The Museum of Hoaxes
hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive
   
Hoaxes Throughout History
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
The Donation of Constantine
The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine, granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast lands in the western Roman Empire. For centuries, it was accepted as authentic, until 1440, when the scholar Lorenzo Valla used textual analysis to expose it as a fraud. Valla's analysis represented the growing influence of Renaissance Humanism, and a new willingness in Europe to question long-held beliefs. More…
The Holy Foreskin
The Holy Foreskin of Christ first made an appearance in Europe around 800 ad, when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III. Being an actual body part of Christ, is was considered to be incredibly valuable. But rival foreskins soon began to pop up all over Europe. Eventually twenty-one different churches claimed to possess the genuine Holy Foreskin! By 1900, the Church had decided that all the rival foreskins were frauds. More…
Pope Joan
According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child. The legend is unconfirmed. Skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. More…
The Letter of Prester John
At a time when European rulers felt threatened by the growing power of Muslim nations on their borders, a letter suddenly appeared from Prester John, who described himself as a Christian king of vast wealth and power living in the far east. Hopes were raised that Prester John would come to the aid of Europe's Christian nations, and expeditions were sent to search for him. But Prester John was never found. The letter's true author remains unknown. More…
The Toledo Letter
A letter supposedly written by the astrologers of Toledo began circulating throughout Europe in 1184. It predicted the world would end in September 1186, amidst awful calamities. People were advised to flee their homes and find safety in the mountains. The letter caused panic throughout Europe. Of course, the world didn't end, but that wasn't the end of the letter's career. Variants of it, with names and dates altered, continued to circulate for centuries, and continued to cause panic. More…
The Travels of Marco Polo
Marco Polo's Description of the World, written around 1298, described his travels in China. But did Marco Polo actually travel to China? Some historians have expressed doubts. These scholars point to curious omissions in his book, such as the fact that he never mentions the Great Wall of China nor the Chinese use of chopsticks. They suggest that Polo may have simply compiled information about the Far East from Persian and Arabic guidebooks. More…

The Shroud of Turin
This famous cloth bearing the image of a naked man first came to the attention of the public in 1355. Its supporters claim that it was the funeral shroud of Christ. But skeptics dismiss it as a medieval forgery, arguing that: 1) there was a flourishing trade in such false relics; 2) a medieval forger could definitely have created it, despite claims to the contrary; and 3) the man's body is oddly proportioned (his head is too large), which suggests the image is a painting. More…
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
This popular book (a 'bestseller' for its time) purported to document the travels of an English knight throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. It described bizarre foreign lands and people, such as islanders who had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, and a race of one-eyed giants who ate only raw fish and raw meat. The book was widely regarded as factual, even though it was obviously fiction. More…
The Lost Island of Hi-Brazil
Stories about the island of Hi-Brazil circulated around Europe for centuries, telling that it was the Promised Land of the Saints, an earthly paradise where fairies and magicians lived. The island was said to be somewhere in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. Based on this information, cartographers of the late-medieval period frequently placed the island on maps. And many explorers even attempted to find it. More…
The History of Crowland
When a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of Crowland Abbey's lands as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis. It was a series of land charters woven together into a history of the abbey. The document was accepted as legitimate, and the Crowland monks won their case. It wasn't until the 19th Century that historians realized the History was, for the most part, an invention. More…
Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull
Count Jean V d'Armagnac of France (shown above) fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. Then he sought approval from the Pope to marry her. The Pope refused. Undeterred, the Count bribed a papal official to forge a papal bull allowing the marriage. When the Pope learned of this, he excommunicated the Count. Later, King Charles VII's army killed the Count and dragged his body through the streets. More…
Michelangelo’s Cupid
As a young man, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid. He, or an accomplice, then buried it in acidic earth to give it an appearance of great age. The plan was to pass it off as an antiquity, to fetch a higher price. The artificially aged sculpture was bought by Cardinal Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio who, when he learned of the forgery, demanded his money back. But impressed by Michelangelo's talent, the Cardinal didn't press charges. More…
The Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book consisting of pages of hand-written text and crudely drawn illustrations that depict plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. The text has defied all attempts at translation. One theory is that the book's text was simply nonsense gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. More…
