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

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?


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.”

Victoria Punk’d

From The Private Life of the Queen, by “One of Her Majesty’s Servants,” 1897:

Her Majesty [Queen Victoria] takes delight in a clever riddle or rebus, but on one occasion she was very angry at having been hoaxed over a riddle which was sent to her with a letter to the effect that it had been made by the Bishop of Salisbury.

For four days the Queen and Prince Albert sought for the reply, when Charles Murray (Controller of the Household) was directed to write to the bishop and ask for the solution.

The answer received was that the bishop had not made the riddle nor could he solve it.

Unicorn Hoax?

Gottfried von Leibniz was convinced of the existence of unicorns by this skeleton, found in Germany’s Harz Mountains in 1663.

Why does it have only two legs? Well, supporters said, that’s because souvenir hunters plundered it.

Then why did they take the legs but leave the horn? Um …

A Professional Student

According to his transcript, George P. Burdell has been a student at Georgia Tech since 1927. How? He was invented out of thin air when student Ed Smith received two enrollment forms. With Smith’s help, “Burdell” attended all his friend’s classes and took all the same exams.

For a nonexistent person, Burdell turned out to be pretty ambitious. Smith graduated in 1930, but his invisible friend stuck around, adopted by other students. He eventually earned a master’s degree and became an official alumnus, then flew 12 bombing missions over Europe in World War II. In 1969 he signed up for a whopping 3,000 credit hours at Georgia Tech — and began a 12-year term on MAD magazine’s board of directors. In 2001 he was briefly the leading contender among voters for TIME magazine’s person of the year.

Strangely, after 79 years of school Burdell is still only a sophomore. He’s majoring in civil engineering, according to a recent report card.

An Unacknowledged Genius

Onne Ruddeborne bank twa pynynge Maydens fate,
Theire teares faste dryppeynge to the waterre cleere;
Echone bementynge for her absente mate,
Who atte Seyncte Albonns shouke the morthynge speare.
The nottebrowne Elinoure to Juga fayre
Dydde speke acroole, wythe languishment of eyne,
Lyche droppes of pearlie dew, lemed the quyvryng brine.

That’s from “Elenoure and Juga,” a pastoral poem by Thomas Rowley, a 15th-century monk.

Actually, no, it’s not. Its real author was Thomas Chatterton, a 17-year-old boy who faked medieval manuscripts and “aged” them by holding them over candles or smearing them with glue or varnish.

He fooled everyone — this poem was published in Town and Country Magazine in May 1769, and Chatterton published several others in the following months. Starving and unable to reveal his secret, he was driven to suicide shortly afterward, but his work was discovered and praised posthumously by Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats.