Nineteenth-century journalist Fred Hart knew exactly what he was doing when he created the Sazarac Lying Club in the pages of Austin’s Reese River Reveille in 1873.
Hired earlier that year, Hart was a sometime miner and itinerant newspaperman who previously worked at the Evening Telegram at the eastern Nevada mining town of Hamilton, the White Pine News in Ely and later as editor of the legendary Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City for a short time.
Hart, however, is best known for the work he crafted while editor of the Austin newspaper from 1873 to the late 1870s, particularly a long-running series of fake news stories about a concocted social club known as the Sazarac Lying Club.
In a collection of his work, “The Sazarac Lying Club: A Nevada Book,” published in 1878, Hart noted that his job at the Reveille was to write everything from advertisements for lost dogs to lengthy dissertations on the issues of the day.
News, however, often was hard to come by because Austin was such a remote and relatively isolated place. He admitted to raiding other newspapers for stories but often found local news was still scarce on occasion.
He said one of the places he regularly visited to pick up on good gossip or story ideas was a local saloon named “The Sazarac” after a famous brand of brandy. He said that after listening for many nights he came to realize there was little fact-based news to be found in the bar but plenty of “stories [that] were generally so outrageously devoid of all semblance of truth or appearance of probability.”
Hart acknowledged that while the stories were entertaining, he had a duty to “present to the public with cold, bald-faced facts” so he was not able to write up the stories for the newspaper.
Things changed, however, when a newcomer arrived at the saloon and began spinning yarns about a pile of silver he had seen in a “Pacific Mexican port.” The story contained such exaggerations that Hart said he decided to disregard the man, whom he christened George Washington Fibley (not his real name).
The next day, however, the rain was so fierce that he said he was unable to venture out to find any local news.
“I was almost in despair about filling the local columns, and mechanically went to the door, opened it, and looked out onto the storm for inspiration,” he wrote. “The street was deserted, all was bleak and blank, and I was on the point of going back into my sanctum to meditate on the most painless method of death by suicide, when the narrator of the proceeding evening (Fibley) crossed the street.”
He said at that moment he grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote: “Elected President —The Sazarac Lying Club was organized last night, our esteemed, prominent, and respected fellow-citizen, Mr. George Washington Fibley, being unanimously chosen president of the organization. There was no opposing candidate; his claims and entire fitness for the honorable position being conceded by common consent of the Club.”
The item appeared in the paper and Fibley, who recognized he was being punked, stormed over to the paper’s offices to demand a retraction. After a brief discussion, Hart said he agreed to a retraction.
In the following issue, he wrote: “Apologetic—An apology is due from the Reveille to Mr. George Washington Fibley. We said in yesterday’s issue that he was elected President of the Sazarac Lying Club. There was an error; he was defeated.”
Apparently, the rest of Austin found Hart’s fabricated stories amusing and he continued writing accounts of the club’s events, often using real names of locals.
In 1877, Hart wrote that he had been approached to write a book of the club’s archives and asked for the club’s blessing. Following a heated debate, the club voted unanimously to support the book and open its records.
But, he added, the club also voted to restrict reporters from ever attending any of the club’s future meetings.
“This was unanimously adopted,” he wrote. “That the sessions of the Sazarac Lying Club be conducted with closed doors, NOW AND FOREVER AFTER.”
In keeping with the club’s decision, Hart never wrote any other stories about the club.
The club he had made up.
To read more about Hart’s Lying Club, reprints of his book can be found online and some of the stories are recounted in Oscar Lewis’ 1955 book about Austin, “The Town That Died Laughing,” which has been reprinted many times and can be found online and in used bookstores.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.