In 1911, Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno found a way to steal the Mona Lisa six times over at no risk to himself.
First he made private deals with six separate buyers to steal and deliver the priceless painting. Then he hired a professional art restorer to make six fakes, and shipped them in advance to the buyers’ locales (to avoid later trouble with customs).
In August he paid a thief to steal the original from the Louvre, and when news of the theft had spread he delivered the six fakes to their recipients, exacting a high price for each. Then he quietly disappeared. The flummoxed thief was soon caught trying to sell the red-hot original, and it was returned to the museum in 1913.
On June 25, 1899, all four major Denver newspapers, the Times, the Post, the Republican, and the Rocky Mountain News, ran front-page stories saying that the Chinese were planning to demolish the Great Wall of China and build a road in its place.
They weren’t, obviously — the hoax was dreamed up by a cabal of bored reporters — but the story survived and even spread. Two weeks after the Denver publication, a large Eastern newspaper picked it up, adding confirming “quotes” by earnest Chinese and including its own illustrations and comments. Soon the story had spread throughout the United States and even entered Europe.
The full truth didn’t emerge until the last surviving reporter revealed the hoax.
Rupert Hughes’ 1954 Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia contains what might be the most outlandish English word ever seen: ZZXJOANW. Hughes claimed it was of Maori origin, pronounced “shaw” and meaning “drum,” “fife,” or “conclusion.”
Logologists accepted this for 70 years before it was exposed as a hoax. Who can blame them? The English language contains about 500,000 legitimate words, including monstrosities like MLECHCHHA and QARAQALPAQ. Better luck next time.
In the 18th century, tales circulated of a terrible tree in Java, so poisonous that it destroyed all life within 15 miles. It grew alone in a desolate valley, surrounded by dead bodies; there were no fish in the streams nearby, and birds fell from the sky. The upas tree’s poison could be harvested only by condemned criminals wearing leather hoods fitted with glass eyeholes, and scarcely a tenth of these returned.
Lord Byron and Charlotte Brontë popularized this account, and so did Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, but the truth is more prosaic. There is a upas tree, but its poison is generally only dangerous if you receive it via an arrow. It lives in Southeast Asia.
The exaggeration can be traced to one man, a French surgeon named Foersch who published a florid account in the London Magazine of December 1783. He was either sly or gullible — it’s not clear which.
In 1977, Los Angeles freelance writer Chuck Ross submitted a typed manuscript to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents. Ross claimed it was an original work, but in fact it was a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award in 1969.
All 27 recipients failed to recognize Kosinski’s work, and all 27 rejected the manuscript.
Sadly, this is nothing new. From Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888:
A disappointed literary aspirant, weary of having his articles declined with thanks, and doubtful of his critics’ infallibility, copied out ‘Samson Agonistes,’ which he rechristened ‘Like a Giant Refreshed,’ and the manuscript, as an original work of his own, went the rounds of publishers and editors. It was declined on various pleas, and the letters he received afforded him so much amusement that he published them in the St. James’s Gazette. None of the critics discovered that the work was Milton’s. One, who had evidently not even looked at it, deemed it a sensational novel; another recognized a certain amount of merit, but thought it was disfigured by ‘Scotticisms;’ a third was sufficiently pleased to offer to publish it, provided the author contributed forty pounds towards expenses.’
On April 13, 1844, a curious headline appeared in the New York Sun:
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
The story told of an amazing 75-hour crossing of the Atlantic by European balloonist Monck Mason, giving extensive details and including a diagram of the craft.
Two days later the Sun printed a retraction, saying that “we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous” but “we by no means think such a project impossible.”
That compliment would have pleased the hoax writer. His name was Edgar Allan Poe.
As a prank, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak sometimes buys uncut sheets of $2 bills from the U.S. Treasury and has them bound into booklets. Then, when buying small items, he’ll pull out a booklet and cut off a few bills with scissors.
This is perfectly legal, but it’s caused at least one alarmed inquiry by the Secret Service.
Add counterfeiting to Kim Jong-il’s other crimes. Since the late 1980s, North Korea has been quietly making “superdollars,” nearly perfect forgeries of U.S. banknotes, painstakingly re-creating all the necessary inks, threads, fibers, and watermarks. They’re doing a good job — experts have to study the notes closely to detect the forgery. In fact, when a defector brought one to South Korean intelligence officials, they refused to believe it was fake.
