Journalist Dan De Quille published an article in the Territorial Enterprise
on October 26, 1867, describing some stones with a curious property. Whenever separated from each other, these stones, which he said had recently been discovered in Nevada's Pahranagat Valley, spontaneously moved back together.
The article, written in a semi-scientific style, was a joke, but De Quille discovered that a lie once told cannot easily be untold. Years later, despite efforts to expose his own hoax, he was still receiving letters from people wanting to know more details about the traveling stones. One German scientist, upon learning from De Quille that the article was a hoax, refused to believe it and accused De Quille of trying to conceal the truth from his fellow scientists.
Text of the Article
The text of the article read:
TRAVELING STONES— Some years ago, a prospector who had been roaming through the Pahranagat Mountains, the wildest and most sterile portion of southeastern Nevada, brought back with him a great curiosity in the shape of a number of traveling stones. The stones were almost perfectly round, the majority of them as large as a hulled walnut, and very heavy, being of an irony nature. When scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released, at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows; but if taken away four or five feet, it remained motionless.
The man who was in possession of these traveling stones said that he found them in a region of country that, though comparatively level, is nothing but bare rock. Scattered about in this rocky plain are a great number of little basins, from a few feet to two or three rods in diameter, and it is in the bottom of these basins that the rolling stones are found. In the basins they are seen from the size of a pea to five or six inches in diameter. These curious pebbles appeared to be formed of a loadstone or magnetic iron ore.
The short article didn't cause much of a reaction at first, but unbeknownst to its author, word of the rambling rocks was spreading around the world as foreign papers reprinted it. Soon letters about the footloose geological wonder began arriving in De Quille's mailbox. There were just a few letters, at first. Curiosity seekers requesting more information. But over time the volume of stone-mail grew greater and greater.
Wells Drury, an editor who knew De Quille, later remembered that when news of the Traveling Stones reached Germany "it caused a furor among a select set of men who were dabbling in the study of electro-magnetic currents. Their secretary wrote to Dan demanding further details. In vain he disclaimed the verity of his skit. His denial was treated as an unprofessional attempt to keep his brother scientists in ignorance of the truth concerning natural laws, the effects of which they were convinced had been first observed and recorded by 'Herr Dan De Quille, the eminent physicist of Virginia-stadt, Nevada.'"
Reportedly P.T. Barnum also offered De Quille $10,000 if he would go on tour with the rocks. De Quille had to decline the offer. And still the letters kept coming.
On March 31, 1872 De Quille wrote in the Enterprise
that he had received a request for a large amount of the Traveling Stones. He also described his response:
About six years ago an account of certain curious rolling stones was published in the Enterprise. The item has been going the rounds ever since without any one being able to suggest any plan by which money might be made out of them. A request has recently come to the local postmaster for five pounds of the stones... We have none of said rolling stones in this city at present but would refer our Colorado speculator to Mark Twain, who probably has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of assorted sizes.
Attempt to end the hoax
De Quille's strategy of trying to direct stone seekers toward Mark Twain evidently didn't work, because seven years later he was still receiving letters about the stones, which motivated him, on November 11, 1879, to publish a plea, beseeching everyone not to bother him anymore about the peregrinating pebbles:
In an idle moment, some fifteen years ago, this deponent concocted and wrote an item entitled "Traveling Stones." The stones were said to have been brought from the Pahranagat country, (because little was then known of that region and it was not easy of access) where they were found in shallow basins in the rock. They were round, and ranged in size from those no bigger than a buckshot up to such as were the size of a ten-pin ball. They were evidently largely composed of magnetic iron ore, and when spread out on the floor or other level surface would all run and huddle together like a covey of quail, though when one was removed too far from its mates it could not get back.
The story of the little traveling stones seemed to supply a want that had long been felt—to fit exactly and fill a certain vacant nook in the minds of men—and they traveled through all the newspapers of the world. This we did not so much mind, nor were we much worried by letters of inquiry at first, but it has now been some years since we ceased to enjoy them. First and last, we must have had bushels of letters asking about these stones. Letter after letter have we opened from foreign parts in the expectation of hearing something to our advantage—that half a million had been left us somewhere or that somebody was anxious to pay us four bits a column for sketches about the mountains and mines—and have only found some other man wanting to know all about those traveling stones.
So it has gone on all these fifteen years. Our last is from Tiffin, Ohio, dated Nov.3, and received yesterday. His name is Haines, and he wants to know all about those stones, could he obtain several and how? Not long since we had a letter from a man in one of the New England States who informed us that there was big money in the traveling stones. We were to send him a carload, when he would exhibit and sell them, dividing the spoils with us. We have stood this thing about fifteen years, and it is becoming a little monotonous. We are now growing old, and we want peace. We desire to throw up the sponge and acknowledge the corn; therefore we solemnly affirm that we never saw or heard of any such diabolical cobbles as the traveling stones of Pahranagat—though we still think there ought to be something of the kind somewhere in the world. If this candid confession shall carry a pang to the heart of any true believer we shall be glad of it, as the true believers have panged it to us, right and left, quite long enough.
De Quille never again wrote about the Traveling Stones. However, this silence does not mean that his plea actually worked.
Links and References
- Wells Drury, An Editor on the Comstock Lode. New York, 1936.
- C. Grant Loomis. "The Tall Tales of Dan De Quille." California Folklore Quarterly, 5 (1946): 26-71.
- Dan De Quille. History of the Big Bonanza. American Publishing Company. 1876.