Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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The Final Curtain Cemetery promoted itself as a different kind of cemetery. Artists would design their own tombstones before they died. The result would be a cemetery that would be part memorial, part art gallery, and part theme park. Visitors to the cemetery could dine at restaurants such as Heaven's Gate Cafe, or shop at the museum gift shop. The cemetery received widespread media coverage before being revealed to be a hoax designed by veteran prankster Joey Skaggs who explained that he wanted to draw attention to the death-care industry which he described as "a giant corporate scam, exquisitely successful at commercializing death." More…
In October 1999, the National Geographic Society held a press conference to announce it had found a 125-million-year-old fossil in China that appeared to be the long-sought missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil bird, when living, would have been about the size of a large chicken, but had the long tail of a dinosaur. This mixture of dinosaur and bird is what made them believe they had found the dinosaur-bird missing link. But it was not to be. A few months later, Nat Geo admitted it had fallen for a fake. A forger had taken a stone slab containing a tail fossil and affixed it to a fossil of a bird, thereby producing the hybrid dinosaur-bird creature. More…

Ron’s Angels (Oct 1999)

It's legal to sell donor eggs to infertile couples. But Ron Harris, an erotic photographer, proposed taking this process one step further. He established a website at which nubile supermodels auctioned off their eggs to the highest bidders. The concept outraged the infertility industry. News of the website was broken by the New York Times, but suspicions were raised when people noticed that no bids were being logged on the site. It turned out that the supermodel egg auction was a publicity stunt designed to attract visitors to Harris's real business, a pornography site. More…

Spud Server (Mar 2000)

It purported to be a web server powered entirely by potatoes, serving up web pages at an appropriately slow, potato-powered speed. The site gained international media exposure, reported on by both USA Today and the BBC. But the media exposure triggered feelings of guilt in the creators of Spud Server, who then confessed that unfortunately it was all a joke. They explained that, "Every time we did another interview, we kept thinking, 'This will be the last one.' . . . But it kind of snowballed." However, they did note that, in theory, building a potato-powered web server was technically feasible. But it would require A LOT of potatoes. More…
The website MalePregnancy.com documented the case of Mr. Lee Mingwei, who was supposedly the first human male to become pregnant. Visitors to the site could inspect a variety of documentary evidence about Mr. Mingwei's pregnancy such as news reports, pictures, video clips, Mr. Mingwei's EKG, ultrasound images, and blood-pressure measurements. However, conveniently, the delivery date of Mr. Mingwei's child had not yet been determined. The creator of the site, artist/filmmaker Virgil Wong, claimed that not only did it fool thousands of people, but that he was also contacted by numerous men seeking to become the next pregnant man. More…
This image became one of the most popular viral images online during the early 21st century. At first the picture circulated without explanatory text, but soon a caption was added claiming it showed "Snowball," a monster-sized cat whose mother had lived near a nuclear lab. The photo was featured on TV shows such as NBC's The Tonight Show and ABC's Good Morning America. Eventually Washington-resident Cordell Hauglie confessed he had created the photo and that 'Snowball' (real name 'Jumper') was his daughter's slightly chubby (but not monster-sized) cat. He created the image to share with some friends, never imagining how popular it would become. More…

The Emulex Hoax (Aug 2000)

The share price of Emulex Corp. plummeted after news went out over wire services stating that its accounting practices were being reviewed by the SEC and that its CEO was resigning. However, none of this was true. The bad news had been invented by a college student, Mark Jakob, who had figured out that he could get a wire service to distribute a fake story if he submitted the story to the service at night, since night staffers were less likely to fact-check press releases. Jakob had hoped to profit by manipulating Emulex's stock price, and he did initially make $250,000. But the FBI arrested him within a week, so he didn't have long to enjoy the money. More…
Shinichi Fujimura was one of Japan's leading archaeologists and was something of a celebrity because of his discovery of human settlements in Japan that appeared to be over 600,000 years old. So it caused an enormous scandal when the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper accused Fujimura of planting artifacts that he later claimed to find. But it had photos of Fujimura caught red-handed, burying artifacts at a site. Fujimura confessed to the crime, explaining, "I was tempted by the Devil. I don't know how I can apologise for what I did... I wanted to be known as the person who excavated the oldest stoneware in Japan." More…

