Good for the Gander

In 1923, Ollie Kraehe, owner of the NFL’s St. Louis All-Stars, approached Green Bay Packers coach Curly Lambeau with a tempting offer: He would give him end Jack “Dolly” Gray in exchange for some cash that he needed to fund his team. Lambeau leapt at the deal: Gray was reputed to have been an All-American honoree at Princeton in 1922 and sounded like the best player on Kraehe’s team.

Two weeks later, Lambeau cornered Kraehe and demanded an explanation — in his first game with the Packers, Gray had played terribly.

Kraehe told him the truth: The man had approached him earlier that year, representing himself as a Princeton star, but he played so badly that after three games Kraehe had investigated and found no such background — he was simply an impostor. Kraehe had traded him on to Lambeau as a joke, letting him coast on his phony reputation and expecting to take him back when the joke was over. But by that time the impostor had disappeared. His identity remains unknown.

I, Libertine

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Irritated at the way bestseller lists were compiled in the 1950s, late-night radio host Jean Shepherd asked his listeners to visit bookstores and request a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by the imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing.

The number of requests drove the title onto the New York Times bestseller list, and, encouraged by its popularity, bookstores began to order the novel. So Shepherd and publisher Ian Ballantine got novelist Theodore Sturgeon to write it, following the plot that Shepherd had described to his listeners. (Sturgeon fell asleep while trying to write the whole book in one marathon session, so Ballantine’s wife Betty had to write the last chapter.)

Ballantine Books published the novel in September 1956, using a photo of Shepherd in place of Ewing, and donated the proceeds to charity.

The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax a few weeks before publication. “Mr. Ballantine’s idea, though simple enough, was a startling one, for publishers consider it one of the greatest possible tragedies to print a book later discovered to be the work of a literary faker,” wrote reporter Carter Henderson. “At Simon & Schuster, Inc., faces still redden when Joan Lowell’s autobiographical ‘Cradle of the Deep’ is mentioned even though this phony tale of a young girl’s spectacularly adventurous life at sea was published in 1929.”

The Fortsas Hoax

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In 1840, librarians and booksellers throughout Europe received a catalog describing a unique collection of books to be auctioned: Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, had collected 52 unique books, books of which only a single copy was known to exist. The count had died the preceding September, the message said, and as his heirs had no interest in books, the collection would be auctioned off.

Bibliophiles converged on Binche, Belgium, that August for the event, only to discover that the appointed address did not exist. Notices declared that the town’s library had acquired the books — but Binche had no library. In time it became clear that the Comte de Fortsas himself had never existed.

The whole thing had been an elaborate hoax put on by an antiquarian and retired military officer named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon. Ironically, the catalog of nonexistent books itself in time became a collectors’ item.

What will happen if someone now writes those books?

Ventriloquism

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On September 19, 1968, as the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 spacecraft was circling the moon, Jodrell Bank Observatory and the CIA were shocked to intercept the voices of cosmonauts Valery Bykovsky, Vitaly Sevastyanov and Pavel Popovich reading out telemetry and computer data and even discussing the prospect of a landing. The Zond mission had been thought to be uncrewed; now it sounded as though the Soviets might beat the United States to a moon landing. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan said that the incident “shocked the hell out of us.”

It was a hoax. Popovich recalled later, “When we realized we would never make it to the moon, we decided to engage in a little bit of hooliganism. We asked our engineers to link the on-the-probe receiver to the transmitter with a jumper wire. Moon flight missions were then controlled from a command centre in Yevpatoria, in the Crimea. When the probe was on its path round the Moon, I was at the center. So I took the mike and said: ‘The flight is proceeding according to normal; we’re approaching the surface …’ Seconds later my report — as if from outer space — was received on Earth, including [by] the Americans. The U.S. space advisor Frank Borman got a phone call from President [Johnson], who asked: ‘Why is Popovich reporting from the moon?’ My joke caused real turmoil.

“In about a month’s time. Frank came to the USSR, and I was instructed to meet him at the airport. Hardly had he walked out of his plane when he shook his fist at me and said: ‘Hey, you, space hooligan!'”

All Wet

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In her 1929 autobiography Cradle of the Deep, silent film star Joan Lowell revealed a dramatic childhood aboard her father’s trading vessel: She’d seen a man eaten by sharks, performed an amputation, and, when the ship caught fire and sank, swum three miles to the Australian coast with “drenched kittens” clinging to her shoulders:

I was conscious of only the pain caused by the salt water on my bleeding cuts and scratches. Each stroke I took was like a knife cut, and I couldn’t shake the drowning kittens off. Perhaps to those cats I owe my life, for the pain made me so mad I fought on and on, toward the lightship which seemed to go farther away instead of closer.

