The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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April Fool’s Day
The first day of April, when it's traditional to play pranks, hoaxes, and practical jokes.
April Fool Archive
April Fool's Day FAQ
The Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes more…
Art Forgery
As the price of art has increased, the forging of art has increased.
Art Hoaxes Satirical
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…
Authenticity
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…
Art Hoaxes Absurd
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…

Art Project Hoaxes
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 (1979-2007)
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…
Hoaxes and Pranks of Paul Krassner
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 (756 CE)
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 (800 CE)
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…
The Medieval Relic Trade
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…
The Letter of Prester John (1150)
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…
The Toledo Letter (1184)
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…
The Travels of Marco Polo (1298)
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…
The Shroud of Turin (1355)
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…
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1371)
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…
The Lost Island of Hi-Brazil
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…
The History of Crowland (1413)
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…
Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull (1455)
Jean V d'Armagnac was the penultimate Count of the French province of Armagnac. He became infamous after he fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. He sought approval from the Pope to marry her, but the Pope refused. Undeterred, the Count bribed a papal official to forge a papal bull allowing the marriage. When the Pope learned of this, he excommunicated the Count. Later, King Charles VII's army killed the Count and dragged his body through the streets. more…
Michelangelo’s Cupid (1495)
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 (1500s)
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…
Lusus Naturae
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…
Prophecies of Nostradamus (1555)
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…
Return of Martin Guerre (1556)
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…
Cicero’s Consolatio (1583)
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.
The Boy with the Golden Tooth (1593)
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 Case of Pregnancy without Intercourse (1637)
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 (1641)
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 (1640s)
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, Victim of Pranks (1602-1680)
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…
The Ghostly Drummer of Tedworth (1661)
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’s Theory of Universal Forgery (1693)
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…
The Native of Formosa (1702)
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…
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly (1702)
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…
The Predictions of Isaac Bickerstaff (1708)
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…
The Hoaxes of Jonathan Swift
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…
The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer (1725)
Dr. Johann Beringer, a University of Würzburg professor, acquired a bizarre set of fossils that showed images of plants, insects, birds, snails, hebrew letters, and even astronomical objects in three-dimensional relief. Beringer thought he had made a remarkable discovery. But the stones had been created by two fellow professors to hoax him. This was revealed, much to Beringer's embarrassment, only after he had authored a book about the stones. more…
The Rabbit Babies of Mary Toft (1726)
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…
Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal (1729)
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…
A Modest Proposal (1729)
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…
Hoaxes of Benjamin Franklin
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…
De Situ Brittaniae (1747)
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. more…
The Great Bottle Hoax (1749)
Believing the public to be ever credulous, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that if he advertised an impossible feat would be performed, they would still "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there." The Earl accepted the bet. So the Duke posted flyers promising the chance to see "a man jumping into a quart bottle." Every seat in the theater sold. But when the entertainment wasn't provided, a riot ensued. more…
Lucina Sine Concubitu (1750)
The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. more…
James Macpherson and the Ossianic Controversy (1761)
Schoolmaster James Macpherson claimed he had discovered the text of an ancient epic poem written by a Scottish bard named Ossian. The work became an international bestseller. But other scholars, particulary Samuel Johnson, accused Macpherson of having written the work himself. Later examination of Macpherson's sources (or lack of them) suggests he probably was the author of much of the work. more…
