Fore!

In 1962, a burnt golf ball arrived at the botanic gardens at Kew, in southwest London. The head of mycology, R.W.G. Dennis, may have rolled his eyes: The office had received another burnt golf ball 10 years earlier, which the submitter had claimed to be a “rare fungal species.” In that case the staff had got as far as trying to collect spores before they’d realized the hoax.

Twice provoked, Dennis responded in good humor. He published an article titled “A Remarkable New Genus of Phalloid in Lancashire and East Africa,” formally nominating it as a new species of fungus, “Golfballia ambusta,” and describing the specimens as “small, hard but elastic balls used in certain tribal rites of the Caledonians, which take place all season in enclosed paddocks with partially mown grass.” When a third burnt golf ball arrived in 1971, it was accepted into the collection, where all three balls now reside.

That creates a sort of Dadaist dilemma in mycology. By accepting the specimens and publishing a description, Dennis had arguably honored them as a genuine species. The precise definition of a fungus has varied somewhat over time; in publishing his article, Dennis may have been satirically questioning criteria that could accept a nonliving golf ball as a species. But what’s the solution? Some specialists have argued that fungi should be defined as “microorganisms studied by mycologists.” But in that case, points out mycologist Nathan Smith, we should be asking, “Who is a mycologist?”

DIY

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Charles Bertram built his reputation as a historian on The Description of Britain, a 15th-century manuscript that he’d discovered at age 24 and that provided important new insights into British history, including an ancient map; more than a hundred names of cities, roads, and people; and information from a lost contemporary account by a Roman general. For more than a century Bertram’s discovery served as a touchstone of scholarship on Roman Britain — it was cited in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, among many other works.

After Bertram’s death in 1765 doubts began to mount, and by 1846 it was clear that The Description of Britain had been a forgery. Bertram had managed to convince a few influential librarians, and on the strength of their endorsement other historians had been willing to take the claim seriously. Bertram had never let anyone see the original manuscript, always inventing reasons why he couldn’t share it and sending instead facsimiles of the original.

The effects of the hoax took decades to eradicate — as late as 1911 the Encyclopædia Britannica was still referring to a fictitious naval base on the strength of the Description‘s account.

Remote Romance

The American Medical Weekly carried an eye-opening story in 1874 — a woman impregnated by a bullet:

On the 12th day of May, 1863, the battle of R. was fought. […] Our men were fighting nobly, but pressed by superior numbers, had gradually fallen back to within one hundred and fifty yards of the house. My position being near my regiment, suddenly I beheld a noble, gallant young friend staggering closer, and then fall to the earth. In the same moment a piercing scream from the house reached my ear! I was soon by the side of the young man, and, upon examination, found a compound fracture, with extensive comminution of the left tibia; the ball having ricochetted from these parts, and, in its onward flight, passed through the scrotum, carrying away the left testicle. Scarcely had I finished dressing the wounds of this poor fellow, when the estimable matron came running to me in the greatest distress, begging me to go to one of her daughters, who, she informed me, had been badly wounded a few minutes before. Hastening to the house, I found that the eldest of the young ladies had indeed received a most serious wound. A minnie ball had penetrated the left abdominal parietes, about midway between the umbilicus and anterior spinal process of the ilium, and was lost in the abdominal cavity, leaving a ragged wound behind. Believing there was little or no hope of her recovery, I had only time to prescribe an anodyne, when our army fell back, leaving both field and village in the hands of the enemy. […] About six months after her recovery, the movements of our army brought me again to the village of R., and I was again sent for to see the young lady. She appeared in excellent health and spirits, but her abdomen had become enormously enlarged, so much so as to resemble pregnancy at the seventh or eighth month. Indeed, had I not known the family and the facts of the abdominal wound, I should have so pronounced the case. Under the above circumstances, I failed to give a positive diagnosis, determining to keep the case under surveillance. […] Just two hundred and seventy-eight days from the date of the receipt of the wound by the minnie ball, I delivered this same young lady of a fine boy, weighing eight pounds. […] About three weeks from the date of this remarkable birth, I was called to see the child, the grandmother insisting there was ‘something wrong about the genitals.’ Examination revealed an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign. I decided upon operating for its removal at once, and in so doing, extracted from the scrotum a minnie ball, mashed and battered as if it had met in its flight some hard, unyielding substance.

A later issue revealed that this had been a joke:

DR. L.G. CAPERS, of Vicksburg, Miss., disclaims responsibility for the truth of that remarkable case of impregnation by a minnie ball, as reported in No. 19 of this Journal. He tells the story as it was told to him. He does not say it is untrue, but is disposed to appositely remember the truth of the old adage, that ‘accidents may happen in the best regulated families.’ The joke is, that the Doctor reported the case without any signature, but as the editor is indisposed to be made the victim of canards, and recognized the writing sent, he was unwilling to deprive the author of the contemplated fun, and allowed him to enjoy even more of this than was anticipated. The readers have enjoyed the story much, but not enough ‘to cut capers’ after reading it.

Capers is Legrand G. Capers, a physician who’d served as a surgeon in the Confederate army — and evidently a practical joker.

01/04/2024 UPDATE: Wow, a similar incident involving a knife wound has been verified. (Thanks, Sally.)

Action at a Distance

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On April 1, 1976, English astronomer Patrick Moore announced a unique opportunity on BBC Radio 2. At 9:47 a.m., he said, Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, and the combined gravitational forces of the two bodies would noticeably reduce gravity on Earth. If listeners jumped in the air during the conjunction, they’d feel a floating sensation.

Shortly after the appointed moment, the BBC began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners who’d confirmed the effect, including “a woman who said that she and 11 friends had been wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.”

