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.
After a snowstorm at Cornell, inveterate prankster Hugh Troy (1906-1964) once used a wastebasket to make “rhinoceros tracks” across campus. He directed the tracks to a lake that supplied drinking water for the area and cut a hole in the ice.
The police had to drag the lake in the middle of a snowstorm, and many residents stopped drinking the water until Troy revealed the prank through an anonymous letter.
Almanac writing can be a nasty business. In January 1708, someone published an anonymous letter predicting the death of writer John Partridge. That’s bad enough, but in March Partridge read that he had indeed died. A third letter even presented a eulogy:
Here five foot deep lyes on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack –
Who to the stars in pure good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks or shoes.
Evidently Partridge had some trouble convincing people that he was still alive. Mourners reportedly kept him awake at night, grieving under his window. The real culprit was Jonathan Swift, who loved April Fool’s Day and had been angered by Partridge’s unbelief.
Taking a cue, in Poor Richard’s Almanac Ben Franklin predicted the death of rival almanac writer Titan Leeds on Oct. 17, 1733. When Leeds announced his survival, Franklin denounced the claim as a fraud published in the dead writer’s name. This continued for five years until Leeds really did die. Franklin congratulated the usurpers on their good sense.
Lady Henriette Felicite must have been surprised to learn that her drowned son was alive and working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Even more strangely, he had grown fat, his black hair had turned brown, and he no longer spoke French. But she was desperate to reclaim him, and in 1865 he joined her in Paris.
It was a fruitful reunion. “Sir Roger” accepted an allowance of £1,000 a year and resumed his life, winning the support of the Tichborne family solicitor, his former companions in the 6th Dragoon Guards, and several county families and villagers.
But his fortunes fell when Lady Tichborne died and he was accused of imposture. Though more than 100 people vouched for his identity, he ultimately lost his bid for the inheritance and served 10 years in prison for perjury.
We’ll never know who he really was — but his grave is marked Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne.
As one of a series of April Fool’s jokes in the 1840s, the Boston Post once announced that a cave full of treasure had been discovered beneath Boston Common. Workmen removing a tree reportedly found a stone trapdoor that led to a cave full of jewels, coins, and jeweled weapons. You might think Bostoners would be too cynical to accept this, but apparently a mob formed:
It was rainy, that 1st of April, the Legislature was in session, and it was an animated scene that the Common presented, roofed with umbrellas, sheltering pilgrims on their way to the new-found sell. A procession of grave legislators marched solemnly down under their green gingham, while philosophers, archaeologists, numismatists, antiquarians of all qualities, and the public generally paid tribute to the Post‘s ingenuity.
They found nothing, of course. “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something,” wrote Bertrand Russell. “In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”
Inventor John Keely insisted that his “hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine” could drive a 30-car train 75 miles in 75 minutes using only a quart of water.
When he died in 1898, investigators found a three-ton sphere of compressed air in his basement, which drove his prototypes via hidden air-pressure tubes.
Supporters still insist he was framed.