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Joseph Mulhattan

Gold Galore or Grand Lie?

In 1894, newspapers throughout Arizona proclaimed that a gold discovery in central Arizona was “the ideal of ideals for bona fide mining beyond all question” and “the gold here is in great abundance beyond all question…” In October 1894, the Arizona Weekly Citizen stated that the Ripsey Mine “… is now known, from careful tests and assays, to be one of the largest and richest gold propositions in the United States.”

This rich strike was near Kearny in what was called The Ripsey Mining District. The newspaper articles stated that the ore was, “…rich enough to chop out with axes…” with ledges of ore five feet wide with the big belt of mineral is about five miles square.

One could only imagine what excitement stories like this held for settlers and prospectors in a territory that hadn’t yet become a state. Articles like this ran sporadically in Arizona newspapers from 1894 until 1912.  It’s too bad that they weren’t true. But, as in today, it can be hard to distinguish truth from fiction, especially coming on the heals of the actual gold booms near Stanton, Arizona, in 1863, which came to be known as Rich Hill.

The stories of huge gold strikes near Ripsey came from the imaginative mind of Joseph Mulhattan (sometimes called Joe Mulhatton or Col. Joe Mulhattan), who was known “…all over the world…” as a teller of tall tales and was thought to be a present day (late 1800s) Baron Munchausen. According to the Arizona Daily Silver Belt, he “was the founder of the most enterprising school of nature faking, a promoter of falsehood without a peer, the biggest, ablest liar in the territory of Arizona.”  Mulhattan could spin a tale. “In his way Mulhatton was a remarkable man, and when in good fettle, he could lie directly, obliquely, and artistically without taking extra nourishment. So gorgeous, so eloquent and, withal, so plausible were his stories that Grimm, Andersen and Munchausen seemed as babes in swaddling clothes, who had never learned to list superlatives.”

Joe Mulhattan was probably born in 1853 (a few sources declare 1845) in a small town near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s reported that it was in high school that Mulhattan concocted his first big hoax by telling stories of fake stagecoach robberies. The rumors spread and reporters from Pittsburg were convinced there were in the middle of a crime wave. Although it didn’t take long for them to find out they were duped, Mulhattan seemed to be hooked on spinning tall tales.

After high school, Mulhatton moved to Kentucky and became a highly successful traveling salesman, also known as a drummer in those times. He worked for a few different companies including the Kentucky Jeans Company, W.B. Belknap & Co., Hart and Company, and Rankins-Snyder Hardware. This was a perfect set up for the would be “Orange Blossom” of liars. He not only seemed to be good at selling his wares, but also his stories. First to anyone who would listen, then to newspapers. As he traveled along, so did his stories. It did much to convince naysayers if his story spread to a city and was known before he traveled there. He was just corroborating it.

He would submit stories to newspapers using his real name, then later he would use alias like H. N. Adams when newspaper editors began determining his stories were made up. It’s unclear as to whether many of the editors were taken in by Mulhattan’s lies or thought they made good stories (and sold papers) and published them without verification. It’s also believed that latter in his life, newspapers would publish stories as if they were written by Mulhattan, but were penned by others posing as him.

Mulhattan’s stories range from just strange to outright weird.

While working as a hardware drummer, he proclaimed that he was the agent of a great furrier of New York, and that house cats were in great demand. Top dollar would be paid for any cats that would be delivered to Leitchfield, Kentucky on a certain day. “On the day mentioned it seemed as if every farmer in Grayson county had secured all the cats in his neighborhood, had boxed them, and hauled them to town, for Leitchfield was full of wagons loaded with cats.” Then, “Of course Mulhatton was not there, and the farmers, becoming "sore," turned all the cats loose on the town, and Leitchfield was so overrun with cats that a shotgun quarantine was put in operation until all of them were exterminated. However, some merchant of Leitchfield, who knew that Mulhatton worked for a local hardware company, boxed up a big crate of cats and shipped them to the firm. No one in the firm knew what the box contained until it was opened in the store. The building was at once filled with scared cats which gave the proprietors much trouble before they were disposed of.”

