In April 1817 a strange young woman appeared in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. She was 5 foot 2, with black hair and eyes, and wore a black shawl twisted like a turban around her head and a black dress with a muslin frill. She presented herself at a cottage in the village and pointed to the couch. The cottager, struck that she did not seem to understand him, summoned help, and she was sent to the county magistrate.
The woman spoke an unfamiliar tongue and looked blankly at those who spoke English. At first she sought to sleep on the floor, apparently not understanding what beds were for. The next morning the parish clergyman showed her a series of books and divined that she had come from China aboard a ship. She seemed to call herself Caraboo.
In the weeks that followed she taught her new friends the strange language that she spoke and wrote, and through it gave her story: She was a princess from an island named Javasu, and had been captured by pirates while walking in her garden. The pirates had sold her to the captain of a brig in exchange for a sack of gold dust. After some ill treatment, she jumped overboard and swam to the nearest shore, which happened to be England.
Throughout this time Caraboo exhibited strange behavior, wandering abroad with a gong, a tambourine, and a bow and arrow. She climbed trees dextrously and swam like a fish; she fenced capably and danced a peculiar sort of waltz.
Eventually a local scientist named Wilkinson published several letters in the Bath Chronicle hoping that someone might recognize a description of the strange woman. A woman named Mrs. Neale responded, and the truth came out. Princess Caraboo was Mary Baker, the daughter of a cobbler in Devonshire. She had wanted five pounds to pay passage to Philadephia on an emigrant ship, and had decided to beg for it while posing as a foreigner.
The magistrate’s wife forgave her and paid for her passage. She returned seven years later and tried to earn a living by exhibiting herself in her old guise, but few people came. She ended her days selling leeches in Bristol drugstores.
Desperate to fill a hole on the front page of Truth one Friday afternoon in 1954, Australian journalist Phillip Knightley invented a story about a sex criminal known as the Hook who haunted the Sydney train network raising women’s skirts with a length of wire fashioned from an old coat hanger. “The wire ran over his right shoulder and down his coat sleeve where it stopped in a hook just short of the cuff. The Hook, while pretending to read a newspaper, would sidle alongside an attractive and unsuspecting girl as they stood in a crowded train, drop his shoulder to extend the hook which he would then slip under the girl’s skirt and surreptitiously raise it to look at her stocking tops.”
Knightley quoted an anonymous officer saying that suburban police had been inundated with complaints; an anonymous victim spoke of her resolution to avoid the trains until the pervert was caught; and a staff artist drew his impression of the Hook at work. Knightley’s editor approved the story, and it ran with the headline HOOK SEX PERVERT STRIKES AGAIN.
On Monday morning Knightley’s phone rang.
“Sergeant Williamson here. Did you write that stuff about the Hook?”
“Right. Well, I just want to thank you and let you know that we go the bastard this morning.”
“Yeah. Arrested him at Punchbowl station. Caught him in the act. You might want to write about it.”
“Thinking about it, as I still do from time to time, I came up with several explanations,” Knightley wrote in his 1997 memoir A Hack’s Progress. Possibly a copycat had read the story, emulated the Hook, and got caught. Possibly a Hook had really existed who coincidentally matched Knightley’s story. Or possibly the Sydney police had nominated a minor sex offender as the Hook in order to polish its record. “I decided that the last explanation was the most likely and, filled with guilt, I swore that would be the first and last time I would ever make up a story,” Knightley wrote. “This turned out to be a vow that was not easy to keep, because I soon fell in with the Fleet Street Royal press corps, which made up stories all the time.”
