‘Monumental Lies’: Historian Ronald M. James explores the evolution of early Silver State folklore

Monumental Lies: Early Nevada Folklore of the Wild West opens the door to understanding how legends and traditions emerged during the first decades following the “Rush to Washoe,” which transformed the region beginning in 1859.

During this Wild West period, there was widespread celebration of deceit, manifesting in tall tales, burlesque lies, practical jokes, and journalistic hoaxes. Humor was central to these endeavors, and practitioners easily found themselves scorned if they failed to be adequately funny. This ethos became central to the way folklore emerged during the formative years of the Nevada territory and state.

Mark Twain, often a go-to source for collections of early tall tales of this region, cannot be overlooked, but his interaction with local traditions was specific and narrow. More importantly, William Wright — publishing as Dan De Quille — arose as a key collector of legends, a counterpart of early European folklorists. With a bedrock understanding of what unfolded in the 19th century, it is possible to consider how these early stories shaped the modern popularized image of the Wild West.

Richard Etulain, author of Thunder in the West: The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid, writes that James’s new book, “… is a superior examination of early Nevada folklore. His superb account is extraordinarily revealing and clearly written.”

Ronald M. James was the long-serving Nevada state historic preservation officer, administering the office for three decades and retiring in 2012. He was also appointed to the advisory board for the National Park System and served as chair of the National Historic Landmarks Committee. He is the author of The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode and several other books about the American West. In 2014, James was inducted into the Nevada Writer’s Hall of Fame.

Excerpt from Chapter 6: Tall Tales and Other Deceptions as Folklore

Beginning in the 1960s and occasionally over the course of subsequent decades, some old hand would invite me to try smart pills. I never accepted them and perhaps consequently remain a shade short of smart. Indeed, some might assert the shortcoming is more than slight. A smart pill is a folk remedy for stupidity. How and when smart pills entered Nevada folklore is not easy to determine, but the motif has roots that reach back at least to the Italian Renaissance, so it may have been in Nevada long before I first heard of the cure.

In 1977, folklorist Richard Bauman recorded a story about a smart pill in Oklahoma. In the narrative, someone was selling dupes rolled-up pieces of dog dung, telling his victims that if taken, the pill would make them smarter. A fool purchased and swallowed several pills, repeatedly indicating that he did not feel any smarter. The cycle repeats until he finally realizes what the pills are, at which point he objects, but the trickster declares that since the man has realized the ploy, he has, indeed, become smarter, so the pills have worked.

My invitations to become smarter have occurred in the wide-open Nevada terrain, with joking offers of rabbit or deer pellets. The point here is the role of deception as part of western folklore. Besides being an essential element of the hoax, deceit is also at the heart of tall tales, burlesque lies, and practical jokes, all of which are important to regional traditions. The smart pill ranks among these, but as Bauman demonstrates, the device does not merely consist of the execution of such a deception. Like hoaxes, a practical joke can take on its own life if it becomes a traditional story. Indeed, some were immortalized as celebrated narratives. Others may have been nothing more than that.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that deception is not unique to western or even American folklore. It enjoys a time-honored place internationally. The tall tale, for example, can be found in the work of the Greek writer Plutarch (ca. 46-119), who described a remote land where the temperature can become so cold that words freeze and cannot be heard until they thaw in spring. In 1528, a similar story of the exaggerated effect of frozen words appeared in Count Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. Ludicrous exaggeration has long been a device in both oral and written versions.

One of the more famous examples of hyperbolic stories was the late-eighteenth-century classic by Hanover-born Rudolf Erich Raspe (ca. 1736-94), who first published his Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia in 1786. His book was based on the overstated accounts of a real person, Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen (1720-97). Despite having a life of adventure, including fighting in the Russo-Turkish War (1735-39), he nevertheless inflated his experiences.

Raspe found inspiration in Münchhausen’s embellishments, and he subsequently exaggerated the exaggerations, while also adding new adventures. With Raspe’s eloquent pen, his fictional Munchausen (with a slightly different spelling) fought a gigantic crocodile, twice journeyed to the moon, survived escapades underwater within and outside a whale, rode a half horse, and traveled on a cannonball through the air. The stories became literary tall tales, the object of humor because of their absurdity. The publication of Raspe’s mocking book resulted in a furious Münchhausen who threatened a lawsuit. The fictitious adventures of Baron Munchausen set a high bar for those who would seek humor in overstatement, but many rose to the challenge.

While living in London, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote a letter to the Public Advertiser about American sheep as being so thick with wool, that farmers had to use four-wheeled wagons to carry their heavy tails. Franklin’s portrait of a remarkable America had many other astounding features including whales leaping up Niagara Falls, a phenomenon that “is esteemed, by all who have seen it, as one of the finest spectacles in nature.” The correspondence was in answer to another note, likely also penned by Franklin who was using the names, “The Spectator,” and “The Traveller” for an epistolary feud of his own making. The letters offered an opportunity to address misconceptions and to exhibit aspects of the American colonies. Most of all, it was a chance for Franklin to demonstrate that Americans could join the ranks of Raspe and other Europeans when it came to the entertaining use of exaggeration.

Franklin’s foray into the tall tale underscores a fundamental truth about the expression of deceit as humor: stories that rely on absurd exaggeration have deep roots in Europe, but it would soon become a natural realm to explore in North America. What follows underscores that while the genre was not unique to the West, the tall tale became essential to the region’s folklore. As author Richard Erdoes commented in his collection from the West, “The essence of American legends, particularly of western tales, is exaggeration. Nowhere else in the world can one find boastful grandiloquence like this. … In western tales everything is larger than life, blown up out of all proportions.” Indeed, the tall tale is popularly associated with the Wild West, even though it is widespread elsewhere.

Distinguishing hoaxes from tall tales — and from practical jokes and briefer burlesque lies — is a challenge. … It is probably better to consider how the tall tale and the literary hoax occupy space on the same spectrum of stories exploiting deception. … The tall tale is typified by its absurdity, often escalating with exaggeration or logical inconsistencies. This is distinct from the eastern hoax, which attempts to present a falsehood as cleverly as possible, devoid of clues about the deception.

In the West, the distinction is less clear. At times it seems possible to separate the two with the matter of newspaper publication, the journalistic hoax being a creature of print, while the tall tale was usually a spoken narrative. Even so, the latter sometimes also filled space in a newspaper’s columns. A less obvious distinction is that the growing absurdity of a tall tale was different from the concealed irrationality of a literary western hoax. In the latter, the trick was discovered with careful reading, while for the tall tale, the increasing levels of farce inspired a growing share of the audience to understand the nature of the joke.

Excerpt published with the permission of the University of Nevada Press.