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.
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.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at email@example.com. Thanks for listening!
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.,
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.”
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:
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).
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.
Excerpts from “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” a paper published by Horace Miner in the June 1956 edition of American Anthropologist:
- “They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east.”
- “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose.”
- “In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client.”
- “There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.”
It’s a satire. What’s Nacirema spelled backward?
Apparently bored in December 1936, the eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, placed an advertisement in the personals column of the London Times:
“Lord Berners wishes to dispose of two elephants and one small rhinoceros (latter house-trained). Would make delightful Christmas presents.”
When a newspaperman telephoned, Berners took the call himself, pretending to be the butler. “Actually, I haven’t seen the rhino, myself, sir,” he said, “but it’s often about the house. It’s quite gentle, I’m told. The weather was getting too cold for the elephants, so I’m glad they’ve gone. They went on Saturday. I understand Mr. Harold Nicolson has bought one and Lady Colefax the other. I hope they have good homes.”
A bewildered Nicolson found himself insisting, “I have NOT bought an elephant! I do not intend to buy one! I do not want an elephant, and I have nowhere to put an elephant! This looks like a joke. I have known Lord Berners for twenty-five years, but I don’t feel friendly to him this morning. I do not want an elephant, have never wanted one, and I have not bought one.”
The New York Times carried an alarming item on July 28, 1874: “A Dog and Man Fight in England,” about a dwarf named Brummy who had undertaken to fight a bulldog on a wager, “without weapons and without clothes, except his trousers.” The fight took place in “a quiet house,” where the combatants were chained to opposite walls, and Brummy agreed to assume all fours throughout. The first to knock out the other for 60 seconds was to be declared the victor:
The man was on all fours when the words ‘Let go’ were uttered, and, making accurate allowance for the length of the dog’s chain, he arched his back, cat wise, so as just to escape its fangs, and fetched it a blow on the crown of its head that brought it almost to its knees. The dog’s recovery, however, was instantaneous; and before the dwarf could draw back, Physic made a second dart forward, and this time its teeth grazed, the biped’s arm, causing a slight red trickling. He grinned scornfully, and sucked the place; but there was tremendous excitement among the bull-dog’s backers, who clapped their hands with delight, rejoicing in the honour of first blood.
After 10 rounds of this “the bull-dog’s head was swelled much beyond its accustomed size; it had lost two teeth, and one of its eyes was entirely shut up; while as for the dwarf, his fists, as well as his arms, were reeking, and his hideous face was ghastly pale with rage and despair of victory.” But then “the dwarf dealt him a tremendous blow under the chin, and with such effect that the dog was dashed against the wall, where, despite all its master could do to revive it it continued to lie, and being unable to respond when ‘time’ was called, Brummy was declared to be victorious.”
The Times, which had picked up the story from the London Telegraph, noted that in the ensuing outrage the Home Secretary had directed the mayor of Hanley to investigate, and as no confirmation could be found, “there is a strong hope that, after all, the whole thing is a canard.” The Telegraph, however, “stands by its correspondent, and insists upon the truth of the report.”
Here’s an imaginative newspaper hoax from the American West — James Wickham, a “scientific English gentleman,” was said to have released two 35-foot whales in the Great Salt Lake in 1873:
Mr. Wickham came from London in person to superintend the ‘planting’ of his leviathan pets. He selected a small bay near the mouth of Bear River connected with the main water by a shallow strait half a mile wide. Across this strait he built a wide fence, and inside the pen so formed he turned the whales loose. After a few minutes inactivity they disported themselves in a lively manner, spouting water as in mid-ocean, but as if taking in by instinct or intention the cramped character of their new home, they suddenly made a bee line for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads. In twenty minutes they were out of sight, and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.
If Great Salt lake were in Asia it would be called a sea. It is seventy-five miles long and from thirty to forty wide, so it is easy to perceive how readily the whales could vanish from sight. Though the enterprising owner was of course, disappointed and doubtful of the results, he left an agent behind him to look after his floating property.
Six months later Mr. Wickham’s representative came upon the whales fifty miles from the bay where they had broken away, and from that time to the present they have been observed at intervals by him and the watermen who ply the lake, spouting and playing.
Within the last few days, however, Mr. Wickham cabled directions to make careful inspection and report the developments, and the agent followed the whales for five successive days and nights, discovering that the original pair are now sixty feet in length, and followed about by a school of several hundred young, varying in length from three to fifteen feet. The scheme is a surprising and complete success, and Mr. Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.
I’m not sure when it first appeared. The earliest publication I can find is in the Salt Lake Herald of June 27, 1890, which noted that the article was “again going the rounds” and reprinted it “merely to show that while great interest is taken by the country generally in that wonderful body of water known as the Great Salt lake, there is also great ignorance shown by outside people who endeavor to explain its beauties and advantages.”