Miscellaneous Notes and Queries published a surprising find in November 1897: “a letter written by Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, found under a great stone sixty-five years after his crucifixion.” The stone, “both round and large” and engraved Blessed is he that shall turn me over, had been found “eighteen miles from Iconium, near a village called Mesopotamia.” “There came a little child, about six or seven years old, and turned it over without help, to the admiration of all the people that stood by, and under this stone was found a letter written by Jesus Christ … signed by the Angel Gabriel, ninety-eight years after our Saviour’s birth”:
Whosoever worketh on the Sabbath Day, shall be Cursed; I Command you to go to Church, and keep the Lord’s Day holy, without doing any Manner of Work. You shall not idly mispend your Time in bedecking yourselves with superfluities of costly Apparel, and vain Dresses, for I have ordained it a Day of Rest. I will have that day kept holy, that your Sins may be forgiven you; you shall not break my Commandments, but observe and keep them, written with my own Hand, write them in your Hearts, and steadfastly observe, this was written with my own Hand, spoken by my own Mouth. You shall not only go to Church yourselves, but also your Man-Servants and your Maid-Servants, and observe my words and learn my Commandments; you shall finish your Labour every Saturday in the Afternoon by six of the Clock, at which Hour the Preparation for the Sabbath begins. I advise you to fast five Fridays in every Year, beginning with Good-Friday, and to continue the four Fridays immediately following, in Remembrance of the five bloody Wounds I received for all Mankind; you shall diligently and peaceably labour in your respective Vocations wherein it hath pleased God to call you. You shall love one another with brotherly Love, and cause them that are not baptized to come to Church and hear the holy Sacrament, viz. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and be made Members thereof; in so doing I shall give you long Life and many blessings, and your Land shall replenish and bring forth Abundance; I will bring you many Blessings, and comfort you in the greatest Temptations, and surely he that doth to the contrary, shall be cursed and unprofitable. I will also send Hardness of Heart upon them, till I have destroyed them, but especially upon hardened and impenitent Unbelievers; he that hath given to the Poor, he shall not be unprofitable. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath-Day, for the seventh Day I have taken to rest myself.
It’s unfortunate that the Saviour had hidden his letter under a stone, as he was particularly eager that it be shared among the faithful:
He that hath a Copy of this Letter written with my own Hand, and spoken with my own Mouth, and keepeth it, without publishing it to others shall not prosper, but he that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me, and tho’ his Sins be in Number as the Stars in the Sky, and he believe in this shall be pardoned, and if he believe not this Writing and my Commandments, I will send my Plagues upon him, and consume both him and his Children and his Cattle; and whosoever shall have a Copy of this Letter written with my own Hand, and keep it in their Houses, nothing shall hurt them, neither Pestilence, Lightning nor Thunder shall do them any Hurt: and if a Woman be with Child and in Labour, and a Copy of this Letter be about her, and she firmly put her Trust in me, she shall safely be delivered of her Birth. You shall have no News of me, but by the Holy Spirit, till the Day of Judgment. All Goodness and Prosperity shall be in the House where a Copy of this Letter shall be found.
The editors note that the letter had originally been printed in London, and was later reprinted and sold in Boston “by I. Thomas, near the Mill-Bridge.” They offered it “as a curiosity,” noting that “it bears on its face a fraud.”
On April 10, 1818, John Cleves Symmes Jr. of Ohio issued the following challenge:
To All The World. — I declare the earth to be hollow and habitable within; containing a number of concentric spheres, one within the other, and that their poles are open twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the concave, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.
I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in autumn, with reindeer and sledges, on the ice of the Frozen Sea; I engage we find a warm country and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching about sixty-nine miles northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.
Kentucky senator (and future vice president) Richard M. Johnson proposed that Congress fund two vessels for the expedition, but Congress voted this down. But we have an account of the voyage anyway: An anonymous hoaxer published Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery under Symmes’ name in 1820.
Shortly before her death in 2006, British pianist Joyce Hatto released a series of acclaimed CDs on Concert Artist Recordings, a label owned by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe. Though she was battling cancer, Hatto’s output was both prolific and technically dazzling. “Even in the most daunting repertoire, her poise in the face of one pianistic storm after another is a source of astonishment,” wrote critic Bryce Morrison; Jeremy Nicholas called her “one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.”
But skepticism began to grow on the Internet, and in February 2007 Gramophone editor Jed Distler put Hatto’s recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Études into this computer and was surprised to find that iTunes identified it as the work of Hungarian pianist László Simon. On investigating, recording engineer Andrew Rose found that Hatto’s recordings of the Chopin etudes appeared to match those of Italian pianist Carlo Grante but had been manipulated electronically.
Barrington-Coupe defended the recordings at first, but finally confessed to Robert von Bahr, head of Sweden’s BIS label. In all, more than 100 recordings had been falsely attributed to Joyce. Barrington-Coupe maintained that she had been unaware of the fraud, though some critics dispute this; Von Bahr considered suing him but decided against it, considering the affair “a desperate attempt to build a shrine to a dying wife.”
