Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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 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…
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…
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…
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 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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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 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 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 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…
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…
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