ARIZONA'S TALLEST TALE-TELLER

By Gregory McNamee

Our love of stories, in both the telling and the hearing, is one of the things that makes us human. We're prepared to give a little more credence to a gifted storyteller, to someone like Tucson folklorist Big Jim Griffith, than we would to, say, the anchor of the nightly news. We're willing to enshrine such figures as Babe the Blue Ox and New York sewer alligators in the body of our legends -- which often wind up as statements of fact.

Joe Mulhatton (1851-1913), who spent nearly half a century in Arizona, knew how to tell a story, all right. He had been a traveling salesman for a few years, selling pipe fittings, tools and other bits of hardware at the doors of ranches and farms across the territory. He found then that sales came quicker if he could entertain a prospective buyer with a good tale, and he whipped up a repertoire that would make an ordinary liar blush with envy.

To one Tucson-area cattle rancher, Joe confided that he had pulled down a passing comet from the skies while traveling through West Texas, and that he had had to hightail it to Arizona to avoid being lynched by angry sheep ranchers whose flocks he had inadvertently killed in the process. (A nice touch, that, given the animosity between cattlemen and shepherds back then.) To another ranch family, eagerly gathered around the supper table, Joe related his travels around the world on the back of an iceberg. No one thought to ask him why his vehicle didn't melt on the passage through the South Seas, but Joe doubtless would have had a good answer at the ready.

Joe's greatest claim to fame was his story, widely repeated, that he had found a magnetic saguaro cactus along the banks of the Gila River. When he went into Florence to relate the tale of his discovery, Joe described how he had spent hours watching the giant cactus pull unsuspecting birds and rodents to its sharp spikes, and how he himself had narrowly escaped being dragged to a prickly death by turning back a hundred yards away from the wonderful plant. Why, just a few days before, he had learned, a couple of drifters had pitched a tent under the cactus and been swallowed up whole by the vicious -- and inexplicably carnivorous -- plant.

Joe had a good explanation for the saguaro's existence. Southern Arizona is rich in mineral ores and in metals like copper, which have magnetic properties. Clearly, he theorized, this particular cactus had sunk a taproot into a positively charged vein. Just as clearly, he continued, this could not be the only specimen; the only reason others had not been reported was that the rugged canyon country around the great river was so little explored. Naturally enough, in fact, only he really knew the backcountry well enough to find the spiked lodestone again.

It seems that Joe Mulhatton believed the stories he told, for he spent a few months in 1900 cooling his heels in the Territorial Asylum in Phoenix. On his release, he returned to southern Arizona, where he wandered from Tombstone to Tucson, Willcox to Why, telling his tales to whomever would listen, and he became a permanent fixture in regional folklore.

Joe Mulhatton died in the winter of 1913 when he tried to ford the rains-swollen Gila River and was swept away. Perhaps by then, he thought that he could walk on water.



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