When it was published, sailing writer Lincoln Colcord identified 50 inaccuracies and called her to account. It turned out she’d made the whole thing up: Her father had worked on the boat for about a year, and she’d made one trip on it. Simon & Schuster reclassified the book as fiction and released a statement saying it had been “published in good faith, not as a literal autobiography but as a teeming yarn, fundamentally a true narrative but inevitably … embroidered with some romanticized threads.”

Podcast Episode 339: The Baron of Arizona

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In 1883, Missouri real estate broker James Reavis announced that he held title to a huge tract of land in the Arizona Territory. If certified, the claim would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of residents. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Baron of Arizona, one of the most audacious frauds in American history.

We’ll also scrutinize British statues and puzzle over some curious floor numbers.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 332: Princess Caraboo

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In 1817 a young woman appeared in the English village of Almondsbury, speaking a strange language and seeking food and shelter. She revealed herself to be an Eastern princess, kidnapped by pirates from an exotic island. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Princess Caraboo, who was both more and less than she seemed.

We’ll also discover a June Christmas and puzzle over some monster soup.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 329: The Cock Lane Ghost

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In 1759, ghostly rappings started up in the house of a parish clerk in London. In the months that followed they would incite a scandal against one man, an accusation from beyond the grave. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cock Lane ghost, an enduring portrait of superstition and justice.

We’ll also see what you can get hit with at a sporting event and puzzle over some portentous soccer fields.

See full show notes …

The Grave Creek Stone

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This flat, polished sandstone pebble was found in a 2,000-year-old burial mound in West Virginia in 1838. Though it seemed to bear 25 pseudo-alphabetic characters, no one could agree on their meaning. In 1845 ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft consulted “noted antiquarians” and concluded that the inscription contains “four characters corresponding to the Ancient Greek; four Etruscan; five Runic; six ancient Gallic; seven old Erse; ten Phoenician; fourteen old British; sixteen Celtiberic, with some resemblance to the Hebrew.” In the 1870s physician R.J. Farquharson compiled wildly varying translations of the inscription from three different scholars:

  1. “Thy orders are laws, thou shines in thy impetuous clan, and rapid as the chamois.”
  2. “The chief of emigration who reached these places (or island), has fixed these decrees forever.”
  3. “The grave of one who was murdered here; to revenge him may God strike his murderer, suddenly taking away his existence.”

Also in the 1870s, antiquarian M.C. Reid asked a law student, a schoolgirl, a pharmacist, and a college professor to create “twenty or more arbitrary characters not resembling any figures or alphabetical characters known to them.” Their characters resembled those in Old World alphabets, just as did those on the Grave Creek stone. Reid was “compelled to conclude that there is nothing in the form of the characters of the Grave Creek Stone which require us to decide that they are old, that they are alphabetical, or if alphabetical that they are derived from any known alphabet.”

Today it seems most likely that the stone was forged by James W. Clemens, a local physician who had financed the original excavation and wanted to sell rights to exploit the mound. In 2008 anthropologist David Oestreicher discovered the same sequences of markings in a 1752 book by a Spanish historian, An Essay on the Alphabets of the Unknown Letters That Are Found in the Most Ancient Coins and Monuments of Spain. It appears that Clemens simply copied these characters onto the stone and planted it in the mound.

The Davenport Tablets

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When the Rev. Jacob Gass discovered three inscribed slate tablets near Davenport, Iowa, in 1877, he thought they demonstrated the presence of an ancient Old World people who’d traveled to the Americas long before Columbus. The find was praised in local journals, but in 1885 ethnologist Cyrus Thomas declared them a fraud: The inscriptions were a hodgepodge of various languages amateurishly rendered, and Gass had reported finding the slates in loose soil in which human bones had been scattered about, suggested that they’d been planted there.

It turned out that the slates matched those on the roof of a nearby house of prostitution, right down to the nail holes. In 1991 archaeologist Marshall McKusick tracked down a confession by local academy member James Willis Bollinger, who said, “We had no respect for Reverend Gass because he was the biggest windjammer and liar and everyone knew he was. We wanted to shut him up once and for all.” McKusick points out that Bollinger was only 9 years old when the slates had been discovered, but perhaps he’d heard the story from other members and injected himself into the story. The modern consensus is that Gass was the victim of a hoax.