The Dreadnought Hoax

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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

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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

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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.