If there is a single person who can claim to be the father of modern fake news, it was a 19th Century traveling salesman from Louisville, Kentucky, named Joseph Mulhatten. For 20 years, he spiked American newspapers with outlandish tales people simply could not resist. Called, in his time, “the greatest American liar”, he rode hundreds of made-up scoops to a fame so complete that “mulhatten” came to mean any obviously false tale that the public nonetheless believed.
In modern terms, the story that Hillary Clinton ran an illicit sex ring out of a pizza parlor would be known as a mulhatten.
Joseph Mulhatten was born in 1845 outside of Pittsburgh. Or maybe it was 1853. It’s hard to tell what aspects of a great liar’s origin story are real and what aren’t. He was exactly the kind of charmer who would make the hearts of today’s cable news bookers race, described in his own time as “good-looking, with beard and mustache, dancing blue eyes, quick cat-like motions, and one of the most rapid talkers one could find in a day’s walk.” He executed his first hoax as a teen, spreading rumors of a rash of stagecoach robberies so convincing that Pittsburgh papers dispatched reporters to cover the horrifying, headline-worthy, non-existent crime wave.
Nineteenth Century newspapers dependent on street corner sales were every bit as hungry for eye-grabbing content as any click-bait web site. Like today’s overwhelmed content curators, their editors weren’t choosy about the sources of the stories they published. Travelling salesmen had long been easy sources of news from faraway places. Their stories were catchy, free, and usually only modestly wrong, overstating the number of people killed in a massacre or the drama of what had been a disappointingly run-of-the-mill hanging.
Mulhatten turned that enhanced reality up to 11. He visited local newspaper offices to chat about wondrous occurrences he had personally witnessed. His specialty was too-good-to-pass-up accounts of things like John Wilkes Booth being spotted alive or an Appalachian man born and living a happy, if gelatinous, life without bones.
Like today’s purveyors of fake news, Mulhatten understood the importance of confirming what people already wanted desperately to believe. During a period of religious revival in the south, he reported that astronomers had located the Star of Bethlehem. As Cyrus McCormick’s mechanized thresher upended rural economies, small-town weeklies headlined Mulhatten’s horrifying account of farmers training monkeys to harvest crops. And as the country came down from the patriotic ecstasy of its 100th birthday celebration, he announced that George Washington’s miraculously preserved cadaver would soon be put on tour, with proceeds going to the construction of the Washington Monument.
Even his most obvious lies were impossible for editors to resist. He scattered like breadcrumbs tales of remarkable, nonexistent caves, including a nationally-reported 23-mile underground world outside of what is now Park City, Kentucky. His first-hand account described mummies, blind sharks, and the installation of a full-sized steamboat on the cavern’s broad, deep river. Journalists didn’t blink when, travelling through Ohio, he reported the discovery of an unlikely lode of gold in the most remote sections of Kentucky coal country. (Hundreds of would-be miners headed for the hills in search of their fortune.) His news of a giant meteor striking Brown County, Texas, inspired the curious from around the world to telegraph the bewildered local postmaster in search of details.
Serious journalists and scientists didn’t find Mulhatten charming. They simply could not believe they had to spend time explaining that, no, there were no mermaids in Montana and no bird-eating trees in Mexico. Scientific American published an exasperated denunciation of his claim that the Masons had constructed a giant underground pyramid for their secret rituals.
Eventually, it all collapsed of its own ridiculousness. Even the most isolated one-sheet local could no longer tolerate Mulhatten’s increasingly wild stories, including one describing five skeletons driving a carriage across the Great Plains and another about men from Mars coming to Earth to study the manufacture of safety pins.
Suddenly irrelevant, Mulhatten sought redemption in ways familiar to anyone who’s watched a modern media phenomenon crumble. He claimed it had all been a harmless joke, blamed it on childhood trauma, and entered an asylum for the treatment of alcoholism — the 19th Century equivalent of checking into celebrity rehab.
“I cannot remember the first lie I ever told,” he lamented in his inevitable tell-all memoir. “Although my life has been at least as merry as that of the average member of my profession, it has been by no means an easy one. Care and years have left their marks, and I feel that for me the sands are almost run.”
He was found, soon after, dead-drunk in the rain in Jeffersonville, Indiana. A journalist who saw him later in Texas told the world he was dying for real this time, and published an elegiac poem to his memory. He was reported to have stolen two cows in Cincinnati, and a where-is-he-now feature in the Chicago Tribune found him in a San Francisco jail, doing time for the theft of a coat. Each new report dripped with sadness over the fall of someone who had generated so much amazement.
“He has no good stories to tell now,” the Tribune article said. “He is not merry; he cannot rattle off a good song…Now he wags his tousled head and tries to remember his own name.”
He died in Kelvin, Arkansas, in 1914. “Mulhatten” as a word for fake news disappeared soon after; no modern dictionary lists what had once been a common term.
That’s too bad, because we live in a world of mulhattens. Ours are the product of thousands of Internet trolls who, for their own entertainment, weave fantastic yarns about the Post Office’s plan to charge for email or the remarkable discovery that you can recharge your smartphone in a microwave.
Those lies are important to us. They give us things that are understandable but nonetheless marvelous. A machine that converts water to wine is as harmless a conversational subject as the weather, but far more interesting. The breathless report that a leading tech manufacturer is about to release a “smart wig” computer can give both teller and told enough of a charge to make it through an otherwise mundane afternoon in the cubicles.
Eventually, the lies we enjoy today will seem as ridiculous as Mulhatten’s. By then, they’ll have been replaced by new lies — new mulhattens. It’s going to take a lot of work, however, to surpass what was surely Mulhatten’s masterpiece: the widely distributed news that a well-digging Iowa farmer had struck a thick underground vein of delicious, naturally occurring cheddar cheese.
We’ll see if that can ever be outdone. I’ve got my doubts.