CREATOR AND FIRST PRESIDENT OF
CLUB WAS NOT OTIS HULETT - WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?
Over the years, former newspaper man and
the article, Mannel Hahn, who lived in
LIE WORK OF ART
SAYS HAHN IN ROTARIAN
Mannel Hahn, former resident of this city, who now (Dec. 1940) resides at Maywood, Illinois, and is a district governor of Rotary, contributed the following article on the organization of the Burlington Liars' club which is published in the December issue of the Rotarian magazine:
New Years Eve in an American newspaper office . . . the staff dull, dispirited, cheated of the gaiety of the holiday, yet doomed to spend the evening writing about the gay spirits displayed by others, their gloom lightened by juicy tidbits of auto crashes, fires and other catastrophes. That is the picture as it used to be.
Today all is changed. The reporters, sub-editors, copywriters, rewrite men -- even the misanthrope who writes the joy-and-gladness "tear jerkers" -- are all pepped up, waiting for the flash from the telegraph editor that IT has come. When it does, they all jam about him for their New Years chuckle.
IT is the annual prize-winning lie of the Burlington Liars' club, announced each New Years Eve by the Burlington Liars' Club, Inc.
From the raw material of the lie to the corporation that annually puts it into circulation, the whole business is so typically American -- and it all started so innocently!
Christmas, 1929, was doubly disappointing to many
of us, and especially to me. I was living in
Unfortunately, Hiram and his ilk had been disgustingly law-abiding and there were no fires, murders, or train wrecks to swell the total of "space" to my credit. It was time for drastic action, what with Christmas bills arriving, so I sat down and concocted a fantasy of the non-existent meeting of an ephemeral "liars' club" and its award of a medal. Typing this out in two distinct styles, I mailed one to the Journal and one to the News, marking them as "A-copy," or advance stories for release on January 2 -- both being afternoon papers with no New Years day edition.
There was a basis of fact for my yarn. Every morning a group of quite reputable persons met in the police station and swapped stories. There were a couple of lawyers, the older and retired men of the city, the police chief, an officer or two, and the two newspaper men -- Otis C. Hulett, of the Racine paper, and myself. Telling "tall tales" was our daily pastime. They ranged from actual experiences in the World war and in sailing the seven seas -- we had a retired captain as one of our regulars -- to yarns taxing the imagination of the teller and the credulity of the listener. Any particularly vivid "lie" was sure to rouse a cry from "Pink" Schenning, a red-headed policeman, of "Give him the medal!"
The medal was another figment of the imagination. According to the story, there had once been a leather medal for the best lie, but it had been -- so the legend ran -- buried with its most consistent winner.
However, the lie I sent to the Journal and the News was dressed up deluxe with a solemn story of the annual contest before a jury of newspaper men and lawyers -- "their work making them competent to judge lies." The award, my copy went on to say, was given to our retired sea captain, Anthony Delano, for his story of a whale he once passed that was three miles long. Naturally, the judges asked for proof. The captain furnished it: the ship had come abeam of the whale's tail just at two bells of the morning watch, as the log was being heaved. The ship was running three knots an hour. At four bells, which is an hour later, the log was heaved again, and the speed was constant. And as the ship was just then drawing abeam of the whale's head, it had taken a run of three miles to measure the whale, which was therefore three nautical miles long. Q. E. D.
For a runner-up to this yarn I offered the lagniappe of a spontaneous lie told by Police Chief Frank Beller. He, when asked for an entry in the contest, said "But I cannot tell a lie!"
The next day I received a call from the Journal.
They were delighted with the story, and wanted to send their cameraman down to
take pictures of the formal award of the medal on New Years Eve. I persuaded
them to leave it to me. Now, my story must stand! I got hold of Charles Warner,
the photographer, Chief Beller and Captain Delano, and had private pictures
taken of the award. From my treasures I produced a medal I got in
But this photo spoiled my "exclusive" on
the story, for the Chief told Otey Hulett, my friendly rival about it, and Otey
demanded my yarn so that our stories would jibe. In the interest of factual
fiction, I gave him the whale yarn, but forgot about the runner-up story. And
so it came about that three papers, instead of two carried the first lie
This -- and the checks to come -- was all we had
counted upon. But we had not reckoned on the Great American Urge for
Exaggeration. A news service picked up our story and, boiled down to two
succinct paragraphs, put it on the wire. A week later a clipping arrived from a
A year after my magnum opus had been unveiled to
the world, I was invited back to
It seems that he, as myself, had forgotten all about it except for an occasional jocular remark, but the week before all three major news services had called him and asked for the annual decision of the judges. Caught short, he had remembered my runner-up of the year before, and had awarded the medal to Chief Beller for his Washingtonian effort. Pressed for more detail, he had elected me president, himself vice president, and "Pink" Schenning as secretary-treasurer.
