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.

Meow

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.

The New York Zoo Hoax

On Nov. 9, 1874, readers of the New York Herald were startled to learn that wild animals were roaming the city after a mass escape from the Central Park Zoo as city dwellers shot at them from tenement windows:

There is no instance reported of any animals being hit, while it is believed many citizens were struck by the missiles. One policeman, Officer Lannigan of the Seventh Precinct, was wounded in the foot near Grand Street by a shot from a window during a chase after the striped hyena, which was mistaken by the crowd for a panther. This cowardly brute was finally killed by a bartender armed with a club.

The story reported casualties of 27 dead and 200 injured. It sparked a panic, as most readers overlooked the last paragraph, which stated that “the entire story given above is a pure fabrication.” It had been intended to draw attention to inadequate safety precautions at the zoo.

The hoax’s mastermind, Thomas B. Connery, had two consolations: His paper’s circulation “did not drop by so much as one subscriber,” he reported — and he’d got to watch the editor of the rival New York Times leave his home “with a brace of pistols, prepared to shoot the first animals that would cross his path.”

The Berners Street Hoax

In 1810, Theodore Hook, a writer of comic operas, bet his friend Samuel Beazley that he could turn any house in London into the most talked-about address in the city within one week. Beazley accepted, and Hook began writing letters.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 10, a Mrs. Tottenham of 54 Berners Street turned away a coal merchant delivering a load of coal that she hadn’t ordered.

She was in for a long day. The Morning Post reported: “Wagons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart loads, organs, pioanofortes, linens, jewelry, and every other description of furniture sufficient to have stocked the whole street, were lodged as near as possible to the door of 54, with anxious trades-people and a laughing mob.”

It went on. “There were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, artists of every description, auctioneers, … grocers, mercers, post-chaises, mourning-coaches, poultry, rabbits, pigeons, etc. In fact, the whole street was literally filled with the motley group.”

The merchants were followed by dignitaries: the governor of the Bank of England, the archbishop of Canterbury, cabinet ministers, dukes, and finally the lord mayor of London.

Hook won his bet, collecting one guinea. He eventually confessed to the prank, but apparently never received any punishment.

Mary Tofts

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In 1726, 25-year-old English maidservant Mary Tofts began giving birth to rabbits. Despite a miscarriage earlier that year, she apparently went into labor, and local doctor John Howard delivered several stillborn rabbits.

More were coming. Howard summoned other doctors by letter, and Mary’s next litter was witnessed by Nathaniel St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, the most famous obstetrician in London.

Amazed, St. Andre published a tract titled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits. But Mary’s deliveries stopped when she was put under close supervision, and soon a boy came forward reporting that she had bribed him to supply her with more rabbits. In the end she confessed, saying she had done it “to get so good a living that I should never want as long as I lived.” Ah.

Ern Malley

I had often, cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

That’s from “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495,” a poem by Ern Malley. When it was celebrated in the Australian modernist magazine Angry Penguins, its real authors, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, stepped forward. Not only had they written the poem, they said, but they had “deliberately perpetrated bad verse”: “We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them in nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions.”

The point, they said, was to show that modern critics had become “insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.”

The critics insisted that they had accidentally created a masterpiece.

Fortune Favors the Bold

On Oct. 16, 1906, small-time criminal Wilhelm Voigt became a big-time criminal … for one day.

Wearing a secondhand captain’s uniform, he appeared at the local army barracks, where he dismissed the commander. Then, with 10 grenadiers and a sergeant in tow, he took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin, and took over city hall.

There he confiscated 4,000 marks and 37 pfennigs and ordered the town secretary and the mayor sent to Berlin on charges of crooked bookkeeping. He told the remaining soldiers to guard the building for half an hour and then left for the train station, where he changed back to civilian clothes and slipped away.

Why? Why not?

Who?

Identities assumed by virtuoso impostor Stanley Clifford Weyman (1890-1960):

  • U.S. consul representative to Morocco. Arrested for fraud.
  • Military attaché from Serbia and U.S. Navy lieutenant (so the two could use each other as references).
  • “Lt. Cmdr. Ethan Allen Weinberg, consul general for Romania.” He inspected the U.S.S. Wyoming and invited its officers to a dinner at the Astor Hotel. On being arrested, he was heard to complain that they should have waited until dessert.
  • “Royal St. Cyr,” a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Arrested on an inspection tour of the Brooklyn armory.
  • Company doctor in Lima, Peru. Threw parties until arrested.
  • State Department naval liaison officer. Introduced himself to Princess Fatima of Afghanistan and promised to arrange a meeting with the president. She gave him $10,000 for “presents” to State Department officials. Weyman got appointments with Secretary of State Evans Hughes and with Warren G. Harding. Indicted for impersonating a naval officer.
  • U.S. secretary of state. Interviewed Queen Marie of Romania for the Evening Graphic newspaper.
  • Personal physician to Pola Negri, Rudolph Valentino’s grieving lover. Established a faith-healing clinic and issued regular press releases.
  • Arrested during World War II for telling draft dodgers how to feign various medical conditions.
  • Journalist for the United Nations. Caught when he asked the State Department whether he could remain a U.S. citizen if he became the Thai delegation’s press officer.

Ironically, Weyman’s most honest act may have been his last: He was shot trying to stop a robbery in a New York hotel. “One man’s life is a boring thing,” he once said. “I lived many lives. I’m never bored.”