Whatever the motive, the episode does seem to indict the judgment of some celebrated music critics. “Does it affect the way someone perceives a performance if the pianist is a healthy, respected but lowish-profile middle-aged man, or a dying, unjustly neglected British heroine?” asked the Independent. “Maybe it shouldn’t, but the extent to which it does has never been clearer.”
When the dowager recluse Ida Wood died in March 1932, she drew more than 1,000 people into a court battle over her $877,000 estate. As a social belle of the Gilded Age, Ida Mayfield had lit up the city with memories of dances with the Prince of Wales and dinners with Abraham Lincoln among the prominent Mayfields of New Orleans. She had married wealthy publisher Benjamin Wood and, on his death, withdrew to New York’s Herald Square hotel, where she was found dead at age 93.
At the news of her death, 406 connections of the Mayfield family filed claims against her fortune, but judge James A. Foley managed to disappoint all of them. Ida, he found, was not a Mayfield at all — she was Ida Walsh, the daughter of English-Irish immigrants who had arrived in Massachusetts shortly before the Civil War. At 19 she had changed her name to Mayfield in order to impress people at her New York debut, and the ruse had succeeded beyond her wildest hopes.
“She was plainly actuated by her desire to suppress her humble origin and to assume an alleged social standing in the period before and after her marriage to Benjamin Wood,” Foley wrote. “It is the jest of fortune that having attained wealth and prominence, she abandoned her pretenses at the age of 60 and retired in strict seclusion.” Calling Wood “a very peculiar woman,” he divided her fortune among 10 cousins.
On Sept. 21, 1929, each of the major Paris newspapers received a letter from a mysterious organization calling itself the Knights of Themis. The society had been formed, it said, to punish “swindlers, dishonest financiers and others of similar kidney” whom the authorities had failed to discourage.
First on its list was Joseph Eugene Clement Passal, a notorious confidence man who had just been released from Lille Prison after a paltry five-year sentence. Over the next several days, further letters told of Passal’s abduction and torture by a series of bizarre ordeals. Finally, on Sept. 26, he confessed the location of his ill-gotten loot, and his captors retrieved a box containing 10 million francs from the Forest of Essarts. Finding Passal hopelessly unrepentant, though, they resolved to kill him.
On Sept. 27 Passal’s mother received a letter in her son’s hand, confirming that he had been kidnapped, tortured, and sentenced to death. Six days later she received another letter, this one apparently from a repentant captor who thought his fellows had gone too far. He confided that Passal had been buried alive 75 miles west of Paris in a coffin that had been fitted with an airpipe to prolong his agony.
The authorities raced to the scene and found a freshly dug grave from which a tin airpipe protruded. In the coffin was Joseph Passal, dead. When detectives traced the purchaser of the airpipe they discovered Paris thief Henri Boulogne, who confessed everything. He and Passal had been cellmates in prison, and on Passal’s release they had rented a villa, where they had typed the letters and built the coffin. Passal directed his friend to bury him alive, expecting that the authorities would resurrect him and he could sell his story for millions.
The airpipe they had chosen was too small.
In 1879 Thérèse Humbert was traveling by railway through France when she met an ailing American millionaire named Robert Crawford. She sought medical care for him, and he showed his gratitude with a handsome bequest, which she kept in a sealed safe.
Or so she said. Humbert and her husband lived luxuriously in Paris for two decades, borrowing money against Crawford’s unseen gift. When suspicious creditors finally sued her, they discovered that Crawford didn’t exist and the safe contained a handful of worthless papers. She was sentenced to five years in prison.
In 1897 Ohio con artist Cassie Chadwick “confessed” to a Cleveland lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie and stood to inherit $10 million on his death. She parlayed his sympathy into a series of bank loans and lived lavishly until 1904, when she was unable to repay a Massachusetts banker. Carnegie, who denied her story, attended the trial and saw her sentenced to 10 years in prison. She died two years later in the Ohio State Penitentiary.
Director Curtis Bernhardt was midway through shooting My Reputation in 1944 when he encountered some trouble with one of the stars. Robert Archer insisted on wearing a jacket and shirt while mowing a lawn under the hot California sun.
