The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes Throughout History
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
Early 20th-Century Hoaxes (1900-1949)
The Strange Bequest of Francis Douce, 1900
Francis Douce (1757-1834) was a wealthy English antiquarian, known for his collection of books, prints, drawings, coins, and artifacts. In particular he specialized in collecting material related to children's books and games, fools and jesters, as well as death, demonology, and witchcraft. He also worked briefly at the British Museum, where he held the post of Keeper of Records. When he died in 1834 he left an unusual stipulation in his will. He wanted all his personal papers donated to the British Museum, but they were to be first sealed in a box and only opened sixty-six years after his death. More…
The Ghosts of Versailles, 1901
On August 10, 1901 two English women visited the gardens of the Petit Trianon near Versailles. The controversy over exactly what these women saw there on that day would linger on for decades. The two women were Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both academics, principal and vice-principal respectively of St. Hugh's College, Oxford. They were on vacation in France and decided to spend a day at Versailles. They first toured the palace and then agreed to explore the grounds in search of the Petit Trianon. Here is a rough account of what happened next: They began searching for the Petit Trianon but became lost. As they wandered, they passed a... More…
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1903
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first published in Russia in 1903. It was said to be the text of a speech given by a Zionist leader outlining a secret Jewish plan to achieve world power by controlling international finance and subverting the power of the Christian church. The manuscript was used to justify hate campaigns against the Jewish people throughout the twentieth century, including the Russian pogroms of the early twentieth century and the Nazi persecutions of the 1930s and '40s. Many copies of the Protocols are still in circulation today throughout the world. However, the Protocols are a hoax. Journalists discovered in... More…
Cassie Chadwick, 1904
Between 1897 and 1904, Cassie Chadwick scammed millions of dollars from Ohio banks by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. The banks, believing they could charge Carnegie high interest rates, happily loaned her the money without asking too many questions. Chadwick had used a simple ruse to lay the groundwork for her scam. She had asked a Cleveland lawyer to accompany her to Carnegie's house. He waited in the carriage while she went inside to conduct her business. On the way out, she "accidentally" dropped a promissory note for $2 million, signed by Carnegie. When the lawyer saw the note, she told him her secret... More…
The Captain of Köpenick, 1906
On October 16, 1906, an out-of-work German shoemaker named Wilhelm Voigt donned a second-hand military captain's uniform he had bought in a store, walked out into the street, and assumed control of a company of soldiers marching past. He led them to the town hall of Köpenick, a small suburb of Berlin, arrested the mayor and the treasurer on charges of embezzlement, and took possession of 4,000 marks from the town treasury. He then disappeared with the money. The incident became famous as a symbol of the blind obedience of German soldiers to authority — even fake authority. The police tracked him down nine days later, and he was... More…
Sober Sue, 1907
The performer "Sober Sue" appeared on stage in New York, billed as the girl who never laughed. The theater offered a prize of $100 to anyone who could make her smile. People from the audience, as well as professional comedians, all accepted the challenge, but all failed. Sober Sue never so much as cracked a grin. The truth was only revealed after her run at the theater was over. It was impossible for her to laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. More…

The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax, 1909
Six years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight in a heavier-than-air craft, aviation technology was still fairly primitive. Planes could only fly a few miles. But in 1909, a Massachusetts inventor, Wallace Tillinghast, announced a breakthrough. He claimed to have built a plane capable of flying 300 miles, carrying three passengers, and maintaining a speed of 120 mph. But he refused to show the plane to anyone, saying he was worried about other inventors stealing his ideas. But he did reveal that in a test flight (conducted at night) he had flown from Massachusetts down to New York City, circled the Statue of Liberty,... More…
The Dreadnought Hoax, 1910