None of them had noted the date.

Man of the Hour

Abbreviating litre with a lowercase L can be confusing, as the character can be mistaken for the digit 1. But usually the International System of Units permits a capital letter only when a unit is named after a person.

So, in 1978, University of Waterloo chemist Kenneth Woolner announced in a schoolteachers’ newsletter that the litre had been named for Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre, a fictional French scientist who had proposed a unit of volume measurement before his death in 1778.

Woolner had intended the claim only as an April Fools’ hoax, but the point was made. Today the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends abbreviating litre with an uppercase L.

Good for the Gander

In 1923, Ollie Kraehe, owner of the NFL’s St. Louis All-Stars, approached Green Bay Packers coach Curly Lambeau with a tempting offer: He would give him end Jack “Dolly” Gray in exchange for some cash that he needed to fund his team. Lambeau leapt at the deal: Gray was reputed to have been an All-American honoree at Princeton in 1922 and sounded like the best player on Kraehe’s team.

Two weeks later, Lambeau cornered Kraehe and demanded an explanation — in his first game with the Packers, Gray had played terribly.

Kraehe told him the truth: The man had approached him earlier that year, representing himself as a Princeton star, but he played so badly that after three games Kraehe had investigated and found no such background — he was simply an impostor. Kraehe had traded him on to Lambeau as a joke, letting him coast on his phony reputation and expecting to take him back when the joke was over. But by that time the impostor had disappeared. His identity remains unknown.

I, Libertine

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Irritated at the way bestseller lists were compiled in the 1950s, late-night radio host Jean Shepherd asked his listeners to visit bookstores and request a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by the imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing.

The number of requests drove the title onto the New York Times bestseller list, and, encouraged by its popularity, bookstores began to order the novel. So Shepherd and publisher Ian Ballantine got novelist Theodore Sturgeon to write it, following the plot that Shepherd had described to his listeners. (Sturgeon fell asleep while trying to write the whole book in one marathon session, so Ballantine’s wife Betty had to write the last chapter.)

Ballantine Books published the novel in September 1956, using a photo of Shepherd in place of Ewing, and donated the proceeds to charity.

The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax a few weeks before publication. “Mr. Ballantine’s idea, though simple enough, was a startling one, for publishers consider it one of the greatest possible tragedies to print a book later discovered to be the work of a literary faker,” wrote reporter Carter Henderson. “At Simon & Schuster, Inc., faces still redden when Joan Lowell’s autobiographical ‘Cradle of the Deep’ is mentioned even though this phony tale of a young girl’s spectacularly adventurous life at sea was published in 1929.”

The Fortsas Hoax

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In 1840, librarians and booksellers throughout Europe received a catalog describing a unique collection of books to be auctioned: Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, had collected 52 unique books, books of which only a single copy was known to exist. The count had died the preceding September, the message said, and as his heirs had no interest in books, the collection would be auctioned off.

Bibliophiles converged on Binche, Belgium, that August for the event, only to discover that the appointed address did not exist. Notices declared that the town’s library had acquired the books — but Binche had no library. In time it became clear that the Comte de Fortsas himself had never existed.

The whole thing had been an elaborate hoax put on by an antiquarian and retired military officer named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon. Ironically, the catalog of nonexistent books itself in time became a collectors’ item.

What will happen if someone now writes those books?

Ventriloquism

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On September 19, 1968, as the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 spacecraft was circling the moon, Jodrell Bank Observatory and the CIA were shocked to intercept the voices of cosmonauts Valery Bykovsky, Vitaly Sevastyanov and Pavel Popovich reading out telemetry and computer data and even discussing the prospect of a landing. The Zond mission had been thought to be uncrewed; now it sounded as though the Soviets might beat the United States to a moon landing. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan said that the incident “shocked the hell out of us.”

It was a hoax. Popovich recalled later, “When we realized we would never make it to the moon, we decided to engage in a little bit of hooliganism. We asked our engineers to link the on-the-probe receiver to the transmitter with a jumper wire. Moon flight missions were then controlled from a command centre in Yevpatoria, in the Crimea. When the probe was on its path round the Moon, I was at the center. So I took the mike and said: ‘The flight is proceeding according to normal; we’re approaching the surface …’ Seconds later my report — as if from outer space — was received on Earth, including [by] the Americans. The U.S. space advisor Frank Borman got a phone call from President [Johnson], who asked: ‘Why is Popovich reporting from the moon?’ My joke caused real turmoil.

“In about a month’s time. Frank came to the USSR, and I was instructed to meet him at the airport. Hardly had he walked out of his plane when he shook his fist at me and said: ‘Hey, you, space hooligan!'”

All Wet

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In her 1929 autobiography Cradle of the Deep, silent film star Joan Lowell revealed a dramatic childhood aboard her father’s trading vessel: She’d seen a man eaten by sharks, performed an amputation, and, when the ship caught fire and sank, swum three miles to the Australian coast with “drenched kittens” clinging to her shoulders:

I was conscious of only the pain caused by the salt water on my bleeding cuts and scratches. Each stroke I took was like a knife cut, and I couldn’t shake the drowning kittens off. Perhaps to those cats I owe my life, for the pain made me so mad I fought on and on, toward the lightship which seemed to go farther away instead of closer.

When it was published, sailing writer Lincoln Colcord identified 50 inaccuracies and called her to account. It turned out she’d made the whole thing up: Her father had worked on the boat for about a year, and she’d made one trip on it. Simon & Schuster reclassified the book as fiction and released a statement saying it had been “published in good faith, not as a literal autobiography but as a teeming yarn, fundamentally a true narrative but inevitably … embroidered with some romanticized threads.”