Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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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…
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…
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 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…
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…
On April 13, 1844, the New York Sun announced that the European balloonist Monck Mason had completed the first-ever transatlantic balloon crossing — accidentally. He had taken off from England, intending to go to Paris, but had been blown off course and ended up floating to South Carolina. The article was fairly quickly revealed to be a hoax authored by Poe, but for a while it created great excitement in New York City. It was, by far, Poe's most successful hoax. More…

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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
An attempt at stockmarket manipulation. Several New York papers were tricked into printing bad news about the Civil War. In response, investors dumped stocks and bought gold, perceived as a safer investment. But the bad news had been planted by a newspaper insider who had previously invested heavily in gold, hoping to profit from the anticipated rise in its price. He was tracked down and arrested within 3 days. More…
After a meteor shower fell in southern France, someone went to elaborate lengths to embed plant seeds within one of the meteorites. It may have been an attempt to hoax the French scientific community, but the hoax backfired because the seeds weren't noticed by anyone until the 1960s, almost a century later. Researchers initially thought the seeds might be of extraterrestrial origin, until they identified them as native to France. More…
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