Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014
As a young man, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid. He, or an accomplice, then buried it in acidic earth to give it an appearance of great age. The plan was to pass it off as an antiquity, to fetch a higher price. The artificially aged sculpture was bought by Cardinal Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio who, when he learned of the forgery, demanded his money back. But impressed by Michelangelo's talent, the Cardinal didn't press charges. More…
The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book consisting of pages of hand-written text and crudely drawn illustrations that depict plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. The text has defied all attempts at translation. One theory is that the book's text was simply gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. More…
Early modern naturalists used the term "Lusus Naturae" (Jokes of Nature) to describe any creature or object that defied classification. The concept represented the belief that Nature was an active, sentient force that enjoyed playing jokes on man by confounding his expectations and subverting his classification schemes — in other words, that Nature played hoaxes on man. One famous example of a Lusus Naturae was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, this was a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus, it was part plant, part animal, but didn't belong wholly in either category. Inanimate objects, such as rocks and pieces of wood that displayed patterns resembling crosses or faces (what today we would call 'pareidolia') were also considered Lusus Naturae. The belief was that Nature had purposefully placed meaningful patterns in these objects as a kind of game, intending for men to find them. More…
Michel de Notredame, better known as Nostradamus, rose to prominence as an astrologer supported by the patronage of Queen Catherine de Médici. He wrote prophecies in an ancient form of French worded so ambiguously that it could be interpreted to mean almost anything a reader desired. This artful ambiguity has allowed his followers to credit him with predicting many events. Although his supposed predictions are only ever noticed after the events have occurred. More…
Martin Guerre, a French peasant, married Bertrande de Rols in 1538. But in 1548, he disappeared. Eight years passed, and then Martin suddenly returned. Or did he? Bertrande accepted him as her husband, but the uncle became suspicious and accused him of being an imposter. The case went to trial. The court was about to declare him genuine, when suddenly the actual Martin Guerre showed up. He had been serving in the army, where he had lost a leg. More…
Carlo Sigonio was a highly respected Italian scholar who specialized in the history of Rome. Around 1583, he claimed that he had discovered a new complete work by the great Roman orator Cicero, titled De Consolatione or the Consolation. In it Cicero grieved for his daughter's death. Only small fragments of this work had ever been found before. The discovery of this manuscript caused great excitement, but when other scholars read it, the general consensus was that it had to be a fake as it contained numerous anachronistic phrases and Italian mannerisms that Cicero would never have used. Sigonio stubbornly defended the work, but today it is still regarded as being a forgery. Sigonio probably wrote the book himself, perhaps to display his mastery of Ciceronian scholarship.
In the late 16th C, reports spread of a young Silesian boy, seven-year-old Christoph Müller, who had miraculously grown a golden tooth. Jakob Horst, a professor of medicine at Julius University in Helmstedt, investigated and determined that the boy did indeed have a gold tooth. He attributed its growth to an unusual alignment of the planets that had increased the heat of the sun, causing the bone in the boy's jaw to turn to gold. He suggested that the tooth was a portent of the dawn of a new golden age for the Holy Roman Empire. But Duncan Liddell, a Scottish physician living in Helmstedt, published a more skeptical analysis of the case in which he argued that the boy's golden tooth had to be man-made, and time proved Liddell correct. The daily pressure of chewing eventually wore down the gold, revealing it to be a thin layer of metal skillfully fitted over the tooth. Although a fraud, it was the first documented case of a gold crown fitted for a tooth. More…
A pamphlet published in Paris described the case of a woman who had given birth to a son, even though her husband had been absent for four years. When charged with adultery, the woman claimed innocence, explaining that her husband had impregnated her in a dream. The court accepted this argument. The report of this ruling caused an uproar throughout Paris, but upon investigation the pamphlet was revealed to be a hoax. More…
Mother Shipton was said to be a sixteenth-century Yorkshire seer who made a number of startlingly accurate predictions. However, it is uncertain whether she actually existed, and many of the predictions attributed to her are outright hoaxes written long after the sixteenth century. During the period when she was supposedly alive, there were no written references to her or her predictions. More…
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a chalk figure of an enormous naked man wielding a club carved into the side of a hill in Dorchester, England. The giant is widely believed to have been carved thousands of years ago. But in recent years historians have suggested that the Giant may date only to the seventeenth-century, since the first written reference to it only dates to 1694. Furthermore, its creation may have been intended as a prank. More…
