Hoaxes Throughout History
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19th-Century Hoaxes
(1850-1900)

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…
"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…
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…

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 The editor of the Dispatch, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe.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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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