The Un-Hoax

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.)


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

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.


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

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:

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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.