Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
"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…
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…
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