"The Emperor of Abyssinia" and his suiteFrom left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley. On February 7, 1910 the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage were received with full ceremonial pomp on the deck of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the British Navy's most powerful battleship. Although the Commander-in-Chief of the Dreadnought had only received a last-minute warning of the Prince's arrival, he had the sailors standing at attention when the Prince arrived. The Abyssinian party acknowledged the greeting with bows as they shuffled onto the ship, dressed in their... More…
The Piltdown Man, 1912
In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The skull was unmistakably human, whereas the jaw appeared to be from an ape, but their proximity within the pit suggested they came from the same creature. The discovery was believed to be of great significance. The fossil was possibly the long-sought missing link between man and ape. For almost forty years the authenticity of the Piltdown fossil remained unquestioned. But in 1953 researchers at the British Museum took a closer look and realized the fossil was a fake. The skull belonged to a prehistoric human, but the jawbone... More…
The Damp Spot That Hoaxed D.C., 1912
F. Rodman LawFrederick Rodman Law (1885-1919) was a well-known daredevil active in the early 20th century. His stunts included parachuting from the top of the Statue of Liberty and jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. In late April 1912, he requested permission to parachute from the top of the Washington Monument, but he was turned down. However, on May 7, 1912, a pedestrian standing on the corner of Fourteenth and F streets exclaimed that Law appeared to be scaling the monument without permission — and was already a third of the way up. The pedestrian drew attention to a dark figure on the side of the monument. Soon a huge crowd,... More…
The September Morn Hoax, 1913
Paul Chabas's painting "September Morn" won a gold medal of honor in 1912 at the Paris Salon. But when copies of the painting made their way to America, it provoked a bitter controversy about nudity, art, and public morality. Thanks to this controversy, September Morn became one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century, selling millions of copies. The painting is often cited as an example of "success by scandal." But publicist Harry Reichenbach later claimed to have started the controversy by complaining to moral censors about the indecency of the painting. He didn't actually feel the painting was indecent. He was cynically manipulating the self-righteous moralists in order to sell copies of the painting. More…
Spectric Poetry, 1916
In 1916 a slender volume of poetry titled Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments introduced the Spectric school of poetry to the world. It joined many other experimental schools of poetry then currently in vogue, such as the Imagists, the Futurists, and the Idealists. The Spectric poems were rather bizarre and nonsensical, but were also fun, full of life, and decked out with colorful (albeit illogical) imagery. More…
Mencken’s History of the Bathtub, 1917
On December 28, 1917, H.L. Mencken published an article in the New York Evening Mail titled "A Neglected Anniversary." It described the history of the bathtub in America, noting that people were slow to accept tubs, believing they were dangerous to health. This attitude, Mencken said, changed when President Millard Fillmore became the first president to install a tub in the White House. Mencken's history of the bathtub was not true. He intended it as a joke, "some harmless fun in war days". However, few people recognized it as such. Details from Mencken's article began to appear in other papers. One scholar included the tale in a history of... More…
Stotham: The Town That Didn’t Exist, 1920
The quaint Massachusetts town of Stotham, described in an advertising monograph as an example of an unspoiled New England village, didn't actually exist. More…
Charles Ponzi and the Ponzi Scheme, 1920
Charles Ponzi (1883-1949) Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant living in Boston in the early twentieth century, was said by his worshipful followers to have "discovered money." In fact, what he really discovered was a way to bilk the public out of millions of dollars by means of a financial pyramid scheme. There were pyramid schemes before Ponzi came along, but his was so outrageous that this type of scam has ever since borne his name. More…
The Cottingley Fairies, 1920