Many of Mullhattan’s stories included animals. In 1887 he telegraphed a story to the Kentucky newspaper stating that a local farmer, J.B. Parkes, had imported monkeys to be used to pick the hemp fields of the south. The New York Times took up the story regarding the “scab” monkeys and union and labor officials became fearful of the competition of free monkey labor. Parkes, who was a real farmer, soon receivied hate mail, which was much to his surprise since he didn’t own any monkey, nor did he grow hemp.

He also told stories of kangaroos being used to herd sheep and cattle. “A western sheep raiser, A. M. Green, near Flagstaff, Arizona, brought a dozen kangaroos from Australia and had taught them to herd his flocks. The remarkable agility of the kangaroo enabled it to do the work of three or four herders and Green had sent for a ship load of them to be used in the sheep country, and taught to herd cattle well. The thousands of cowboys and sheep herders in the west were up in arms at the suggestion of the scheme to drive them out of business. The remarkable predilection of the public to accept the wildest tales it could get was illustrated when a New York World man, in the face of the knowledge that kangaroos will not live in captivity, wrote at length upon the injustice to the time honored profession of herders, by introducing animal opposition to them.”

One of Mulhattan’s earliest pranks was that the body of President George Washington had petrified and would be put on display in Philadelphia. Articles authored by Mulhattan stated that when workers opened Washington’s tomb for repairs, they found Washington’s “…features perfectly natural, with the exception of eyes and ears, no trace of which can be seen. The body is of a dark leathery color, and may be said to be soft sandstone, which would likely break should an attempt be made to remove it from the sarcophagus.” This created a huge uproar in the nation until the hoax was brought to light in 1877 in the New York Herald.

Mulhattan not only duped the general public, but also scientists and celebrities. Two stories seemed to draw the attention of showman and circus promoter P.T. Barnum. One was of a story of two petrified bodies, “… a white man and an Indian who faced each other in deadly combat some forty years ago at a point between Bastrop and Giddings both were slain but the bodies were never discovered until a few weeks ago.” The other story was of a discovery of a huge crystal cave near Glasgow Junction. The cave was some 25 miles long, with large rivers of crystal clear water flowing through it. The cave had great amounts of precious mineral wealth including gold and diamonds. Inside Mulhattan told of mummified remained he’d discovered that were Indian or Egyptian in nature. There were also some bones of strange animals inside the caves. Both of these stories reportedly drew the attention of Barnum and he sent agents to investigate.

But the best know fib for the “Prince of Lies” was of the giant meteor that struck the earth. Some accounts have it hitting near William’s Ranch in Texas, while others near Flagstaff, Arizona. Although the location seems inconsistent, the story does not. A mammoth meteor, a few hundred feet long hit a ranch, killing the ranchers, some Mexican workers and their sheep. It buried itself 200 feet in the ground, but still rose almost 100 feet in the air. Accounts told of strange and new minerals the meteor contained. Scientists from all over the world, including France and Harvard came out west to investigate the wonder. “…a party of scientists of Harvard University who knew many thing that the reporter had the most rudimentary knowledge of, or none at all, did not know of the proximity of Mr. Mulhatton to the place of fiery visitation, made a trip to Arizona in a special car to study that aerolite at close range, believing that by the time they should arrive it would have sufficiently cooled to permit approach and even familiarity. No report of this aerolite was ever made to any scientific body. The only record having the slightest bearing ever made on the subject is no doubt to be found in the archives of the railroad company from which the scientists chartered the car.” 

One of the strangest things that happened to Mulhattan was not a hoax. In 1884 the Drummers National Convention nominated Mulhattan for President of the United States. Although it is widely believed that this was done tongue-in-cheek, Mulhattan campaigned for a while as if it were real. Needless to say, he did not win. Though, it is humorous to think about the Prince of Liars being elected as President to the United States. Some people may say that in last 20-30 years, this may have come true numerous times.

Mulhattan moved to Arizona where he prospected in the Kearny area for many years. It was only a matter of time for tall tales to begin surfacing regarding mines in the area Mulhattan was prospecting. It is said that he did all of this lying just for fun and never prospering from it, but this is unclear. It is known that a few “investors” from Kentucky came to Arizona to see the rich strikes. “The big vein cuts the mountain almost in twain and shows up at interval for miles on both sides of it, while several lateral veins shoot out in every direction. The whole country, for miles around, abounds in ledges of gold, silver and copper. It is a perfect ideal mining region for those who wish to open up mining properties, as the ledges are easily defined and THE PRECIOCS METALS ARE IN THEM.” It is not known if the Kentuckian’s invested any money in the venture, but only that they were not happy when they returned to Kentucky.

