The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014
19th-Century Hoaxes
(1850-1900)
The Southern Conspiracy to Confederate with Mexico (1850)
A letter appeared in newspapers detailing a plot hatched by Southern conspirators to leave the Union and confederate with Mexico. The capital of the proposed new nation was to be Mexico City. But historians have found no record of such a plot in diplomatic records from the period. Southern radicals were definitely dreaming of such schemes, but in 1850 such plots were still only dreams, existing only on paper. more details…
Railways and Revolvers in Georgia (1856)
The London Times offered an example of the violence of American society. It printed a letter from an Englishman living in America who described bloody gunfights fought with "Monte Christo pistols" during a train ride through Georgia. American papers denied the story, but the Times stubbornly defended it, only relenting a year later after learning that "Monte Christo pistols" was slang for bottles of champagne. more details…
The Pictographs of Emmanuel Domenech (1860)
Domenech, a Catholic priest who had spent many years traveling through Mexico, found a curious document full of strange drawings filed away in a Parisian library. He came to believe it was an ancient Native American manuscript. But after publishing a facsimile of it, critics claimed it was actually the scribbling book of a "nasty-minded little [German] boy," that had for some reason been stored in the library. more details…
William Mumler’s Spirit Photography (1861)
While developing a self-portrait, Mumler noticed the shadowy figure of a young girl floating beside his own likeness. He assumed it was an accident, but spiritualists proclaimed it to be the first photo ever taken of a spirit, and Mumler didn't argue with them. Instead, he went into business as the world's first spirit photographer and grew wealthy producing "spirit photos" for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War. more details…
The Petrified Man (1862)
Nevada's Territorial Enterprise reported the discovery of a petrified man in nearby mountains. The body was in a sitting posture, leaning against a rock surface to which it had become attached. The report subsequently was reprinted by many other papers. However, it was pure fiction, written by a young reporter, Samuel Clemens, who would later be better known as Mark Twain. He later admitted surprise at how many people were fooled by his story, since he considered it "a string of roaring absurdities." more details…
Empire City Massacre (1863)
A report in the Territorial Enterprise described a gruesome event. After losing his money by investing in San Francisco utilities, a man went insane and slaughtered his family, then rode into town carrying the "reeking scalp" of his wife and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted. However, it wasn't true. It was the invention of Mark Twain whose goal was to trick San Francisco newspapers into printing a story critical of the utility companies. more details…

The Miscegenation Hoax (1863)
A pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races went on sale arguing for the benefits of white and black people having children with each other. By modern standards, the suggestion sounds enlightened, but the pamphlet was actually a hoax designed to insert the inflammatory issue of race into the 1864 presidential election. The hoax fizzled, but the pamphlet did introduce the word 'miscegenation' into the English language. more details…
The Civil War Gold Hoax (1864)
An attempt at stockmarket manipulation. Several New York papers were tricked into printing bad news about the Civil War. In response, investors dumped stocks and bought gold, perceived as a safer investment. But the bad news had been planted by a newspaper insider who had previously invested heavily in gold, hoping to profit from the anticipated rise in its price. He was tracked down and arrested within 3 days. more details…
The Orgueil Meteorite (1864)
After a meteor shower fell in southern France, someone went to elaborate lengths to embed plant seeds within one of the meteorites. It may have been an attempt to hoax the French scientific community, but the hoax backfired because the seeds weren't noticed by anyone until the 1960s, almost a century later. Researchers initially thought the seeds might be of extraterrestrial origin, until they identified them as native to France. more details…
The Tichborne Claimant (1866)
The young aristocrat Roger Tichborne had been missing, presumed dead, for 12 years, when an Australian man showed up, claiming to be him. There were dramatic differences between the two men. Roger had weighed 125 pounds and spoke French and English. The Australian weighed over 300 pounds and spoke no French. But their facial features were similar. A long, protracted legal case followed to determine if the man really was Roger returned — a controversy that lingers to this day. more details…
The Calaveras Skull (1866)
When workers found a human skull buried deep inside a California mine, scholars initially identified it as Pliocene age, making it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. But other scholars challenged its authenticity, sparking a debate that dragged on for years. Eventually the skull was determined to be a fake, but it isn't known who was responsible for it, though it's suspected the skull may have been planted by miners playing a practical joke. more details…
The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley (1867)
Journalist Dan De Quille published an article about some unusual stones discovered in Nevada. Whenever separated from each other, the stones spontaneously moved back together. The article was a joke, but De Quille discovered that a lie once told cannot easily be untold. Years later, despite confessing to the hoax, he was still receiving numerous letters from people around the world wanting to know more details about these traveling stones. more details…
