Joe Mulhatton: The Appalachian Baron Munchausen

Old newspaper drawing of Joe Mulhatton in his younger years.

Joseph “Joe” Mulhatton (1848-1913) was an icon of the Appalachians at one time who slipped through the fingers of memory. Despite a surge of global notoriety during the late Nineteenth Century, only a few recall him today. The surname “Mulhatton” went on to become a synonym for “liar.”

Mulhatton’s early origins remain mysterious. Some newspapers described Mulhatton (or Malhatton) as a native of Louisville, Kentucky. Other publications stated he was a native of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, who migrated to Louisville during his youth. Some sources state he came from a well-established Southern family. Regardless of his beginnings, he claimed to be an expert drummer. Early in his career, he routinely fed impoverished newsboys, who fondly recalled him long after he left Kentucky. Many starving children peddled papers by day, but enjoyed a free dinner from the “Belkin’s Man” that evening.

His initial fame began with the publication of his story on the “Brown County Meteor” around 1883. Mulhatton admitted he had a fertile childhood imagination and tried to send several thrilling stories to Pittsburg newspapers. He didn’t have confidence in his writing at that point and went so far as to call most of his early works “crude.”

Mulhatton eventually earned the dubious title of the, “World’s Greatest Liar.” He had many seemingly derogatory monikers, but took pride in them all. He was also called the, “Master of Mendacity,” “the Modern Munchausen,” “the Contemporary Annias,” “the Famous Kentucky Liar,” “the Prince of Liars,” “the Liar Laureate,” “the King of Newspaper Fiction,” “the Colossal Liar,” and “the most unmitigated prevaricator.” He amused everyone in 1887 when he said he’d “sworn off lying for good.” The lofty New Year’s Resolution was also a “Mulhatton.”

Today, he would be an epic storyteller, someone who found magic within the mundane and created entire worlds around it. He “witnessed” more national disasters, more town cave-ins, more meteor tragedies, and more natural wonders than perhaps any other person on earth. He would better be described as the Appalachian Baron Munchausen.

Modern media often uses a different sort of yellow journalism, although the practice has existed for centuries. We are accustomed to sensational twists, warps, and embellishments to suit an ulterior purpose or agenda, usually at the expense of other people. In Mulhatton’s era, readers were far more stringent with their local newspapers. If reporters dared to lie outright, angry readers often stormed the newspaper offices or called for their firing. Mulhatton lied to entertain with childlike tales of danger and adventure.

His friends and family were shocked to see him healthy and unharmed in 1883. His tale of swashbuckling adventure had the public rapt with speculation. He told of an encounter with a group of bloodthirsty kidnappers, who swore to kill him if he didn’t admit he was the author of the “Big Clifty” article. They waylaid him and abducted him. He awoke tied at the wrists and ankles. The group’s ringleader returned to town after his capture, but left three hostile outlaws to guard Mulhatton. The men loosened the ropes on his feet so he could walk.

The three men marched their captive towards the river. Little did they know that Mulhatton was a knotting expert, because he’d traveled for sometime with the Davenport Brothers. Mulhatton said he soon had the ropes loosened enough to remove, but pretended he was bound to bide time.

Note: The Davenport Brothers were two New York illusionists and escape artists in the Nineteenth Century.

They reached their river skiff and all boarded. Mulhatton remained silent until halfway across the river. He unleashed a scream and the kidnappers jump up with their pistols drawn. Mulhatton rocked the boat and the standing bandits fell in the river. The villains still clung to the boat, so he grabbed an oar and hit them across the head with it. Both brained men left a trail of blood in the water that stretched for 2 miles.


The Baron Comes to Life

Mulhatton didn’t depend upon his stories for a living when he first achieved notoriety. He was one of the most successful traveling hardware salesmen in the southeast. His annual salary was $15,000 and he had an expense account to match. Adjusted for inflation, Mulhatton’s salary today would be around $469,000.00 per year. The companies he worked with in Louisville were Belknap & Co., and Hart & Co.

Mulhatton noticed when he told his tall tales, people listened. Their mouths dropped and they gawked at him in wonder. His nationwide fame came during the early 1880s, in the form of a simple newspaper article. Bill Eades, a Louisville newspaper editor and friend, asked Mulhatton for a story. Mulhatton reluctantly agreed, but said he was out of ideas. Suddenly, a shooting star crossed the sky and the piece it inspired brought Mulhatton instant fame.

He created story after story and sent them to professionals in a variety of fields across the nation. The one linking factor was that Mulhatton’s stories were indeed stories. They were larger than life. He only had one known pseudonym. He occasionally used the name “Orange Blossom.” He was a Kentucky presidential candidate in 1884, but politicians are never supposed to admit their lies and Mulhatton admitted his. The public had little faith in an honest liar.