In 1920 a series of photos of fairies captured the attention of the world. The photos had been taken by two young girls, the cousins Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright, while playing in the garden of Elsie's Cottingley village home. Photographic experts examined the pictures and declared them genuine. Spiritualists promoted them as proof of the existence of supernatural creatures, and despite criticism by skeptics, the pictures became among the most widely recognized photos in the world. It was only decades later, in the late 1970s, that the photos were definitively debunked. More…
King Tut’s Curse, 1923
In November 1922 Howard Carter located the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun. By February he and his team had unsealed the door of the Burial Chamber. But a mere two months later, on April 5, 1923, the sponsor of his expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died in his Cairo hotel room, having succumbed to a bacterial infection caused by a mosquito bite. The media immediately speculated that Carnarvon had fallen victim to King Tut's Curse. This curse supposedly promised death to all who violated his tomb. More…
The Disumbrationist School of Art, 1924
Paul Jordan Smith, a Los Angeles-based novelist, was upset that his wife's art was panned by critics as being too "old school". So he devised an elaborate spoof of modern art. He submitted crude works of his own creation to exhibitions, claiming they were the work of a Russian artist Pavel Jerdanowitch (a name he had invented), the founder of the Disumbrationist School of Art (another invention of his). As anticipated, the works were praised by critics. When Smith revealed the hoax to the LA Times in 1927, he argued that it showed that the art currently in fashion was "poppycock" promoted by critics who knew very little about art. More…
The Mysterious Glozel Finds, 1924
In 1924, a seventeen-year-old farmer, Emile Fradin, discovered an underground chamber that contained many mysterious artifacts. He did so while plowing a field on his grandfather's property in Glozel (near Vichy, in central France). More…
Lafayette Mulligan, 1924
In 1924 a man calling himself Lafayette Mulligan, claiming to be the social secretary of the Mayor of Boston, presented the Prince of Wales with the key to the City of Boston and invited him to visit the city, while the Prince was vacationing in Massachusetts. However, the Boston Mayor had no idea who Lafayette Mulligan was. In fact, Lafayette Mulligan was the invention of pranksters trying to embarrass the Irish Mayor, whose anti-British sentiment was well known. 'Lafayette Mulligan' subsequently became a running gag, and for some years lent its name to the prank of sending spurious invitations to non-existent events. More…
The Cornell Rhinoceros, circa 1925
After a heavy snowfall, the footprints of a large animal were found on the campus of Cornell University, leading up to the shore of the frozen Beebe Lake. A hole in the ice indicated that the animal must have fallen in and drowned. A zoologist examined the tracks and identified them as those of a rhinoceros. Word of the rogue rhinoceros spread around town, and since the University got its water supply from the lake, many students declared they were no longer going to drink the water. Many of those who did drink it swore they could taste rhinoceros. The tracks turned out to be the work of Cornell student Hugh Troy. He and a friend had... More…
The Case of the Midwife Toad, 1926
During the 1920s, Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer designed an experiment involving a species called the Midwife Toad. He wanted to prove that Lamarckian inheritance was possible. When his experiment produced positive results, the scientitic community was stunned. That is, until researchers had a chance to examine his toads more closely. More…
The BBC Radio Panic, 1926
On 16 January 1926, BBC Radio interrupted a broadcast of a speech from Edinburgh to give a special announcement: an angry mob of unemployed workers were running amok in London, looting and destroying everything in sight. Listeners were stunned. Anxiously they gathered around their radios to hear the frightening news. They heard that the National Gallery had been sacked and the Savoy Hotel blown up. The alarming reports continued with news that the Houses of Parliament were being attacked with trench mortars. More…
The Killer Hawk of Chicago, 1927
The story of the Killer Hawk of Chicago is a classic tale of early 20th century American journalism. It involves a hawk that may or may not have terrorized the pigeon population of downtown Chicago. More…
The Channel Swim Hoax, 1927
On October 10, 1927, Dorothy Cochrane Logan entered the water at Cape Gris Nez, France. Her goal was to swim across the English Channel. Thirteen hours later she reappeared at Folkestone, England. Her time had set a new world record, for which a newspaper awarded her a prize of 1000 pounds. But a few days later Logan confessed her crossing had been a hoax. She had only spent four hours in the water. The rest of the time she had traveled on board a boat. She said that she perpetrated the hoax in order to demonstrate how simply the world could be fooled, and thus to underscore the necessity of supervising such swims. However, a member of her... More…