The Cardiff Giant (1869)
On October 16, 1869, a farmer in Cardiff, New York found an enormous stone giant buried in the ground as he was digging a well. He put it on display, and thousands of people made the journey to see it. Speculation ran rampant about what it might be: a petrified giant from Biblical times or an ancient stone statue. The reality was that it was an elaborate hoax, created by the farmer's cousin, George Hull, in order to poke fun at Biblical literalists. Showman P.T. Barnum later tried to buy the Giant. When he was refused, he created a duplicate that soon was drawing larger crowds than the original. more details…
Vrain Lucas (1870)
Lucas produced thousands of letters he said had been written by historical personages such as Aristotle, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great. They were all bought by the esteemed mathematician Michel Chasles who didn't suspect they might be fake, even though they were all written in French, on modern paper. It took 18 years for Chasles to realize something was amiss and bring charges against Lucas, who then served two years in jail. more details…
Lord Gordon-Gordon (1871)
Lord Gordon-Gordon was the most famous alias of a nineteenth-century imposter whose specialty was posing as a wealthy Scottish landowner. He did this so well that he succeeded in convincing many people who really were wealthy to trust him with their money, which he then spent. His most famous victim was the railroad developer/robber baron Jay Gould, for which reason Gordon-Gordon is sometimes referred to as the "robber of the robber barons". The peak of Lord Gordon-Gordon's criminal career were the two years 1871 and 1872. He spent the next two years on the run, before committing suicide in 1874. more details…
The Bigamist of San Bernardino (1873)
On December 16, 1873 the Los Angeles Evening Express published an article describing a man in San Bernardino who, because of a loophole in the law, was legally allowed to remain married to two women, despite the efforts of townsfolk to force him to divorce at least one of his wives. News of the case caused an uproar in California. However, the story was entirely fictitious, as the Evening Express revealed two weeks later. Unfortunately, the retraction was not as widely publicized as the original story, and so the case made its way as fact into a number of legal textbooks. more details…
The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar (1874)
On April 28, 1874, the New York World ran an article announcing the discovery in Madagascar of a remarkable new species of plant: a man-eating tree. The article included a gruesome description of a woman fed to the plant by members of the Mkodos tribe. Numerous newspapers and magazines reprinted the article, but 14 years later the journal Current Literature revealed the story to be a work of fiction written by NY World reporter Edmund Spencer. more details…
The Global Warming Hoax of 1874
in early February 1874, the Kansas City Times ran a story claiming that scientists had discovered that the transatlantic telegraph cables were acting like enormous electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun. Calculations indicated that if the earth's current trajectory continued unchecked, Europe would become tropical in 12 years, and the entire earth would be uninhabitable soon after. Finally the planet would plunge into the sun. more details…
Solar Armor (1874)
An article published in 1874 described a man who invented "solar armor." The armor, made of sponges wetted with a special mixture of chemicals, cooled the wearer through evaporation. Unfortunately, the armor worked too well and caused its inventor to freeze to death in the middle of a Nevada desert during the Summer. Accounts of this invention appeared in papers throughout America and Europe. However, the story was the satirical creation of Nevada writer Dan de Quille. more details…
The Case of the Miraculous Bullet (1874)
In November 1874 an unusual article appeared in the introductory volume of The American Medical Weekly, a Louisville medical journal. It was written by Dr. LeGrand G. Capers and was titled, "Attention Gynaecologists!—Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, C.S.A." In the article Dr. Capers recounted an unusual case of artificial insemination he had witnessed on a Civil War battlefield in Mississippi, in which a bullet had passed through a soldier's testicles, and then traveled on before hitting a woman and impregnating her. The event was said to have occurred on May 12, 1863 at around 3 p.m. at the "battle of R." (battle of... more details…
The Central Park Zoo Escape (1874)
On November 9, 1874 the New York Herald published a front-page article claiming that the animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging through the city. A lion had been seen inside a church. A rhinoceros had fallen into a sewer. The police and national guard were heroically battling the beasts, but already forty-nine people were dead and two hundred injured. It was "a bloody and fearful carnival," the article despaired. And the animals were still on the loose! Many readers panicked when they read the article. However, those who did so hadn't read to the end of the article, where it stated (in rather small... more details…
The Chicago Theater Fire (1875)
"Burned Alive!" a headline on the frontpage of the Chicago Times declared on February 13, 1875. The story that followed described a horrific scene of destruction and mass death in an unnamed Chicago theater that was engulfed in flames when a gas burner fell over. People were said to have been roasted alive as they rushed en masse towards the exit. Firemen had to carry out 157 charred bodies from the remains. The story was identified as fictitious both at its beginning and end, but you had to read closely to catch the disclaimers. more details…
Keely Motor Company (1875)