Bernhardt pressed him, and to his surprise Archer said, “Okay, okay, I’m a girl.”
She was Tanis Chandler, a 20-year-old typist in a local brokerage office who’d gotten tired of waiting for acting jobs. Posing as Archer, she’d won a part in 1943′s The Desert Song, where robes and a burnoose had hid her shape. She’d done so well that the casting office had sent her out for Bernhardt’s film.
“The studios are always yelling about the lack of men,” she said. “I thought I’d have better luck in male roles. Oh, well.”
The Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. It was annexed by Hungary the next day. It had been independent for only 24 hours.
In December 2006, Belgian public television station RTBF reported that Dutch-speaking Flanders had declared independence and that Belgium as a nation had ceased to exist. Panicked viewers placed 2,600 calls to the station and crashed its website as they sought further information.
The station kept up the story for two hours, then admitted it was a hoax. “It’s very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. “We obviously scared many people,” acknowledged news director Yves Thiran. “Maybe more than we expected.”
During the oil boom of 1919, Wichita Falls, Texas, was desperate for office space, so investors jumped at developer J.D. McMahon’s offer to build a 480″ highrise downtown.
When the building turned out to be four stories tall, they double-checked the blueprints. McMahon had promised a building 480 inches tall, not 480 feet. And that’s what he’d delivered.
By that time he had decamped with the money.
Marvin Harold Hewitt was bright enough to find schoolwork boring, so he dropped out of high school. That didn’t hold him back:
- To get a job at 23, he claimed he was a Temple University undergraduate and found himself teaching arithmetic, geography, and history at Camp Hill Military Academy in Philadelphia.
- Discovering a taste for teaching, he borrowed the identity of Columbia physicist Julius Ashkin and began teaching calculus, algebra, and trigonometry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, where he also bluffed his way through managing a physics lab.
- Still posing as Ashkin, he taught analytical and solid geometry, algebra, and physics at the Bemidji State Teachers College in Minnesota; moved to St. Louis University, where he taught graduate courses in nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and tensor analysis; and arrived finally at the University of Utah, which hired him as a full professor of physics.
- Here his luck finally ran out — a number of people noticed discrepancies in his stories, and he had to admit his real identity and return to his mother in Philadelphia.
- Chastened but not discouraged, he applied next to teach at the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, posing as “George Hewitt,” a former research director of RCA. They hired him, but a former RCA employee exposed him the following spring and he was fired.
- Posing as “Clifford Berry,” he took a job teaching second- and third-year physics and calculus at the New York State Maritime College in the Bronx.
- Posing as “Kenneth P. Yates,” he taught physics at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where he was finally outed by a suspicious student amid publicity too wide to live down.
In all, Hewitt spent nine years teaching mathematics, engineering, and physics at seven different schools and universities, using forged credentials throughout. “The ease with which Hewitt obtained these jobs fills him with indignation,” reported Life magazine, which profiled him in 1954 when it was all over. “The unquestioning acceptance of a transcript and careless checking of references is, in his fairly expert opinion, a universal weakness throughout the U.S. higher educational system. When he considers what might have happened to a great many people had he made medicine or surgery his field, he shudders.”
In July 1833 the Earl of Stamford and Harrington received a letter signed “Martha Turner.” “It is with shame, indescribable shame, I presume to address your Lordship with these lines,” she wrote, “but from having a knowledge of your Lordship’s person from my infancy, and through the report of your Lordship’s sympathising and benevolent character, I am about entrusting a most unfortunate affair to your Lordship’s honour and secrecy.”
She had left her widowed mother at Christmas, she said, with a man who had promised to marry her but had left her “ruined and undone.” She begged for “a small pecuniary assistance,” pleading with the earl to rescue her “from entire destruction” and “a miserable death.”
Martha Turner didn’t exist. Her appeal was contrived and arranged by Joseph Underwood, one of about 250 letter-writing impostors who plagued England’s wealthy in the 1830s. Underwood had invented and written Martha’s letter in a woman’s hand, and he forged corroborating messages from her supposed seducer and from a clergyman supporting her story.
