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
April Fool’s Day
The first day of April, when it's traditional to play pranks, hoaxes, and practical jokes.
April Fool Archive
April Fool's Day FAQ
The Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes More…
Art Forgery
As the price of art has increased, the forging of art has increased.
Paris Hilton Hoaxes
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Art Hoaxes Satirical
A satirical art hoax is essentially a bait-and-switch type of hoax. A critic is presented with a work for evaluation. If the critic then indicates that the work displays any kind of talent or skill, the hoaxer reveals that the work came from an unexpected source that couldn't have had such skill. For instance, it might have been the work of an animal such as a donkey or chimpanzee. Or a six-year-old child. Or perhaps the hoaxer himself created it, having purposefully made it as bad as possible. Whatever the case may be, the implication is that the critic is a fraud, unable to discern true ability. This type of hoax became popular in the early 20th century as art became increasingly abstract, leading to a growing gap between what leading art critics were labeling as worthy art, and the older, more traditional concept of what art should be. Similar satirical hoaxes are also common in literature. More…
Authenticity
One of the dominant themes in modern hoaxes. People often see in hoaxes evidence that our culture lacks authenticity. That events are cynically manufactured. That everything is fake. More…
Art Hoaxes Absurd
An absurd art hoax is a hoax in which a completely unexpected object (or non-object) is presented to the public as a work of art. Something that seems absurd to describe as art, such as a blank canvas, a pile of trash, or nothing at all (invisible art). The point of the hoax is to generate a reaction of shock and disbelief, and provoke people into questioning how such a thing could possibly be considered art. So it's a seemingly absurd redefinition of art. Or a seemingly absurd extension of the boundaries of art. And eventually it's revealed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke. The hoaxer doesn't really imagine such a thing to be art. But, of course, such hoaxes explicitly raise the question of what is art. Who gets to decide what art is. And while often the crazy art is revealed by the hoaxer to be a joke. Just as often artists will continue to insist that their crazy thing (or what much of the public considers crazy) really is art. This type of hoax pokes fun at what gets considered to be art. More…

Art Project Hoaxes
An increasingly common motivation for hoaxes. Elaborate deceptions are revealed to be artistic endeavors, with the artist hoping to explore themes of authenticity, or the blurred line between fact and fiction. More…
The Weekly World News
The Weekly World News was a news-of-the-weird offshoot of The National Enquirer. In 1979, when The Enquirer and other Generoso Pope-owned American Media tabloids became full color publications, they needed to use the old black and white printing press for something and so The Weekly World News was born. It died in August 2007. Editor Eddie Clontz, a 10th grade dropout and Florida newspaper veteran, set the magazine's creative tone. Under his management, WWN became a cross between early MAD Magazine and The Fortean Times. His journalistic philosophy for the Weekly World News was 'Don't fact-check your way out of a good story.' More…
Hoaxes and Pranks of Paul Krassner
Paul Krassner is a political activist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, first as the publisher of the satirical magazine The Realist, and then, in 1969, as the co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party). Throughout his career he's been known as a satirist, prankster, and hoaxer. His magazine, in particular, was the medium for a number hoaxes. Its tagline was "The Truth is Silly Putty." More…
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 ce, when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III. Being an actual body part of Christ, it 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 during the 9th Century. 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 Medieval Relic Trade
Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe hosted a thriving trade in holy relics. But many of the relics, if not almost all of them, were fake. The relics collected and worshipped by medieval Europeans ranged from the mundane to the truly bizarre. Bones or body parts of saints and martyrs were always in high demand. One church proudly displayed the brain of St. Peter until the relic was accidentally moved and revealed to be a piece of pumice stone. 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 that 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
During the early 15th Century, when a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of the land of Crowland Abbey (located in the Lincolnshire Fens of England) as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis, or History of Crowland, to document their historical ownership of the disputed lands. The History 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. It contained numerous anachronisms, such as referring to monks who had supposedly studied at Oxford, long before the University was founded. It also claimed that many of the monks had lived to ages well past 100. Such longevity would be hard-to-believe today, let alone in the Middle Ages. More…
Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull
Jean V d'Armagnac was the penultimate Count of the French province of Armagnac. He became infamous after he fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. He sought approval from the Pope to marry her, but 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 gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. More…
Lusus Naturae
Early modern naturalists used the term "Lusus Naturae" (Jokes of Nature) to describe any creature or object that defied classification. The concept represented the belief that Nature was an active, sentient force that enjoyed playing jokes on man by confounding his expectations and subverting his classification schemes — in other words, that Nature played hoaxes on man. One famous example of a Lusus Naturae was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, this was a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus, it was part plant, part animal, but didn't belong wholly in either category. Inanimate objects, such as rocks and pieces of wood that displayed patterns resembling crosses or faces (what today we would call 'pareidolia') were also considered Lusus Naturae. The belief was that Nature had purposefully placed meaningful patterns in these objects as a kind of game, intending for men to find them. 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…
Cicero’s Consolatio
Carlo Sigonio was a highly respected Italian scholar who specialized in the history of Rome. Around 1583, he claimed that he had discovered a new complete work by the great Roman orator Cicero, titled De Consolatione or the Consolation. In it Cicero grieved for his daughter's death. Only small fragments of this work had ever been found before. The discovery of this manuscript caused great excitement, but when other scholars read it, the general consensus was that it had to be a fake as it contained numerous anachronistic phrases and Italian mannerisms that Cicero would never have used. Sigonio stubbornly defended the work, but today it is still regarded as being a forgery. Sigonio probably wrote the book himself, perhaps to display his mastery of Ciceronian scholarship.
The Boy with the Golden Tooth
In the late 16th C, reports spread of a young Silesian boy, seven-year-old Christoph Müller, who had miraculously grown a golden tooth. Jakob Horst, a professor of medicine at Julius University in Helmstedt, investigated and determined that the boy did indeed have a gold tooth. He attributed its growth to an unusual alignment of the planets that had increased the heat of the sun, causing the bone in the boy's jaw to turn to gold. He suggested that the tooth was a portent of the dawn of a new golden age for the Holy Roman Empire. But Duncan Liddell, a Scottish physician living in Helmstedt, published a more skeptical analysis of the case in which he argued that the boy's golden tooth had to be man-made, and time proved Liddell correct. 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 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
A case of suspected poltergeist activity in the mid-17th C. 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, librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who in 1693 came up with the theory that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of 13th-C monks whose goal was to "establish Atheism amongst men, by paganising all the facts of Christianity." Hardouin claimed he "detected the whole fraud" by spotting a series of clues embedded in classical works, clues such as poor writing and anachronisms. Other scholars initially tried to argue his theory with him, but as he persisted in his views, he came to be seen as a crackpot. His critics referred to his theory dismissively as "Harduinismus." Although Hardouin was definitely an eccentric, his theory nevertheless did indicate the growing awareness amongst 17th-C scholars of the number of errors, exaggerations, and inventions in the historical record. 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…
Hoax Archive Categories
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.