Johann Beringer

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.

Much Ado About Nothing

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.

Operation Mincemeat

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.

Punished for Talent

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.

A for Effort

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.

Rumors of My Death

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.

The Tichborne Claimant

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.

“The Great Cave Sell”

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.”

Perpetual Notion

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.


F.D.C. Willard isn’t the only overachieving housecat.

In 2004, a cat named Colby Nolan received an MBA from Trinity Southern University in a fraud investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general.

To be fair, Colby had a pretty good resume. The cat’s application listed community college courses, work at a fast-food restaurant, babysitting, and a paper route. Once accepted he earned a 3.5 grade point average in the MBA program, according to his transcript.

In 1967, Oliver Greenhalgh, another cat, was accepted as a Fellow of the English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers during an investigation of bogus associations. Oliver paid 11 guineas; it’s not clear what would have happened if they’d called his references.