Margaret Mead and the Samoans, 1925
In 1925, 24-year-old Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa where she stayed for nine months. On her return she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. It portrayed Samoa as a gentle, easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups. Premarital sex was common. Rape was unheard of. Young people grew to adulthood without enduring the adolescent trauma typical in western countries. She used these findings to support her thesis that culture, not biology, determines human behavior and personality. The book became an anthropological classic, read by generations of college students. But In 1983 New Zealand... More…
The Brazilian Invisible Fish
Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931) was a publicist whose career spanned the early twentieth century. He was responsible for promoting many movies and show business personalities. In his autobiography, Phantom Fame (written with the help of David Freedman), Reichenbach described a publicity stunt he devised early in his career that has since become a classic example of inventive (though misleading) low-budget promotion. It involved a creature called the "Brazilian Invisible Fish." More…
The Cradle of the Deep, 1929
Joan Lowell claimed she grew up on her father's schooner, traveling the South Seas. She described her maritime adventures in The Cradle of the Deep, published in 1929. But in reality she grew up in Berkeley, California and had spent only a few months at sea. More…
Hugo N. Frye, 1930
In 1930 Republican leaders throughout the United States received letters inviting them to a May 26 party at Cornell University in honor of the sesquicentennial birthday anniversary of Hugo Norris Frye, aka Hugo N. Frye. The letter explained that Hugo N. Frye had been one of the first organizers of the Republican party in New York State. None of the politicians could make it to the event, but almost all of them replied, expressing sincere admiration for Frye and their regret at not being able to attend. Unfortunately for the Republican leaders who responded, Hugo N. Frye did not exist. He was the satirical creation of two student editors at... More…
Oscar Daubmann, Last German Prisoner of War, 1932
Alfred Hummel as Oscar DaubmannIn the early 1930s the French government informed the German reich that it had discharged all the prisoners of war taken during World War I. All soldiers still missing had to be presumed dead. But in May 1932 this statement appeared to be contradicted when a soldier, Oscar Daubmann, returned to Germany, claiming he had spent the last sixteen years in a French prisoner-of-war camp. Daubmann told a dramatic tale of imprisonment and escape. He said he had been captured by the French in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and was placed in a prison camp. After killing a guard during an unsuccessful escape... More…
Death in the Air, 1933
A book called Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot was published in 1933. It contained numerous pages of spectacular aerial photographs of World War One dogfights supposedly taken by a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Since very few photos of aerial fighting had been taken by the military, the photographs caused a great sensation. Interest in them grew even greater when they were exhibited at galleries in New York and Philadelphia. It wasn't until 1984 that the photos were discovered to be fake. More…
Baby Adolf, 1933
In 1933 a picture supposedly showing Adolf Hitler as a baby began circulating throughout England and America. The child in the picture looked positively menacing. Its fat mouth was twisted into a sneer, and it scowled at the camera from dark, squinted eyes. A greasy mop of hair fell over its forehead. More…
The Surgeon’s Photo, 1934
In April 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, came forward with a picture that appeared to show a sea serpent rising out of the water of Loch Ness. Wilson claimed he took the photograph early in the morning on April 19, 1934, while driving along the northern shore of the Loch. He said he noticed something moving in the water and stopped his car to take a photo. For decades this photo was considered to be the best evidence of the existence of a sea monster in the Loch. But Wilson himself refused to have his name associated with it. Therefore it came to be known simply as "The Surgeon's Photo." More…
The Chesterfield Leper, 1934