Reportedly the Koreans print the currency in Pyongsong and spread it via diplomats and the British criminal underworld. Apparently they’re doing it for income and to undermine the U.S. economy. The North Koreans call these accusations “sheer lies” and claim that the U.S. itself is manufacturing the bills as a pretext for war. A crackdown has been underway since 2004, so this may come to a head soon.
Those Australians. In August 1872, the people of Gayndah Station, North Queensland, cooked a special dish for Carl Staiger, director of the Brisbane Museum — a bizarre fish unlike any he’d ever seen. Excited, Staiger sent a sketch and a description to expert François Louis de la Porte, who dubbed it a new species in 1879.
Well, it was certainly new. The creature had been assembled from the body of a mullet, the tail of an eel and the head of a platypus or needlefish. The hoax was soon exposed — but Ompax spatuloides could still be found on some lists of Australian fishes as late as the 1930s.
In 2001, a man bought a sundae at a Dairy Queen in Danville, Ky.
He paid with a $200 bill featuring a portrait of George W. Bush.
The cashier accepted it — and gave him $197.88 in change.
If there are fake students in the world, surely too there are fake professors.
Josiah Stinkney Carberry has been “teaching” at Brown since 1929, when faculty prankster John Spaeth posted a false notice for a Carberry lecture on “Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology.”
Carberry never showed up, of course, but Spaeth gamely offered details about the missing professor’s life and studies, and now Carberry has become a campus tradition. He’s scheduled to lecture every Friday the 13th and February 29th (somehow never turning up), and students try to publish references to him in otherwise serious journals. Brown’s student newspaper also publishes letters from Carberry on April Fool’s Day.
One clue for those who don’t get the joke: The professor is celebrated for his work in “psychoceramics” — “the study of cracked pots.”
Idaho means nothing. When Congress was casting about for a name for a new western territory, an eccentric lobbyist named George M. Willing suggested “Idaho,” which he said was derived from a Shoshone Indian term meaning “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the mountains.”
He later admitted that he’d made it up.
The German Bundestag has 614 members, but its official Web site lists 615. That’s because Jakob Maria Mierscheid doesn’t exist — he was invented in the 1920s by Weimar Social Democrats to avoid paying restaurant bills.
Like George P. Burdell, another nonexistent bon vivant, Mierscheid has quite a resume. He served as deputy chairman of the Committee for Small and Medium Sized Businesses in 1981 and 1982, and in 1983 he published a demonstration of the correlation between federal election results and West German industrial production.
Presumably he also goes out to lunch a lot.
H.L. Mencken seemed to have a gift for cynicism — even the gold he touched turned to lead. In December 1917, as a joke, he composed a fictional history of the bathtub for the New York Evening Mail. The article, “A Neglected Anniversary,” was preposterous, saying that the bathtub had been introduced to England in 1828 and to the United States 14 years later, and that Millard Fillmore encouraged its acceptance by installing one in the White House in 1850.
To Mencken’s horror, the story was widely accepted as fact, and it’s still quoted today as an authoritative source. Mencken said:
“The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity. … Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”
There’s never a good time for a tsunami, but the one that hit Hawaii in 1946 (visible at center right) was particularly unfortunate. It landed on April 1, and many residents dismissed the warnings as an April Fools prank. Ultimately 165 people died.
In 1926 the League of Nations recognized a new medical body, the International Board of Hygiene. It’s a good thing they didn’t assign it any responsibilities: The “board” was really a group of drinking buddies who met in a turf bar in Tijuana during Prohibition. San Diego pathologist Rawson Pickard invented a surgeon, “Honorable J. Fortescue,” as a founder, and anyone who attended a meeting became a lifetime member.
Pickard probably imagined his joke would be exposed pretty quickly, but the other shoe never dropped. In response to his letter, the League of Nations recognized the board in a couple of weeks. Soon the nonexistent Fortescue was invited to join the American Conference on Hospital Service, and the U.S. National Research Council included him in a directory of child psychologists. Pickard began to write articles under his byline and answered journalists’ inquiries on his behalf.
The joke kept snowballing. By 1936 Fortescue was listed in Who’s Who in San Diego, including his publications, association memberships, medical studies and travels. He lived in Paris, ostensibly, but his address was given as “The International Board of Hygiene, 1908 Eutaw Place, Baltimore, Maryland.”