The Patagonian Giants (1766)
When the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor spread alleging the crew had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. It was said the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants. The crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. more…
Thomas Chatterton and the Rowley Poems (1767)
Young Chatterton wrote poems in the style of the old manuscripts he came across in his uncle's church and eventually produced a group of poems he claimed were the work of a 15th century priest named Thomas Rowley. The poems were praised. Encouraged, Chatterton left for London, hoping to make it as a writer. Four months later, unable to find work, he poisoned himself. The Rowley poems were recognized as forgeries after his death. more…
The Great Chess Automaton (1770)
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a chess-playing "thinking machine". It consisted of a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes whose trunk emerged out of a large wooden box. When wound up, the figure played chess against human opponents, actually moving pieces on its own, and it almost always won. The secret was that a man was hidden in the box, controlling the movements of the wooden figure. more…
Graham’s Celestial Bed (1775)
James Graham was a notorious medical quack. He promised customers he could cure them of a variety of ills if they slept in his "celestial bed," for which he charged £50 a night. The bed had a mattress filled with "sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers." Electricity crackled across its headboard. Spending a night in it may have been a novel experience. But it had no curative powers. more…
The Blue Laws of Connecticut (1781)
The Rev. Samuel Peters published a book which included sensational details about "blue laws" that had supposedly once existed in Connecticut, making it illegal to do such things as kiss a child or shave on Sunday. But in fact, such laws had never formally existed. Peters was a wealthy Anglican who had been forced to leave America during the Revolution, so he was trying to make his former countrymen look as uptight and repressive as possible. more…
Quiz
According to a popular story, the word 'quiz' originated in 1791 when Richard Daly, manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin, bet his friends that within 48 hours he could make a nonsense word be spoken throughout Dublin. To win the bet, Daly sent out his employees to write the word "QUIZ" in chalk on walls throughout Dublin. The appearance of this mysterious, previously unknown word became the talk of the town, allowing Daly to win his bet, and causing the word 'quiz' to pass into popular usage. As an explanation of the origin of the word, this story cannot be true, as 'quiz' can be found in print before 1791. The word probably derives either from the Latin phrase "Qui es?" (Who are you?) or the word 'inquisitive'. more…
The Dutch Mail (1792)
According to legend, the editor of the Leicester Herald was pressed for time one day and couldn't complete a column. So he threw together a scramble of meaningless letters and headlined it as the latest "Dutch Mail." The editor later reported meeting a man who had kept the "Dutch Mail" edition of the Herald for thirty-four years, hoping to one day get it translated. more…
William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare Forgeries (1794)
Bookseller Samuel Ireland was a passionate fan of Shakespeare, so he was overjoyed when his son, William Henry, claimed to have found a previously unknown play written by the Bard. Arrangements were made for the play to be performed. But the actors, suspecting a fraud, made a mockery of it. Soon after, William confessed the play was indeed his own work. However, his heartbroken father refused to believe the confession. more…
The Duckbilled Platypus (1799)
The British Museum received a specimen of an Australian animal that appeared to be a combination of a duck and a mole. Naturalists there suspected it was a hoax. It was only when more specimens of the strange creature arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly admitted it was real. Today we know the creature as the Duckbilled Platypus. It is one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all. more…
The Berners Street Hoax (1810)
In 1810 London was the largest, wealthiest city in the world, linked by trade with every continent, and fed by the manufacturing might of northern British cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Almost anything could be obtained in its shops, and on Monday, November 26 of that year, all of this mercantile abundance focused for one day upon a single residential address: 54 Berners Street, the home of Mrs. Tottenham (in some sources spelled Tottingham). more…
Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine (1812)
In 1812 a Philadelphia man, Charles Redheffer, claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine that required no source of energy to run. He built a working model of the machine and applied for funds from the city government to build a larger version. But when inspectors from the city examined it, they realized that Redheffer had simply hidden the power source. To expose Redheffer, they commissioned a local engineer to build a similar machine, and when they showed this to Redheffer he fled the city. (This replica is still owned by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.) A year later, Redheffer attempted the same scam in New York City.... more…
