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Don’t think of ‘fake news’ as a modern invention

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Michael McParlane
Illustration by Michael McParlane
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Penn State Library Archives
Joe Mulhatton illustration from the Pittsburg Dispatch on May 17, 1891

If you take your stories like your margaritas, with a grain of salt, I suggest you have both standing by for the tale of the world’s greatest liar: Joe Mulhatton.

We think of “fake news” as a modern invention propagated by the Internet. We get our information from satirical outlets such as “The Daily Show” and The Onion. But long before the gullible masses began reposting clickbait images of 100-pound cats as the gospel truth on Facebook, Mulhatton was the undisputed King of the Liars.

Born in 1848, he began his reign of humor in Allegheny City, now known as Pittsburgh’s North Side. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and shared his father’s gift for storytelling. He began fooling the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper as a teenager. For four years, he taunted the Leader with stories of romantic highway robberies, mystery caverns and fantastical oil wells. He reveled in his victory as newspapermen traveled 50 miles on buckboard wagons in hopes of capturing a story of stagecoach robbers that didn’t exist.

Upon graduating high school with honors, he found another use for his gift of gab, as a “drummer,” a colorful term for a traveling salesman trying to drum up business. After a stint with a Pittsburgh-based hardware company, he moved to Louisville, where he found work drumming for Belknap Hardware & Mfg. Co. and Hart and Co.

As a salesman, Mulhatton was known as a hardworking, honest man with a golden tongue who could sell ice to an Eskimo and fleas to a dog. By 1875, he was making upward of $15,000 a year — more than a quarter-million dollars adjusted to present day. He spread his wealth by providing meals for newsboys, lending a hand to fellow drummers and helping to found the Kentucky Humane Society.

The life of a traveling salesman can be lonely and strenuous, so Mulhatton passed the time making up outrageous tales for locals and other weary travelers. He often would submit the “news items” to local newspapers. In each city he encountered, up sprang an article that tested the boundaries of imaginative plausibility:

• He announced a proposal to exhume the bodies of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to display for public viewing at 50 cents. It was met with outrage nationwide.

• He had a special fondness for stories of underground rivers, including tales of secret rivers under cities in Alabama, Texas and Kentucky.

• He caused a cat-tastrophe of sorts when a piece about a furrier needing fur for coats led people to crate up cats to ship via train from Kentucky to New York. When no such train arrived, people set the cats free on the unsuspecting town of Litchfield, N.Y.

• An 1878 news item by Mulhatton announced the discovery of the Crystal Caverns of Kentucky with Egyptian-style mummified remains inside. So convincing was the story that the master of humbug himself, P.T. Barnum, traveled to Pikesville to make an offer on the remains for his sideshows.

• He “discovered” an “Egyptian” tribe living underground in Wyoming. A newspaperman from Omaha went to investigate and was captured by the Sioux. He was released unharmed after several weeks.

• In 1883, Mulhatton witnessed a whale-size sea monster creep out of a lake in Wisconsin and devour flocks of sheep.

• His tale of Professor Birdwhistle caused a panic — 50 years before Orson Welles and two years before H.G. Wells — when he discovered Martians had been visiting Earth for many years and had won a battle with a horde of Earth invaders.

• In 1884, the Brown County meteor caused an international stir. The immense 300-foot meteor landed on a house in Texas. As “locals fled,” reporters poured in from around the world. Many of them were unable to return to their respective countries because papers refused to pay their way back without a story. According to Mulhatton, a reporter from the London Times settled in to his new life and opened a saloon.

“The prince of liars” received hundreds of threats to shoot him on sight or, worse, send him off to Congress where he belonged. The threat of public service became a possible reality in 1884 when the National Drummers Association Conference nominated him for president of the United States. He proved too honest a man for political office.

Mulhatton’s life was filled with tales of bird-eating trees, women floating away with helium balloons, lakes of hair dye, suicidal cows, magnetic cacti that followed its victims, rediscovering the star of Bethlehem, massive meteors and various wild ideas that captured headlines and the public’s imaginations. He fooled universities, experts, scholars and journalists.

The lies that entertained the world were more than just tall tales: They were his escape. He claimed an injury suffered from falling off a streetcar had caused him great pain and stress. When his stories failed to help him escape, he turned to alcohol.

His father and brother had spent time institutionalized for what was likely a hereditary mental illness. Mulhatton’s rapid speech patterns, addictions and often erratic and delusional behavior might today be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. He, too, spent time in and out of mental asylums in at least four states. His charm and persuasiveness would result in him being quickly released and declared sane every time.

In 1891, his travels led him back to Pittsburgh. There, he made his “last confession” in a story for the Pittsburg Dispatch that circulated nationwide. It ended with a promise to never lie again and was signed, “truthfully, Joseph Mulhatton.”

A few years later, the Pittsburgh Dispatch would have to reassure the nation that the mining town of Scotch Valley near Hazelton had not been swallowed up as reported by the Associated Press in a story fabricated by Mulhatton.

After being arrested in Pittsburgh later that year, he was arrested in Indiana and, finally, in Texas, where he died in 1901.

He was then found alive a year later in New Orleans before ending up in an asylum in Napa, Calif., where he died in 1903.

He then moved to Arizona, where he died in 1906.

In 1908, the Baltimore Sun found him and declared Mulhatton “resurrected!” He died several more times before drowning and his body being swept away in the Gila River in Kelvin, Ariz. He died on Dec. 5, 1913, according to an obituary likely written by Mulhatton.

Wherever he may lie, Mulhatton should be remembered as a larger-than-life Pittsburgh legend, and the greatest liar to have ever lived.

That’s the gospel truth.

Joe Wos is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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