Our modern Internet memes and urban legends are nothing new. This apocryphal “report” – which many sources credit to Harper’s Weekly – cropped up in innumerable newspapers and magazines from 1867 (the earliest instance I can find) through the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th (I’ve actually found it in the “Sundries” section of a Kennebec, Maine newspaper from 1972). It seems to have started – not surprisingly – in the Western U.S., spread nationwide and, finally, worldwide. This particular clipping comes from a London magazine dated 1885.
Doubtful history, but fun reading. Try it aloud, if you dare.