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The true story of a newspaper hoax • Wisconsin Examiner

It wasn’t an April Fool’s Day stunt, but the “petrified man” found inside a Rusk County tree was one of the biggest hoaxes in Wisconsin history. Supposedly it was the body of Pierre d’Artagnan, an elite French soldier who disappeared during Marquette and Joliet’s 1673 voyage of discovery.

The hoax still circulates today, though it was launched way back on Thursday, Jan. 21, 1926, by The Rusk County Journal, published in Ladysmith. The Wisconsin Historical Society maintains a webpage about the hoax “because,” it states, “we still occasionally receive sincere inquiries about the so-called ‘petrified man.’ ”

It was big news in 1926 when a pair of lumberjacks supposedly found a man mummified inside a tree, near Ladysmith. According to the hoax, he had been part of Marquette and Joliet’s exploration of the region in 1673. (Unidentified photo in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, image 106379 | courtesy of WHS).

According to the Journal, the body was found by Art Charpin and Walter Latsch, from Owen, in Clark County, about 30 miles northwest of Marshfield. A Chippewa Falls lumber company had hired them to harvest timber west of the Floyd Graves farm in the township of Murry, in Rusk County, 17 miles from Ladysmith. 

A few days before the Journal’s article, on Monday, Jan. 23, Charpin and Latsch supposedly chose a number of trees, including a large basswood. It had a hole, they noticed, but that was 30 feet up; there was still plenty of good lumber in it. They felled the tree and began cutting it into sections.  Halfway through, their saw hit something hard. By turning the trunk several times, after some effort they were able to cut around its hard core.

According to the Journal, the log parted and, in its center, “staring up at them, was the ashen face of a man.”

Horrified, they didn’t know what to do. Finally they dragged the body from what proved to be a hollow trunk. “In the height of excitement,” according to the Journal, the two men then fled to Ladysmith, vowing to “never again return to this locality.” 

Their story wasn’t taken seriously, but their hysteria was. After getting the attention of an official, a party of four — apparently including a reporter but not the loggers — went to the site.

“There encased in the living trunk of the tree, was the entire body of a man,” the newspaper dispatch reported. His buckskin clothing “fell away when touched, and the head had been covered with long hair which was tucked up under a coon skin cap. With the mummified body in the hollow tree was an old muzzle-loading, flintlock rifle and a muzzle loading pistol of fanciful design.”

A few gold coins were also found — French, dated 1664 — as well as a parchment with the name “Pierre d’Artagnan” signed by Jacques Marquette.  “For all that it seems the height of incredibility, it is thought on good authority, that here in Rusk County has been found the body of Captain d’Artagnan, who was lost from Marquette and Joliet’s party on their trip down the Mississippi in 1673,” concluded the Journal.

Marquette and Joliet’s trip was the only thing in the story that was true. Besides mapping the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, during their expedition the duo assigned French place names to localities from La Crosse to New Orleans.  

Now, there was a real d’Artagnan, and he did die in 1673, but he never even set foot in the New World. 

According to the hoax, however, he was with Marquette and Joliet in Wisconsin. They somehow became separated and he sheltered inside the hollow tree, dying there. Contrary to repeated newspaper descriptions of the body as being “petrified,” the fiction presented by The Rusk County Journal makes clear that d’Artagnan had not been fossilized but was instead preserved by sap that had hardened into amber. 

His next stop was to be the University of Wisconsin, for study, after which the plan was to offer the remains to France, “for d’Artagnan was very close to Louis the Great,” stated Journal. 

That was a wild understatement, though at the time no one connected the dots and figured out the full extent of the newspaper’s joke. Louis the Great was more commonly known as Louis the 14th, King of France, and d’Artagnan famously led the elite of his royal guards, the Three Musketeers!

The entire story was a complete pack of lies, but editors at other newspapers were taken in. They reprinted the article and unfortunately chopped its give-away ending, which  indicated that the Journal was merely sharing news from its nearby competitor, The Rusk County Lyre. Lyre = liar. Get it? 

The Lyre was fictitious, but headlines in plenty of real newspapers presented the d’Artagnan story as truth. Headlines in various type styles shouted in more than 125 newspapers in communities including Albert Lea, Minnesota (“VERY STRANGE STORY OF PIONEER LIFE”), Alden, Minnesota (“Body of Explorer Thought Found in North Wisconsin”), Butte, Montana (“PETRIFIED MAN IN WISCONSIN TREE”), Chappell, Nebraska (“UNEARTHING OF BODY OF FRENCH EXPLORER”), Greenville, Ohio (“WORKERS FIND MAN’S BODY IN TREE TRUNK”), Madisonville, Kentucky. (“PETRIFIED MAN”) and Poplar Bluff, Missouri. (“PETRIFIED BODY OF EXPLORER IS FOUND IN TREE”). The paper in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, at least, warned, “HERE’S A STORY THAT’S HARD TO BELIEVE.”

In Madison, on Feb. 15, The Capital Times shared its interview with real-life Rusk County Journal editor Edward Richardson, who admitted to a whole series of hoaxed articles. “We intended them for local consumption only,” he said. Just six weeks earlier, the paper had run a similar story about an inventor “who moved great loads” with electricity drawn from the air.

Even so, The Capital Times reported that the petrified man story was arousing “a good many scientists, and University of Wisconsin teachers.” In fact, statewide “whole counties have been stirred into excited discussion over the discovery.” The original article recirculated for months and incited further inquiry, sometimes in person, exasperating Joseph Schafer, superintendent of the Wisconsin Historical Society, based in Madison. 

“Men and women write in to the Historical Society daily to know if the ‘petrified man’ has yet been received at the Museum,” he complained in March. “Some have already presented themselves in the character of ‘viewers of the remains.’ ”

Portrait of the real d’Artagnan in happier days, from his fictionalized memoirs.

But alas! What of the real d’Artagnan? His full, actual name was Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan, and his burial place is disputed, although it’s certainly in Europe. 

Alexandre Dumas based his 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers,” on fictionalized memoirs. Though d’Artagnan never visited Wisconsin, over the years he’s visited Hollywood often. He’s been played by actors ranging from Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly to Mr. Magoo. The year before the petrified man story he figured in a novel, “The King’s Passport,” by prolific pulp magazine writer Henry Bedford-Jones. It may have inspired the hoax.

As for The Rusk County Journal, it appears to have ceased publication a year after launching d’Artagnan’s second career as a mummy. But before the Journal died, its editor recanted his confession to The Capital Times. 

Richardson told the paper that the petrified man was real after all, and that the body had merely been placed in storage. Following the gubernatorial election later that year, d’Artagnan would be shipped to the capitol in Madison, he said, “after which more modern ideas on conservation and state government may be expected.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F03%2F30%2Fthe-man-in-the-tree-that-wasnt-the-true-story-of-a-newspaper-hoax%2F by Jay Rath

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