In 1881, as the nation was mourning James Garfield’s assassination, the following advertisement appeared in 200 newspapers:
I have secured the authorized steel engravings of the late President Garfield, executed by the United States Government, approved by the President of the United States, by Congress and by every member of the President’s family as the most faithful of all portraits of the President. It was executed by the Government’s most expert steel engravers, and I will send a copy from the original plate, in full colors approved by the Government, postpaid, for one dollar each.
Each reader who sent in a dollar received the promised engraving — on a 5¢ postage stamp.
Physician Eugene Lazowski was practicing medicine in the Polish town of Rozwadów when he discovered that injecting healthy patients with dead bacteria could cause them to test positive for epidemic typhus without experiencing any symptoms.
Working secretly with his friend Stanislaw Matulewicz, Lazowski began injecting thousands of Poles in the surrounding villages, deliberately creating the appearance of an epidemic. Fearful of a contagious illness, the Nazis quarantined the affected villages rather than sending their residents on to concentration camps.
Lazowski’s efforts saved an estimated 8,000 men, women, and children who would otherwise have been sent to prisons, slave labor camps, or death camps. He survived the war and moved to the United States in 1958, where he taught medicine in Illinois.
“He’s why I became a doctor,” one of the spared villagers, Jan Hryniewiezki, told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. “He was a patriotic hero because he wasn’t afraid to do what he did during very bad times.”
“The basic duty of a physician is to preserve life,” Lazowski explained, “and this was a way of saving lives.”
To amuse themselves in 1907, librarians Edmund Lester Pearson and John Cotton Dana published The Old Librarian’s Almanack, a pamphlet they alleged to have been written originally in 1773 by Jared Bean, “curator or librarian of the Connecticut Society of Antiquarians,” and evidently a man of strong opinions:
So far as your Authority will permit of it, exercise great Discrimination as to which Persons shall be admitted to the use of the Library. For the Treasure House of Literature is no more to be thrown open to the ravages of the unreasoning Mob, than is a fair Garden to be laid unprotected at the Mercy of a Swarm of Beasts.
Question each Applicant closely. See that he be a Person of good Reputation, scholarly habits, sober and courteous Demeanour. Any mere Trifler, a Person that would Dally with Books, or seek in them shallow Amusement, may be Dismiss’d without delay.
The book was reviewed seriously in the New York Sun, the New York Times, the Hartford Courant, Publisher’s Weekly, the Newburyport Daily News, the Providence Sunday Journal, and even the Library Association Record, which asked “what librarian would not at times in his secret soul sympathize” with Bean’s irritation with patrons who disturbed his reading time.
Finally Helen E. Haines of the Library Journal discerned the hoax, and the library community realized it had been had. Public Libraries wrote, “We congratulate the author of the book on being so clever to project himself into the past, as to deceive even the very elect. The book is well worth owning and reading. Let us be thankful that one with humor, imagination and sympathy has created for us dear old Jared with his gentle comradeship and his ardent love of books.”
Franz Bibfeldt is unusual among theologians — he doesn’t exist. In 1947, divinity student Robert Clausen invented the name for a fictitious footnote in a term paper at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and his classmate Martin Marty then wrote a review of Bibfeldt’s book The Relieved Paradox in the seminary magazine. The book was imaginary, but the conspirators arranged for it to be cataloged at the school library and always checked out.
When the hoax was discovered, the perpetrators were reprimanded and Marty was sent to Chicago, where he eventually rose to become a dean at the University of Chicago divinity school. So, Marty said, “Bibfeldt had more influence on me than any other theologian.”
Under Marty’s influence, Bibfeldt grew into an invisible mainstay at the school. A display case in the entry hall was filled with signed photographs of mayor Richard Daley, Spiro Agnew, Illinois senator Charles Percy, former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, and the 1971 Playmate of the Year, all inscribed to Bibfeldt, and an annual symposium featuring bratwurst and beer was held each year on the Wednesday closest to April Fool’s Day. Graduates eventually spread Bibfeldt’s gospel elsewhere — he’s noted in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation; a session at the American Association of Religions meeting in 1988 was devoted to Bibfeldt; and in 1994 the evangelical satire magazine The Wittenberg Door named him theologian of the year.
Bibfeldt himself is characteristically modest — reportedly he has given only one interview, and that to Howard Hughes — but his acts are famous:
- He adapted the Sermon on the Mount for American audiences, writing, “Blessed are the happy who have everything, because they won’t need to be comforted” and “Blessed are the impeccably dressed, because they will look nice when they see God.”
- He responded sharply to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or with a treatise titled Both/And, followed by the conciliatory Either/Or and/or Both/And.
- Other publications include A Pragmatist’s Paraphrase of Selected Sayings of Jesus, The Boys of Sumer: Akkadian Origins of the National Pastime, I Hear What You’re Saying, But I Just Don’t Care: Thoughts on Pastoral Counseling, Luther on Vacation: From Worms to Cancun, and The Wealth of King Solomon: A Hebrew Scripture Prefigurement of Sports Contracts.
- “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” he wrote. “Yet, with genetic engineering, we can now breed very small camels.”
“We use him very mildly, gently, to satirize the whole theological system,” Marty said. “There’s really no malice in it.”
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.