Nevada’s upcoming 150th birthday and this week’s National Newspaper Week make for a good opportunity to remind residents of one of this state’s seldom-celebrated contributions to journalism:
The hoax. The lie. Tall tales.
Mark Twain, of course, is our best-known example of a myth maker. But he’s not alone in the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame among Silver State journalists who didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
The pinnacle, as far as newspapers go, would be the Wabuska Mangler.
You may have passed through Wabuska on your way from Weeks to Weed Heights without realizing this tiny hamlet once had a feisty newspaper called the Mangler.
Well, actually, it didn’t.
The Wabuska Mangler was entirely made up by Sam Davis — editor of The Morning Appeal in Carson City from 1879 to 1898 — as a way to get outrageous opinions into the Appeal by attributing them to somebody else.
The Mangler was a “wicked little sheet,” Davis wrote, and its editor “a disgrace to journalism.”
One of Davis’s more far-reaching hoaxes was of a horse cart invented by a local blacksmith. It featured a belly-band 4 feet wide beneath the horse, which enabled the driver to turn a crank and raise the horse off the ground. That way, at the top of a hill, both cart and horse could coast to the bottom.
The story, fed by follow-ups in the Appeal including an illustration, spread around the country until fellow editors called his bluff.
“Of all the liars on the face of the earth,” wrote a St. Louis journalist, “we believe the Nevada newspaper liar is the most prodigious outside of Missouri.”
Jake Highton, who devotes a chapter to hoaxes in his history of Nevada journalism, recounts many more fanciful stories from the pages of 19th-century newspapers.
There were holes in the bottom of Lake Tahoe, alligators in the Sutro Tunnel and cattle with gold teeth. When Alf Doten reported in the Territorial Enterprise that a bear and three cubs were held captive in a house behind Piper’s saloon, more than 500 people showed up to see them. Or so he said.
Dan De Quille — who, like Twain, even made up his own name — often turned to science and engineering for his imaginary stories.
One described a suit of “solar armor” that could protect a man from the heat of Nevada’s deserts.
Unfortunately, its inventor was found “dead and frozen stiff. His beard was covered with frost and — though the noon day sun poured down its fiercest rays — an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.”
Not all the falsities were funny, and Twain refined his wild writing to a level of biting satire on the hypocrisy of the wealthy and powerful. Nor did those early newspapermen ignore the real news.
Davis, for example, was briefly jailed in 1892 for refusing to reveal his sources for a series of stories about kickbacks to county officials.
And when a Nevada court decided to meet in secret to investigate embezzlement of $77,000 from the Carson mint, Davis reported everything that went on behind closed doors — then railed at officials for trying to hide the public’s business.
The people, he wrote, have “a right to be present at the investigation and know how it is being conducted.”
That was no joke — then or now.
Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association. National Newspaper Week runs through Saturday.