Monday, August 17, 2009

Joseph Mulhattan

Another dubious Kentucky first: we can boast being the home of the undisputed king of media liars.

No, no, I don't mean Ann Coulter - she's from Connecticut. I mean Joseph Mulhattan, the traveling salesman from Louisville who wrote bogus newspaper articles as a sideline.

Mulhattan released hundreds of journalistic hoax memes into the ecosystem in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of which are still infectious to this very day. (Case in point: last summer I was puzzling over an 1878 report of a mummy-filled cave in Glasgow whose grandeur reportedly surpassed even Mammoth Cave's. As it turns out, the story was pure Mulhattan cruft.)

While traipsing around as a door to door shill for various companies such as the Kentucky Jeans Company, W.B. Belknap & Company, Hart & Company, and Rankins-Snyder Hardware, Mulhattan developed the odd hobby of mischievously submitting fake news stories to various newspapers using various pseudonyms (the enigmatic "Orange Blossom" was his favorite nom de plume). Most newspaper editors were apparently too rushed and/or too desperate for material to bother fact-checking Mulhattan's folderol, and the crazier the story, the more likely it would see print.

As a certain old German paper hanger once said, the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.

Keven McQueen, in his great book Offbeat Kentuckians, tells of a Mulhattan hoax published in the Lexington Transcript. Purportedly, a Richmond man named Patrick Cunningham developed a mysterious magical liquid that, when rubbed on one's body, made oneself impervious to snakebite. Any snake that bit a human so treated with the elixir, said Mulhattan, would be both poisoned and electrocuted. Mulhattan went on to say that Cunningham had personally killed 17,000 snakes in Madison County alone in one summer with this magic potion, and that many other Kentuckians were begging him for assistance in snake-eradication efforts (Among them, one J.B. Parks of Kingston, Isaac Lumley of Lexington, and even Mayor Garner of Winchester).

Mulhattan is widely believed to have been the source of a fake news story regarding a man named David Lang from Gallatin, TN who supposedly vanished into thin air in full view of witnesses and then could be heard crying for help as a disembodied voice. Ambrose Bierce, who loved to mix fiction with fact, took the idea and expanded it into two different short stories - Charles Ashmore's Trail and The Difficulty in Crossing a Field. The story was treated as fact in the 1950s by Fate Magazine and by Frank Edwards in his book Stranger Than Science. In 1999, the avant-garde composer David Lang wrote an opera based on the myth that used his namesake. Art imitates life - or in this case, an imitation of life.

In 1887, Mulhattan wrote an article stating that George Washington's tomb had been opened and it was discovered that the former President had somehow ossified into a stone-like mummy, and that it would be erected like a statue. Tens of thousands of people fell for this hoax, even though it was sort of a retread of one he'd done earlier, in an 1875 report that Washington and Lincoln's corpses would be exhumed and put on public display for the Centennial celebration.

Another Mulhattan media prank: he claimed that a noted Kentucky astronomer, one "Professor Klein", had announced that the star of Bethlehem returned to Earth every 300 years, and that it was due to reappear in our skies again. Mulhattan's article whipped the astronomers of the world into a frenzy, taking great lengths to write rebuttals to the editors of newspapers, disputing his claims.

Mulhattan would have loved the Internet and probably would have been one of its most notorious trolls. Then again, the net is so loaded with disinfo and junk data that he may have just blended in with the crowd and been just another timewaster among many.

In his twilight years, Mulhattan wasn't so much fun. He descended into alcoholism and was frequently arrested for vagrancy, nuisance, and public intoxication charges. He died alone and broke in Louisville.

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