Hoaxes

Shell Game

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In the 1920s, American painter and eccentric Waldo Peirce gave a turtle to the concierge of the building in which he lived. She was delighted with the gift and took great care of her new pet, and she did not notice when Peirce secretly replaced it with a slightly larger turtle. This continued for some time, with Peirce sneaking successively larger turtles into her apartment while she praised her miraculous pet to the neighbors.

Then, after a suitable pause, he began using smaller turtles.

The Un-Hoax

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In 1883, the assistant telegraph editor of the Boston Globe invented the story of a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific, purportedly related by the captain of a freight steamer. Editorial writer Florence Finch Kelly later recalled:

The tale he told was truly one of horrific happenings — what looked like a whole island blown into the sky, showers of ashes that darkened the sunlight and covered his decks inches deep, great blocks of ice in the midst of red-hot streams of lava, the ocean bubbling with heat from these torrents of fire, tons of fish killed by the heated ocean water and floating dead on its surface, and many another marvel fit to make even a tough old sea captain’s eyes pop from his head.

The story filled several columns on the Globe‘s front page, and it was picked up in New York, London, and Chicago. Only later did reports arrive of a catastrophe in Indonesia: “With his imaginary volcanic eruption, Mr. Soames had closely hit in time and place the explosion of Krakatoa, the greatest volcanic eruption of modern times, and in his account he had included many phenomena that were paralleled in later descriptions of the actual outburst! Did the vagaries of chance ever direct the long arm of coincidence to a more amazing result?”

(UPDATE: In Media Hoaxes [1989], Fred Fedler reports that the editor’s story was based on early cables from London regarding the volcano’s eruption. He embellished the cables’ scant information with surmised details based on library research, and these proved to be surprisingly accurate. So the truth is much less impressive than Kelly’s account — or than that published by Frank Edwards in two books in the 1950s.)

Unmasked

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London conjuror Chung Ling Soo was famous for his “bullet catch” illusion: Audience members would mark bullets that were loaded into a gun, which attendants then fired at Soo. He would appear to catch the bullets and drop them on a plate. In fact, Soo palmed the bullets during the marking, and alternate bullets were loaded into the gun, which was rigged to swallow them and fire a harmless gunpowder charge.

That worked fine until March 23, 1918, when the gun didn’t swallow. A live audience in the Wood Green Empire watched the attendant shoot Soo — who staggered and said, “My God, I’ve been shot” in English. Not only had he faked catching bullets, William Robinson had faked being Chinese for 19 years. He died the next day.

Bad News

In the 1890s, William Randoph Hearst’s New York Journal was in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. When the World published an obituary of “Reflipe W. Thanuz,” Hearst revealed a trap — there was no such person, so Pulitzer must have stolen the item from his paper. (“Reflipe W” is “we pilfer” spelled backward, and “Thanuz” is “the news”.)

Pulitzer got his revenge, though. He planted the name “Lister A. Raah” in a World story, and when the Journal ran a similar item, he revealed that the name was an anagram of “Hearst a liar.”

See also Nihilartikels.

George Psalmanazar

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Anyone can lead a fascinating life if he’s willing to invent it out of whole cloth. Or at least that’s the lesson of George Psalmanazar, one of the stranger figures in European history.

Born in France in 1679, Psalmanazar traveled to Scandinavia in 1700 and perversely told everyone he was from Formosa. And he didn’t stint on details. In Formosa, he said:

  • Horses and camels were used for mass transportation.
  • Men walked naked, covering their privates with gold and silver plates.
  • The chief food was a serpent, hunted with branches.
  • A man could have many wives; if any was unfaithful he could eat her.
  • Murderers were hung upside down and shot full of arrows.
  • Formosans sacrificed 18,000 young boys to gods each year, and priests ate the bodies.

Psalmanazar eventually found he could make a career of this; he gave lectures and wrote a book that went through two English editions and was translated into French and German. To keep up “Formosan” appearances, he ate raw meat, slept upright in a chair, and claimed to worship the sun and moon. Eventually, though, he gave up the charade, confessing in 1706.

To this day, no one knows who he really was — he never gave his real name.

Smile

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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.

Journalism the Easy Way

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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.

Triple Word Score

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.

The Upas Tree

upas tree

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.

The Steps Experiment

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.’

The Balloon-Hoax

On April 13, 1844, a curious headline appeared in the New York Sun:

ASTOUNDING NEWS!
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
FLYING MACHINE!!!

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.

Gotcha

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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.

Superdollars

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.

Pot Luck

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.

Legal Tender?

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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.

Josiah Carberry

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.”

Fool Me Once

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.

Expense Account

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.

The Bathtub Hoax

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.”

No, Seriously

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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.

International Board of Hygiene

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?

Small World

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.

Nihilartikels

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.

Hodag

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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.