Hoax Museum Blog: History

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Tunnel beneath the Strait of Messina (an Italian hoax) — Italian social media was buzzing recently with word of the discovery of a narrow tunnel, over 2000 years old, running beneath the Strait of Messina (the body of water between the mainland of Italy and Sicily).

The tunnel was believed to have been built by the Romans during the Punic wars (264-241 BC) as a passageway for troops. It was discovered by workers doing construction on a highway.

But the story turns out to have come from an Italian fake news site called Dangerous News. One of the tunnel photos came from an Aug 2011 Daily Mail article about the discovery of mysterious stone-age tunnels in Bavaria. [link: canicattiweb.com]

The larger context for this hoax is the on-again/off-again attempts to build a bridge over the Strait of Messina (plans to build such a bridge have been announced twice, and cancelled twice). So the joke would be that the Roman tunnel is nonexistent, just like the modern bridge.

It reminds me of the jokes that used to be made in the British media about tunnels beneath the English Channel, before the Chunnel was completed. Such as the supposed discovery of a "Napoleonic Chunnel" in 1988 (an April Fool's Day joke).

Posted: Fri Feb 21, 2014.   Comments (0)

100-year-old Time Capsule Letter Hoax — Matt Novak, writing for Gizmodo Australia, notes that 100 years ago a news story circulated reporting that Frank Rockwell, the mayor of Akron, Ohio, had written a letter to Akron's future mayor in 2014:

Fort Wayne Sentinel - Jan 24, 1914

Mayor Rockwell wrote a letter yesterday to the person who will be mayor of Akron 100 years hence. The epistle tells the future mayor of the present debt, the names of all the city officials, the problems confronting the municipality and the political situation in Akron in 1914. The letter will be sealed, addressed to "His Honor, Mayor of Akron, 2014," marked with instructions not to be molested or opened until that year and placed in a bank vault to be held for a century. The salutation in the letter will fit whether a man or woman mayor.

However, Akron's mayor never did write such a letter. The report was a hoax. But the correction denying the hoax was only ever printed in Akron.

What was the point of this hoax? Who knows! But it does show that fake news stories are not a recent invention.
Posted: Mon Jan 27, 2014.   Comments (1)

The Diepholz Mummy —
Last month a 10-year-old German boy found what appeared to be an ancient Egyptian mummy in the attic of his grandmother, who lives in Diepholz. His parents excitedly speculated that it must have belonged to his grandfather, who had traveled throughout North Africa during the 1950s.

There were some artifacts along with the mummy that were quickly dismissed as fakes, and the mummy cloth appeared to be 20th-century fabric. But when the mummy was x-rayed, the head was found to be an actual human skull, which raised hopes that it was perhaps a real mummy.

However, closer examination (unwrapping the mummy) has revealed that the rest of the skeleton is made of plastic. So it's definitely a fake.

The question that remains is why this fake mummy was created. And who created it? Was it intended as a hoax? Or was it some kind of elaborate tourist souvenir? Links: Daily Mail, Spiegel

Posted: Thu Sep 26, 2013.   Comments (0)

Kimmel’s ‘Girl on Fire’ Hoax and the Two Traditions Within the History of Hoaxing — Daniel Engber doesn't think Jimmy Kimmel's "Twerking Girl on Fire" hoax was very funny. He wrote in Slate:

I think it illustrates everything that's wrong with viral marketing. Kimmel's prank is not a biting satire, nor is it a mirror to our stupid culture. It's a hostile, self-promoting act—a covert ad for Jimmy Kimmel Live—rendered as ironic acid that corrodes our sense of wonder.

At times Engber's critique became so over-the-top that I wasn't sure if he was being entirely serious, or if he was deliberately trolling. Nevertheless, what he wrote did make me think of an ongoing controversy within the world of hoaxing. The issue is that there are two traditions within the history of hoaxing, and these two traditions have never been able to agree on what constitutes a good hoax.

The first tradition dates back to the 18th century Enlighenment — the Age of Reason. Those promoting the values of the Enlightenment (people like Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift) recognized that hoaxes were a great vehicle for exposing credulity and superstition. Irrationalism could be shamed (and hopefully banished) by exposing it to ridicule and laughter. So in this tradition, hoaxes were acceptable if they served as educational tools for creating an informed citizenry.

