Joe Mulhattan: America's Greatest Hoaxer

Joe Mulhattan. Today, the name probably doesn't ring many bells, but a century ago Joe Mulhattan was famous throughout America as the nation's greatest liar-- a title he cherished until the day he died. Yes, when it came to telling tall tales and pulling wool over the eyes of the public, no one could hold a candle to Joe Mulhattan. He could spin yarn better than an Amish grandma, and once convinced newspapers across the country that he discovered a mermaid living inside a Montana cave. One newspaper reporter of the era even went so far to write that "Mr. Mulhattan never told a lie that was not worthy of the highest talents". Old Joe Mulhattan. He was a true American original. And this is his story.

Mulhattan was born near Pittsburgh in 1853, the only child of a Presbyterian minister. A bright student, he graduated from high school with honors. He passed up college to take a job as a traveling salesman for a hardware company and, by all accounts, was very successful in that field. As a young man, he got his first taste of fame by spreading a false rumor about a stagecoach robbery. This rumor caught the attention of Pittsburgh reporters and got Joe's name into print. He got such a thrill out of it that he made up his mind that he wanted to keep his name in the papers for the rest of his  life, and he accomplished this feat through an increasingly complex and elaborate series of hoaxes.

Mulhattan's hoaxes displayed remarkable creativity. In 1877 he had newspapers reporting that the body of George Washington was discovered to be petrified, and that it would be put on public display. The following year he moved to Kentucky and had the locals convinced that he had discovered an enormous cave with a magnificent subterranean river flowing through it, complete with icebergs and blind sharks. According to Joe Mulhattan, a savvy businessman was preparing to build a steamboat and offer guided tours. Then there was the time he convinced newspapers to publish a story about a little girl who fastened a large quantity of balloons to herself and floated away into the stratosphere. Or the time he had the entire nation convinced that an gigantic meteor had fallen in Texas.

Whenever anyone accused him of telling a lie, Joe Mulhattan would become enraged. He would set the record straight by stating that he never told a lie in his life-- he preferred to write them down instead. He likened himself to Jules Verne, and described his hoaxery as "short newspaper novels".

Like Jules Verne, Mulhattan was captivated by the idea of underground civilizations, and caves often played a leading role in some of his best hoaxes, such as the Montana Mermaid. He also reported discovering a great underground river in Alabama.

The Montana Mermaid

Mulhattan was in Broadwater, Montana in 1892 when he struck up the idea for the Montana Mermaid. The Helena Independent ran with Joe's story, in which he described the cave and its scaly inhabitants in great detail:

"We discovered in a subterranean lake a race of human beings with scales and tails. They are amphibious and subsist on eyeless fish, bats and mushrooms, which abound in great profusion in this wonderful cavern... Well known and responsible citizens of Helena who were with me can vouch for the veracity of these statements... We succeeded in capturing one of the females. She is a genuine mermaid, beyond all question. About fifty others that were playing with her on the banks of the subterranean lake plunged into its deep waters as the exploring party approached them... She is a very beautiful creature with pearly teeth. Her hair is raven black and falls in great profusion and luxuriousness about four feet down her back. She is a fine specimen physically, stands about five feet ten inches and weights one hundred and seventy pounds."

He went on to state that a doctor who was in the party captured a male, and was building a large glass tank so that he could display the mer-man in the rotunda of the Helena Hotel. The story even came with a signed affidavit, which proclaimed:

To Whom It May Concern: Before me, a notary public, in and for the county of Lewis and Clark, state of Montana, appeared Dr. C.K. Cole, Attorney General Haskell, Judge Armitage and Jerome Norris, who hereby testifies on oath that a race of amphibious human beings, with scales and tails, was discovered in a subterranean lake near the Broadwater hotel, Feb. 26, 1892. 

The affidavit was signed James Sanders, Sr., Notary Public, Helena, Montana. The newspaper announced that it would follow up on the story, and later reported that none of Mulhattan's "witnesses" could be located.

Joe Mulhattan may have been a practical joker, but he also had a heart of gold. In 1884 he organized the Kentucky Humane Society, and he also devoted a great deal of his time and energy to other charitable causes. He was a vocal supporter of Prohibition; yet he struggled with his own addiction to alcohol, which eventually led to his hospitalization in 1891. But Mulhattan believed that his greatest legacy was his contribution to journalism. In 1886, he told the Hillsboro (Ohio) News-Herald:

"People haven't time to read books nowadays, yet they must be entertained, and they should get their amusement from the newspapers. So I write short novels of the Jules Verne order and they are read and talked about everywhere. I never do any harm by my stories, and I write for the amusement of myself and others. Sometimes I am paid for my writing, but do not write for pay."

The Texas Meteor and the Lake of Hair Dye

Mulhattan is best remembered for the Texas Meteor hoax of 1883. A great meteor had fallen, so the reports claimed, crushing houses, people and cattle. It struck with such force that it was embedded 200 feet into the earth and still projected for 70 feet above the surface. The giant meteor was red hot and steamed with sulphurous gases. This story first appeared in the Ft. Worth Gazette, and an agent with the Associated Press heard about the meteor in Dallas. From Dallas, the story was wired all over the United States and Europe. The Ft. Worth Gazette received telegrams from all over the world asking about the meteor, even months after the Gazette admitted the whole thing had been a hoax.

Mulhattan's tall tales ranged from the macabre to the inane. After the Texas meteor came the story, also from Texas, about a carriage found on the lonesome plains, containing five human skeletons. In the summer of 1888, he convinced the Virginia City Enterprise to publish a story declaring that Mono Lake contained the world's greatest natural deposit of hair dye. "All who bathe in the waters of that lake become blondes, and if the bathing is persisted in for and length of time they get red-headed," claimed the story. He also claimed to have identified the long lost Star of Bethlehem and claimed to know a secret formula for making flexible glass.

The Bird-Eating Trees of Chihuahua

Mulhattan worked his magic not only in America, but also in Mexico. In April of 1889 he prepared a dispatch from Chihuahua telling of a tree that devoured birds. The narrator claimed to be a botanist who traveled the world in search of exotic species, and in Mexico encountered a tree that looked like a weeping willow: "...but the long, drooping, whip-like limbs are of a dark and apparently a slimy appearance and seem possessed of a horrible life-like power of coiling and uncoiling... they twined and twisted like snakes about the bird, which began to scream, and drew it down in their fearful embrace until I lost sight of it." The tree's existence was vouched for by Professor Worderhaupt of the University of Heidelburg, who labeled it the arbor diaboli.

The End of Liar Joe

During the last decade of his life, Mulhattan fought a losing battle with alcoholism. In 1904 he was arrested in California for stealing a coat, and had several run ins with the law for public drunkedness. Those he encountered mistook him for a tramp, with a bloated red nose and dirty rags for clothing. They would have been surprised to learn that, just a few years before, Joe Mulhattan had been a handsome and suave salesman, one of the best commercial travelers around, and one of the wealthiest businessmen in Kentucky.

Mulhattan died in Kelvin, Arkansas in 1914 but his demise generated little publicity. Perhaps the few remaining friends who knew him thought his death was just one more hoax in a seemingly endless string of practical jokes. One interesting fact about Mulhattan is that, other than a few dollars he was given by the occasional newspaper editor, he never profited one dime from his hoaxes. Unlike the P.T. Barnums and Tom Normans of the world, Mulhattan never sought financial rewards for his trickery; he merely wanted to entertain the public and, in so doing, keep himself entertained. Old Joe Mulhattan, quite simply, did it just for kicks.