Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Practical Jokes and Mischief, Pranksters
Here’s the second installment of LiteratEye, a new series, only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.
LiteratEye #2: Author Keven McQueen Recalls A Master Prankster of Yesteryear
By W.J. Elvin III
February 20, 2009
It is quite possible that the name “Joseph Mulhattan” does not set bells ringing and lights flashing in the minds of modern readers, even if those readers seriously appreciate pranks and hoaxes. Keven McQueen may correct that regrettable state of affairs one day, when he finalizes his book on one of the master pranksters in journalism history.
Mulhattan’s bizarre news articles – perhaps hundreds – were often swallowed whole by the press and public of his era. “Mulhattan convinced our ancestors that a lost race of Aztecs had lived in Kentucky, that a meteor had demolished a sizable portion of Texas, that trained monkeys were a threat to American labor and that two moons orbited the earth. The last two hoaxes even fooled some scientists,” McQueen told me, adding: “Some of his tall tales survive today in the form of what we now call urban legends.”
Mulhattan was a very successful traveling salesman by trade but it was his sensational “news” that secured a position in the national spotlight. According to McQueen, Mulhattan was as well known in his day as Mark Twain or Jules Verne. He convinced many readers that the bodies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were to be exhumed and put on display, viewable for a fee, in celebration of the Centennial in 1876. A story attributed to him about David Lang, a Kentuckian who disappeared in thin air before witnesses, still appears today as a “strange but true” report. His tale of trained monkeys replacing farm laborers provoked angry editorials and brought hate mail to the innocent farmer whom Mulhattan mischievously credited with the innovation.
I’m always adding to my collection of books on literary deception, so having seen a mention of Mulhattan I went looking for a book about him. That search led to McQueen, an instructor in the Department of English and Theatre at Eastern Kentucky University and the author of seven popular books on Kentucky history. Although his full-length manuscript has not yet been published, he included a chapter on Mulhattan in “Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics,” published several years ago by McClanahan Publishing House.
What got McQueen started on the project? “I had wanted to write a book only about Jim Porter, the Louisville giant, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find enough material to make an entire book,” he told me. Then it occurred to him to write a chapter on several odd characters from Kentucky history.
The author said he “came across some of the best stories completely by accident, such as the story of Live-Forever Jones, an antebellum Louisville lunatic who thought he was immortal.” And does he have a favorite among those he’s discovered? “I can’t help feeling a particular fondness for Reuben Field, a mathematical idiot savant from Bath County, whom I profiled in my book ‘More Offbeat Kentuckians.’ He was rude, he was crude, he was a glutton, he wasn’t very bright—yet he could accurately do complex mathematical calculations within seconds.”
Having seen only one of McQueen’s books I wondered if some of my own favorite offbeat Kentuckians like Hunter Thompson or Colonel Sanders made it into his “hall of fame.” He said he’d considered including those two and some other “moderns,” but “I finally decided not to on the grounds that I’d rather write about people from the distant past than recent characters.”
As for Mulhattan, he was last heard of in jail, where a reporter discovered him, ragged, drunk and in poor health. That doesn’t sound like the sort of story anyone would purposely concoct, so we must assume that it was, unfortunately, true.
Mulhattan image: Museum of Hoaxes