The Great Stock Exchange Hoax (1814)
In 1814 a man wearing a British military uniform rowed up to a dock on the coast of the English Channel and told the guards there that Napoleon had been killed. Immediately riders were sent to London. When traders on the London stock exchange heard the news they celebrated by bidding up the price of stocks. But soon after they realized the truth, that the war against Napoleon was still raging on. They had been tricked. Immediately the market dropped again. But in the meantime, someone had profited handsomely from the temporary rise. The mysterious military officer who had initially delivered the news had long since disappeared, so it was... more…
Princess Caraboo (1817)
On Thursday April 3, 1817, a strange woman appeared in Almondsbury, a small town outside of Bristol, England. She wore a black shawl twisted turban-style around her head and had to communicate via hand gestures because she spoke no known language. She was initially sent to the Overseer of the Poor, but was subsequently taken in by a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Worrall, who found her fascinating. Slowly her story was pieced together, with the help of a sailor who was passing through the town and claimed to speak her language. She said that she was Princess Caraboo, from the faraway island of Javasu. She had been abducted from her home by... more…
New York Sawed in Half (1824)
One of the legendary hoaxes of New York City is the tale of the man who formed a business in order to saw the city in half. The story goes that sometime around the summer of 1824 there was a group of tradesmen who used to meet every afternoon on the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets to talk about the news of the day. One day they began discussing a rumor that the island of Manhattan was tipping into the ocean, due to the weight of all the new buildings being constructed. One of this group, a man named Lozier, proposed a solution: cut the island in half at Kingsbridge, tow the sinking half out to sea, turn it around, tow it back and then... more…
Charles Waterton’s Nondescript (1824)
The Nondescript of Charles Waterton Charles Waterton was a famous English eccentric and naturalist. In 1821, he returned to England from an expedition to Guiana, bringing with him hundreds of specimens of South American wildlife, carefully stuffed and preserved. His boat docked in Liverpool, and a customs inspectors named Mr. Lushington boarded. Lushington took one look at the exotic specimens that Waterton had piled up in crates and ordered that a hefty fee should be paid for their importation. Waterton protested. After all, the specimens were of greater scientific value than they were of commercial value. Nevertheless, Lushington would not... more…
Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Poe is celebrated for his dark, gothic tales of horror and suspense. But he also published six hoaxes during his brief life. Many modern anthologies of his works, however, fail to note that these stories were first presented to readers in the guise of nonfiction. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the "epoch of the hoax." more…
Joice Heth (1835)
Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention. When the public's interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead a mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died. more…
The Great Moon Hoax (1835)
The New York Sun announced that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon by means of a new telescope "of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle." Creatures supposedly seen by Herschel included lunar bison, fire-wielding biped beavers, and winged "man-bats." The public was fascinated. It took several weeks before they realized it was all a hoax. more…
The Walam Olum of Constantine Rafinesque (1836)
The naturalist Rafinesque produced a document that he claimed was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) indians that he had been able to translate into English. Long accepted as authentic, it was exposed as a fraud, by linguistic analysis, in 1996. Rafinesque had translated the text from English into Lenape, rather than the other way around. more…
The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836)
In a tell-all book, Maria Monk described scandalous secrets of the Montreal convent where she claimed to have lived for 7 years. Nuns sleeping with priests. Babies killed and buried in the basement. Her revelations caused public outcry and stoked anti-Catholic sentiment. But investigations found no evidence to back up her claims. Nor evidence that she had even been at the convent. more…
The Hoaxes of P.T. Barnum (1810-1891)
Barnum described himself as the "Prince of Humbug," an epithet he more than earned during his long career. He's best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name, but before the circus he ran a New York museum, and it was this museum that initially made him rich and famous. He attracted visitors to it by means of sensational publicity stunts, hoaxes, and plain-old false advertising. But he managed to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. more…
The Fortsas Bibliohoax (1840)