The Lies Continued

Mulhatton declared he’d sworn off lying in 1887, but not before a Louisville man was fined $5 for clubbing his horse over the head, according to Mulhatton. Newspapers frequently chided Mulhatton in their own sarcastic manner. In 1889, the Evening Bulletin in Maysville, Kentucky, reported Fred Prudell, an elderly local, had gone missing the week before at a camp meeting (church service) in Parks Hill. The reporter believed Prudell had fallen into Mulhatton’s infamous cave and was unable to find the exit.

The 1890s were times of personal and professional change for Mulhatton. It was also a time of change in the media, as many Mulhatton imposters carried out their own unbelievable tales. Some were merely attributed to Mulhatton, but they entertain even after a century.


The Baron Grows Ill

Mulhatton was released from a Chicago hospital in 1891, but no details exist on his ailment. His friends told the papers Mulhatton simply needed rest. He fell from a New Orleans streetcar in January of that year and sustained a concussion. The injury was believed to cause his insanity. Many believed the fall left a clot on his brain, which became a debilitating wound. Rumors elsewhere said he was really in a detention hospital for the insane.

He’d been in Chicago just four days when an acquaintance found him wandering the street in a demented state. He took the sick man back to his hotel room. Mulhatton drew a gun and tried to shoot him. The authorities quickly whisked him away. He was known to be wealthy, so his friends believed he would be taken to a private hospital. Mulhatton returned to his nomadic life after his release.

In 1896, a man who claimed to be a close relative of Mulhatton was in a Cincinnati Police Court. He was tried for stealing two cows. He claimed he couldn’t help himself because he was overcome with a desire for steak.


The Baron’s Decline

Fame came with a severe price for Mulhatton. He struggled with alcoholism for decades. He eventually lost his job and much public respect due to his struggles with the bottle, or the “whiskey imp.” Conflicting reports eventually emerged as to how his head injury happened. Some accounts stated a horse kicked him in the head, others that he fell from a car in New Orleans, but whatever his ailments were, they plagued him the rest of his life.

The man who entertained the globe was soon destitute. He had no relatives aside from his sister, who cared for him on occasion. Neither Mulhatton nor his sister ever had children. He disappeared from all records for nearly a decade. He traveled during this time and spent a number of years in Arizona. Mulhatton developed an avid interest in mining.

In 1900, Mulhatton was committed to the Territorial Asylum in Phoenix, Arizona. When he was first admitted, newspapers across the nation called him a “hopeless maniac with little chance of recovery.” He received thousands of dollars from an alleged mining deal and the sudden prosperity was believed to be the cause of his mania. Deal or no deal, no one ever found the money he was supposed to have made.

During his confinement, Mulhatton became convinced he’d somehow killed a man. He believed a horde of brutal avengers quickly approached. This was a difficult time for him. He grew so paranoid that hospital staff claimed he was helpless. He had lived in Kelvin, Arizona, for three years. Altogether, he’d lived in the state of Arizona for six years.

Further information on Mulhatton’s time in the asylum surfaced in March of 1901. The sheriff initially escorted him to the asylum, and Mulhatton kept him entertained on the journey. Mulhatton’s grand idea at that time was to construct a navigable waterway that stretched from the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. His ultimate goal was to create a seaport in Phoenix.

He was released from the asylum in March. He returned to Florence to manage his mining interests. He said he had a number of deals to close and would go to New York to finalize several. Fortunately, he said his stay in the asylum was incredibly beneficial. He declared, “I am a new man. I was in pretty bad condition when I came in; in fact, I don’t remember much about it. I feel better now than I have in years. My mining business will occupy me to such an extent that I’m not likely to do much more in the newspaper line. There’s more money in the mining business when a man gets in the right rut, and there are mighty rich things coming for the Kelvin district.”

Mulhatton returned to New Orleans on January 31, 1902. He told acquaintances he’d been mining in Arizona for 8 years. Unfortunately, he was again in the news by February 24. He’d been thrown in the “drunk tank” in Jefferson, Indiana. By October, Mulhatton returned to Bisbee, Arizona. Newspapers finally realized that, while he had his failings, he had a heart as big as an elephant and a sensitive, honorable nature.


The Baron in California

Mulhatton again got into trouble in 1904, although he genuinely doesn’t seem to be at fault. He worked as a professional mystic and phrenologist in San Francisco, California. Phrenology is the archaic practice of examining the bumps and ridges on a person’s skull to divine facts about them or their life.

The trouble started with Henry Wantz, proprietor of a shady motel/boardinghouse on Clay Street. Mulhatton hung up his jacket in the coat area of the motel lobby. He was rooming there and had been for some time. A few hours later, he retrieved it and left. Wantz noticed Mulhatton had grabbed his coat instead, but rather than confront him, Wantz immediately involved police. Authorities found Mulhatton four hours later at a “Salvationist” meeting. This was an inspirational meeting held by the Salvation Army, an organization Mulhatton was enthusiastic about.

