The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
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Imposters
Pope Joan, 853 AD
According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years. 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 details…
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 details…
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 details…
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 details…
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 details…
The Tichborne Claimant, 1866
The young aristocrat Roger Tichborne had been missing, presumed dead, for 12 years, when an Australian man showed up, claiming to be him. There were dramatic differences between the two men. Roger had weighed 125 pounds and spoke French and English. The Australian weighed over 300 pounds and spoke no French. But their facial features were similar. A long, protracted legal case followed to determine if the man really was Roger returned — a controversy that lingers to this day. more details…

Lord Gordon-Gordon, 1871
Lord Gordon-Gordon was the most famous alias of a nineteenth-century imposter whose specialty was posing as a wealthy Scottish landowner. He did this so well that he succeeded in convincing many people who really were wealthy to trust him with their money, which he then spent. His most famous victim was the railroad developer/robber baron Jay Gould, for which reason Gordon-Gordon is sometimes referred to as the "robber of the robber barons". The peak of Lord Gordon-Gordon's criminal career were the two years 1871 and 1872. He spent the next two years on the run, before committing suicide in 1874. more details…
Cassie Chadwick, 1904
Between 1897 and 1904, Cassie Chadwick scammed millions of dollars from Ohio banks by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. The banks, believing they could charge Carnegie high interest rates, happily loaned her the money without asking too many questions. Chadwick had used a simple ruse to lay the groundwork for her scam. She had asked a Cleveland lawyer to accompany her to Carnegie's house. He waited in the carriage while she went inside to conduct her business. On the way out, she "accidentally" dropped a promissory note for $2 million, signed by Carnegie. When the lawyer saw the note, she told him her secret... more details…
The Captain of Köpenick, 1906
On October 16, 1906, an out-of-work German shoemaker named Wilhelm Voigt donned a second-hand military captain's uniform he had bought in a store, walked out into the street, and assumed control of a company of soldiers marching past. He led them to the town hall of Köpenick, a small suburb of Berlin, arrested the mayor and the treasurer on charges of embezzlement, and took possession of 4,000 marks from the town treasury. He then disappeared with the money. The incident became famous as a symbol of the blind obedience of German soldiers to authority — even fake authority. The police tracked him down nine days later, and he was... more details…
Oscar Daubmann, Last German Prisoner of War, 1932
Alfred Hummel as Oscar DaubmannIn the early 1930s the French government informed the German reich that it had discharged all the prisoners of war taken during World War I. All soldiers still missing had to be presumed dead. But in May 1932 this statement appeared to be contradicted when a soldier, Oscar Daubmann, returned to Germany, claiming he had spent the last sixteen years in a French prisoner-of-war camp. Daubmann told a dramatic tale of imprisonment and escape. He said he had been captured by the French in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and was placed in a prison camp. After killing a guard during an unsuccessful escape... more details…
The Third Eye of T. Lobsang Rampa, 1956
The Third EyeThe Third Eye, by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, was first published in 1956. It purported to be his autobiographical account of growing up in Tibet and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Rampa claimed he had been born into a wealthy Tibetan family and had studied in Lhasa to become a lama. He had then undergone an operation to open up the "third eye" in the middle of his forehead. This operation had bestowed upon him amazing psychic powers. more details…
The Buckwheat Imposter, 1990
Buckwheat was the wide-eyed, African-American character played by William Thomas in the 'Our Gang' comedies of the 1930s and '40s. After leaving the show, Thomas dropped from the public eye. But in 1990, the news show 20/20 claimed it had found him working as a grocery bagger. Unfortunately for 20/20, the man they interviewed was not William Thomas. He was an imposter named Bill English who had been claiming to be Buckwheat for 30 years. The real William Thomas had worked as a film lab technician before dying in 1980 at the age of 49. The week after it aired the segment, 20/20 admitted its mistake. more details…
Kaycee Nicole Swenson, 2001
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 details…
JT LeRoy, 2005
In 1994 a teenage boy called JT (or Jeremy "Terminator") LeRoy began to attract attention in the literary community. He published a few short stories, but he also aggressively reached out to other, older writers, communicating with them by phone, email, and fax. He was a sympathetic character — a transgendered, homosexual, drug-addicted, pathologically shy teenager who had been living on the streets, forced into a life of truck-stop prostitution by his mother. Writing seemed to offer a means for him to escape that life, and other writers strongly supported his efforts. In 1999 he published his first novel, Sarah, which was a critical... more details…
Hoax Archive Categories
Hoaxes Throughout History
Middle AgesEarly Modern1700s1800-1840s1850-1890s
1900s1910s1920s1930s1940s1950s1960s1970s1980s1990s21st Century2014

All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.