Hoaxes Throughout History
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The first day of April, when it's traditional to play pranks, hoaxes, and practical jokes.
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As the price of art has increased, the forging of art has increased.
A satirical art hoax is essentially a bait-and-switch type of hoax. A critic is presented with a work for evaluation. If the critic then indicates that the work displays any kind of talent or skill, the hoaxer reveals that the work came from an unexpected source that couldn't have had such skill. For instance, it might have been the work of an animal such as a donkey or chimpanzee. Or a six-year-old child. Or perhaps the hoaxer himself created it, having purposefully made it as bad as possible. Whatever the case may be, the implication is that the critic is a fraud, unable to discern true ability. This type of hoax became popular in the early 20th century as art became increasingly abstract, leading to a growing gap between what leading art critics were labeling as worthy art, and the older, more traditional concept of what art should be. Similar satirical hoaxes are also common in literature. More…
One of the dominant themes in modern hoaxes. People often see in hoaxes evidence that our culture lacks authenticity. That events are cynically manufactured. That everything is fake. More…
An absurd art hoax is a hoax in which a completely unexpected object (or non-object) is presented to the public as a work of art. Something that seems absurd to describe as art, such as a blank canvas, a pile of trash, or nothing at all (invisible art). The point of the hoax is to generate a reaction of shock and disbelief, and provoke people into questioning how such a thing could possibly be considered art. So it's a seemingly absurd redefinition of art. Or a seemingly absurd extension of the boundaries of art. And eventually it's revealed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke. The hoaxer doesn't really imagine such a thing to be art. But, of course, such hoaxes explicitly raise the question of what is art. Who gets to decide what art is. And while often the crazy art is revealed by the hoaxer to be a joke. Just as often artists will continue to insist that their crazy thing (or what much of the public considers crazy) really is art. This type of hoax pokes fun at what gets considered to be art. More…
An increasingly common motivation for hoaxes. Elaborate deceptions are revealed to be artistic endeavors, with the artist hoping to explore themes of authenticity, or the blurred line between fact and fiction. More…
The Weekly World News was a news-of-the-weird offshoot of The National Enquirer. In 1979, when The Enquirer and other Generoso Pope-owned American Media tabloids became full color publications, they needed to use the old black and white printing press for something and so The Weekly World News was born. It died in August 2007. Editor Eddie Clontz, a 10th grade dropout and Florida newspaper veteran, set the magazine's creative tone. Under his management, WWN became a cross between early MAD Magazine and The Fortean Times. His journalistic philosophy for the Weekly World News was 'Don't fact-check your way out of a good story.' More…
Paul Krassner is a political activist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, first as the publisher of the satirical magazine The Realist, and then, in 1969, as the co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party). Throughout his career he's been known as a satirist, prankster, and hoaxer. His magazine, in particular, was the medium for a number hoaxes. Its tagline was "The Truth is Silly Putty." More…
The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine, granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast lands in the western Roman Empire. For centuries, it was accepted as authentic, until 1440, when the scholar Lorenzo Valla used textual analysis to expose it as a fraud. Valla's analysis represented the growing influence of Renaissance Humanism, and a new willingness in Europe to question long-held beliefs. More…
The Holy Foreskin of Christ first made an appearance in Europe around 800 ce, when King Charlemagne presented it as a gift to Pope Leo III. Being an actual body part of Christ, it was considered to be incredibly valuable. But rival foreskins soon began to pop up all over Europe. Eventually twenty-one different churches claimed to possess the genuine Holy Foreskin. By 1900, the Church had decided that all the rival foreskins were frauds. More…

Pope Joan (853 CE)

According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years during the 9th Century. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child. The legend is unconfirmed. Skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. More…
Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe hosted a thriving trade in holy relics. But many of the relics, if not almost all of them, were fake. The relics collected and worshipped by medieval Europeans ranged from the mundane to the truly bizarre. Bones or body parts of saints and martyrs were always in high demand. One church proudly displayed the brain of St. Peter until the relic was accidentally moved and revealed to be a piece of pumice stone. More…
At a time when European rulers felt threatened by the growing power of Muslim nations on their borders, a letter suddenly appeared from Prester John, who described himself as a Christian king of vast wealth and power living in the far east. Hopes were raised that Prester John would come to the aid of Europe's Christian nations, and expeditions were sent to search for him. But Prester John was never found. The letter's true author remains unknown. More…
A letter supposedly written by the astrologers of Toledo that began circulating throughout Europe in 1184. It predicted the world would end in September 1186, amidst awful calamities. People were advised to flee their homes and find safety in the mountains. The letter caused panic throughout Europe. Of course, the world didn't end, but that wasn't the end of the letter's career. Variants of it, with names and dates altered, continued to circulate for centuries, and continued to cause panic. More…
Marco Polo's Description of the World, written around 1298, described his travels in China. But did Marco Polo actually travel to China? Some historians have expressed doubts. These scholars point to curious omissions in his book, such as the fact that he never mentions the Great Wall of China nor the Chinese use of chopsticks. They suggest that Polo may have simply compiled information about the Far East from Persian and Arabic guidebooks. More…
This famous cloth bearing the image of a naked man first came to the attention of the public in 1355. Its supporters claim that it was the funeral shroud of Christ. But skeptics dismiss it as a medieval forgery, arguing that: 1) there was a flourishing trade in such false relics; 2) a medieval forger could definitely have created it, despite claims to the contrary; and 3) the man's body is oddly proportioned (his head is too large), which suggests the image is a painting. More…
This popular book (a 'bestseller' for its time) purported to document the travels of an English knight throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. It described bizarre foreign lands and people, such as islanders who had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, and a race of one-eyed giants who ate only raw fish and raw meat. The book was widely regarded as factual, even though it was obviously fiction. More…
Stories about the island of Hi-Brazil circulated around Europe for centuries, telling that it was the Promised Land of the Saints, an earthly paradise where fairies and magicians lived. The island was said to be somewhere in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. Based on this information, cartographers of the late-medieval period frequently placed the island on maps. And many explorers even attempted to find it. More…
During the early 15th Century, when a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of the land of Crowland Abbey (located in the Lincolnshire Fens of England) as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis, or History of Crowland, to document their historical ownership of the disputed lands. The History was accepted as legitimate, and the Crowland monks won their case. It wasn't until the 19th Century that historians realized the History was, for the most part, an invention. It contained numerous anachronisms, such as referring to monks who had supposedly studied at Oxford, long before the University was founded. It also claimed that many of the monks had lived to ages well past 100. Such longevity would be hard-to-believe today, let alone in the Middle Ages. More…