On Oct. 15, 1856, the London Times published an alarming account of a rail journey in Georgia — the author, “John Arrowsmith of Liverpool,” claimed that half a dozen duels had broken out during a single day’s ride:
Of the two dozen passengers fifteen are mentioned as entering more or less into the action of the drama; twelve took a direct part in duels; six were killed, and three were left on the way fighting. Four of the duels were fought at convenient spots, the train stopping for the purpose; one was fought in the luggage car while the train was in motion; and the one with uncertain results was fought at a regular stopping place. Three of the dead bodies were left behind; one was carried from the scene of the duel and deposited on the luggage; another lay where it fell in the luggage car; another was throw out on the roadside.
After a torrent of ridicule from the American press, the retraction-shy Times tried to claim that the affair had taken place in 1828 — but that was “some dozen years,” one critic noted, “before the erection of a railroad in Georgia, or the invention of revolvers, the terrible weapons used upon the sanguinary occasion.” The hoaxer was never identified.
A publishing sensation swept the United States in 1926: The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765 offered scandalous insights into 18th-century society through the observations of one Cleone Knox, who met Louis XV at Versailles, was introduced to Voltaire in Switzerland, and led a pretty eventful private life:
March 3rd . This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say good night to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but half way up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying prostrate on the ground!
America swooned, and the book went through nine editions in two months. One critic wrote, “No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century.”
Alas, a modern girl had. Embarrassed by the publicity, 19-year-old Magdalen King-Hall came forward to say that she had invented the tale using books from the Brighton town reference library. “I wrote the book in a few weeks,” she said, “but, if I had realized so many distinguished people would have taken it seriously, I should have spent much more time and pains upon it.” She had not meant to deceive anyone — but perhaps her publisher had.
In 1913, German acrobat Otto Witte was traveling through the Balkans when Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. A fellow circus performer noted Witte’s resemblance to Prince Halim Eddine, whom a local faction were entreating to head the new state.
Witte maintained that he forged a couple of telegrams, arrived in the fledgling nation posing as Eddine, took control of the military, and was proclaimed king. For five days he disported with harem girls, ordered amnesty for prisoners, and distributed gold among the local chieftains. When inquiries began to arrive from Constantinople, he slipped out of town “to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”
Skeptics note that this story is uncomfortably close to The Prisoner of Zenda, whose first film adaptation had appeared in that year. But Witte insisted the story was true, pointing to his official identity card, issued by the Berlin police, which listed his occupation as “circus entertainer” and “onetime king of Albania.” He seems to have convinced at least himself of the tale — when Witte died in 1958, Time noted that he would accept only mail that was addressed to “Otto I, ex-King of Albania.”
This is James Norman Hall. He co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, operated a machine gun for the Royal Fusiliers, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and spent months as a German POW.
And he wrote the poetry of a 9-year-old girl.
Literally. In 1938 a girl came to Hall in a troubled dream and began dictating poems to him about life in his childhood home of Colfax, Iowa. “She told me things about people in our hometown that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had.”
He typed them up and published them under the title Oh, Millersville!, claiming they were the rediscovered work of a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmgirl named Fern Gravel:
Oh, it is wonderful in Millersville
On many a winter night,
When the ground is covered with snow
And the moon is shining so bright.
You can hear the sleigh-bells jingling
I don’t think there could be
A more beautiful sound.
Keats it ain’t, but its homely charm brought writeups in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hall let six years elapse before he published a confession in the Atlantic Monthly, explaining that he’d been ruminating on the evils of industrialization when the girl’s voice had entered his thoughts. The voice, it seemed, remained: Hall wrote a dozen more books and moved to Tahiti, but in his autobiography he wrote that “Iowa, for all the years I have been away from it, has always been, and still is, home for me.”
Posing as a surveyor, English prankster Horace de Vere Cole asked a passerby to hold one end of a length of string while he made a measurement. He chose the “pompous sort of good citizen of the bowler hat and rolled umbrella sort,” according to his friend David Scott-Moncrieff. Then he walked around a corner and give the other end to “another consequential ass.”
“Both victims held their ends for fully ten minutes, each invisible to the other, while the perpetrator of the joke quietly slipped away and joined me in a pub commanding a full view of the fun,” Scott-Moncrieff wrote later. “It succeeded far better than I had dared to hope, due to his brilliant selection of two absolutely perfect victims. Each blamed the other, and they nearly came to blows.”
On his honeymoon in 1919, Cole deposited neat piles of horse manure on Venice’s Piazza San Marco … which was devoid of horses. More of his pranks.
Literary critic A.N. Wilson panned Bevis Hillier’s 1988 biography of John Betjeman. To get even, Hillier forged a love letter ostensibly written by Betjeman in 1944 and forwarded it to Wilson under the name Eve de Harben (an anagram for “Ever been had?”). Wilson took the bait and included the forged letter in his own biography of Betjeman, which was published in 2005.