Lusus Naturae
Medieval naturalists spent a lot of time studying Lusus Naturae, or Jokes of Nature. The term described any creature or specimen that defied classification. The idea was that Nature was a master hoaxer, creating weird anomalies in order to confound the expectations of men. One example was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, it resisted classification, being a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus it was part plant, part animal. More…
Prophecies of Nostradamus
Michel de Notredame, better known as Nostradamus, rose to prominence as an astrologer supported by the patronage of Queen Catherine de Médici. He wrote prophecies in an ancient form of French worded so ambiguously that it could be interpreted to mean almost anything a reader desired. This artful ambiguity has allowed his followers to credit him with predicting many events. Although his supposed predictions are only ever noticed after the events have occurred. More…
Return of Martin Guerre
Martin Guerre, a French peasant, married Bertrande de Rols in 1538. But in 1548, he disappeared. Eight years passed, and then Martin suddenly returned. Or did he? Bertrande accepted him as her husband, but the uncle became suspicious and accused him of being an imposter. The case went to trial. The court was about to declare him genuine, when suddenly the actual Martin Guerre showed up. He had been serving in the army, where he had lost a leg. More…
The Boy with the Golden Tooth
Reports spread of a young Silesian boy who had miraculously grown a golden tooth. Professor Jakob Horst investigated and determined that the boy did indeed have a gold tooth and attributed its growth to astrological causes. But the daily pressure of chewing eventually wore down the gold, revealing it to be a thin layer of metal skillfully fitted over the tooth. Although a fraud, it was also the first documented case of a gold crown fitted for a tooth. More…
A Case of Pregnancy without Intercourse
A pamphlet published in Paris described the case of a woman who had given birth to a son, even though her husband had been absent for four years. When charged with adultery, the woman claimed innocence, explaining that her husband had impregnated her in a dream. The court accepted this argument. The report of this ruling caused an uproar throughout Paris, but upon investigation the pamphlet was revealed to be a hoax. More…
Mother Shipton
Mother Shipton was said to be a sixteenth-century Yorkshire seer who made a number of startlingly accurate predictions. However, it is uncertain whether she actually existed, and many of the predictions attributed to her are outright hoaxes written long after the sixteenth century. During the period when she was supposedly alive, there were no written references to her or her predictions. More…
The Cerne Abbas Giant
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a chalk figure of an enormous naked man wielding a club carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. The giant is widely believed to have been carved thousands of years ago. But in recent years historians have suggested that the Giant may date only to the seventeenth-century, since the first written reference to it only dates to 1694. Furthermore, its creation may have been intended as a prank. More…
Athanasius Kircher, Victim of Pranks
Athanasius Kircher was one of the central figures of Baroque scientific culture, but he was also reported to be the target of many pranks and was often portrayed as being a bit of an Intellectual Fool. According to one story, some young boys buried stones carved with meaningless symbols at a construction site. When dug up, Kircher was asked to interpret them, and he pompously proceeded to give an elaborate interpretation of the nonsense signs. More…
The Ghostly Drummer of Tedworth
John Mompesson of Wiltshire claimed to hear strange noises in his home such as a drum beating, scratching, and panting noises. Objects, he said, moved of their own accord. Many people came to witness the spirit activity for themselves. But skeptics suggested Mompesson himself may have been behind the haunting, either to profit from those who came to see the spirit, or to decrease the value of the house (which was rented). More…
Jean Hardouin’s Theory of Universal Forgery
Jean Hardouin was a respected scholar, the librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who argued that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of thirteenth-century monks. His theory was considered highly eccentric. Nevertheless, his theory spoke to the growing awareness among early-modern scholars of the massive amount of forgery practiced during the medieval period. More…
The Native of Formosa
A white-skinned, blond-haired man showed up in northern Europe claiming to be from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). He regaled scholars and members of high society with tales of the bizarre practices of Formosa, such as the supposed annual sacrifice of 20,000 young boys to the gods. Luckily for him, no one in Europe knew what a Taiwanese person should look like, which allowed him to keep up his masquerade for four years before finally being exposed. More…
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly
Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. More…
The Predictions of Isaac Bickerstaff
An almanac released by Isaac Bickerstaff in February 1708 predicted that a rival astrologer, John Partridge, would die on March 29 of that year. On March 31st Bickerstaff released a follow-up pamphlet announcing that his prediction had come true. Partridge was dead. However, Partridge was actually still very much alive. He was woken on April 1st by a sexton outside his window announcing the news of his death. Isaac Bickerstaff was actually a pseudonym for Jonathan Swift, whose intention was to embarrass and discredit Partridge, because he was annoyed by the astrologer’s attacks upon the church. More…
