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?

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

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.

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.