Here’s the letter. It contains a hidden message — can you find it?
I loved yesterday. All day, I’ve thought of nothing else. No other love I’ve had means so much. Was it just an aberration on your part, or will you meet me at Mrs Holmes’s again — say on Saturday? I won’t be able to sleep until I have your answer.
Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course, but I have a Romaunt of the Rose feeling about it too. On Saturday we could have lunch at Fortt’s, then go back to Mrs. H’s. Never mind if you can’t make it then. I am free on Sunday too or Sunday week. Signal me tomorrow as to whether and when you can come.
Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v funny. He’s somebody I’d like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books. Tinkerty-tonk, my darling. I pray I’ll hear from you tomorrow. If I don’t I’ll visit your office in a fake beard.
All love, JB
In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:
In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.
Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.
“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”
“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”
In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”
So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.
The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.
He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?
In 1875, the Associated Press reported a novel business enterprise being planned near Lacon, Ill. A prospectus summed it up:
Glorious Opportunity To Get Rich!!! — We are starting a cat ranch in Lacon with 100,000 cats. Each cat will average 12 kittens a year. The cat skins will sell for 30 cents each. One hundred men can skin 5,000 cats a day. We figure a daily net profit of over $10,000. Now what shall we feed the cats? We will start a rat farm next door with 1,000,000 rats. The rats breed 12 times faster than the cats. So we will have four rats to feed each day to each cat. Now what shall we feed the rats? We will feed the rats the carcasses of the cats after they have been skinned. Now Get This! We feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats and get the cat skins for nothing!
It was only a hoax dreamed up by local newsman Willis Powell, but, legitimized by AP’s coverage, the story bounced around the country for 65 years before the National Press Club finally debunked it in 1940. There’s a moral here somewhere.
Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:
This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.
That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.
The measure passed unanimously.
A well-known story is that of the showman who had a big placard on his tent, announcing that he was exhibiting a horse with his tail where his head ought to be. The inquisitive paid their money, were admitted within, beheld a horse turned around so that his tail was in the oat-bin, laughed shamefacedly, and then lingered outside the tent to watch their fellow-creatures get victimized in the same way.
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
Prosper Mérimée is best known as the author of Carmen, the novella that inspired Bizet’s opera. But he began his career as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1820s, where a passing fad for Spanish literature led him to commit a modest hoax — he published Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of plays supposedly written by a Spanish actress.
The effort worked: The plays were well received and launched Mérimée’s career. But some admirers wondered — if Clara Gazul doesn’t really exist, who is the fetching Spanish lady in the book’s frontispiece?
It’s Mérimée in drag.
In January 1749, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that “let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The earl agreed, and shortly afterward the London newspapers announced a wonderful new performer:
He presents you with a common Wine Bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this Bottle is placed on a Table in the middle of the Stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it, in the sight of all the Spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.
A crowd packed the theater on the appointed night and, when the performer failed to appear, they rioted, gutting the building. It was jokingly said afterward that perhaps the man had been corked during rehearsals.
The Cheltenham Journal actually topped this in 1825 with an advertisement for five Arabian conjurors:
[T]hey will take each a lighted torch in either hand, when lo! incredible to relate! Suckee, with the burning torches, will jump clean down Mustapha‘s throat, who in an instant, with equal dexterity, will pass down the throat of Abdallah, then Abdalluh will jump down that of Benassar, and Benassar down his brother Muley‘s; who, lastly, notwithstanding he is encumbered with his four brothers and their four torches, will throw a flip-flap-somerset down his own throat, and leave the audience in total darkness!–Probatum est.
Here again the room was crammed, but five minutes before showtime “the conjuror decamped with the money and was no more heard of,” reports William Hone. “Probably he jumped down his own throat.”
A young man, poorly clothed, presented himself before a dealer in curiosities. ‘Sir,’ said he, showing a violin which he carried, ‘I am a musical artist; this is the season of balls and soirées; I have just had a long illness which has exhausted my purse; my only black coat is in pawn, I shall be much obliged if you will lend me ten francs to redeem it. I will leave as security one of the violins you see, for I have two; it is an excellent instrument. I shall return for it as soon as, thanks to my coat, I shall have earned enough money for the purpose.’ The young man had such an honest bearing that the dealer lent him ten francs and kept the violin, which he hung up in the shop. The next day but one, a gentleman, well-dressed, wearing at his buttonhole the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, was choosing from the dealer’s stock of goods some shell-work. Seeing the violin, he took it up, examining it narrowly. ‘What is the price of that instrument?’ said he. ‘It is not mine,’ replied the shopkeeper; and he related how he came to possess it. ‘This violin,’ continued the unknown, ‘is worth money, it is a Cremona. Perhaps its owner is ignorant of its value. If he returns, offer him two hundred francs for it.’ Then handing fifty francs to the shopman, the unknown said on taking his leave, ‘You will keep that for yourself if the affair succeeds; I will return in a few days.’ Two days after, the young man reappeared, bringing the ten francs to redeem his violin, for which the dealer offered him two hundred. After some hesitation, he agreed. At the end of a week, the dealer, not having seen the decorated gentleman, became suspicious; he carried the violin to an instrument-maker, who offered him three francs for it.