The Hoaxes of Jonathan Swift
Swift was a master of the satirical hoax. In his brief essay A Modest Proposal, he pretended to make a case for the benefits of feeding poor children to the rich, as a way of commenting on the inhumanity of the rich towards the poor. And in his Bickerstaff hoax of 1708 he poked fun at astrology by claiming he had accurately predicted the death of the famous astrologer John Partridge, even though Partridge wasn't yet dead. More…
The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer
Dr. Johann Beringer, a University of Würzburg professor, acquired a bizarre set of fossils that showed images of plants, insects, birds, snails, hebrew letters, and even astronomical objects in three-dimensional relief. Beringer thought he had made a remarkable discovery. But the stones had been created by two fellow professors to hoax him. This was revealed, much to Beringer's embarrassment, only after he had authored a book about the stones. More…
The Rabbit Babies of Mary Toft
Mary Toft claimed she was giving birth to rabbits, and she performed this feat in the presence of the King's personal surgeon. She was taken to London, where she continued to give birth to rabbits. But when the physician Sir Richard Manningham threatened to operate on her in order to examine her miraculous uterus, she confessed it was a hoax. She had been hoping to gain a pension from the King on account of her strange ability. More…
Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal
A book detailing an Englishman's shipwreck and enslavement on the island of Madagascar has proved controversial. It was accepted as true during the 18th century, and dismissed as a hoax during the 19th century. But in 1996, a British scholar argued that the tale may, in fact, be true since the description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate. More…
A Modest Proposal
In 1729 Jonathan Swift anonymously published a short work titled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Public. The essay proposed a radical solution to the problem of the numerous starving beggars and homeless children in Ireland — feed the unwanted babies of the poor to the rich. Swift didn't actually intend to promote class-based cannibalism. His point was to use satire in order to dramatize how the rich exploit and dehumanize the poor. But many readers failed to recognize this. More…
Hoaxes of Benjamin Franklin
Franklin was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century. Throughout his long life he was many different things: a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. He used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. More…
De Situ Brittaniae
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. More…
The Great Bottle Hoax
Believing the public to be ever credulous, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that if he advertised an impossible feat would be performed, they would still "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there." The Earl accepted the bet. So the Duke posted flyers promising the chance to see "a man jumping into a quart bottle." Every seat in the theater sold. But when the entertainment wasn't provided, a riot ensued. More…
Lucina Sine Concubitu
The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. More…
James Macpherson and the Ossianic Controversy
Schoolmaster James Macpherson claimed he had discovered the text of an ancient epic poem written by a Scottish bard named Ossian. The work became an international bestseller. But other scholars, particulary Samuel Johnson, accused Macpherson of having written the work himself. Later examination of Macpherson's sources (or lack of them) suggests he probably was the author of much of the work. More…
The Patagonian Giants
When the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor spread alleging the crew had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. It was said the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants. The crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. More…
Thomas Chatterton and the Rowley Poems
Young Chatterton wrote poems in the style of the old manuscripts he came across in his uncle's church and eventually produced a group of poems he claimed were the work of a 15th century priest named Thomas Rowley. The poems were praised. Encouraged, Chatterton left for London, hoping to make it as a writer. Four months later, unable to find work, he poisoned himself. The Rowley poems were recognized as forgeries after his death. More…
The Great Chess Automaton
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a chess-playing "thinking machine". It consisted of a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes whose trunk emerged out of a large wooden box. When wound up, the figure played chess against human opponents, actually moving pieces on its own, and it almost always won. The secret was that a man was hidden in the box, controlling the movements of the wooden figure. More…
Graham’s Celestial Bed
James Graham was a notorious medical quack. He promised customers he could cure them of a variety of ills if they slept in his "celestial bed," for which he charged £50 a night. The bed had a mattress filled with "sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers." Electricity crackled across its headboard. Spending a night in it may have been a novel experience. But it had no curative powers. More…
The Blue Laws of Connecticut
The Rev. Samuel Peters published a book which included sensational details about "blue laws" that had supposedly once existed in Connecticut, making it illegal to do such things as kiss a child or shave on Sunday. But in fact, such laws had never formally existed. Peters was a wealthy Anglican who had been forced to leave America during the Revolution, so he was trying to make his former countrymen look as uptight and repressive as possible. More…
The Dutch Mail