Although Mulhattan supported prohibition, he was prone to drinking. During this period he was arrested for stealing money from a drunken man while in Pittsburg. In the late 1880s, his drinking had become a problem and he was put into a Phoenix (some say Chicago) insane asylum. For a while, Mulhattan denied he had a drinking issue and claimed his mental problems were caused from a head injury when he fell off a street car in New Orleans. He was discharged from the asylum (detoxed) and went back to prospecting. But his life continued to spiral down. He started drinking again and was put into jail for stealing an overcoat in San Francisco.

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on January 20, 1882 that Mulhattan competed in a lying contest in Louisville, Kentucky.  “… the long-expected lying tournament between the two professional, Col. Joseph Mulhattan and Maj. P. Brizendine, came off at the Alexander Hotel.” Although it was expected that Mulhattan would win the contest easily, Brizendine pulled off the unexpected victory. Brizendine told a whopper of a lie about a man who, among many other things, “… was elected to Congress without spending a cent of money, without shaking hands with a single man whom he would have been ashamed to recognize afterward. In Congress he never promised his vote to any member in consideration of that member’s promising to vote with him at some time. He never told the Congressional Printer to sprinkle his speech with applause, unless he ahd really spoken it and been applauded.”  But Mullhattan, “In spite of his most strenuous exertions, the judges refused him the prize. Never, said they, was such a lie as that Brizendien’s told before. Never was there so fantastic a romance. The idea, in the first place, of … an Ohio Congressman incorruptible. The whole thing was so extravagant that the assembly of prevaricators went wild.”

Even with the loss, Mullhattan became known as the world’s biggest liar. His made up stories, as well as stories about Mulhattan himself, circulated in the press. Then came stories about his death. Reports began to hit the newspapers in the early 1900s. It’s unclear on who started these, though it may have been Mulhattan himself in an attempt to stop creditors from pursuing him. The Cambrian, a monthly magazine, proposed this epitaph for him in 1901:

Here lies what's left of liar Joe,
A truly gifted liar,
Who could outlie the liar below
In realms of flame fire.
He lied in life, in death he lies,
And if, his lies forgiven,
He made a landing in the skies,
He plays the lyre in heaven.

Mulhattan wasn’t ready to go just yet. He lived in Arizona for a number of years, prospecting near Kelvin as a semi-hermit. Every once in a while, he would surface. In 1902, he came to the town of Bisbee, Arizona, and gave the Bisbee Daily Review an interview. The Arizona Republican reported in 1910 that he surfaced in Phoenix after a six year absence and that he was sorry for the meteor story and all the fuss it caused.

Then, in 1913 at the age of 60, the Liar of Liars death came quickly. “The waters of the Gila river brought to a close Friday afternoon the career of Joe Mulhatton, commonly regarded as the biggest liar in the world. Mulhatton, who has been mining a number of years in the vicinity of Kelvin, started to cross the Gila at that place late in the afternoon. The stream was swollen and Mulhatton was swept off his feet. Several persons on the ground saw him drown, powerless to give aid. His body was recovered a short distance below and buried a few hours later.”

Or did he? His life was a roller coaster road of ups and downs. He was one of the most successful traveling salesman in his time and he loved to tell a good tale. Known as one of the best liars in the world, some people still wonder if the story of the riches he found in the Ripsey District had some truth to it. Maybe there’s a rich vein of gold just waiting to be found out there? What if Mulhattan didn’t die in the Gila River. Did the Prince of Liars got the best of everyone in the end? It is not implausible that Mulhattan wrote his own obituary and lived the rest of his life in self imposed obscurity, hoarding the gold he’d found near Ripsey. And it’s still out there…


Arizona Republican, March 22, 1901
Arizona Republican, August 3, 1908
Arizona Republican, December 14, 1910
Arizona Sentinel, January 2, 1901
Arizona Weekly Citizen, October 6, 1894
Arizona Weekly Citizen, November 7, 1896
Bisbee Review, December 14, 1913
Daily Arizona, March 4, 1909
Fort Worth Daily, November 27, 1883
Helena Independent, October 13, 1889
Mohove Miner, October 6, 1894

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