Expense Account

The German Bundestag has 614 members, but its official Web site lists 615. That’s because Jakob Maria Mierscheid doesn’t exist — he was invented in the 1920s by Weimar Social Democrats to avoid paying restaurant bills.

Like George P. Burdell, another nonexistent bon vivant, Mierscheid has quite a resume. He served as deputy chairman of the Committee for Small and Medium Sized Businesses in 1981 and 1982, and in 1983 he published a demonstration of the correlation between federal election results and West German industrial production.

Presumably he also goes out to lunch a lot.

The Bathtub Hoax

H.L. Mencken seemed to have a gift for cynicism — even the gold he touched turned to lead. In December 1917, as a joke, he composed a fictional history of the bathtub for the New York Evening Mail. The article, “A Neglected Anniversary,” was preposterous, saying that the bathtub had been introduced to England in 1828 and to the United States 14 years later, and that Millard Fillmore encouraged its acceptance by installing one in the White House in 1850.

To Mencken’s horror, the story was widely accepted as fact, and it’s still quoted today as an authoritative source. Mencken said:

“The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity. … Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

No, Seriously


There’s never a good time for a tsunami, but the one that hit Hawaii in 1946 (visible at center right) was particularly unfortunate. It landed on April 1, and many residents dismissed the warnings as an April Fools prank. Ultimately 165 people died.

International Board of Hygiene

In 1926 the League of Nations recognized a new medical body, the International Board of Hygiene. It’s a good thing they didn’t assign it any responsibilities: The “board” was really a group of drinking buddies who met in a turf bar in Tijuana during Prohibition. San Diego pathologist Rawson Pickard invented a surgeon, “Honorable J. Fortescue,” as a founder, and anyone who attended a meeting became a lifetime member.

Pickard probably imagined his joke would be exposed pretty quickly, but the other shoe never dropped. In response to his letter, the League of Nations recognized the board in a couple of weeks. Soon the nonexistent Fortescue was invited to join the American Conference on Hospital Service, and the U.S. National Research Council included him in a directory of child psychologists. Pickard began to write articles under his byline and answered journalists’ inquiries on his behalf.

The joke kept snowballing. By 1936 Fortescue was listed in Who’s Who in San Diego, including his publications, association memberships, medical studies and travels. He lived in Paris, ostensibly, but his address was given as “The International Board of Hygiene, 1908 Eutaw Place, Baltimore, Maryland.”

That’s it. For years membership of the International Board of Hygiene spread by invitation, but no one ever caught on. Pickard died in 1963, taking Fortescue with him.

Someone ought to check the rest of our luminaries. Do they all exist?

Small World

Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1938 famously terrified millions, who thought they were hearing news coverage of an actual alien invasion.

Amazingly, the same thing happened again — twice. When the play was broadcast in Chile in 1944, it caused a panic in which the governor mobilized troops. In Ecuador, a 1949 performance panicked tens of thousands and led angry listeners to set fire to the radio station.

In the United States, Welles was not punished for his broadcast — but CBS had to promise never again to use news “interruptions” for dramatic purposes.


In the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia you’ll find a biography of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel (1942-1973), an American fountain designer and photographer best known for Flags Up!, a collection of photos of rural mailboxes.

Mountweazel never existed. She’s an example of a nihilartikel, a deliberately fake entry in a reference work. They’re used to catch copyright infringers. For the same reason, telephone directories include fake entries, and maps sometimes include nonexistent features.

It must be fun writing these. According to the New Columbia article, Lillian Mountweazel died in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.



In 1896, to draw tourists to Rhinelander, Wis., Eugene Simeon Shepard staged an encounter with a hodag, a legendary creature with “the head of a bull, the grinning face of a giant man, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with a spear at the end.”

According to the story, Paul Bunyan’s ox had to be burned for seven years to cleanse its soul of all the profanity that local lumberjacks had hurled at it. The hodag rose from its ashes.

There’s no telling whether anyone bought this, but the hodag is now the official mascot of Rhinelander High School.

Caveat Emptor

French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:

  • Robert Boyle
  • Isaac Newton
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Cleopatra
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Pontius Pilate
  • Joan of Arc
  • Cicero
  • Dante Alighieri

… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.

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.