The Museum of Hoaxes
hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive hoax archive
 
Literary Hoaxes
The Littlest Literary Hoax
Back in 2004, the literary-studies journal Modernism/Modernity printed an article by Jay Murray Siskind of Blacksmith College. There is no Jay Murray Siskind, outside Don DeLillo’s classic modernist novel White Noise, and Blacksmith College doesn’t exist at all. The literary hoax was not revealed until 2009 when Mark Sample broke the story on his blog, Sample Reality. According to Sample, this long lag raises the question: “Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review?” Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Monaghan takes the argument a step further, asking, “does anyone read any literary-studies articles?” [Chronicle of Higher Ed]
Angel at the Fence, 2008
The story of how Herman Rosenblat first met his wife, Roma, was remarkable. Rosenblat was imprisoned as a child in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He claimed that Roma, a Jewish girl disguised as a Christian who lived in the nearby town, used to throw apples over the fence for him. Twelve years later, the two met in Coney Island and realized where they had previously seen each other. They fell in love and got married. Rosenblat first shared this story in the mid-1990s, when he submitted it as an entry for a newspaper contest about "best love stories". He said he had been told to share the story, which he had kept secret for so many years,... More…
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…
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Final Farewell
Gabriel Garcia MarquezDuring the summer of 1999 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of such classics as One Hundred Years of Solitude, was treated for lymphatic cancer. Following this, there were persistent rumors about his failing health. On May 29, 2000 these rumors appeared to be confirmed when a poem signed with his name appeared in the Peruvian daily La Republica. The poem, titled "La Marioneta" or "The Puppet," was said to be a farewell poem Garcia Marquez had written and sent out to his closest friends on account of his worsening condition... More…
The Claire Chazal Experiment
Claire Chazal Claire Chazal was a well-known newswoman who presented the evening news on France's TF1 network. Like many French celebrities, she had decided to write a novel. She titled it L'Institutrice (The Primary School Teacher). It was published in 1997 by Plon and became a bestseller. In 2000, the editors of Voici magazine, a weekly tabloid, decided to use her novel to prove that the success of novels by celebrities has little to do with the literary merit of the novels themselves and everything to do with the fame of their authors. More…
The Diary of a Good Neighbor, 1983
The Diary of a Good Neighbor by Jane Somers received little attention, and only modest sales, when it was published in 1983. The novel told the story of a magazine editor who befriends a lonely old woman. But when a sequel appeared a year later, a surprise announcement accompanied its publication. The book's true author was the acclaimed writer Doris Lessing (who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Lessing explained that she had concealed her authorship in order to show how difficult it is for unknown authors to attract attention. Also, she wanted to play a prank on critics who insisted on pigeonholing her as one type of writer or another. More…

Casablanca Rejected, 1982
If an unknown screenwriter submits a masterpiece to a movie agent, what are the chances that the agent will actually read the screenplay and recognize its value? Freelance writer Chuck Ross designed an experiment to find out. He slightly disguised the script of Casablanca (changing its title, the name of the author, and the names of some of the characters) and submitted it to 217 agencies. The majority of these returned it unread. 33 recognized the script. But 38 claimed to have read it and rejected it, saying the script simply wasn't good enough. One complained that the dialogue "could have been sharper" and that the plot "had a tendency to ramble." More…
The Steps Experiment, 1975
Artwork accompanying Ross's 1979 article describing the Steps Experiment. In 1975 Chuck Ross was selling cable TV door-to-door, and dreaming of becoming a writer. However, he felt the odds were stacked against him since the publishing industry seemed incapable of recognizing talent. To prove his theory, he typed up twenty-one pages of a highly acclaimed book and sent it unsolicited to four publishers (Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), claiming it was his own work. The work he chose for this experiment was Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski. It had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and by 1975 had... More…
The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, 1971
This remains one of the most brazen literary hoaxes of all time. Clifford Irving forged the "autobiography" of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, while Hughes was still alive. His hope was that the famously reclusive billionaire would be unwilling to emerge from his seclusion to expose the fraud. For a long time it seemed like Irving was going to get away with it, but ultimately his plan failed, because Hughes did emerge to blow the whistle on the scheme. More…
Naked Came the Stranger, 1969
Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States. Sex alone, it seemed, could make a book a bestseller. This gave him an idea for an experiment. He convinced 24 other Newsday reporters to join him in deliberately writing a terrible novel that would have a minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. They titled their work Naked Came the Stranger. In the first week after its publication, it sold a respectable 20,000 copies, which McGrady felt was enough to prove his point. So he revealed the hoax. The resulting publicity made the book a bestseller. More…
Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan, 1968
In 1968 Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. It described his encounters with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman from Mexico. Don Juan supposedly trained Castaneda in ancient forms of knowledge, such as how to use drugs to communicate with animals (or even to become an animal). Castaneda's book became a bestseller and was an important influence on the New Age movement. Castaneda was awarded a doctorate by UCLA in 1972. Castaneda insisted Don Juan was a real person, but this is widely doubted by scholars. Skeptics... More…
Report From Iron Mountain, 1967
Front cover of Report From Iron Mountain. In 1967 the war in Vietnam was escalating and race riots were breaking out in many major U.S. cities. Popular distrust of the federal government was growing. It was in this context that on October 16 a book appeared titled Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. It was published by Dial Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Leonard C. Lewin, a New York freelance writer, wrote the introduction to the book. He explained that the report had been compiled by 15 experts known as the Special Study Group (SSG) who had been brought together by the U.S. government. The SSG had... More…
I, Libertine, 1955
In the 1950s, bestseller lists were partially based on the number of requests for a title at bookstores. So nighttime deejay Jean Shepherd hatched a plan to throw a wrench in this system by having his listeners descend on bookstores en masse and ask for a non-existent book titled I, Libertine. Requests for this title, relayed by puzzled bookstore owners, eventually made their way to publisher Ian Ballantine who (once he figured out what was going on), decided it would be interesting to publish I, Libertine as an actual book. Author Theodore Sturgeon was commissioned to write it, and the book was released to stores (for real) on Sep 20, 1956. More…
Ern Malley, 1944
The Australian poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley disliked modernist poetry and hatched a plot to see if they could get its supporters to embrace "deliberately concocted nonsense." They sent some strange, surreal poems of their own creation to Max Harris, editor of the cutting-edge Angry Penguins literary magazine, claiming they were the work of Ern Malley, an unknown poet who had recently died. Harris liked the poems so much that he devoted a special issue to them. At which point, Stewart and McAuley revealed that Malley didn't exist. Ern Malley is considered to be Australia's most famous literary hoax. More…
The Cradle of the Deep, 1929
Joan Lowell claimed she grew up on her father's schooner, traveling the South Seas. She described her maritime adventures in The Cradle of the Deep, published in 1929. But in reality she grew up in Berkeley, California and had spent only a few months at sea. More…
Spectric Poetry, 1916
In 1916 a slender volume of poetry titled Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments introduced the Spectric school of poetry to the world. It joined many other experimental schools of poetry then currently in vogue, such as the Imagists, the Futurists, and the Idealists. The Spectric poems were rather bizarre and nonsensical, but were also fun, full of life, and decked out with colorful (albeit illogical) imagery. More…
Leonainie, 1877
Under the heading "Posthumous Poetry," Indiana's Kokomo Dispatch published a poem titled "Leonainie" on August 3, 1877. It was an unremarkable poem except in one way. The editor of the Dispatch, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe. (Click here to read the poem.) The publication of this poem generated excitement among fans and scholars of Poe, and within a few weeks it had been reprinted in major papers throughout the United States. But in reality it was not a poem by Poe. Its true author was a struggling young Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley. More…
Von Kempelen and His Discovery
The April 14, 1849 edition of The Flag of Our Union contained an article titled "Von Kempelen and his Discovery." It described the discovery by a German chemist, Baron Von Kempelen, of an alchemical process to transform lead into gold. The account concluded by noting that news of the discovery had already caused a two hundred per cent leap in the price of lead in Europe. The story was fictional, although this was not indicated anywhere. Its author was Edgar Allan Poe. He had evidently hoped that the tale might deter some of the "forty-niners" who were heading off to California in search of gold that had recently been discovered there. Poe... More…
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