Now the great American habit of tall stories is
ingrained. Particularly so in the more rural and, therefore, less hurried
locale, where a good lie is esteemed as an exaggeration, and not as a means to
any end except a grin or a guffaw. Witness the legend of Paul Bunyan and his
big blue ox Babe, which was seven ax handles between the eyes -- or else 42 ax
handles and a plug of tobacco -- depending on which school of thought you
accept. Recent research scientists have explained that the two measurements are
really identical -- one of Paul's ax handles being just a trifle longer than
six present-day ones. Remember, too, that while
The Burlington Liars' club gave an honored place to the Great American Yen for Overstatement. There was a demand that artistic liars everywhere be allowed to compete. And who were the astonished holders of the offices of the Liars' club to deny the waiting world? However, I was not available, and it seemed wise to have at least three, so I was informed I was "president emeritus," and the perfect third party was found. It was Lawrence J. Stang, whose "variety store" had all the traditional characteristics, save one, of the village meetin' place -- a long, lank proprietor with spectacles on his nose, and a full-bellied wood or coal-burning stove. The missing item, of course, is the cracker barrel. So, Larry, Pink and Otey formed a partnership and moved from the harsh cleanliness of the police station to the comfortable, photogenic atmosphere of Larry's big stove.
another Great American characteristic was not creeping but galloping in:
Organization. The Burlington Liars' club was being organized. Lies accompanied
by a return envelope with postage prepaid were acknowledged by membership cards.
A real medal emblematic of the
The 1931 award, the third, left
In 1932 the title swung west, to
The flood of entries of which the cat was the cream -- to mix a metaphor -- was the push that led to a more formal partnership, and in the following year the partners decided to incorporate -- and thereby gained another member. He is Gilbert A. "Gib" Karcher, an attorney-at-law, who is as rotund as Larry is lank. His addition is a concession to my dictum that the judges should be lawyers or newspaper men, experts per se in the detection of lies. The incorporation took place in 1934 after the 1933 selection had been made in the studios of the National Broadcasting company and sent out over a nation-wide hook-up.
Since that time there have been few changes in
personnel in the inner circle of the club. H. W. Schenning, one of the original
group and probably more than any other the inspiration of my first effort --
for material purposes only, rather than artistic
-- fell a victim to his profession of policeman when he has killed in arresting
a suspected bank robber. Recent advices from
What manner of men and women participate in this
annual contest? Yes, women; for they enter in large numbers each year, though
few reach the finals and only one has held the ephemeral title of
"champion" for a year. Well, they are a cross section of
The only reward is the mental fillip of being the Best Liar, acclaimed as such, and a membership card -- though the costs of printing, postage, and the like, have brought about a small charge for the visible token.
What kind of lies come in? Only a few rise above
what might be called "type lies." Practically every one entered
conforms to the pattern of exaggeration. Most of them are duplicates in
structure of age-old lies. One of the favorites is some variant on the snake
that struck a fence post or hoe handle, which then grew so large that 243 cords
of wood came from it before it was down to its original size again. Another is
some variant of the
Others fall definitely into the Paul Bunyan saga: such as the fish so large it took 48 hours for the water to fill the hole in the river when it was pulled out; or the railroad locomotive so large that a man who fell into the water tank next showed up in the gauge glass; and, very definitely, the story of the wells in Kansas which, after a severe dust storm, stuck out of the ground so far that the farmers roofed them over for silos. This is a direct borrowing of Paul's well in Dakota that stuck up 634 feet after a storm until he sawed it down and split it up into post holes, which he sold to the farmers in Missouri for more than his lumber cut yielded.
thing is evident -- and a matter of pride for
Out of the whole crop, the 1933 winner seems to me
-- a retired connoisseur of lies -- the outstanding lie to date. It was the
effort of Bruno Ceresa of
- - - - -
Mannel Hahn, author of the above article, was a
brother of Mrs. Dorothy (Charles) Rohr, a long-time resident of
Hahn, who resided in
Otis Hulett, Mr. Hahn's friendly rival and 1929 "co-conspirator," is often credited with creating the Liars' Club. Undoubtedly, the club would not have become nationally and then internationally known without Mr. Hulett's efforts.
But Mr. Hahn's Rotarian article and Mr. Hulett's designation of Mr. Hahn as the first president of the Burlington Liars' Club, as well as other early writings on the club in which Mr. Hahn is mentioned, including Mr. Hulett's story on the 1930 contest and an article that Mr. Hulett wrote for The Minneapolis Journal Sunday Magazine in August 1934, give credence to Mr. Hahn's claim to have been not only the first president, but also the creator of the Burlington Liars' Club.
INTERESTED IN MORE ON THE
1. Visit the Burlington Liars' Club website.
2. Visit the Burlington Historical Society's Museum on Sunday afternoons.
Walk the Tall Tales Trail when you’re in
4. When at the Chamber of Commerce office, purchase the current book of “lies,” containing fibs from the 70+ year history of the club.
INTERESTED IN TRYING YOUR LUCK IN THE UPCOMING ANNUAL CONTEST?
If you or someone you know would like to become an official card carrying member of the Burlington Liars' Club, send $1 and your tall tale to:
Send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org and include:
Your Name, Your Address and Your Tall Tale!