John Worrell Keely founded the Keely Motor Company in 1875 in order to develop and commercialize his invention: a "vibratory generator" that required only a quart of water to generate the equivalent of the power needed to pull a fully-loaded train for over 75 minutes. Following successful demonstrations of this miraculous device in his workshop, investors rushed to give him money, even though the scientific community derided his claims. For fourteen years he kept working on his engine, promising investors that the moment was just around the corner when he would unveil it to the world. The investors believed him and kept pouring money into his... more details…
The Pine River Petrified Baby (1875)
"Effigy in Lava" (Harper's Magazine, 1863)In October 1875 two hunters reported finding a small stone man, or "petrified baby" as some newspapers dubbed it, embedded in a gravel bank alongside Pine River in Michigan. The petrified baby was about four feet tall, with an extremely wide, flat forehead. Local papers offered the following description of it: The right arm is bent. The forearm is lying across the body; the other is bent below the elbow. The eyes are well defined and very broad; forehead flat and sloping. Nose, small, sharp; nostrils open; lips very thin, flat; mouth well defined — curve of the lips perfectly natural; chin... more details…
Professor Wingard’s Nameless Force (1876)
In February 1876, 'Professor' James C. Wingard of New Orleans announced he had invented a powerful new weapon that would utterly destroy any naval vessel, iron or otherwise, "so as to leave no trace of them in their former shape." Wingard was coy about the exact means by which his weapon operated. He would only say that it projected a "nameless force," which somehow involved the use of electricity, applied without any direct connection between the machine and the object to be destroyed -- and it supposedly worked at a distance of up to five miles, far beyond the range of any other gun or cannon. In other words, this was a nineteenth-century... more details…
Leonainie (1877)
Under the heading "Posthumous Poetry," Indiana's Kokomo Dispatch published a poem titled "Leonainie" on August 3, 1877. It was an unremarkable poem except in one way. The editor of the Dispatch, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe. (Click here to read the poem.) The publication of this poem generated excitement among fans and scholars of Poe, and within a few weeks it had been reprinted in major papers throughout the United States. But in reality it was not a poem by Poe. Its true author was a struggling young Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley. more details…
Hoaxes of Joseph Mulhattan
During the late 19th century, Joseph Mulhattan was perhaps the most famous hoaxer in America. He was a traveling salesman, not a reporter, but he was notorious for repeatedly succeeding in having his farfetched tales reported as news. If an outrageous or bizarre story appeared in the papers, reporters would often assume it was the work of Mulhattan. The media showered him with epithets. They called him a "professional liar," "the author of more hoaxes than any other man living," "Munchausen Mulhattan," and the "liar-laureate of the world." He was also widely known by his pseudonym, "Orange Blossom." more details…
The Diaphote Hoax (1880)
On February 10, 1880 an article ran in the Daily Times (of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) describing a remarkable invention recently demonstrated by a local inventor, Dr. H.E. Licks. The invention allowed images to be transmitted by telegraph. In other words, it resembled what people today would recognize as a television. However, Licks called his invention a "diaphote," from the Greek dia meaning "through" and photos meaning "light". more details…
Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of medical journals published letters from a correspondent who identified himself as Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis. His letters usually discussed bizarre cases of a sexual nature. Both the case histories and the letter writer himself were bogus. Egerton Yorrick Davis was the pseudonym of Dr. William Osler, a Johns Hopkins University professor, who amused himself by sending these prank letters. more details…
Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography (1887)
This six-volume biographical encyclopedia, published between 1887 and 1889, was one of the first and most definitive works of its kind in America, containing information about thousands of people (some famous, some obscure) in American history. But thirty years after its publication, researchers discovered that a number of the people described in the work were fictitious. Over the years, more and more false entries have been found — to date over 200 of them. But due to the enormity of the work it's doubtful that all of the false information it contains will ever be identified. more details…
The Holly Oak Pendant (1889)
In 1889 Hilborne T. Cresson, an archaeological assistant at Harvard's Peabody Museum, announced he had discovered a prehistoric seashell pendant that bore an engraving of a woolly mammoth. He said he had found it in a peat and forest layer near the Holly Oak railway station in northern Delaware. The pendant was an important find, since it suggested that prehistoric man must have been present in the Americas at the time when woolly mammoths still existed, tens of thousands of years ago. However, the pendant was almost immediately suspected of being fake. more details…
Freund’s Electric Sugar Fraud (1889)
In the mid-1880s, Henry C. Freund showed up in New York, claiming he had invented a process that would revolutionize the sugar refining industry. He said he could refine one ton of raw sugar for 80 cents, whereas the techniques currently in use cost around $10 a ton. Plus, his method took only ten minutes, and it produced a high-quality granulated sugar, far finer than any seen before. But he insisted on keeping his process secret, disclosing only that it somehow involved electricity. On this enigmatic premise alone, he found investors willing to help him form a business, The Electric Sugar Refining Company, valued at one million dollars. But... more details…
