Hoaxes

Different Strokes

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In 1964, Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson paid a zookeeper to give a brush and paint to a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. Then he chose the best of Peter’s paintings and exhibited them at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, saying they were the work of a previously unknown French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten wrote, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

After Axelsson revealed the hoax, Anderberg maintained that Peter’s work was “still the best painting in the exhibition.”

Reverses

In one oft-repeated anecdote from the memoirs of Melville Stone, publisher of the Chicago Daily News in the 1870s, the News suspected that the Chicago Post and Mail, published by the McMullen brothers, was pirating its stories. The News retaliated by printing an account of a famine in Serbia, in which the local mayor was quoted as saying (ostensibly in Serbian) ‘Er us siht la Etsll iws nel lum cmeht.’ When the afternoon edition of the Post and Mail duly reproduced the quote, Stone ran to all the other Chicago papers to reveal the hoax: read backward, the supposed quote said ‘The McMullens will steal this sure.’ According to Stone, the Post and Mail never recovered from the embarrassment, and the Daily News was able to buy it for a pittance less than two years later.

— Stuart Banner, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own, 2011

(Thanks, Keith.)

Podcast Episode 89: An African From Baltimore

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In the 1920s Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola toured the United States and Europe to share the culture of his African homeland with fascinated audiences. The reality was actually much more mundane: His name was Joseph Lee and he was from Baltimore. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the curious story of this self-described “savage” and trace the unraveling of his imaginative career.

We’ll also dump a bucket of sarcasm on Duluth, Minnesota, and puzzle over why an acclaimed actor loses a role.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Bata LoBagola:

Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, LoBagola: An African Savage’s Own Story, 1930.

David Killingray and Willie Henderson, “Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola and the Making of An African Savage’s Own Story,” in Bernth Lindfors, Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business, 1999.

Alex Pezzati, “The Scholar and the Impostor,” Expedition 47:2 (Summer 2005), 6.

James Olney, Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature, 2015.

Louis Chude-Sokei, The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora, 2005.

John Strausbaugh, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, 2007.

Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn LoBagola papers, New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts.

Jim Christy, “Scalawags: Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola,” Nuvo, Summer 2013.

Kentucky representative James Proctor Knott’s derisive panegyric on Duluth, Minnesota, was delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 27, 1871.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ben Snitkoff, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Enter promo code CLOSET at Harry’s and get $5 off your first order of high-quality razors.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 84: The Man Who Never Was

2015-12-07-podcast-episode-84-the-man-who-never-was

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

In 1942, Germany discovered a dead British officer floating off the coast of Spain, carrying important secret documents about the upcoming invasion of Europe. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Operation Mincemeat, which has been called “the most imaginative and successful ruse” of World War II.

We’ll also hear from our listeners about Scottish titles and mountain-climbing pussycats and puzzle over one worker’s seeming unwillingness to help another.

Sources for our feature on Operation Mincemeat:

Denis Smyth, Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat, 2010.

Richard E. Gorini, “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory,” The Army Lawyer, March 2011, 39-42.

Klaus Gottlieb, “The Mincemeat Postmortem: Forensic Aspects of World War II’s Boldest Counterintelligence Operation,” Military Medicine 174:1 (January 2009), 93-9.

Gerald Kloss, “‘Dead Man’ Trick That Fooled Hitler,” Milwaukee Journal, Jan. 28, 1954.

“The Germans Fooled by False Documents,” Montreal Gazette, April 30, 1954.

Ewen Montagu, “The Debt the Allies Owe to the Man Who Never Was,” Sydney Morning Herald, March 15, 1953.

“Mourner for ‘Man Who Never Was'”, Glasgow Herald, Dec. 24, 1959.

Listener mail:

Highland Titles

“Can You Really Become a Lord of the Scottish Highlands for Less than $50.00?”, HG.org (retrieved Dec. 3, 2015).

Links on mountain-climbing cats:

Peter Glaser, “Die Katze, die das Matterhorn bestieg,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 6, 2015 (retrieved Dec. 3, 2015).

“Hello Kitty? The Curious History of Cats Who Climb Mountains,” One Hundred Mountains, Feb. 25, 2013 (retrieved Dec. 3, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is from Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 81: The Typhus Hoax

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In 1939, as Germany was sending the people of Poland to labor and death camps, two doctors found a unique way to save their countrymen — by faking an epidemic. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about their clever plan, which ultimately saved 8,000 people.