That’s it. For years membership of the International Board of Hygiene spread by invitation, but no one ever caught on. Pickard died in 1963, taking Fortescue with him.
Someone ought to check the rest of our luminaries. Do they all exist?
Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1938 famously terrified millions, who thought they were hearing news coverage of an actual alien invasion.
Amazingly, the same thing happened again — twice. When the play was broadcast in Chile in 1944, it caused a panic in which the governor mobilized troops. In Ecuador, a 1949 performance panicked tens of thousands and led angry listeners to set fire to the radio station.
In the United States, Welles was not punished for his broadcast — but CBS had to promise never again to use news “interruptions” for dramatic purposes.
In the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia you’ll find a biography of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel (1942-1973), an American fountain designer and photographer best known for Flags Up!, a collection of photos of rural mailboxes.
Mountweazel never existed. She’s an example of a nihilartikel, a deliberately fake entry in a reference work. They’re used to catch copyright infringers. For the same reason, telephone directories include fake entries, and maps sometimes include nonexistent features.
It must be fun writing these. According to the New Columbia article, Lillian Mountweazel died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.
In 1896, to draw tourists to Rhinelander, Wis., Eugene Simeon Shepard staged an encounter with a hodag, a legendary creature with “the head of a bull, the grinning face of a giant man, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with a spear at the end.”
According to the story, Paul Bunyan’s ox had to be burned for seven years to cleanse its soul of all the profanity that local lumberjacks had hurled at it. The hodag rose from its ashes.
There’s no telling whether anyone bought this, but the hodag is now the official mascot of Rhinelander High School.
French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:
- Robert Boyle
- Isaac Newton
- Blaise Pascal
- Judas Iscariot
- Pontius Pilate
- Joan of Arc
- Dante Alighieri
… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.
The trouble with arrogance is that you never know when to turn it off. By all accounts Johann Beringer was insufferable, so two of his colleagues on the University of Würtzburg faculty of medicine decided to teach him a lesson.
They carved lizards, frogs, and spiders from limestone, inscribed them with the Hebrew name of God, and planted them on Mount Eibelstadt, where Beringer frequently went to find fossils.
It worked — and, like Drake’s Plate of Brass, it worked a little too well. Beringer found the figures, took them seriously, and, to his colleagues’ horror, actually published a book about them. When critics pointed out visible chisel marks, he claimed they’d been left by the hand of God. When the hoaxers tried to talk him out of it, he sued them as “a pair of antagonists who tried to discredit the stones.”
When the truth came out, it ruined them all, haunting Beringer most of all. Legend tells that actually he went bankrupt trying to buy up all the books, and there was a final irony. He died in 1740 — and a second printing of his book was produced in 1767.
You can fool some of the people all of the time.
Perhaps inspired by Thomas Chatterton, the teenage Samuel William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) “found” an old deed with Shakespeare’s signature.
His father, a collector, was overjoyed, so Ireland went on finding more Shakespeareana — a promissory note, a declaration of Protestant faith, letters to Anne Hathaway and to Queen Elizabeth, books with notes in the margins and “original” manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear.
Amazingly, these were all authenticated by experts of the day. Ireland wasn’t caught until at age 18 he wrote an entire “lost” play, which was mounted at Drury Lane Theatre. As a playwright, he couldn’t match the Bard, and Vortigern and Rowena closed after a single performance on April 2, 1796.
Sadly, his father took the blame, as no one could believe such a young man could pull off such a forgery. His son fled to France and died in obscurity.
In 1943, the Allies set a dead man adrift off Spain. The corpse of “Major William Martin” carried a set of keys, theater stubs from a recent performance, a bank overdraft notice — and “secret documents” that detailed a plan to invade Europe via Sardinia.
The ruse worked — the Germans found the documents and prepared for a Sardinian attack that never came, and the Allies successfully invaded Europe through Sicily.
Who was the corpse? Apparently he was a vagrant Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael who ingested rat poison — a rare posthumous war hero.
Italian stonemason Alceo Dossena (1878-1937) knew he had a knack for imitating the great sculptors of the past.
What he didn’t know was that his dealers were making a fortune by marketing his creations as originals.
Dossena was already 50 when he recognized some of his own sculptures in “ancient” museum collections. He had got only $200 for each sale. He won a suit against his dealers but died poor in 1937.