While wandering about online looking for Dubious Document material I might have overlooked, I stumbled onto two different lists of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time (here and here). Neither broke any new ground, exactly, and both had some rather questionable entries. Secret Mark and a supposedly forged tragedy of Sophocles really don’t belong here, for example, and others—Clifford Irving's autobiography of Howard Hughes and Hitler's supposed diaries—were frauds so transparent that they really are more examples of publishers' impositions than literary hoaxes. Anyway, after thinking about it, I thought I'd put together my own list of, well, not necessarily the greatest literary hoaxes of all time, but, shall we say, the most interesting literary hoaxes of all time. I intend to start with the tenth item on my list and work my way up over the course of time to number one.
So first comes #10: William Drannan's Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains (1899).
When I was looking through my grandmother's friendship book—that's a book people used to keep their collection of people in—there was a space for each person to enter his or her favorite book. There was an interesting range of books there. The Bible put in an appearance several times, and Riders of the Purple Sage, and so did another, perhaps less familiar volume. It was nothing less than the true-life adventures of a frontier scout—the boon companion of Kit Carson, and the chief of scouts during the Modoc War. William Drannan may not have made much of an impression in the history books, but he definitely made an impression on the minds of boys growing up in the days before World War I changed everything. Little Robert E. Howard—later to be the creator of Conan the Barbarian and King Kull—read his account avidly, and years later recalled seeing the author "wandering about the streets of Mineral Wells … trying to sell the pitiful, illiterate book of his life of magnificent adventure and high courage; a little, worn old man in the stained and faded buckskins of a vanished age, friendless and penniless." Howard—a contemporary of my grandmother and her friends, by the way—would have been about five or six at the time. "God," he wrote H. P. Lovecraft, "what a lousy end for a man whose faded blue eyes had once looked on the awesome panorama of untracked prairie and sky-etched mountain, who had ridden at the side of Kit Carson, guided the waggon-trains across the deserts to California, drunk and revelled in the camps of the buffalo-hunters, and fought hand to hand with painted Sioux and wild Comanche. … Always the simple, strong men go into the naked lands and fight heroical battles to win and open those lands to civilization. Then comes civilization, mainly characterized by the smooth, the dapper, the bland, the shrewd men who play with business and laws and politics and they gain the profits; they enjoy the fruit of other men’s toil, while the real pioneers starve."
The thing is, it wasn't really like that at all. Thirty-One Years on the Plains is actually a work of fiction, with precious little in the way of facts to back it up. No biographer of Kit Carson has ever taken it seriously. Actual participants in the Modoc war—Major Frazier Boutelle, whose cool courage saved the troops in the Lost River Fight; "Colonel" William Thompson, a leader of the Oregon Volunteers and a legend in his own mind; Jeff Riddle, the son of the interpreters Frank and Toby Riddle—all of whom were unquestionably present—denounced the work as a pack of lies. And so it is. William Drannan told of his conversations with the Modoc leader, Captain Jack—who spoke no English. (He apparently understood it well enough, but always spoke through interpreters.) Drannan described two failed attempts to take the Modoc stronghold—one under Frank Wheaton and one under General Canby—when only one (the former) took place. He wrote of a "Mr. Berry" who came in to negotiate with the Modocs (when he, Drannan, could have done a better job)—a man unknown to the history of the war. And he cast himself as the Chief of Scouts—a rôle actually taken by a fellow named McKay—Daring Donald McKay, as he billed himself in a dime novel version of his life.
The real William Drannan continues to elude researchers. He apparently was involved in the hotel and restaurant businesses in Seattle and Portland during the 1890s, and he and his wife hawked his books—according to some his wife actually wrote them—around the country during the early years of the twentieth century. Not much else seems to have turned up on him.
Is there any truth in the book? As a student of the Modoc War, I was fascinated by the oddity that while Drannan was wrong on major events, his details were often correct. He had the right people at the right places—the obscure people, that is. Not the major players. I got the feeling that he must have at least lived in the area at some time. Even his mistakes could be interesting. The "Mr. Berry" he referred to, for instance. The real person who took the rôle assigned to "Mr. Berry" was a lawyer named Elijah Steele. He had two partners in his law practice: Rosborough (who also played a part in the Modoc War) and Berry (who didn't). Now, naming the wrong partner in a local law firm is the kind of mistake that only a local would make.
And another thing—he remembered a footnote to the war that made a local stir but barely attracted any attention outside the area. When the Modoc leaders were hanged afterward, the reporters present had a kind of race going to see who could first get the news to the telegraph station. Relays of horses and riders were set up by rival papers to see who could get to the Yreka telegraph first—some sixty or seventy miles away. The San Francisco Chronicle man even tried carrier pigeons. One reporter tried to get ahead of the others by sending his report to a telegraph station further off, in Ashland, Oregon. There was quite a bit of local excitement over these preparations, but little outside interest. Drannan, however, cast himself as one of the messengers carrying the news of the execution.
According to his story, he was the one who came up with the idea of trying the Ashland telegraph rather than the closer Yreka station. In his version of events his trusty horse—I forget his name—came through for him and Drannan carried the day, getting the news out first from Ashland. Needless to say, this is not how events actually worked themselves out. In point of fact the Ashland rider got drunk on the way, fell off his horse, and came in last in the race. Was Drannan that rider? Probably not, but the significant thing is that he remembered the event at all, when it was so quickly forgotten by everybody else. (His is the only version of the Modoc War to mention it until Oliver Knight's Following the Indian Wars came out in 1960.)
Some slight confirmation for his presence at the time comes from a note buried among the Applegate papers; according to this Drannan was a civilian contractor bringing supplies to the army during the Modoc War. So perhaps he was there, somewhere, at the edges of significant events. What about the Kit Carson stuff? Again, there is a slight confirmation in a relatively recently discovered inscription in Arizona. Kit Carson was there in 1849, and if this inscription is to be believed, so was William Drannan. The rock inscription reads "Killed Indians here 1849 Willie Drannan." So maybe, just perhaps, there was a grain of truth here as well. "What do you make of this?" an Elder of an Arizona tribe asked, on being presented with the evidence. He was told that it was a part of history. "Well, I call it murder," he responded. A far cry from the "life of magnificent adventure and high courage" Howard saw it as.
Next: #9--Chief Seattle's Speech.
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