Underwood earned nearly £1,000 a year at this, which apparently made his frequent incarcerations worthwhile. “If the faculty of creation be one of the principal attributes of genius,” wrote John Grant in 1838, “Underwood was a genius of the first magnitude. The force and felicity of his imaginative facts were remarkable. Had he turned his attention to novel-writing, instead of to the profession of a begging-letter impostor, there is no saying how high his name might at this moment have stood in the current literature of the country.” Underwood chose otherwise — he died in Coldbath Fields Prison in 1838.
The book that Montgomery Carmichael published in 1902 seemed at first to be a straightforward biography:
The will of my friend Philip Walshe has put me in possession of a large and extraordinary collection of valuable MSS., and has at the same time laid upon me a task of no little delicacy and difficulty. These MSS. are the voluminous works of his father, the late Mr. John William Walshe, F.S.A., who died on the 2nd July 1900, aged sixty-three, at Assisi, in Umbria, where he had passed the latter half of his life. Mr. Walshe was well known to scholars as perhaps the greatest living authority on matters Franciscan: otherwise he had practically no fame. The busy world, at all events, knew him not.
“It takes some time to realize that this is all an elaborate piece of mystification,” wrote a Dial reviewer, “and to recall the fact that the name of Walshe does not figure in any actual list of Franciscan scholars, living or dead.”
The Life of John William Walshe is the detailed portrait of a man who never existed. Librarian Edmund Lester Pearson calls it “one of the most inexplicable examples of the literary hoax. … It contained not one atom of satire, it was not a parody, and so far as I, at least, could have discovered by internal evidence, it was what it purported to be: a sober and reverent biography of an Englishman dwelling in Italy, a devout member of the Church of Rome, and in particular an enthusiastic student and pious follower of St. Francis of Assisi.”
Carmichael was a member of the British consular service in Italy and the author of a number of European travel books. So far as I can tell, he never explained this work — he called it only “the story of a hidden life.”
Journalist George Shepard Chappell intended his Cruise of the Kawa (1921) as a burlesque on romantic South Sea adventure books — it records author “Walter E. Traprock’s” improbable adventures among the “Filbert Islands” of Polynesia:
The wak-wak has a mouth like a subway entrance and I was told that so great was his appetite for human flesh that when, as occasionally happened, some unfortunate swimmer had been eaten by a shark, a wak-wak was sure to come rushing up and bolt shark, man and all. Consequently I did most of my swimming in the lagoon.
Chappell salted the whole book with nonsense: “Captain Ezra Triplett” is shown holding a flintlock pistol carved out of wood, and the nest of the “Fatu-liva” bird is shown to contain “four snow-white, polka-dotted cubes.” Author Traprock’s other books are even listed as Through Borneo on a Bicycle, Around Russia on Roller Skates, Who’s Hula in Hawaii, and How to Explore, and What.
Inevitably, though, it received several serious reviews, and at least one reader responded to the book’s ad for an excursion to the South Seas in order to “see the cute cannibals.” So — after an interval of bemused blinking, one imagines — Chappell gamely followed it up with My Northern Exposure (1922) and Sarah of the Sahara: a Romance of Nomads Land (1925).
One of the most eminent architects in the kingdom once showed the accompanying photograph to a number of his colleagues. Had they ever seen such an exquisitely carved capital? They had not; and they said so. Then arose disputes as to the precise nature of the architecture. Finally sundry big wagers were made, and then the architect gravely proceeded to explain the structure of the column and its capital. This he did by producing his Malacca walking-stick and a few sprigs of succulent broccoli, such as are seen in Fig. 19. Naturally enough, however, after many abstruse disquisitions on mediæval architecture had been given on the subject of the mysterious pillar, this explanation of the photograph was received in silent disgust.
– William G. FitzGerald, “Some Curiosities of Modern Photography,” Strand, January 1895
In 1959, Down Beat editor Gene Lees invited Don DiMicheal to be his Louisville correspondent. DiMicheal sent an item about blues singer Blind Orange Adams, and Lees ran it, “because I so respected and therefore trusted Don’s knowledge of the earlier forms of jazz and the blues.”
When the issue appeared he got a panicked phone call. “That was a joke,” DiMicheal said. “I thought you’d get a laugh and take it out of my copy. It’s a pun on Blind Lemon Jefferson! Jefferson, Adams — get it?”
