Hoaxes Throughout History
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Hoaxes of the 1910s

"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…
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…
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…
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…
In 1916 a slender volume of poetry introduced the Spectric school of poetry to the world. The Spectric philosophy, as explained by its founders, was to embrace the immediacy of experience, even if that experience could not be expressed rationally. Soon Spectrism had attracted a growing band of followers. But despite repeated requests for meetings and interviews, the two founders of Spectrism never appeared in public. This led to rumors of a hoax, rumors that were confirmed in 1918 when the poet Witter Bynner admitted that he and his friend Arthur Davison Ficke were the true creative forces behind Spectric poetry. Their goal had been to parody the overly pompous experimentalism that was the fad of the moment. More…
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…