John G. Maher was once prominent in Nebraska’s newspaper, business, and political circles. He volunteered in the Spanish-American War and played a role in Nebraska’s participation in World War I. Maher’s name is still associated with colorful tall tales and hoaxes, many associated with the Chadron area of northwest Nebraska where he spent his young adulthood.
Maher’s father homesteaded in Platte County. The son was educated in Columbus and Fremont, and taught school in Platte County for a few years. He then went into government mail service and in 1887 was working in a government land office at Chadron in Dawes County. While in Chadron he studied law, became interested in politics, and was noted as a public speaker.
In 1898 he accompanied U.S. troops to the Ghost Dance excitement as a special correspondent of the New York Herald. He volunteered to serve as a private in the Spanish-American War; went with troops under Gen. John J. Pershing to the Mexican border in 1916 in pursuit of Pancho Villa; and volunteered again in 1917 for service in World War I. After serving as the AEF chief disbursing officer in France, he was honorably discharged in 1919. Maher spent much of his time after World War I abroad and returned to Lincoln (where he had real estate and business interests) only for a few months each year. He died in 1939 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Many of Maher’s tall tales and hoaxes resulted from his work as a western correspondent for the New York Herald. Examples include the supposed discovery of a prehistoric petrified man near Chadron; bogus sea monster sightings in a Sand Hills lake; and the fanciful account of Maher’s discovery of the perpetrator of the Maine explosion.
The field of Maher’s inspirations ranged from the small and local to the national and international. One of his minor escapades was the creation of “soda springs” near Chadron by lowering sacks of soda to the bottom of several boiling springs and touting the healing qualities of the water. On a larger scale he warned Nebraskans of the threats of British reprisals on O’Neill and the Irish population of Nebraska for their supposed support of a Fenian invasion of Canada. According to Maher, the British planned to send warships up the Mississippi River system, navigate the Niobrara, capture Valentine, and send a party overland to take O’Neill. His intelligence, wide experience, and creative ability enabled him to sell many of these tales to a gullible public.