Index Hoaxorum: 1869-1913

If I don't have the time or information to describe a hoax more fully, I list it here in the Index Hoaxorum. Feel free to send me your comments to supplement any description that appears here.

1866-1898: The Tichborne Claimant

Roger Tichborne (left), his imposter (right)
In 1854 a wealthy young aristocrat named Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne disappeared at sea and was presumed dead. His distraught mother placed ads in newspapers around the world, seeking information about his whereabouts. In 1866 she received a response from an Australian man who claimed to be her son. What followed was one of the most intriguing and debated cases of impersonation of all time. Lady Tichborne embraced the man as her long-lost son, making him the full heir to her estate. But when she died, the other heirs lost no time in bringing suit against him to stop him from gaining the inheritance. On the witness stand he proved unable to remember basic facts about the past of Roger Tichborne, and the court ruled that he was a fraud.

1874: Cracks in the Moon
A January 1874 article in the New York World claimed that the moon's frame was gradually cracking, and was in danger of falling into several separate fragments.

1875: The Chicago Theater Fire
On February 13, 1875 the Chicago Times ran a story describing a fire in a local theater. It claimed that more than 200 people had died in the flames, and it published the names of 108 victims. In fact, there had not been any fire, which people would have known if they had paid careful attention to the headline of the story which read "Description of a Suppositious Holocaust Likely to Occur Any Night." The rival Chicago Tribune denounced the hoax, and reported that a woman had collapsed and become insane after seeing her husband's name listed among the victims. However, the Tribune admitted in the same story that this report was, in turn, a hoax.

1875-1898: The Keely Motor Company
John Worrell Keely founded the Keely Motor Company in 1875 in order to develop and commercialize his invention, a "vibratory generator" that required only a quart of water to generate the equivalent of the power needed to pull a fully-loaded train for over 75 minutes. Following successful demonstrations of this miraculous device in his workshop, investors rushed to give him money, even though the scientific community derided his claims. For fourteen years he kept working on his engine, promising investors that the moment was just around the corner when he would unveil it to the world. The investors believed him and kept pouring money into his bank account. When he died in 1898 investigators discovered the secret of the engine: a compressed air machine hidden in the basement of his house that fed power to the engine located two floors directly above it.

1876: Prisoners of the Moon
An article in the Chicago Times in February 1876 claimed that great discoveries had recently been made by a powerful new telescope erected outside of Paris. Apparently this new telescope had been able to detect buildings on the moon. It had even shown bands of workers who were evidently undergoing some form of penal servitude, since they were all chained together.

1879: The Taughannock Giant
Unearthed on July 4, 1879 on the shores of Lake Cayuga in Ithaca. It was pronounced authentic by scientists and physicians, though it turned out to be the work of Ira Dean who had spent months carving it in his home, with the simple desire of fooling someone.

1880s: Joseph Mulholland (Comments)
A travelling salesman and spinner of tall tales, many of which ended up reported as news in local papers. Most famous for a story about a meteor that supposedly set fire to much of western Pennsylvania.

1897: The Gold Accumulator
In 1897 Prescott Ford Jernegan dazzled investors with his gold accumulator. When lowered into the ocean, this contraption sucked particles of the precious metal out of the surrounding waters. Hours later when it was lifted above the waves, it was coated in solid gold. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, investors shelled out $300,000 to buy stock in his new company. Unfortunately the success of the device had more to do with the diving skills of Jernegan's accomplice than it did with any accumulative powers the machine might have had. Jernegan managed to flee to France with over $100,000 before the scam was found out.

1901-1904: Cassie Chadwick
Cassie Chadwick claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. She said that Carnegie was paying her huge sums of money in order to keep their relationship a secret. Based upon this claim alone, she managed to borrow almost $2,000,000 from Cleveland area banks and wealthy individuals between 1901 and 1904. Finally, when her debts grew too large, the banks began to call in her loans, and at that point her entire scheme fell apart. She was sentenced to ten years in prison. When Carnegie was told about the fiasco, his only comment was, "I have never heard of Mrs. Chadwick."

1898: William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War
William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, was known as someone who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. According to one famous tale, when hostilities broke out between the Spanish and the Cubans in 1898 Hearst sent the illustrator Frederic Remington down to Cuba to draw pictures of the conflict. Not finding much happening, Remington cabled Hearst asking permission to return home. Supposedly Hearst cabled back, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." It is very doubtful that Hearst ever sent such a telegraph, but the persistent belief that he did captures the popular conviction that he wasn't above faking the news in order to get what he wanted, which was a war in Cuba that he knew would increase his paper's circulation. Soon the United States did enter into a war with Spain over Cuba, and sure enough, the circulation of the Journal soared to record heights.

Early 1900s: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
The Protocols first appeared in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was said to be the text of a speech given by a Zionist leader outlining a secret Jewish plan to achieve world power by controlling international finance and subverting the power of the Christian church. The manuscript was then used to justify hate campaigns against the Jewish people throughout the twentieth century, from the Russian pogroms of the early twentieth century, through to the actions of the Nazis during the 1930s and '40s. Apparently many copies of the Protocols are still in circulation today throughout the world. But the text of the Protocols actually came from an 1865 work titled Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, which was written by Maurice Joly as an attack upon Emperor Napoleon III. In other words, in its original form the Protocols had nothing to do with the Jewish people at all. It was only when Joly's work was recycled in Russia at the turn of the century that it was turned into evidence of a vast Jewish conspiracy.

The Captain of Köpenick
On October 16, 1906, a down-on-his-luck German man named Wilhelm Voigt donned a second-hand military captain's uniform he had bought in a store, walked out into the street, and effortlessly assumed control of a company of grenadiers marching past. He proceeded with them over 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 police tracked him down nine days later. Although his brazen stunt made him something of a popular hero, he was still sentenced to four years in jail. But he proved to be such a likable character that the Kaiser himself pardoned Voigt after he had served less than two years. Voigt's subsequent fame allowed him to pursue a career in show business, where he entertained audiences by re-enacting his stunt on the stage.

The Dreadnought Hoax

Cole and accomplices as Abyssinians
On February 7, 1910 the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage were received with full diplomatic pomp on the deck of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the British Navy's most powerful battleship. The Commander-in-Chief of the Dreadnought personally gave them a guided tour of his vessel. However, the Prince's visit was really a prank engineered by inveterate prankster Horace de Vere Cole. The Prince was actually Anthony Buxton, one of Cole's friends. Likewise, the rest of the entourage were also friends of Cole (one of them was a young Virginia Woolf). They had dressed up in exotic clothes and had blackened their faces to make themselves look like what they imagined Abyssinians should look like. The Royal Navy was fooled. After the tour was over the pranksters successfully made their escape, and later Cole told the press what had happened. It became the talk of England for a few days, and the Royal Navy was duly embarrassed.