound like a cannon volley. Instead of cattle, it was sheep that this time suffered the brunt of the impact, but again, Mulhatton described the sufferings of a Mexican herder and his family whose dwelling was in the path of the meteor. One might safely, I’d say, attribute some racial bigotry to the man for the way he repeatedly hurled fictional meteors at Mexican families.
Perhaps the most incredible story involving Mulhatton actually turns out to be true. In 1884, he was nominated for President by his fellow travelling salesmen at a drummers’ convention in Louisville, Kentucky. He would be put forward as the candidate of the Business Men’s Reform Party, and the whole thing was considered something of a joke by all… all, that is, except Mulhatton, who insisted that with his army of travelling salesmen stumping for him, even if he couldn’t win the office, he’d be able to take a state or two and thereby force his way into politics. An interesting prospect, to be sure, the Liar Laureate goes to Washington, but it never really panned out and he went on with his itinerant lifestyle, sowing falsehoods everywhere he went.
During his travels, he wrote so many interesting hoaxes it’s impossible to parse them all, even if you could find each one of them, as there are many he is suspected of having written that may have been penned by other hoaxsters. Among those that are definitely attributed to him, he started a series of sensations similar to his cave stories about Native American mounds that held treasures and relics, one even containing the original tablets inscribed with the ten commandments! Elsewhere he claimed that an astronomer named Klein had discovered the Star of Bethlehem, and for further astronomical stories, he invented the character of Professor Birdwhistle, to whom he attributed a variety of astounding discoveries, such as a new moon that happened to be invisible, and most astonishingly, the detection of some unusual activity around Mars that revealed not only that Martians existed but also that they flew back and forth interacting with Earth and that they were engaged in some kind of war on their home world to fend off an invasion!
The list goes on and on. In Iowa, well diggers struck subterranean waters so vast that a new river rivaling the Mississippi had sprung up. In Texas, a girl took a bunch of balloons from a peddler and promptly floated away over the sea, saved only by a sharpshooter who popped one balloon at a time until some rescuers in a boat could bring her in to safety. Elsewhere in Texas, a carriage full of skeletons was found, its occupants apparently having been killed years before by lightning. In the Mojave desert, an intact battleship was discovered, and in Wisconsin, a lake monster that appeared to be half fish and half snake preyed upon livestock. If you believed his dispatches, he had more luck in discovering unusual natural phenomena than anyone who ever lived, finding a lake that dyed blond the hair of any who bathed in it, and finding not one but two extremely strange species of plant: a cactus with magnetic properties and a carnivorous tree, the arbor diaboll, that that could grasp and strangle even large creatures with its twisting limbs, pulling them in to devour them.
Later in life, in the last years of the 19th century, he settled in Arizona, buying and selling mining claims, and doubtless his tricky nature came to bear in this enterprise as well. In fact, there are reports of Mulhatton showing rocks with veins of gold ore in them as proof of a claim’s worth, when actually it seemed he had simply hammered brass nails into the stone to give it the appearance of containing gold. Then at the turn of the century, he was committed to an asylum for a time as insane, thinking he had killed a man and others were after him for revenge, and after that, rumors abounded that he had gone out west and died. Indeed, the fact that no one heard from him for some years seemed to indicate that he did pass into history, but eventually he turned up in Texas, exploding the rumors of his demise and putting all the newspaper on guard.
After that he seemed to disappear again, until eventually he turned up in California. In October of 1904, the San Francisco Call reported that Mulhatton sat in a jail cell in that city awaiting trial for stealing someone’s coat. In recent years, since his bout of insanity—which he attributed to being kicked in the head by a horse rather than to any alcoholic degeneracy—he had drifted westward, following circuses and relying on the charity of the Salvation Army. He presented himself as a phrenologist, one who can tell the content of a person’s character and even predict his or her behavior by feeling the lumps of the person’s head. Mulhatton appears to have been engaged in some similar bamboozling at the tavern where he was arrested, as he was said to have taken off his own coat to hold forth about a “mystic chart” and then put someone else’s coat on, which garment contained a bank roll in its pocket. Mulhatton is described as being wholly ignorant of the fact he committed a crime, but then he seems not to have been as sharp as he used to be, his wits likely dulled by whiskey as instead of the fast-talking genius he had become an incoherent mess. And no longer cutting the attractive figure he had previously been known for, he had gained weight and grown a red, bulbous nose. Such was his marked descent that the Call article went so far as to illustrate his decline with a drawing depicting his former self next to the sad, filthy version of himself that sat in the San Francisco jail.
This story went far and wide, and later that month, an expanded version of it in the Chicago Tribune included further statements from the interview with Mulhatton in which he admitted that whiskey was the culprit responsible for his downfall. Therefore, it seems not only the loss of his job as a hardware drummer and his apparent financial straits could be blamed on his slowly worsening alcoholism, but also his erratic behavior and apparent bouts of insanity, a fact that had been suspected ever since his asylum commitment. And apparently he hadn’t even liked the stuff at first, but felt he had been forced to imbibe whiskey because he was so well known and so well liked that he was expected to liven up every party. In a sense, then, it was his stories that were his ruin, for it was his entertaining yarns that thrust him into fame and high society, where the life of the party never finds the bottom of his glass.
After his arrest in San Francisco, he disappeared again, and again there were rumors that he had died, which were again debunked in 1908 when he showed back up in Arizona, claiming to have discovered a copper mine. Then in 1913, another report of his death emerged. While out about his mining operations, he reportedly attempted to cross the Gila River, which was swollen at the time, and lost his footing, whereupon he was swept away. Several witnesses claimed to have seen the drowning, recovered his body and buried him, but the world and all posterity learned of it through, of course, a newspaper report, so it may be understandable if some believe this to be one final hoax that Mulhatton may have played on the public before fading into obscurity. And the fact that our knowledge of the past relies in large part on such publications so frequently misled and riddled with hoaxes causes one to begin to doubt much of received history. When parts of what we know about the past may actually be nothing more than concoctions penned by a hoaxer, then certainly we suffer from historical blindness.
* A variation in the spelling of his name as Mulhattan is common, but I have chosen to spell it as Mulhatton because that is how his name appears in the majority of the contemporary newspaper sources I found.