“Too late now,” Lees said. He told the magazine’s editors and publisher, and they began inserting joking references to Blind Orange into their copy. “The career of Blind Orange Adams blossomed during those years,” Lees told author Bill Crow for Jazz Anecdotes (2005). “Soon there was mail about him, and DiMicheal went so far as to rent a postal box and to found the Blind Orange Adams Appreciation Society.”
The joke reached its peak when Lees received a letter from a New York record label that wanted to find and record Adams. “I tried a desperate ploy. I wrote to the company saying that Blind Orange didn’t trust people, and the only one he would deal with was DeMicheal. He would agree to do an album only if DeMicheal and I produced it.” He planned to record saxophonist Eddie Harris as the mysterious singer, but the record label insisted on meeting their artist.
“I can no longer say with certainty what we did to resolve the situation,” Lees said, “but I seem to recall that Don wrote a story killing Blind Orange off in a car crash.”
In 1871 a man calling himself Lord Gordon-Gordon arrived in Minneapolis. He said he had come to purchase about 50,000 acres of Minnesota land to resettle some tenants from his ancestral estates in Scotland. After selecting the land he traveled to New York, ostensibly to arrange a transfer of funds. There his apparent wealth attracted financier Jay Gould and editor Horace Greeley, and the three formed a partnership to gain a controlling interest in the troubled Erie Railroad. Gould gave his new friend $1 million in cash and securities as a gesture of good faith.
When Gould discovered that Gordon-Gordon was selling these, he realized he had been conned, but the swindler fled to Canada before he could be tried. There he escaped an attempt to kidnap him and eluded capture until 1874. When officers finally confronted him with charges of larceny and forgery, he drew a revolver and shot himself.
To this day, his real identity remains unknown. A Scottish peer he certainly was not: It turned out that before coming to America he had swindled Englishmen and Scotsmen out of some $50,000 while posing as “Lord Glencairn.” “Whatever and whoever he was,” writes historian Edward Harold Mott, “he had genius enough to deceive the shrewdest financiers, the greatest editor, and the most brilliant lawyers of this country.”
The residents of Waterloo, Iowa, were surprised to find a 36-foot airship in their midst in April 1897. Constructed of canvas and wood and fitted out with “compressors and generators,” the ship was attended by several “operators” who told the townspeople that they had come from San Francisco. Five thousand Iowans surrounded the machine, but the men forbade them “to inspect the machinery, and any attempt to cross the rope fence … was met with an order to stay out.” When one of the “crew” said that “one man had fallen overboard just before landing,” the townspeople organized a party to search the river for him when they realized that “the entire affair was a joke.” (Des Moines Leader, April 11, 1897)
A rash of airship sightings swept the western United States that month. If the pilots were aliens, they had some endearingly quaint technology — here’s an account from the Houston Daily Post:
Merkel, Texas, April 26. Some parties returning from church last night noticed a heavy object dragging along with a rope attached. They followed it until in crossing the railroad it caught on a rail. On looking up they saw what they supposed was the airship. It was not near enough to get an idea of the dimensions. A light could be seen protruding from several windows; one bright light in front like the headlight of a locomotive. After some ten minutes a man was seen descending the rope; he came near enough to be plainly seen. He wore a light blue sailor suit, was small in size. He stopped when he discovered parties at the anchor and cut the ropes below him and sailed off in a northeast direction. The anchor is now on exhibition at the blacksmith shop of Elliott and Miller and is attracting the attention of hundreds of people.
Feeling mischievous in 1874, Nevada journalist Dan De Quille invented the story of Jonathan Newhouse, “a man of considerable inventive genius” who waded into Death Valley wearing “solar armor,” essentially a suit made of sponge that was wetted continually from an india-rubber sack. “Thus, by the evaporation of the moisture in the armor, it was calculated might be produced almost any degree of cold.”
De Quille published a deadpan report of the tragic outcome in the Territorial Enterprise of July 2: Newhouse’s corpse was found 20 miles inside the desert, “dead and frozen stiff.” “His beard was covered with frost and — though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays — an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably, because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.”
Amazingly, even in the heyday of newspaper hoaxes this was largely taken seriously. Scientific American reported it without comment, and London’s Daily Telegraph wrote only that “we should require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.”
