Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Perpetrators of Nevada's Best Hoaxes - Part 2

Dan De Quille

As noted in part one, Nevada has had the dubious distinction of being the subject of a number of misguided scientific claims. There also have been hoaxes of a more deliberate kind, most concocted by 19th century Nevada newsmen.

One of the most famous tall tales was concocted by legendary Virginia City journalist William Wright, who worked at the Territorial Enterprise and wrote under the name, Dan De Quille.

In 1867, De Quille wrote of meeting a man from the Pahranagat area, located about two hours north of Las Vegas, who showed him a half dozen pebbles that were almost perfectly round. The man said that the rocks were “rolling stones,” which when spread out would gravitate together “like a bunch of eggs in a nest.”

De Quille described how the man would set the stones on a floor or table in a circle and the rocks would begin moving toward each other. He speculated that the stones probably rolled together because they were made of loadstone or magnetic iron ore.

The story was copied by newspapers all over the world and generated a flood of letters from people curious about the strange rolling stones. De Quille reported that P.T. Barnum wrote to offer $10,000 if the rocks could be coaxed into performing under a circus tent.

In 1879, De Quille finally tired of the story and wrote a short article in the Territorial Enterprise that exposed his duplicity. Bizarrely, many refused to believe the retraction.

De Quille crafted other, less famous hoaxes during his many years as a Comstock reporter as did one of his Territorial Enterprise co-workers, Samuel Clemens, who is more widely known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain.

One of Twain’s best-known hoaxes was the story of the petrified man. Angry with a Humboldt County coroner for some slight, he wrote a story about the coroner finding a petrified man who seemed at least 300 hundred years old.

He wrote that rather than leaving the man in peace, the coroner decided to summon a jury and conduct an inquest into the cause of death—even though the man was three centuries old.

The story was clearly satire, written with plenty of absurdities, yet many believed it and it was reprinted in papers throughout the world. Twain later wrote that he gained much secret pleasure in the fact that the coroner was inundated with mail from folks asking about the famed petrified man.

A hoax not created by a newsman but conceived by a commercial enterprise was the legend of the Maiden’s Grave. Promotional materials distributed by the Central Pacific Railroad told of a large cross on a hillside near Beowawe that commemorated Lucinda Duncan.

The story said that she was a courageous, young Missouri woman who grew sick and died while crossing Nevada by wagon in the mid-1860s.

Other evidence, including emigrant diaries, indicates that Lucinda Duncan was probably a 70-year-old grandmother who died in 1863 of a heart attack while traveling to California.

The big white cross is still there and people continue to repeat the much sexier story of the young maiden who died while traveling across the harsh Nevada landscape.

At the end of the classic western film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaper editor tells a young reporter that when the legend becomes fact—print the legend.

Ain’t that the truth.

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