We’ll also consider four schemes involving tiny plots of land and puzzle over why a library would waive its fees for a lost book.

Sources for our feature on Eugene Lazowski:

Damon Adams, “2 Doctors Used Typhus to Save Thousands in Wartime,” American Medical News, July 5, 2004.

Yoav Goor, “When the Test Tube Was Mightier Than the Gun: A Polish Doctor Out-Frightens the Nazis,” Israel Medical Association Journal, 15:4 (April 2013), 198.

Bernard Dixon, “Mimicry and More,” British Medical Journal, Nov. 24, 1990.

Mohammad Mooty and Larry I Lutwick, “Epidemic Typhus Fever,” in Larry I. Lutwick and Suzanne M. Lutwick, Beyond Anthrax: The Weaponization of Infectious Diseases, 2009.

Trevor Jensen, “Dr. Eugene Lazowski: 1913-2006,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 2006.

Listener mail:

J. Craig Anderson, “Cards Against Humanity Buys Remote Maine Island, Calls It ‘Hawaii 2’,” Portland Press Herald, December 24, 2014.

Sarah Hulett, “Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty,” NPR, March 4, 2010.

Wikipedia, The Good Earth (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album).

Weekend Telegraph, “Sitting on a Slice of the Good Earth,” Sept. 23, 1995.

Patrick Barkham, “What Greenpeace Could Learn From Manfred Mann About Saving the Environment,” Guardian, July 5, 2015.

Paul Evans, “Diversionary Tactics — The Imaginative Campaigns Protecting the Countryside From Developers,” Guardian, March 31, 2009.

Wikipedia, “Alice’s Meadow.”

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

In a Word

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conticent
adj. keeping silence, silent

As a joke, Elbert Hubbard published an “Essay on Silence” that consisted of 12 blank pages, bound in brown suede and stamped with gold. It was advertised with these testimonials:

“Your elaborate work on ‘Silence’ received, and perused this day. The depth of your argument is perceptible from the start. The continued logic is convincing to the end, and makes its impression on the attentive mind. It is singular how much can be said in a limited space. You are certainly master of our language.” — G.E.Nelson

“Kindly accept my heartiest thanks for your little volume on ‘Silence.’ The subject is treated so exhaustively, and in such a quaintly original manner, that it is beyond the pale of criticism.” — Alex L. Pach

“Your valuable ‘Essay on Silence’ is a masterpiece, for it appeals to one in purity, like a cloudless sky. The language is grand as the voice of God; the story it tells is as deep in its meaning as that which is written on the pages of the book of Nature.” — Albert J. Atkins

“Your ‘Essay on Silence’ is all that the bills promised, and could not be more to the point. Thirty cents is exactly the right price.” — Alice L. LeCouver

“It is with great pleasure that I have looked into your ‘Essay on Silence.’ There is nothing in it to prevent its becoming a classic. No word has been wasted, and there is not one line that can be misunderstood. In the perusal of many writings, we realize that the same thought has been framed in our own minds without having been given an utterance; and so it is that this last work of yours has found me most sympathetic and appreciative, for in turning over your pages I am struck frequently with resemblances to my own mental condition. Your little book is simple, direct and convincing. I am reminded, in putting it down, of a certain passage in the biblical story, in which it is set forth that from nothing God made heaven and earth and all that therein is, consequently it is not surprising that you in this case have done so well.” — George W. Stevens

The Masked Marauders

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In 1969, as a joke, Rolling Stone published a review of a nonexistent album by a nonexistent band, a supposed “supergroup” made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. Editor Greil Marcus had intended this as a self-evident parody of groups like Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but readers began clamoring for the album. So Marcus and editor Langdon Winner recruited a Berkeley skiffle band and retroactively recorded a few of the songs that had been mentioned in the review.

When California radio stations began to play these songs, the hoax took on a life of its own. Marcus began to shop the band to major labels, and Warner Bros. won the contract with a $15,000 advance. The Masked Marauders came out that November with liner notes making it clear that the whole thing was a joke. Nonetheless, on the strength of its own bootstrapped glamor the record sold 100,000 copies and spent 12 weeks on the Billboard charts.

