Hoaxes Throughout History
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Legal Hoaxes

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…
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…
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…
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…
On December 16, 1873 the Los Angeles Evening Express published an article describing a man in San Bernardino who, because of a loophole in the law, was legally allowed to remain married to two women, despite the efforts of townsfolk to force him to divorce at least one of his wives. News of the case caused an uproar in California. However, the story was entirely fictitious, as the Evening Express revealed two weeks later. Unfortunately, the retraction was not as widely publicized as the original story, and so the case made its way as fact into a number of legal textbooks. More…
When Francis Douce, a wealthy English collector, died in 1834 he left an unusual stipulation in his will. He wanted all his personal papers donated to the British Museum, but they were first to be sealed in a box and only opened 66 years after his death. These instructions were dutifully carried out. When 1900 arrived, the trustees of the museum gathered to open the box. The box was unsealed. and everyone leaned over, eager to see its contents. After a moment of silence, someone snorted with disgust. Inside the box was only trash: scraps of paper and torn book covers. Douce had engineered a bizarre, posthumous prank, making the trustees wait 66 years for nothing. More…
Caltech is known for producing world-class scientists and engineers. But a few of its students have also demonstrated a flair for the law, as a highly controversial 1975 prank that turned on the legalistic reading of a sweepstakes entry form proved. The sweepstakes was held by McDonald's. It ran from March 3rd to March 23rd, 1975, at 187 participating McDonald's restaurants in Southern California. The prizes included a year of groceries, a Datsun Z, McDonald's gift certificates, and cash. But one part of the contest rules caught the attention of three Caltech students. The rules said, "Enter as often as you wish." What if, the Caltech students wondered, a person entered the sweepstakes one million times? More…