De Quille obliged, reporting that Newhouse’s carpet-sack had been found to contain a collection of chemicals that the inventor had apparently combined into “some frigorific mixture.” Apparently he had been wetting the suit with this, not with water, and had inadvertently drenched himself with it while trying to unlace the suit. Whether this satisfied the Telegraph is unclear — they never responded.
In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:
My dear Ella,
I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’
I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.
Your affect. friend,
Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:
I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?
“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”
My dear Ella,
I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!
Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.
Two phantom towns appeared on Michigan’s official state map in 1978. Their names, Goblu and Beatosu, showed pretty clearly that the culprit was a University of Michigan graduate, and state highway commission chairman Peter Fletcher admitted to asking a cartographer to add them. A fellow UM alum had teased him that the Mackinac bridge was painted green and white, the colors of rival Michigan State, and Fletcher had found a surreptitious way to support his alma mater.
Fletcher noted in a 2008 interview that he took care to place the fake towns in Ohio, safely outside Michigan state lines. “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe,” he said.
“A more personal example of creative cartography is Mount Richard, which in the early 1970s suddenly appeared on the continental divide on a county map prepared in Boulder, Colorado,” writes Mark Monmonier in How to Lie With Maps (1991). “Believed to be the work of Richard Ciacci, a draftsman in the public works department, Mount Richard was not discovered for two years. Such pranks raise questions about the extent of yet-undetected mischief by mapmakers reaching for geographic immortality.”
In 1996, in order to demonstrate the undiscerning trendiness of postmodernism, NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article “liberally salted with nonsense” to the academic journal Social Text:
As Althusser rightly commented, ‘Lacan finally gives Freud’s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires.’ More recently, Lacan’s topologie du sujet has been applied fruitfully to cinema criticism and to the psychoanalysis of AIDS. In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts.
It was published even though Sokal refused to make any changes.
In 2005, MIT student Jeremy Stribling submitted a paper of computer-generated gibberish to the technology conference WMSCI:
One must understand our network configuration to grasp the genesis of our results. We ran a deployment on the NSA’s planetary-scale overlay network to disprove the mutually largescale behavior of exhaustive archetypes. First, we halved the effective optical drive space of our mobile telephones to better understand the median latency of our desktop machines. This step flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is instrumental to our results.
It was accepted when none of three reviewers rejected it.
French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov insist that their papers on the Big Bang are genuine contributions to physical cosmology, but mathematician John Baez calls them “a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order.” That battle is still raging.
From the London Times, July 4, 1874, an account of an attack by a giant squid on the schooner Pearl, as told by its master to the rescuing steamer Strathowen:
I was lately the skipper of the ‘Pearl’ schooner, 150 tons, as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas, with a crew of six men. We were bound from the Mauritius for Rangoon in ballast to return with paddy, and had put in at Galle for water. Three days out we fell becalmed in the bay (lat. 8°50′N., long 84°5′ E.). On the 10th of May, about 5 p.m.,–eight bells I know had gone,–we sighted a two-masted screw on our port quarter, about five or six miles off; very soon after, as we lay motionless, a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half a mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary; it looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it seemed much longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun. ‘What’s that?’ I sung out to the mate. ‘Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour and shape, it might be a whale,’ replied Tom Scott; ‘And it ain’t the sea sarpent,’ said one of the crew, ‘for he’s too round for that ere crittur.’ I went into the cabin for my rifle, and as I was preparing to fire, Bill Darling, a Newfoundlander, came on deck, and, looking at the monster, exclaimed, putting up his hand, ‘Have a care, master; that ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.’ Smiling at the idea, I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook; there was a great ripple all round him, and he began to move. ‘Out with all your axes and knives,’ shouted Bill, ‘and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!’ Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way. By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length and just as thick; the wake or train might have been one hundred feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she heeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming ‘Slash for your lives;’ but all our slashing was of no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam-ends; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms; for a few seconds our ship lay on her beam-ends, then filled and went down; another of the crew must have been sucked down, for you only picked up five; the rest you know. I can’t tell who ran up the ensign.
“This tale has never been confirmed,” notes Bernard Heuvelmans, “and it may well have been an opportune hoax, for the Strathowen is not to be found in Lloyd’s Register for that year.”