Mulhatton was dragged away during the service. Some accounts claim he was leading it by that point. He was taken to the station, but the authorities were baffled as to what to do with him. Wantz claimed that he had a bankbook in his coat that contained $300, but no such book was found. Mulhatton eagerly exchanged the garments although he said he knew nothing of the money. It is doubtful that the money ever existed.

The judges were hopelessly conflicted. Several believed he suffered some kind of mental breakdown. The police knew very little about the case and doubted if he was even conscious of committing a crime. The more they mulled over the situation, the less likely it seemed that any crime actually occurred. When Mulhatton was arraigned, the magistrate thought he was insane. The judge turned Joe over to another court. The other court ruled him as sane, but neither judge wanted to take the case. Mulhatton was ultimately discharged.

The San Francisco Call published an interview with Mulhatton. He said, “Yes, I am Joe Mulhatton, who for years was a leader among travelers in the East. It has been ten years since I was in Louisville and I have almost forgotten about my relations with Belknap & Co. and Hart & Co. the big hardware men there. I was with Belknap and Company before I left for the west, but I lost my job—well, you know why.”

During his time as a salesman, he was noted for being dapper, polished, and well dressed. As his life progressed, his appearance also declined. By the time this interview was conducted, he’d lost the well-groomed appearance. Mulhatton was noted as being small, stout, and whiskered. He had a small red nose and overhanging eyebrows. He was an animated individual who used his hands while he talked.

Mulhatton said he’d wasted his money and became a wanderer. He’d turned to the life of a Salvationist (Salvation Army follower), a circus follower, and finally a phrenologist. He said he’d suffered from a horse kick and hadn’t recovered since.

Despite his fabrications, the majority of accounts of Mulhatton emphasize he was an honest man, good-natured, and kind. His flights of fancy were always contained to the stories and he was wholly a gentleman in every other way. A few accounts describe him as tenderhearted, although he never married or had any interest in marriage.


The Baron Returns to Arizona

Mulhatton was back in Arizona by 1905. Newspapers reported he met his brother, named John, whom he hadn’t spoken to in 8 years. It was frequently implied that Mulhatton had a brother, however throughout most of his life the only relative mentioned was his sister, Helena.

W. W. Radford fondly discussed his time in New Orleans with Mulhatton in 1906. He said they traveled via streetcar when a fire department truck sped by at an intersection. Mulhatton, for some reason, jumped from the car and chased the engine shouting, “Fire!” with each step. One of the men who worked with the fire department asked him who that fool was. Radford coolly replied, “Don’t you know who that is? That is Joe Mulhatton, the most celebrated liar in the United States.” The fireman, as well as the streetcar’s occupants, nearly fell atop one another trying to catch a glimpse of Mulhatton.


The Baron’s New Beginning

In 1908, the headlines featured statements like, “The Resurrection of Joe Mulhatton.” He’d been promoted to the level of raconteur in the papers and he’d become a prosperous miner in Pinal County, Arizona. The coverage emphasized he really didn’t die years earlier and hasn’t stopped lying. He now owned a massive copper mine, and Joe himself reported his copper vein was 5 miles long and 5 miles wide. The journalist over the article had also spoken with Helena, Joe’s sister, and she said Mulhatton could now return to Baltimore where he’d lived before. Mulhatton said his luck came from a higher power and he’d worn out 20 pairs of shoes wandering around the desert.

By 1911, Mulhatton saw such prosperity that the newspapers had titled him the, “Monte Cristo of America.”


The Baron’s Final Struggle

Sadly, like all wonderful stories, his came to an end. Mulhatton died on December 5, 1913. He drowned trying to cross the Gila River to his mining camp. He was swept away when the current suddenly surged. His last remaining relative was his sister, Helena M. Ledlie, of New York.

A noted era writer, George Irwin, had praised Mulhatton in August of 1908. While his words are just as apt for Kentucky and a variety of other states, it was spoken of Arizona. He said Mulhatton had done more to get honest men and more capital into Arizona (due to mining exchanges) than any other person had. Irwin claimed Mulhatton inadvertently did more to expand the population than anyone else did. His early stories had land selling in a number of states, in some instances going for as high as $100 a foot. Irwin also said Mulhatton was the first writer to combine Jules Verne and Baron Munchausen, a man of unusual abilities who was never fully understood.

By the 1910s, another man began writing in Kentucky under the name “Joe Mulhatton, Jr.,” but his articles never gained the popularity of the original. His real name was Joe Carter and he wrote for the Breckenridge News.

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