Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014

Hoaxes of the 1900s (1900-1910)

When Francis Douce, a wealthy English collector, 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 first to be sealed in a box and only opened 66 years after his death. These instructions were dutifully carried out. When 1900 arrived, the trustees of the museum gathered to open the box. The box was unsealed. and everyone leaned over, eager to see its contents. After a moment of silence, someone snorted with disgust. Inside the box was only trash: scraps of paper and torn book covers. Douce had engineered a bizarre, posthumous prank, making the trustees wait 66 years for nothing. More…
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 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…
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…
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 earliest reference to the Old Librarian's Almanack is found In 1907, when the novelist Edmund Lester Pearson mentioned it in his Boston Evening Transcript column. It was, he said, a small almanac from 1773 that contained the "opinion and counsel" of a curmudgeonly librarian whose ideas were strikingly non-modern. For instance, the Old Librarian felt it was the duty of all librarians to "cast out and destroy" any book that was "merely frivolous." The Old Librarian also felt that women should be barred from libraries because they are "given to Reading of frivolous Romances." Two years later, Pearson arranged for the reprinting of the Almanack, and it was favorably reviewed by many newspapers which accepted it as an authentic 18th-Century curiosity. The Almanack became a popular source of quotations, because so many of the Old Librarian's sayings were humorously cantankerous and non-politically correct. Very few people realized that there was no Old Librarian. Pearson himself had written the Almanack as a joke.
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…