In the late nineteenth century, famed American author Ambrose Bierce penned a classic tale of the paranormal, called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” In it he tells the tall tale of an Alabama farmer, named Orion Williamson, who one day disappeared into thin air while walking across a pasture in the 1840’s.
Although Bierce’s story is a work of fiction, he based it on a story emanating out of Tennessee. It was originally published in the 1880’s by a famed teller of tall tales whose pen name was “Orange Blossom.”
In the original version of the story, the farmer’s name was not Orion Williamson but David Lang. Orange Blossom—also known as Joe Mulhattan—was renowned as a teller of tall tales. He was such a good spinner of yarns that “Mulhattan” became synonymous with a tall tale. In fact, there are those who believe that Joe Mulhattan, or Orange Blossom, was a fictitious creature created by bored newspaper editors to fill space in their papers.
However, legend though he became, Joe Mulhattan was a real person, if larger than life at times. The story of David Lang’s disappearance, which first appeared in the Cincinnati Inquirer in the early 1880’s, certainly fits in with Mulhattan’s modus operandi. What made Orange Blossom so good at what he did is that he threw in a grain of truth with his puffery to make his tales plausible.
Ambrose Bierce, who had a certain perverse affection for humbug and hoaxes, took Mulhattan’s tale and crafted his own version of it. Since that time, the legend of David Lang has been added to by various hands, notably a version of it in Fate Magazine in 1953, by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer.
But is there any basis to the tale of a farmer disappearing into thin air? Well, maybe. Joe Mulhattan was a drummer—traveling salesman—who traveled all across the country. He would hear a story from locals, then after a few drinks, would spin it into a yarn that even a master of humbug such as P. T. Barnum would be amazed at.
I had read the tale of David Lang as a boy in New York. By a curious coincidence, some years back, when I moved to my present abode, it was only a few miles from Gallatin, Tennessee, where the real David Lang disappeared. Contrary to what others have written, neither Stuart Palmer nor Ambrose Bierce invented the story; and neither did Joe Mulhattan.
It turns out that while engaged as a traveling salesman, Joe Mulhattan once stayed at a hotel in Gallatin. It so happens he was forced to stay in town a few days longer than planned by torrential rains. While holed up in the hotel, he heard the story of David Lang from locals. With time on his hands, he penned a letter to the Inquirer and the story has grown in the telling from then till now.
Researchers have tried to track down David Lang and verify the story, alas with no success. They therefore deemed it a complete hoax; census records prove there was no such person as David Lang or any Lang family in Sumner County, Tennessee in the 1880’s. True enough; but pouring through the county archives, I fact-checked the tax rolls for that period and found a notation for a man named LONG with the notation in parenthesis (Lang); apparently the Yankee drummer’s ears heard the name pronounced one way, although it was written another. There were no Lang’s near Gallatin in the 1880’s but several families of Longs.
In the decades since Mulhattan spun his yarn and Ambrose Bierce turned it into a classic tale of the Unknown, the story has not only grown in the telling and re-telling but inspired an opera based on the Uncanny Occurrence in Sumner County, Tennessee.
So, did a man go walking across a field in rural Sumner County one summer day and disappear into thin air? Like I said: well, maybe.