A 1935 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, captioned: "Machines like this -- new and modern in every respect -- make Chesterfields."In the Fall of 1934 a rumor swept through America alleging that a leper had been found working in the Chesterfield cigarette factory in Richmond. Sales of Chesterfield cigarettes plummeted as smokers, fearful of catching the dreaded disease, switched to other brands. The Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company, maker of Chesterfields, repeatedly denied the rumor, but to no avail. The company even arranged for the mayor of Richmond to issue a statement assuring the public that the Chesterfield factory had been... More…
Fritz Kreisler’s Lost Classics, 1935
During the early twentieth century, Fritz Kreisler was considered to be one of the leading violinists of his time. Part of his popularity stemmed from his rediscovery of many 'lost classics' by famous composers. He explained he had found these works tucked away in libraries and monasteries throughout Europe. He would play these lost classics (which included pieces by masters such as Pugnani and Vivaldi) during his concerts, much to his audiences' delight. This became a signature part of his act. Over time many of these works became popular in their own right and entered the repertoire of other performers besides Kreisler. More…
Van Gogh’s Ear Exhibited, 1935
The illustrator Hugh Troy was convinced that most of the people at New York's Van Gogh exhibit were there out of lurid interest in the man who had cut off his ear, not out of a true appreciation for the art. To prove his point, he fashioned a fake ear out of a piece of dried beef and mounted it in a velvet-lined shadow box. He snuck this into the museum and stood it on a table in the Van Gogh exhibit. Beside the box he placed a sign: "This is the ear which Vincent Van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." Sure enough, it drew a large crowd. More…
The Veterans of Future Wars, 1936
Future veterans march to demand their bonuses In 1935 veterans of World War One lobbied Congress to pay them their war bonuses ten years early in order to ease the economic hardship they were experiencing during the Great Depression. Congress readily acquiesced and passed the Harrison Bonus Bill in January 1936. This pre-payment was a source of inspiration for Lewis Gorin, a senior at Princeton University. It seemed logical to him that if present-day veterans could get their war bonuses early, why shouldn't future veterans also receive their money up-front — before they had fought in a war. After all, given the global political... More…
Hoaxes & Stunts of Jim Moran
Jim Moran (1907-1999) was called, at various times, "super salesman number one," "America's No. 1 prankster," and "the last great bunco artist in the profession of publicity." He became famous during the 1930s and 40s for devising outrageous stunts on behalf of his clients. Typically his stunts were in the spirit of tongue-in-cheek performances, such as actually trying to find a needle in a haystack, but occasionally he perpetrated outright hoaxes, such as when he submitted one of his own works to the Los Angeles Art Association, telling them it was a painting by an obscure artist named Naromji. More…
The Milton Mule, 1938
On September 13, 1938 Boston Curtis won the post of Republican precinct committeeman for Milton, Washington, by virtue of fifty-one votes cast for him in the state primary election. Boston Curtis ran no election campaign, nor did he offer a platform. However, he also ran uncontested, so his election should not have been a surprise. But when the residents of Milton realized who Boston Curtis was, they were surprised, because Boston was a long-eared docile brown mule. More…
The War of the Worlds, 1938
On October 30, 1938, thousands of people fled in panic after hearing CBS Radio report that Martian invaders had landed in New Jersey and were marching across the country, using heat rays and poisonous gas to kill Earthlings. But as soon became clear, Martians hadn't really invaded New Jersey. What people had heard (and mistook for a real news broadcast) was a radio version of H.G. Wells's story The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. More…
The Venus of the Turnip Patch, 1938
A French farmer found a marble sculpture buried in his turnip field. Art experts hailed it as a great discovery and identified it as a Greco-Roman work from the 1st century BC. But when arrangements were made to transfer the statue to Paris, a little-known artist named Francesco Cremonese came forward and revealed that he had made the statue and buried it two years ago. As proof, he had the matching arm and nose, chiseled from the piece before he placed it in the ground. Cremonese explained that he had created the statue to demonstrate that his lack of recognition as an artist was undeserved, and that he was just as good as the masters of antiquity.