Bonsai Kitten (Dec 2000)

Bonsai is the ancient Japanese art of growing miniature trees by rigorous pruning of their roots and branches. The "Bonsai Kitten" website claimed to apply similar techniques to kittens. The idea was that kittens were sealed inside glass containers, and as they grew (fed and watered through a tube) their bones conformed to the shape of the container, creating a uniquely formed Bonsai Kitten. The site generated massive controversy. Animal lovers demanded it be shut down. Eventually the FBI got involved. Its investigation concluded that the site had been created as a joke by some MIT students, and that no kittens had actually been harmed. More…
Manbeef.com claimed to sell human flesh for the "sophisticated human meat consumer." Visitors to the site could read the 'recipe of the day' as well as view pictures of attractive cuts of homo sapiens. Not surprisingly, the site quickly generated controversy. So much so that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration felt compelled to investigate, but it found no evidence that human meat was actually being sold. A Los Angeles graphic designer eventually took responsibility for creating Manbeef.com. He explained he had done so primarily "to churn the viewer's stomach and help outrage the more 'sensitive' viewers. This includes Bible thumpers." More…
Kaycee Nicole was a 19-year-old girl from Kansas dying of cancer. Or so believed the thousands of people who visited her website on which she kept a diary of her fight against leukemia. When a final post reported that she had died of a brain aneurysm, her online friends were distraught and inquired where they could attend her funeral. But Kaycee's mother refused to provide any information. This prompted some people to investigate, and the more they researched, the more they began to wonder if Kaycee actually existed. Their fears were confirmed when a 50-year-old woman confessed she had invented Kaycee and written all the diary entries herself. More…

Gorgeous Guy (May 2001)

A photo of a guy standing at a bus stop was posted on a Craigslist "Missed Connections" forum, describing him as a "Gorgeous Guy" whom the poster wanted to meet. The Gorgeous Guy at the bus stop then became an online mystery celebrity, as people theorized about who he was. He turned out to be a network engineer, Dan Baca. His internet fame had even attracted the attention of the national media, but an investigative journalist discovered that the majority of the initial posts about "Gorgeous Guy" all shared the same IP address, which suspiciously traced back to Baca himself. Though Baca insisted it was his co-workers who had played a prank on him. More…
On May 2, 2001, two large, serpent-like conger eels were found on the shore of the loch, the largest one being almost 7ft long. Since the eels were saltwater creatures and the loch is freshwater, it was doubtful they got there of their own accord, although some did speculate that their presence was evidence of an underground tunnel link between Loch Ness and the sea. A more popular theory was that they had been dumped there purposefully by an angler, who might have been inspired by recent talk about Nessie being some kind of large eel. [Loch Ness Project]

Dave Manning (June 2001)

No matter how bad the movies of Columbia Pictures were, there was always one reviewer sure to heap praise on them, Dave Manning of the Ridgefield Press. For instance, while other reviewers skewered the sophomoric comedy The Animal, it impressed Manning as "another winner." His rave reviews might have gone forever unnoticed, except that Newsweek reporter John Horn uncovered the curious truth about him, which was that Manning didn't exist at all. He was the fictional creation of a young marketing executive at Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures, used to generate fake praise for otherwise unpraiseworthy movies. More…
A report circulated via email detailing the findings of a four-month study by the Lovenstein Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania in which it had calculated the IQ of all the US Presidents of the past 50 years. Franklin Roosevelt ranked at the top with an IQ of 147. But then President George W. Bush came in at the bottom with an IQ of only 91. These findings were repeated as fact by media outlets around the world, including The Guardian. However, the "Lovenstein Institute" wasn't a real organization. Nor had a study of presidential IQ ever been conducted. The report had originated as a joke on a humor website called linkydinky.com. More…