– Thomas Brackett Reed et al., Modern Eloquence, 1900
[In 1816] the interest in Napoleon and St. Helena was strong. A small paragraph in a local Chester paper told the inhabitants of that ancient and usually somnolent city that the British government desired to rid St. Helena of the rats and the mice which were understood to be leading the exiled emperor ‘such a life.’ Accordingly, said the paragraph, the government was offering large sums for cats–sixteen shillings for well grown males, ten for females, and half a crown for kittens. It was requested that all who desired to help in the good work by disposing of their pets at these prices should appear at a given hour at a given address.
At the time and place, an army of about three thousand generous and patriotic souls presented itself at the house designated. There were cats in baskets, cats in boxes, cats squirming restlessly in the warm clutch of children. The house was empty, and a little investigation soon proved that it had been unoccupied for a long time. Next morning more than five hundred cats were found drowned in the waters of the Dee; so that this hoax was not without its element of tragedy, and brutal tragedy at that.
– William S. Bridgman, “Famous Hoaxes,” Munsey’s Magazine, August 1903
So recently as 1860 some gay spirits in London put their heads together and perpetrated a successful and notorious piece of foolery on the wholesale plan. Towards the latter part of March many well-known persons received through the post the following invitation card, bearing the stamp of an inverted sixpence on one of the corners for official effect:
‘Tower of London–Admit Bearer and Friend to view annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions on Sunday, April 1, 1860. Admittance only at White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants.’
The ruse worked so well that a succession of cabs rattled around Tower Hill all the morning, much to the disturbance of the customary peace of the Sabbath, in vain attempts to discover the White Gate.
– William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs, 1898
On Jan. 16, 1926, a speech from Edinburgh on the BBC was interrupted with a shocking eyewitness report:
The Houses of Parliament are being demolished by an angry mob equipped with trench mortars. The clock tower 320 feet in height has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock, Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a ball weighing nine tons. One moment, please. Fresh reports announce that the crowd has secured the person of Mr. Wurtherspoon, the minister of traffic, who was attempting to make his escape in disguise. He has now been hanged from a lamppost in Vauxhall. London calling. That noise you heard just now was the Savoy Hotel being blown up by the crowd.
Millions of Englishmen placed calls and wires to learn more about the calamity. Finally the radio company explained that the program they’d overheard had been intended by broadcaster Ronald Knox as a parody. One detail that should have tipped them off: According to the radio announcement, the riot in Trafalgar Square was led by one Mr. Popplebury, secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.
The antiquarian has always been the object of hoaxes. At a convention of the tribe in Banbury, on one occasion, a worn and ancient looking block of stone was sent in with the information that it had been the corner stone of an old building recently torn down. The finders prayed the learned body to interpret the inscription upon it, which read:
SEOGEH SREV EREH WCISUME VAHL LAH SEHS SE OTREH NOS LLEBD NAS REGNI FREH NOS GNIRES ROHYAR GANOED IRYD ALE NIFAE ESOTS SORCY RUB NABOT ES ROHK CO CAED IR.
It took the venerable society several days to discover that the sentiment was ‘Ride a cock horse’ inverted.
– William S. Bridgman, “Famous Hoaxes,” Munsey’s Magazine, August 1903
In 1860, the Times of Fort Smith, Ark., published a long account of a discovery said to have been made 90 miles northeast of Fort Stanton, N.M. This condensed version appeared in the Eclectic Magazine that November:
The plain upon which lie the massive relics of gorgeous temples and magnificent halls, slopes gradually towards the river Pecos, and is very fertile, crossed by a gurgling stream of purest water that not only sustains a rich vegetation, but perhaps furnishes with this necessary element the thousands who once inhabited this present wilderness. The city was probably built by a warlike race, as it is quadrangular and arranged with skill to afford the highest protection against an exterior foe, many of the buildings on the outer line being pierced with loopholes, as though calculated for the use of weapons. Several of the buildings are of vast size, and built of massive blocks of a dark granite rock which could only have been wrought to their present condition by a vast amount of labor. There are the ruins of three noble edifices, each presenting a front of three hundred feet, made of ponderous blocks of stone, and the dilapidated walls are even now thirty-five feet high. There are no partitions in the area of the middle (supposed) temple, so that the room must have been vast; and there are also carvings in bass relief and fresco work. Appearances justify the conclusion that these silent ruins could once boast of halls as gorgeously decorated by the artist’s hand as those of Thebes and Palmyra. The buildings are all loopholed on each side, much resembling that found in the old feudal castles of Europe, designed for the use of archers. The blocks of which these edifices are composed, are cemented together by a species of mortar of a bituminous character, which has such tenacity that vast masses of wall have fallen down without the blocks being detached by the shock.
