Nevada’s best hoaxes and tall tales – part 2
July 30, 2018
As mentioned last week, places throughout Nevada have been the subject of a number of amazing yarns, many perpetuated by 19th century newspaper writers, who often concocted these tall tales to amuse their bored readers.
One of the more famous whoppers was written by the 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 reprinted 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 — although that, too, was probably a De Quille invention.
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 and continued to insist that Pahranagat's stones had magnetic personality.
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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 perceived slight, he wrote a story about the coroner finding a petrified man who seemed at least 300 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 which grew out of an honest mistake was the legend of the Maiden's Grave in northeastern Nevada. Promotional materials distributed by the Central Pacific Railroad told of a large cross on a hillside near Beowawe that commemorated a brave teenager from Missouri, Lucinda Duncan, who apparently grew sick and died while crossing Nevada by wagon in the mid-1860s.
According to the Uncovering Nevada's Past website, Chinese workers laying the track for the transcontinental railroad in 1868 stumbled onto a grave near the work site with a decaying wooden marker bearing the name, Lucinda Duncan.
They built a neat white picket fence around the grave and erected a new headstone with Lucinda's name on one side and the words, "Maiden's Grave," on the other. Apparently, the railroad workers thought it was the grave of a young woman of about 13 years old who they surmised had been killed by a local tribe harassing the wagon train.
The railroad workers adopted the grave, maintaining it over the years and even leaving flowers. Passing trains would sound their whistles and railroad staff would recount the story of the maiden who had died there during an Indian attack.
Other evidence, including emigrant diaries, however, indicated that Lucinda Duncan was a 70-year-old grandmother who died in 1863 of a heart attack while traveling to California.
Today, a big white cross commemorates the grave (moved in the early 20th century to the Beowawe cemetery, where it overlooks the railroad line) and people continue to repeat the much more interesting story of the young maiden.