The December 1845 edition of the American Whig Review contained an account of an unusual experiment designed to test whether hypnotism could delay the arrival of death. According to the article, a terminally ill patient, M. Ernest Valdemar, who only had hours left to live, was placed in a trance by a hypnotist. The effect was quite remarkable. Valdemar appeared to go into a state of suspended animation, moving only in response to the hypnotist's commands. He remained in this state for over a day, much to the surprise of his doctors who hadn't given him that long to live. Then Valdemar's pulse stopped and his breathing ceased. He was dead, but... 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 Journal of Julius Rodman
Extracts from the Journal of a "Julius Rodman" appeared in a series of six installments in Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine between January and June 1840. The journal purported to detail a 1792 expedition led by Julius Rodman up the Missouri River toward the Far North. This 1792 expedition, if true, would have made Rodman the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains. Julius Rodman's expedition was subsequently noted by a member of the U.S. Senate, Robert Greenhow, who wrote in a Senate document, "It is proper to notice here an account of an expedition across the American continent, made between 1791 and 1794, by a party of citizens of the... More…
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
As the Wilkes Expedition, organized by the U.S. Navy, prepared to depart for South America and Antarctica during the late 1830s, polar travel received a great deal of attention in America. This was the context in which a serialized tale authored by Edgar Allan Poe appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in January and February, 1837. Titled "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," it presented the story of an explorer, Arthur Gordon Pym, who traveled to the polar latitudes where he suffered a mysterious demise. The tale first appeared "under the garb of fiction," but when Poe republished it a year later as a novel, he added a preface... 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 Unparalled Adventures of One Hans Pfall
A June 1835 article in the Southern Literary Messenger recounted the experiences of a man, Hans Pfall, who claimed to have traveled to the moon in a balloon and spent five years there living among its inhabitants. He had supposedly returned briefly to Earth, just long enough to drop an account of his travels from his balloon, before deciding to go back to the moon. The article, though it purported to be factual, was actually a story written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was his first, and somewhat unsuccessful, attempt at a hoax. Few if any people were fooled, perhaps because, as Poe himself later acknowledged, it was written in a "tone of mere banter." More…
John Howe, British Spy
In 1827 a Massachusetts printer named Luther Roby published The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy. It told the story of John Howe, a man said to have been a British spy during the Revolutionary war before switching sides to become an American soldier, then a settler, a frontier trader, an Indian preacher, and finally a smuggler. Howe was long accepted as an actual historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe in The Minutemen and Their World as a "quick-thinking English civilian-spy." The 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers Before 1800 contained an entry about... More…
The Journal of Charles Le Raye
In 1812 a Boston printer published a journal, said to have been written by the French trader Charles Le Raye, describing his capture in 1801 by a band of Teton Sioux and subsequent travels through the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone regions. If the account is true, Le Raye would have been the first European to travel through that region and write about it, preceding the Lewis and Clark expedition by three years. But scholars now believe the journal was a hoax. They cite its gross geographical inaccuracies, inaccurate portrayal of Indian life, and the lack of any other evidence suggesting that Le Raye existed. However, a few parts of the... More…
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
The Grimm's Fairy Tales, first published in German in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmärchen, is considered to be one of the major works of 19th-century culture. Popular myth holds that the tales came from simple, peasant folk interviewed by the brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm. In reality, the bulk of the tales came from a handful of middle- and upper-class women. Some of the tales were French in origin, not German. Furthermore, the tales were heavily revised and rewritten by the Grimm brothers before publication. In his 1983 book One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and their Tales John Ellis argued that the Grimm Brothers engaged in a... 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 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…
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…
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…
A Modest Proposal
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…
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…
The Voynich Manuscript, c.1500
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 nonsense gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. 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…
Hoax Archive Categories
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s

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