Related: In 2004 Dave Stewart and Kara DioGuardi invented a band called Platinum Weird that they insisted had existed in 1974. Supposedly it had been a partnership between Stewart and a mysterious singer/songwriter named Erin Grace who, among other accomplishments, had introduced Stevie Nicks to Lindsey Buckingham. In July 2006 VH1 even aired a documentary in which Ringo Starr, Bob Geldof, Elton John, and Mick Jagger pretended to reminisce about the band. On the same day, though, Stewart admitted to the Los Angeles Times that the whole thing had been a hoax.

“Lots of artists from the ’60s created mythology about themselves,” he said. “We’re in our own perception of our own world. So what’s reality and what’s not?”

(Thanks, Jeremy.)

Podcast Episode 36: The Great Moon Hoax

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In 1835 the New York Sun announced that astronomers had discovered bat-winged humanoids on the moon, as well as reindeer, unicorns, bipedal beavers and temples made of sapphire. The fake news was reprinted around the world, impressing even P.T. Barnum; Edgar Allan Poe said that “not one person in ten” doubted the story. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the Great Moon Hoax, the first great sensation of the modern media age.

We’ll also learn why Montana police needed a rabbi and puzzle over how a woman’s new shoes end up killing her.

Sources for our segment on the Great Moon Hoax:

Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon, 2008.

The Museum of Hoaxes has an excellent summary of the hoax and its significance in media history, including the text of all six articles.

Listener mail:

Lauren May, “Terrified Banstead Family Confronted by ‘Dark Figure’ on Bypass,” Epsom Guardian, Feb. 23, 2012.

Michael Munro, “‘The Springer’ Leaps From WW2 Urban Legend to Anti-Fascist Superhero,” io9, Sept. 3, 2014 (accessed Nov. 30, 2014).

Eric A. Stern, “Yes, Miky, There Are Rabbis in Montana,” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2009.

“Body of Boy Found as Snow Melts,” The Hour, March 1, 1978.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Occupational Hazards

In 1974, British physician Elaine Murphy read a letter in the British Medical Journal regarding “guitar nipple,” a form of contact dermatitis found in some guitarists. Thinking the letter was a joke, Murphy composed a letter of her own and sent it in over her husband’s signature. To their surprise, the journal published it:

SIR, — Though I have not come across ‘guitar nipple’ as reported by Dr. P. Curtis (27 April, p. 226), I did once come across a case of ‘cello scrotum’ caused by irritation from the body of the cello. The patient in question was a professional musician and played in rehearsal, practice, or concert for several hours each day. — I am, etc.,

J.M. Murphy

The condition was referenced in other medical journals over the ensuing years. When it was mentioned again in BMJ in 2008 the couple admitted their hoax. “Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim,” Murphy, now a member of the House of Lords, wrote.

“We may have to organise a formal retraction or correction now,” said a spokesman for the journal. “Once these things get into the scientific literature, they stay there for good. But it all adds to the gaiety of life.”

Black Mischief

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Max Beerbohm was regularly flummoxed by the crossword in the London Times. So in 1940, mad for vengeance, he devised a puzzle that was completely impossible and submitted it to the editors. “No doubt you, like most people, have sometimes thought of some utterly awful thing that you could do if you chose to, some disastrous and devastating thing the very thought of which has brought cold sweat to your brow?” he prompted. “And you may have at some time thought: ‘Suppose I released into the columns of The Times, one of these fine days, a Crossword Puzzle with clues signifying nothing — nothing whatsoever,’ and may have hideously pictured to yourself the effect on all the educated parts of Great Britain?”

They published it. A selection of clues:

ACROSS

9. An insect with a girl on each side (8).
12. The cockney’s goddess appears to have been a slimmer (6).
22. A nudist’s aunt? (6).
26. Not what the wicket-keeper tries for in Essex (6).

DOWN

6. Wordsworth’s fan mail? (8).
8. They are up and going, no doubt, in ‘the sweet o’ the year’ (8).
13. Little Tommy thought it meant a red-faced blacksmith (10).
19. Such buns are eaten on a good day (two words) (3, 5).

The newspaper published Beerbohm’s letter along with the puzzle, so solvers were forewarned. But he did have his revenge: He announced that six of the clues were actually solvable — but wouldn’t say which six.