Depiction of the last woolly mammoth, from McClure's Magazine, October 1899

The Great Mammoth Hoax

According to most accounts, woolly mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago. But in October, 1899 a story titled "The Killing of the Mammoth" appeared in McClure's Magazine in which a narrator named H. Tukeman described how he had recently hunted down and killed what was possibly the last surviving mammoth in the Alaskan wilderness.

According to the tale, Tukeman was travelling through Alaska in 1890. At Fort Yukon he met an old Indian named 'Joe.' He showed Joe some pictures from a scrapbook, and one of the pictures happened to be of an elephant. Seeing the picture, Joe became excited and began to tell Tukeman of how he had once seen a similar creature living in a nearby mountain valley.

Tukeman determined to find the creature the old Indian had described. He hired an Indian guide, and together the two men travelled to the location described by Joe. Sure enough, they found the creature still there, bathing in a mountain river. The creature was nothing less than a woolly mammoth: "There he stood in a little clearing, the great beast that only one other living man had seen, tearing up great masses of lichenous moss and feeding as an elephant feeds."

Working on the premise that the creature would be attracted to smoke, the two men built a large bonfire, and, as expected, the mammoth eventually rushed over to inspect the blaze. When the animal was near, the two men shot it repeatedly from their hiding place in the trees until it was dead.

As the mammoth was dying Tukeman admitted feeling some guilt: "A feeling of pity and shame crept over me as I watched the failing strength of this mighty prehistoric monarch whom I had outwitted and despoiled of a thousand years of harmless existence." When the mammoth lay dead, the two men carefully preserved its hide and bones by burying them in the ground. Then they roasted and ate some of the meat, finding it "not unpalatable, but terribly tough."

The two men travelled back to San Francisco, where Tukeman met a naturalist called Mr. Conradi. Mr. Conradi offered him millions of dollars to purchase the remains of the mammoth. Tukeman accepted the offer and journeyed back to the site where he had buried the mammoth, disinterred it, and transferred its remains into Mr. Conradi's possession. The story ended with Tukeman noting that "the most generally accepted theory heretofore has been that Mr. Conradi found the carcass frozen in an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. The measurements exactly as taken by me, were handed to the Smithsonian, and accepted without question as his own."

This tale as it appeared in McClure's Magazine was pure fiction, and was labelled as such in the magazine's table of contents. Nevertheless, huge numbers of readers were fooled by the realistic tone of the narrative and wrote both to the magazine and to the Smithsonian expressing outrage that the last mammoth had been shot. So many people wrote in that the magazine had to publish a statement in a subsequent issue explaining that "The Killing of the Mammoth" had simply been a work of fiction. Their statement read as follows:

"'The Killing of the Mammoth' by H. Tukeman was printed purely as fiction, with no idea of misleading the public, and was entitled a story in our table of contents. We doubt if any writer of realistic fiction ever had a more general and convincing proof of success."

  • Besse, Nancy L. "The Great Mammoth Hoax". Alaska Journal 1980 10(4): 10-16.