Jean Gauntt, the Immortal Baby, 1939
In 1939 a secretive cult known as the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians made headlines when its leader, James Bernard Schafer, announced their intention to conduct an unusual experiment. They were going to raise an immortal baby. More…
Hitler’s Silly Dance, 1940
On June 21, 1940, Hitler accepted the surrender of the French government at a ceremony in Compiegne, France. He melodramatically insisted on receiving France's surrender in the same railroad car in which Germany had signed the 1918 armistice that had ended World War One. After Hitler accepted France's surrender, he stepped backwards slightly, as if in shock. But this isn't what audiences in the Allied countries saw who watched the movie-reel of the ceremony. Instead they saw Hitler dance a bizarre little jig after signing the documents, as if he were childishly celebrating his victory by jumping up and down. The scene was played over and... More…
The Plainfield Teachers, 1941
On a Saturday in October 1941, Morris Newburger, a Wall Street stockbroker, phoned the sports desks of major New York City papers and reported a football score for a fictional New Jersey college team, the Plainfield Teachers. To his great amusement, the score was faithfully recorded the next day in the papers. He decided that Plainfield needed to complete its football season. So for the next few weeks, he kept calling the papers, and scores for "Plainfield T." kept appearing. Plainfield was always victorious, crushing its opponents in lopsided wins. Newburger's deception was exposed within a month, but because of its gentle humor it's remembered as a classic sports hoax. More…
The Nazi Air Marker Hoax, 1942
On August 10, 1942 the U.S. Army's public-relations office issued a press release warning the public of "secret markers" that had been found on farm fields throughout the eastern United States. These markers were patterns formed by the arrangement of fertilizer sacks or the way a field had been tilled. From the ground they looked like nothing, but from the air they formed the shape of arrows, apparently created by Nazi sympathizers in order to guide enemy bombers toward military factories and airfields. The Army simultaneously released three pictures showing these markers. But a few days later it was discovered that the "secret markers" were... More…
Operation Mincemeat, 1943
In 1943 the body of a British officer, Major William Martin, was discovered off the coast of Spain, near Huelva. British diplomats strongly requested that all documents found with the body be returned to them, and the Spanish government eventually complied. But upon examination, it was obvious the documents had been opened and read before their return. This was exactly what the British had hoped would happen, because Major Martin did not exist. He was part of a military hoax, codenamed Operation Mincemeat, designed to fool the Germans. The British military had obtained a cadaver, chained a briefcase containing supposedly top-secret papers... More…
The Flypaper Report, 1943
During World War II, the illustrator Hugh Troy was given a desk job stateside. He found it excruciatingly boring. So to amuse himself he began preparing Daily Flypaper Reports in the style of standard army regulations. These were counts, printed on official-looking paper, of all the flies trapped on flypaper in the mess hall during the last twenty-four hours. He analyzed the results according to wind direction, nearness to windows, nearness to the kitchen, length of the flypaper, etc. He then would mimeograph the report and slip it in among the other official forms submitted to headquarters each day. After keeping this up for a month, he... More…
Ern Malley, 1944
The Australian poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley disliked modernist poetry and hatched a plot to see if they could get its supporters to embrace "deliberately concocted nonsense." They sent some strange, surreal poems of their own creation to Max Harris, editor of the cutting-edge Angry Penguins literary magazine, claiming they were the work of Ern Malley, an unknown poet who had recently died. Harris liked the poems so much that he devoted a special issue to them. At which point, Stewart and McAuley revealed that Malley didn't exist. Ern Malley is considered to be Australia's most famous literary hoax. More…
Robert Archer, aka Tanis Chandler, 1944
(left) Robert Archer in The Desert Song(right) Tanis ChandlerTanis Chandler was a 20-year-old woman working as a teletypist in a Hollywood brokerage office, but dreaming of becoming a movie star. However, she was having trouble getting any roles, so she decided to try another strategy. There was a shortage of male actors in 1943 because of the war, so Tanis figured she might have better luck if she were a man. She put on a pair of pants and presented herself at a casting office as "Robert Archer." The casting office, believing she was a man, gave her a part as a sheik in a Warner Brothers movie, The Desert Song. Luckily for her, the part... More…
USC Glamour Queen Hoax, 1944
In April 1944, the University of Southern California held its annual Campus Queens beauty contest. 20 contestants vied for the title. Six winners were to be selected. The prize was that their full-length portrait would appear in the yearbook. But that year an imposter appeared among the candidates. The odd-woman-out (or rather, odd-man-out) was Sylvia Jones. She was actually a he — a male USC student who had dressed up as a woman in order to enter the contest. More…
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