“Sir Theophilus Gooch … Is Being Roasted Alive”

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.

Head Nor Tail

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

“Alleged Ancient Ruins in the United States”

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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.

Lenore in Indiana

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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.

Dear Diary

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.

Vox Populi

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.”

Typing in Tongues

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

Dueling Chameleons

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.”

Ghost Fame

Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography was a mainstay reference in the 19th century, a six-volume work describing 20,000 eminent people in the U.S. and thousands more throughout the Americas.

Unfortunately, many of its subjects are not real people. In its zeal to profile every noteworthy person in the New World, Appletons’ had paid by the word and accepted submissions uncritically, and it seems that at least 200 of its detailed biographies were invented out of thin air.

Who did this? No one knows, but curiously the fake biographies show as much diligence as the real ones: A 1937 investigation showed that the anonymous writer had invented titles in six languages, showed signs of scientific training, and knew the history and geography of South America. Why go to so much trouble to lie?

See Reference Work.

Dark Horse

Fifty-one voters of Milton, Wash. (Tacoma suburb) last week marked their ballots for one Boston Curtis, Republican candidate for precinct committeeman. Boston Curtis was elected. Milton’s Mayor Kenneth Simmons, a Democrat, chortled hugely. He, who had sponsored Candidate Curtis and filed his papers, had proved his point that voters ‘have no idea whom they support.’ Boston Curtis is a large brown mule.

Time, Sept. 26, 1938