The Beale Ciphers

A secret hoard of $20 million in gold and silver lies buried somewhere near Roanoke, Va. That’s according to a coded message left by adventurer Thomas Jefferson Beale in the 1820s:

I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number “3,” herewith:

The first deposit consisted of one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, and three thousand eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at US$13,000.

The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others. Paper number “1” describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

Unfortunately, no one has been able to decipher paper “1” or “3”, and a hundred years’ digging has turned up nothing. Is it a hoax? Who knows?

Hey, Wait a Minute …

Identities assumed by Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1921-1982), “The Great Impostor”:

  • sailor
  • civil engineer
  • sheriff’s deputy
  • assistant prison warden
  • doctor of applied psychology
  • hospital orderly
  • lawyer
  • child-care expert
  • monk (Benedictine and Trappist)
  • editor
  • cancer researcher
  • teacher
  • surgeon
  • hospital priest

When asked for his motivation, he said, “Rascality, pure rascality.”

Drake’s Plate of Brass

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:FrancisDrake.jpg

Drake’s Plate of Brass is a museum curator’s nightmare: A priceless artifact revealed as historians’ in-joke gone terribly awry.

The story surrounds a golden plate that Francis Drake reportedly left as a monument when he visited Northern California in 1579. Hoping to fool one of their number, a group of local historians hammered out a fake version in 1936 and planted it near Drake’s landing point.

Sure enough, it made its way to the victim, historian George Bolton of Berkeley. Before they could reveal the joke, though, Bolton vouched for the plate’s authenticity, engaging the University of California and paying $2,500 for it.

Now that the hoax was so painfully public the conspirators had to move carefully. They tried discreetly to reveal their joke, but then to their horror Columbia University confirmed the plate as genuine. It was added to textbooks; likenesses were sold as souvenirs; copies were presented to Queen Elizabeth II herself on several occasions.

Only 40 years later, after exhaustive testing at Oxford, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and MIT, was the plate confirmed as a fake, and it was several years before the whole story was pieced together. The plate is still on display at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, an embarrassing testament to the gullibility of an excited historian.

Snake Oil

Contents of Stanley’s Snake Oil, produced by “Rattlesnake King” Clark Stanley in 1917, as determined by the federal government:

  • mineral oil
  • 1% fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat)
  • red pepper
  • turpentine
  • camphor

I.e., no actual snake oil. But it’s pretty close to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments, so it may still have worked pretty well as intended.

Spaghetti Trees

In 1957, as a joke, the BBC TV program Panorama reported a bumper harvest from the “spaghetti trees” of Ticino, Switzerland, thanks to a mild winter and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.”

Britons at the time knew pasta mainly as canned spaghetti with tomato sauce; hundreds of viewers called to ask for advice about growing their own trees.

The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

San Serriffe

In April 1977, as a joke, the British newspaper The Guardian published a seven-page supplement about a fictional island nation called San Serriffe. It fooled quite a few readers, which is surprising, since it’s essentially a series of bad puns about typography:

  • There are two main islands, the Upper Caisse and the Lower Caisse. The capital, Bodoni, is linked by highways to the major ports, including Port Clarendon, but Arial in the Lower Caisse has grown in importance during the personal computer era.
  • Natives are called Flong, and the descendants of colonists and known as colons. Those of mixed race are called semi-colons.
  • At independence in 1967, the country was led by General Pica, a military strongman.
  • Cultural highlights include the Ampersand String Quartet and “Times Nude Romances.”
  • The islands hold an annual endurance challenge race, known as the Two Em Dash, that now attracts international participants.

The island’s alternate name, if it needed any, is Hoaxe.

The Dreadnought Hoax

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virginia_Woolf_in_Dreadnought_Hoax.jpg

That’s Virginia Woolf on the left, dressed up as an Abyssinian prince. In 1910 she participated in an elaborate practical joke to trick the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, H.M.S. Dreadnought, to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals.

Arriving by VIP coach, the impostors spoke in Latin, shouted “bunga bunga” at the impressive warship, asked for prayer mats and bestowed “military honors” on the officers. At one point Anthony Buxton sneezed his whiskers off, but he stuck them back on before anyone noticed. When it was over they revealed the hoax by sending a letter and a group photo to the Daily Mirror.

This was, amazingly, a typical day for Horace de Vere Cole (far right), an Edwardian dynamo of practical jokes. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Cole had visited his own college posing as a sultan of Zanzibar. He once impersonated prime minister Ramsay MacDonald at a Labour Party meeting, telling members to work harder for less money. And he later slipped his watch into an MP’s pocket and dared him to run to the nearest corner — then had him arrested for pickpocketing.

He could improvise, too. He once told a group of workmen to dig a hole in the middle of Piccadilly Circus; it took a week for public officials to refill it. And he once shared a taxi with a naked female mannequin; he had the cabbie stop in front of a policeman, opened the door, and banged the dummy’s head on the pavement, shouting, “Ungrateful hussy!”

It’s not recorded whether anyone ever played a joke on him. “Everything is funny,” wrote Will Rogers, “as long as it is happening to Somebody Else.”

The Great Moon Hoax

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

Jayson Blair may not have been reaching high enough. The New York Times reporter was disgraced for faking quotes and interviews, but that’s kid stuff compared to the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, a series of articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) in which the New York Sun announced that life had been discovered on the moon.

“Reprinted” from the defunct Edinburgh Journal of Science, the six articles told of “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle” with which astronomer John Herschel supposedly discovered lunar bison, goats, pelicans, trees, beaches, and even bat-men who built temples of sapphire.

That last detail sent the Sun‘s circulation to 19,360, the world’s highest … and it stayed high even after Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke admitted that he’d invented the whole thing.

Strangely, most accounts report that the Sun‘s readers were amused at the joke. The real outrage came from rival newspapers that had reprinted the articles, claiming to be getting them from the original source. Now that’s embarrassing.

Brooklyn Bridge East

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tour_eiffel_at_sunrise_from_the_trocadero.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Eiffel Tower has been getting some alarming press lately: Its nighttime image has been copyrighted, and Islamists admitted they’d planned an attack on the Paris landmark in 2002. But these still can’t compete with the most outrageous episode in the tower’s history, when a Bohemian con man sold the whole thing for scrap — twice.

The tower was built for the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and by 1925 its upkeep was becoming a burden. So Victor Lustig posed as a government official and summoned six scrap dealers to a secret meeting, where he told them the city wanted to dismantle it. He led a convincing tour of the site, and even induced one eager dealer to “bribe” him for the job.

Lustig fled to Vienna with the cash, and the embarrassed scrap dealer never called the cops. So the con man came back six months later and ran the same scam again, with six new dealers. This time the suspicious mark went to the police, but Lustig still escaped.

An even more successful salesman was at work elsewhere in the early 1920s: Arthur Ferguson sold Nelson’s Column, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, then sailed to America and marketed the White House and the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes the best salesmen are the most audacious ones.