The Great Duck Egg Fake (1894)
During the final decades of the nineteenth century, a conservation movement coalesced around a campaign to save the nation's birds, whose populations were under pressure because of the fashionability of hats decorated with feathers. The Audobon Society and the American Ornithological Union both formed out of this campaign. The campaign was given renewed urgency in the early 1890s when a report appeared in various publications, including the Northwest Sportsman of Oregon and the Sportsmen's Review of Chicago, that millions of waterfowl eggs were being collected in breeding grounds in Alaska and then shipped east for sale. The eggs, it was... more details…
The Winsted Wild Man (1895)
In August 1895 New York City papers received a wire story about a naked, hairy man that was terrorizing townspeople in Winsted, Connecticut. Intrigued, the papers sent reporters up to Winsted to find out what was happening. At first the reporters did not find much happening up in Winsted. But as they began asking local residents if they had seen an unusual creature lurking around, memories and tongues began to loosen. Soon reports of a "wild man" began to trickle in, and the trickle quickly grew into a flood. With each new sighting the wild man grew progressively fiercer. He seemed to gain at least a foot or so in size every day, and in some... more details…
The Mammoth Potato Hoax of Loveland, Colorado (1894)
Joseph B. Swan was proud of his potatoes. On his farm outside Loveland, Colorado, in the late nineteenth century, he grew 26,000 pounds of potatoes in one year on a single acre of land. He also claimed to have grown a giant potato that weighed 13lbs 8oz. W.L. Thorndyke, editor of the Loveland Reporter, came up with an idea to help Swan promote his spuds at an 1894 street fair. Thorndyke's idea was to create a hoax photograph of Swan showing off a truly massive potato — one as large as a boulder. He suggested Swan could pass around copies of the photo as a tongue-in-cheek advertisement. To make the photo, Swan and Thorndyke enlisted the... more details…
Lou Stone, the Winsted Liar
Louis Timothy Stone (1875-1933), more popularly known as Lou Stone, or the Winsted Liar, was a journalist famous for the hundreds of fanciful articles he wrote about the strange flora and fauna surrounding his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. It was said he had a "faculty for seeing the unusual in stories." more details…
Hearst’s War (1897)
William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, had a reputation for never letting truth get in the way of a good story. According to one famous tale, when hostilities broke out between the Spanish and the Cubans, Hearst sent the illustrator Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw pictures of the conflict. Finding that not much was happening, Remington cabled Hearst in January 1897: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return." Supposedly Hearst cabled back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." It is doubtful Hearst ever sent such a telegram. The first report of... more details…
The Gold Accumulator (1898)
Prescott Jernegan claimed he had found a way to cheaply extract gold from sea water. His "Gold Accumulator" consisted of a wooden box, inside of which was a pan of mercury mixed with a secret ingredient. A wire connected the mercury to a small battery. When lowered into the ocean, this contraption supposedly sucked gold out of the water. A test conducted in Narragansett Bay in February 1897 proved the gold accumulator worked. After a few hours the box was raised, full of gold flakes. Soon Jernegan had found investors who helped him found the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company. When the company offered stock, the share price rapidly rose... more details…
The Great Wall of China Hoax (1899)
On June 25, 1899 four Denver newspapers reported that the Chinese government was going to tear down portions of the Great Wall of China, pulverize the rock, and use it to build roads. American companies were said to be bidding on the enormous demolition project. Newspapers throughout the country picked up the story, but it eventually became apparent the news was not true. The Chinese were not planning to tear down the Great Wall. Four Denver reporters — Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire — had invented the tale while sharing a drink at the Oxford Hotel in order to spice up a slow news day. A rumor later suggested... more details…
Monkeys Pick Cotton (1899)
In February 1899, numerous American newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, printed a story claiming that a farmer, W.W. Mangum, had successfully trained monkeys to pick cotton on his plantation in Smedes, Mississippi. The story was sourced to an article in the Cotton Planters' Journal by T.G. Lane. Reportedly Mangum was so pleased with the success of his monkey-labor experiment that he had ordered more monkeys from Africa, and he was urging other planters to join him in using simians as laborers. There is no evidence this story was true. In fact, the tale of monkeys being trained to pick cotton (or other crops) was one of the more... more details…
The Great Mammoth Hoax (1899)
Woolly mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago. But in October, 1899 a story appeared in McClure's Magazine titled "The Killing of the Mammoth" in which a narrator named H. Tukeman described how he had recently hunted down and killed a mammoth in the Alaskan wilderness. more details…
Hoax Archive Categories
Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014

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