According to legend, the editor of the Leicester Herald was pressed for time one day and couldn't complete a column. So he threw together a scramble of meaningless letters and headlined it as the latest "Dutch Mail." The editor later reported meeting a man who had kept the "Dutch Mail" edition of the Herald for thirty-four years, hoping to one day get it translated. More…
William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare Forgeries
Bookseller Samuel Ireland was a passionate fan of Shakespeare, so he was overjoyed when his son, William Henry, claimed to have found a previously unknown play written by the Bard. Arrangements were made for the play to be performed. But the actors, suspecting a fraud, made a mockery of it. Soon after, William confessed the play was indeed his own work. However, his heartbroken father refused to believe the confession. More…
The Duckbilled Platypus
The British Museum received a specimen of an Australian animal that appeared to be a combination of a duck and a mole. Naturalists there suspected it was a hoax. It was only when more specimens of the strange creature arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly admitted it was real. Today we know the creature as the Duckbilled Platypus. It is one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all. More…
The Berners Street Hoax
In 1810 London was the largest, wealthiest city in the world, linked by trade with every continent, and fed by the manufacturing might of northern British cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Almost anything could be obtained in its shops, and on Monday, November 26 of that year, all of this mercantile abundance focused for one day upon a single residential address: 54 Berners Street, the home of Mrs. Tottenham (in some sources spelled Tottingham). More…
Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine
In 1812 a Philadelphia man, Charles Redheffer, claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine that required no source of energy to run. He built a working model of the machine and applied for funds from the city government to build a larger version. But when inspectors from the city examined it, they realized that Redheffer had simply hidden the power source. To expose Redheffer, they commissioned a local engineer to build a similar machine, and when they showed this to Redheffer he fled the city. (This replica is still owned by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.) A year later, Redheffer attempted the same scam in New York City.... More…
The Great Stock Exchange Hoax
In 1814 a man wearing a British military uniform rowed up to a dock on the coast of the English Channel and told the guards there that Napoleon had been killed. Immediately riders were sent to London. When traders on the London stock exchange heard the news they celebrated by bidding up the price of stocks. But soon after they realized the truth, that the war against Napoleon was still raging on. They had been tricked. Immediately the market dropped again. But in the meantime, someone had profited handsomely from the temporary rise. The mysterious military officer who had initially delivered the news had long since disappeared, so it was... More…
Princess Caraboo
On Thursday April 3, 1817, a strange woman appeared in Almondsbury, a small town outside of Bristol, England. She wore a black shawl twisted turban-style around her head and had to communicate via hand gestures because she spoke no known language. She was initially sent to the Overseer of the Poor, but was subsequently taken in by a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Worrall, who found her fascinating. Slowly her story was pieced together, with the help of a sailor who was passing through the town and claimed to speak her language. She said that she was Princess Caraboo, from the faraway island of Javasu. She had been abducted from her home by... More…
New York Sawed in Half
One of the legendary hoaxes of New York City is the tale of the man who formed a business in order to saw the city in half. The story goes that sometime around the summer of 1824 there was a group of tradesmen who used to meet every afternoon on the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets to talk about the news of the day. One day they began discussing a rumor that the island of Manhattan was tipping into the ocean, due to the weight of all the new buildings being constructed. One of this group, a man named Lozier, proposed a solution: cut the island in half at Kingsbridge, tow the sinking half out to sea, turn it around, tow it back and then... More…
Charles Waterton’s Nondescript
The Nondescript of Charles Waterton Charles Waterton was a famous English eccentric and naturalist. In 1821, he returned to England from an expedition to Guiana, bringing with him hundreds of specimens of South American wildlife, carefully stuffed and preserved. His boat docked in Liverpool, and a customs inspectors named Mr. Lushington boarded. Lushington took one look at the exotic specimens that Waterton had piled up in crates and ordered that a hefty fee should be paid for their importation. Waterton protested. After all, the specimens were of greater scientific value than they were of commercial value. Nevertheless, Lushington would not... More…
Hoax Archive Categories
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
  • Internet
  • Legal
  • Linguistic
  • Literary Hoaxes
  • Mass Panic
  • Media Hoaxes
  • Medical Hoaxes
  • Military
  • Mistaken for a Hoax
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Newspapers and Magazines
  • Outrage Hoaxes
  • Paranormal
  • Predicting the Future
  • Photography
  • Political
  • Pranks
  • Pranksters
  • Pseudoscience
  • Radio Hoaxes
  • Religion
  • Romance
  • Rumors and Legends
  • Science
  • Sex
  • Show Business
  • Social Activism
  • Sports
  • Technology
  • Television Hoaxes

  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.