Athanasius Kircher was one of the central figures of Baroque scientific culture, but he was also reported to be the target of many pranks and was often portrayed as being a bit of an Intellectual Fool. According to one story, some young boys buried stones carved with meaningless symbols at a construction site. When dug up, Kircher was asked to interpret them, and he pompously proceeded to give an elaborate interpretation of the nonsense signs. More…
A case of suspected poltergeist activity in the mid-17th C. John Mompesson of Wiltshire claimed to hear strange noises in his home such as a drum beating, scratching, and panting noises. Objects, he said, moved of their own accord. Many people came to witness the spirit activity for themselves. But skeptics suggested Mompesson himself may have been behind the haunting, either to profit from those who came to see the spirit, or to decrease the value of the house (which was rented). More…
Jean Hardouin was a respected scholar, librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who in 1693 came up with the theory that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of 13th-C monks whose goal was to "establish Atheism amongst men, by paganising all the facts of Christianity." Hardouin claimed he "detected the whole fraud" by spotting a series of clues embedded in classical works, clues such as poor writing and anachronisms. Other scholars initially tried to argue his theory with him, but as he persisted in his views, he came to be seen as a crackpot. His critics referred to his theory dismissively as "Harduinismus." Although Hardouin was definitely an eccentric, his theory nevertheless did indicate the growing awareness amongst 17th-C scholars of the number of errors, exaggerations, and inventions in the historical record. More…
A white-skinned, blond-haired man showed up in northern Europe claiming to be from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). He regaled scholars and members of high society with tales of the bizarre practices of Formosa, such as the supposed annual sacrifice of 20,000 young boys to the gods. Luckily for him, no one in Europe knew what a Taiwanese person should look like, which allowed him to keep up his masquerade for four years before finally being exposed. More…
Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. More…
An almanac released by Isaac Bickerstaff in February 1708 predicted that a rival astrologer, John Partridge, would die on March 29 of that year. On March 31st Bickerstaff released a follow-up pamphlet announcing that his prediction had come true. Partridge was dead. However, Partridge was actually still very much alive. He was woken on April 1st by a sexton outside his window announcing the news of his death. Isaac Bickerstaff was actually a pseudonym for Jonathan Swift, whose intention was to embarrass and discredit Partridge, because he was annoyed by the astrologer’s attacks upon the church. More…
Swift was a master of the satirical hoax. In his brief essay A Modest Proposal, he pretended to make a case for the benefits of feeding poor children to the rich, as a way of commenting on the inhumanity of the rich towards the poor. And in his Bickerstaff hoax of 1708 he poked fun at astrology by claiming he had accurately predicted the death of the famous astrologer John Partridge, even though Partridge wasn't yet dead. More…
Dr. Johann Beringer, a University of Würzburg professor, thought he had made a remarkable discovery when he acquired a bizarre set of fossils that showed images of plants, insects, birds, snails, hebrew letters, and even astronomical objects in three-dimensional relief. But the stones had actually been created by two fellow professors to hoax him. This was publicly revealed, much to Beringer's embarrassment, only after he had authored a book about the stones. More…
Mary Toft claimed she was giving birth to rabbits, and she performed this feat in the presence of the King's personal surgeon. She was taken to London, where she continued to give birth to rabbits. But when the physician Sir Richard Manningham threatened to operate on her in order to examine her miraculous uterus, she confessed it was a hoax. She had been hoping to gain a pension from the King on account of her strange ability. More…
A book detailing an Englishman's shipwreck and enslavement on the island of Madagascar has proved controversial. It was accepted as true during the 18th century, and dismissed as a hoax during the 19th century. But in 1996, a British scholar argued that the tale may, in fact, be true since the description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate. More…
In 1729 Jonathan Swift anonymously published a short work titled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Public. The essay proposed a radical solution to the problem of the numerous starving beggars and homeless children in Ireland — feed the unwanted babies of the poor to the rich. Swift didn't actually intend to promote class-based cannibalism. His point was to use satire in order to dramatize how the rich exploit and dehumanize the poor. But many readers failed to recognize this. More…
Franklin was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century. Throughout his long life he was many different things: a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. He used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. More…
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