No one has ever found such ruins … but there’s a ship out there too if you want to go looking.
Convinced that the public would accept anything from an established author, James Whitcomb Riley bet his friends that he could prove it. He composed a poem entitled “Leonanie” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe and published it in the Kokomo, Ind., Despatch on Aug. 2, 1877:
Leonanie–angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white;
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and they brought her to me
In the solemn night.
And so on. An accompanying article explained that the poem had been discovered on the blank flyleaf of an old book, and the conspirators scribbled it into a dictionary in case anyone asked to see it.
After the poem was published, Riley wrote a critique in the Anderson Democrat casting doubt on Poe’s authorship. But to his horror his poem was championed by critics and picked up in newspapers nationwide, and soon a Boston publishing house began asking for the original manuscript. The group finally confessed when a rival paper threatened to expose the hoax.
Riley won his bet, but ironically he went on to become a bestselling poet himself, writing in an Indiana dialect distinctive enough to invite lampoons of its own. Whether any of these has been passed off as real is unknown — but it would be poetic justice.
Stuck in a Honolulu jail in 1913, forger William Francis Mannix passed the time by writing a memoir. Unfortunately it wasn’t his own — he invented an autobiography of Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang:
To-night I am to attend another banquet given by the Czar, which I hope will not continue as long as the one of last night. It is true they prepare foods especially for me, but they do not taste like the foods at home, or those of our own cooks which we have with us.
Mannix contrived the whole thing using books obtained from friends and a typewriter loaned to him by the territorial governor. The book fooled many who knew Li, including former secretary of state John W. Foster; when the hoax was exposed the publisher issued a “confessional” edition in 1923, but by then no one was laughing.
In 1938, a group of freshmen at the University of Michigan circulated a petition asking that a psychology lecture be rescheduled to avoid a conflict with a football game. The upperclassmen who signed it read the full text in the undergraduate newspaper the following day:
We, the undersigned, hereby petition that the lecture in Psychology 2 be changed from Saturday to Wednesday afternoon. By signing this document without reading it we cheerfully disqualify ourselves as candidates for any degree conferred by this university. We furthermore declare that the freshmen are our superiors in wit and wisdom, and that our stupidity is surpassed only by the mental lethargy of the underpaid faculty that teaches us.
I can’t find a report of the fallout, but there sure must have been some. “Carelessness,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “does more harm than a want of knowledge.”
A hoax which did not deceive the learned, but sorely puzzled them, was that known as the Dutch Mail hoax. Some fifty years ago, an article appeared in the Leicester Herald, an English provincial paper, under the title of ‘The Dutch Mail,’ with the announcement that it had arrived too late for translation, and so had been set up and printed in the original. Much attention was attracted to the article, and many Dutch scholars rushed into print to say that it was not in any dialect with which they were acquainted. Finally it was discovered to be a hoax. Sir Richard Phillips, the editor of the paper, recently told this story of how the jest was conceived and carried out: ‘One evening, before one of our publications, my men and a boy overturned two or three columns of the paper in type. We had to get ready someway for the coaches, which, at four in the morning, required four or five hundred papers. After every exertion, we were short nearly a column, but there stood a tempting column of ‘pi’ [a jumble of odd letters] on the galleys. It suddenly struck me that this might be thought Dutch. I made up the column, overcame the scruples of the foreman, and so away the country edition went with its philological puzzle to worry the honest agricultural readers’ heads. There was plenty of time to set up a column of plain English for the local edition.’ Sir Richard met one man in Nottingham who for thirty years preserved a copy of the Leicester Herald hoping that some day the letter would be explained.
– Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888
Author Octavus Roy Cohen was visiting a friend in Colorado when the surprising word came that Cohen himself would be speaking at a men’s luncheon club in Denver. Bewildered, the two attended the luncheon and watched an impostor give a “splendid literary talk.”
After this, the program director announced a surprise guest — Edna Ferber. Cohen had always wanted to meet Ferber, but to avoid embarrassing the club he held his peace and watched his impostor trade compliments with the guest author.
On his next visit to New York, he called Ferber. “I’m Octavus Roy Cohen,” he said, “the man you thought you met recently in Denver –”
“What are you talking about?” she said. “I haven’t been in Denver in years.”