An unusual auction was announced. Up for sale was the library of the Comte de Fortsas, who collected books of which only one copy was known to exist. He had only fifty-two books, but each one was absolutely unique. Book lovers were enthralled and traveled from far and wide to attend the auction in Belgium. Only to discover, upon arrival, that there was no Comte de Fortsas, nor any of his books. The entire auction was an elaborate practical joke. more…
The Feejee Mermaid (1842)
The exhibition at P.T. Barnum's New York museum of the body of a mermaid supposedly caught near the Feejee Islands generated enormous excitement. Huge crowds waited to see it, lured by ads showing a beautiful, bare-breasted creature. What they found inside was a small, wizened, hideous creature, that was actually the head of an ape stitched onto the body of a fish. The mermaid is remembered as one of Barnum's most infamous humbugs. more…
The Kinderhook Plates (1843)
Six bell-shaped pieces of flat copper inscribed with hieroglyphics were unearthed from an Indian burial mound in Illinois. According to some reports, the plates were taken to Mormon leader Joseph Smith, living nearby, who proceeded to translate the markings. After which, the plates were revealed to be the work of local pranksters who intended to embarrass Smith, as the hieroglyphics were meaningless. The Mormon church denies Smith translated the plates. more…
The Great Balloon Hoax (1844)
The New York Sun announced that the European balloonist Monck Mason had completed the first-ever successful trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. He had taken off from England on a trip to Paris, but had been blown off course due to a propeller accident and ended up floating to South Carolina. The story was quickly revealed to be a hoax, authored by Edgar Allan Poe. more…
The Roorback Hoax (1844)

The Ithaca Chronicle published an extract from a book in which "Baron Roorback" described meeting a gang of slaves belonging to James Polk, the Democratic candidate for President of the United States. Polk's slaves, Roorback said, had all been branded with his initials. The idea that Polk would brand his slaves shocked voters, but the claim was a hoax. As was, it turned out, "Baron Roorback" himself. more…
The Southern Conspiracy to Confederate with Mexico (1850)
A letter appeared in newspapers detailing a plot hatched by Southern conspirators to leave the Union and confederate with Mexico. The capital of the proposed new nation was to be Mexico City. But historians have found no record of such a plot in diplomatic records from the period. Southern radicals were definitely dreaming of such schemes, but in 1850 such plots were still only dreams, existing only on paper. more…
Railways and Revolvers in Georgia (1856)
The London Times offered an example of the violence of American society. It printed a letter from an Englishman living in America who described bloody gunfights fought with "Monte Christo pistols" during a train ride through Georgia. American papers denied the story, but the Times stubbornly defended it, only relenting a year later after learning that "Monte Christo pistols" was slang for bottles of champagne. more…
The Pictographs of Emmanuel Domenech (1860)
Domenech, a Catholic priest who had spent many years traveling through Mexico, found a curious document full of strange drawings filed away in a Parisian library. He came to believe it was an ancient Native American manuscript. But after publishing a facsimile of it, critics claimed it was actually the scribbling book of a "nasty-minded little [German] boy," that had for some reason been stored in the library. more…
William Mumler’s Spirit Photography (1861)
While developing a self-portrait, Mumler noticed the shadowy figure of a young girl floating beside his own likeness. He assumed it was an accident, but spiritualists proclaimed it to be the first photo ever taken of a spirit, and Mumler didn't argue with them. Instead, he went into business as the world's first spirit photographer and grew wealthy producing "spirit photos" for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War. more…
The Petrified Man (1862)
Nevada's Territorial Enterprise reported the discovery of a petrified man in nearby mountains. The body was in a sitting posture, leaning against a rock surface to which it had become attached. The report subsequently was reprinted by many other papers. However, it was pure fiction, written by a young reporter, Samuel Clemens, who would later be better known as Mark Twain. He later admitted surprise at how many people were fooled by his story, since he considered it "a string of roaring absurdities." more…
Empire City Massacre (1863)
A report in the Territorial Enterprise described a gruesome event. After losing his money by investing in San Francisco utilities, a man went insane and slaughtered his family, then rode into town carrying the "reeking scalp" of his wife and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted. However, it wasn't true. It was the invention of Mark Twain whose goal was to trick San Francisco newspapers into printing a story critical of the utility companies. more…
The Miscegenation Hoax (1863)
A pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races went on sale arguing for the benefits of white and black people having children with each other. By modern standards, the suggestion sounds enlightened, but the pamphlet was actually a hoax designed to insert the inflammatory issue of race into the 1864 presidential election. The hoax fizzled, but the pamphlet did introduce the word 'miscegenation' into the English language. more…
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