Tourist Guy (Sep 2001)

Soon after the tragic events of Sep. 11, 2001, a sensational photo began circulating widely via email, showing a tourist posing for a snapshot on top of the World Trade Center as a plane approached from behind. A caption explained that the photo came from a camera found in the rubble of the building. Apparently the photo had been taken just seconds before disaster struck. The photo was quickly debunked, but it took several months to find out that the guy in the photo was really a Hungarian man who had visited the World Trade Center in 1997. He had inserted a plane into one of his old holiday photos as a joke, never realizing how far his joke would travel. More…

Phony 9/11 Deaths (The months following Sept. 11, 2001)

As estimates of the death toll rose in the days following the 9/11 attacks, enormous amounts of sympathy and media attention flowed out towards those who had lost loved ones in the attack. Those who had participated in rescue efforts were hailed as national heroes. But simultaneously, many people (motivated, perhaps, by a desire for sympathy or attention) fabricated tales of phony heroics and lost loved ones in the weeks and months following 9/11. Listed are a few of the more notable cases of these phony 9/11 tales: More…
The Beijing Evening News appeared to have scooped its competitors when it ran a story alleging that the U.S. Congress was threatening to leave Washington DC if the city didn't construct a new Capitol building that included a retractable dome. The story struck the Los Angeles Times's Beijing reporter as being very odd, since he hadn't heard the claim anywhere else. But after some investigation, he realized that the Beijing Evening News's source for the story was The Onion, an American online humor magazine. The Beijing Evening News had translated the Onion story almost word for word, not realizing the article was a satirical joke. More…
MSN UK, a division of Microsoft, announced the imminent introduction of the iLoo, the world's first internet-enabled port-a-potty. The iLoo would boast a wireless keyboard, height-adjustable flat plasma screen, broadband internet access, and toilet paper printed with URL suggestions. The press reacted with incredulity to the announcement, and as the press scrutiny intensified, a Microsoft representative eventually admitted that the iLoo was a hoax. But the next day, the company reversed itself, confessing that the iLoo actually wasn't a hoax but was instead a product that had temporarily been under serious consideration but was no longer going to be developed. More…
Lured by ads throughout Prague promoting a new hypermarket called Cesky Sen ("Czech Dream") that would sell products at unbelievably low prices, hundreds of people showed up at the Lethany Fairgrounds for the grand opening. But all they found was a giant Cesky Sen banner. There was no hypermarket, nor plans to build one. Several student filmmakers had set out to record what would happen when consumer's expectations collided with reality, and so had launched a marketing blitz to promote a non-existent, too-good-to-be-true store. More…

Hunting for Bambi (July 2003)

A news report by Las Vegas station KLAS-TV about a company selling "Bambi Hunts" sparked nationwide outrage. Bambi Hunts were supposedly games in which men with paintball guns hunted naked women in the Nevada desert. Numerous critics denounced the hunts, demanding to know how such a thing could be legal. Only after a week did it become apparent that the company wasn't really conducting such hunts. It had only claimed to do so as a way to promote a soft-porn video about a fictional Bambi Hunt. Although their stunt almost got them run out of Las Vegas, the company did sell thousands of copies of the video. More…
On July 2, 2003, Gerald McSorley, a Scottish pensioner, found a fossilized section of a plesiosaur vertebrae when he accidentally tripped and fell into the loch. Nessie enthusiasts speculated the fossil might have come from an ancestor of the monster. But subsequent examination revealed the vertebrae were embedded in limestone not found near Loch Ness, and the fossil showed signs of having recently been in a marine environment. In other words, it was clear the fossil had been planted at the loch. [BBC News]
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