When readers see the names Mark Twain and Dan De Quille, fake news may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But these legendary journalists were among the original fake news writers in Nevada’s early years—a fact spotlighted in Richard Moreno’s new book, Frontier Fake News: Nevada’s Sagebrush Hoaxsters and Humorists.
Martin Griffith, veteran Nevada observer and Associated Press journalist from 1985-2015, wrote: “Moreno is one of the leading and most experienced writers on Nevada history, and he did a masterful job of telling the story of these gifted, quirky writers. [He] presents them in full, living color, warts and all. I loved this book!”
Richard Moreno was the longtime publisher of Nevada Magazine. He is the author of fourteen books, including Nevada Myths and Legends, Roadside History of Nevada and A Short History of Reno. For more than three decades, he was written a weekly travel/history column for the Lahontan Valley News and Nevada Appeal. In 2007, Moreno was awarded the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award. He currently lives in the state of Washington, but will always call Nevada his home.
Excerpt: True Confession Time
I have a confession. In the mid-1980s, shortly after I had traded in my press card for a press kit, I read a copy of the revived Territorial Enterprise and Virginia City News, the famous former home of Mark Twain and Dan De Quille, which stated that the Comstock-based newspaper wanted to resuscitate the rollicking spirit and traditions of its early days. I knew, of course, that Twain and others at the Enterprise were famous for their hoaxes—what today we would call genuine fake news. Plus, I really, really wanted to write an article in that same vein and to publish it in the legendary newspaper.
So, I wrote a fake press release. In it, I said that a mining company, which I called United Minerals Consolidated Ltd., had recently announced plans to purchase all of Virginia City in order to remove the entire community and dig the biggest open-pit mine in the state. I made up a fake president for my fake mining company, Winslow P. Patterson, and quoted him as saying that testing had indicated the presence of vast gold and silver resources beneath the town, which could only be recovered by relocating or removing the community.
I thought the story would seem somewhat plausible because a real mining company with a similar name—United Mining Corporation—had been actively working in the Comstock area for several years, and there had been some talk that they wanted to revive underground mining in the region, which might include reopening mining tunnels located beneath the city. In the same way that Twain sought to use his hoaxes to side-eye his personal and political targets, my goal was to use satire and exaggeration to make a statement about the fragile nature of Virginia City, a community that I have loved deeply for a long time.
In an attempt to make the proposal even more absurd, I wrote that Patterson had a ludicrous plan calling for United Minerals to set up a table on the corner of C and Union Streets in Virginia City, where the company would offer cash on the spot to anyone wishing to sell their property. “Nevada mining law allows us to condemn and acquire any property we want,” I quoted Patterson as saying, then adding, “We will pay market rates for all property but won’t be afraid to condemn parcels owned by people reluctant to part with them.”
The release noted that the table would be set up from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for two weeks in early November, and it asserted that any land not purchased during that stretch would be acquired using “legal condemnation proceedings.” It also said that United Minerals was a Delaware-based mining company and that its plans included razing the downtown, converting the Fourth Ward School into mining company offices, and rebuilding the former Virginia & Truckee Railroad line to carry ore from the pit to a new Southern Pacific Railroad line being built to Carson City. The release concluded with a statement from Patterson saying that the company was also considering purchasing all of the adjacent community of Gold Hill in order to dig a second, giant, open-pit mine at a later date.
I recall typing up my fake news release, placing it a generic, white envelope with a fake address, and then driving to Reno, NV, to mail it, so that it would not be sent from Carson City, where I was living at the time. I sent it anonymously because, while I was kind of proud of my hoax, I wasn’t sure if anyone else would find it as humorous as I did—and I didn’t want to get fired from the state public relations job I had at the time.
A few weeks later, I picked up the October 18, 1985, edition of the Enterprise and spotted my little release published on page 9. Naturally, I thought it was great, so I immediately typed up a follow-up fake release. This time, I wrote that in response to local protests about United Minerals’ plans for Virginia City, the mining company had compromised and decided to only purchase and raze half of the historic city. According to my invented president, Winslow P. Patterson, the mining company would buy “all of the property east of C Street…. The rest of the community will remain on the mountainside overlooking the pit.” He said the mining company would build an eight-foot-high concrete wall along the east side of C Street to protect residents from the pit’s mining operations. The release concluded by saying that once the open-pit mine is no longer productive, the mining company “plans to convert it into a country club and marina to be called ‘Rancho Virginia.’”
As before, I mailed the news release anonymously to the paper and then waited to see if this one would be published too. I didn’t have to wait long. The lead story on the front page of the December 13 issue carried the headline: “United Minerals Revises VC Open Pit Plan.” Beneath the headline and above the story, which took up much of the front page, was a three-column-wide photo of some unnamed mining operation (I had not included a photo, so the paper had supplied its own).
Inside the issue, an editorial titled “Deny United Minerals” lifted the hoax to a whole new level. “United Minerals, a mining conglomerate hiding in the corporate wilds of Delaware, plans to raze downtown Virginia City, and so create the largest open pit eyesore ever attempted in Nevada,” the editorial said indignantly. “As expected the hue and cry on the heels of this insane announcement has touched off a fire storm of protest all over the west.”
And with that, I decided to follow Twain’s lead after one of his hoaxes got out of hand and he departed Virginia City. I, too, “disappeared.” I never sent another story to the Enterprise, which, perhaps not coincidentally, ceased publishing about two weeks later (it first unsuccessfully tried to become a magazine before completely folding), and I never spoke of my hoax to anyone.
Excerpt from Frontier Fake News: Nevada’s Sagebrush Hoaxsters and Humorists is published with permission of the author and publisher.