The second tradition dates to the "market revolution" of the early 19th century, when entrepreneurs (in particular, newspaper editors and showmen such as P.T. Barnum) realized that hoaxes might be a good way of exposing credulity, but they were also a great way of attracting public attention. In other words, hoaxes could be cheap and highly effective ads.

Defenders of this tradition argued that being educational shouldn't be the only standard for a good hoax — that a hoax could also be good if it was clever and amusing, and offered the public entertainment value in return for being deceived.

So, on the one hand, you have the enlightenment tradition of hoaxes as educational tools to promote reason and skepticism. And on the other hand, you have the entrepreneurial tradition of hoaxes as deceptive but entertaining publicity stunts.

Proponents of the enlightenment view of hoaxes have never been happy about what they see as cheap, self-promoting entrepreneurial hoaxes — and this sense of resentment continues to this day, as evidenced by Engber's article.

But the thing is, many of the most celebrated hoaxes since the early 19th century have been of the entrepreneurial, self-promoting kind. The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, the Cardiff Giant, and all of Barnum's hoaxes certainly fall into that camp.

Where do I stand in the debate? Well, as someone who studies the history of hoaxing, I don't have to take sides. I report on the phenomenon as a whole. (Though I have to admit I thought Kimmel's hoax was amusing, even if it didn't serve any grand, educational purpose.)

However, both the enlightenment and entrepreneurial traditions agree that good hoaxes should be created with the intention of being eventually exposed — usually to the embarrassment of their victims. If a hoaxer never intends for his deception to be unmasked, then he's simply trying to get away something. The hoax becomes a species of fraud.

So I think Engber is totally wrong when, later in his article, he suggests that Kimmel's 'Twerking Girl on Fire' hoax was no different than the hoaxes of Stephen Glass, James Frey, or Richard Heene. None of them wanted their deceptions to be exposed. They were hoping to get away with something. There's clearly a difference.
Posted: Wed Sep 11, 2013.   Comments (1)

Fake Crystal Skulls — The latest issue of Chemical & Engineering News has an article that reviews the history of how the crystal "Aztec" skulls that began showing up in the mid-19th century were eventually found to be fake. The take home is that the following pieces of evidence led researchers to conclude the skulls were modern forgeries:
  • The skulls didn't come from documented archaeological sites.
  • The skulls' teeth were suspiciously linear and perfect, whereas the teeth in other Aztec art reflected the lack of Aztec dentistry.
  • Microscopic analysis revealed that the crystal skulls had regular etch marks, such as would be made by modern rotary wheels and hard abrasives, not ancient hand-held tools.
  • Spectroscopic analysis showed that the rock crystal had "green, wormlike inclusions" characteristic of rock crystal from Brazil or Madagascar, not Mexico.
  • And finally, X-ray diffraction revealed that some of the skulls were coated in deposits of silicon carbide, "a synthetic abrasive used in stone-carving workshops only starting in the mid-20th century."

Crystal Skulls Deemed Fake

Humans seem to have a predilection for fake quartz-crystal Aztec skulls. Since the 1860s, dozens of skull sculptures have appeared on the art market purporting to be pre-Columbian artifacts from Mesoamerica, that is, created by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America prior to Spanish exploration and conquest in the 16th century. Three such skulls have graced the collections of major museums on both sides of the Atlantic: the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the British Museum in London, and the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.
As early as the 1930s, some experts began to have doubts about the authenticity of the skulls, says Margaret Sax, a conservation scientist at the British Museum. But for a long time researchers "didn't have the scientific means to follow up" on their hunches, she adds. Over the past two decades researchers at all three museums have capitalized on analytical science innovations to show that these peculiar skulls are not unusual Aztec artifacts but post-Columbian fakes.

Posted: Fri Mar 08, 2013.   Comments (1)

Town waits 100 years to open package — For 100 years, a package marked "May Be Opened in 2012" has been sitting in a museum in Otta, Norway. It was given to the town of Otta by a local resident, Johan Nygaard, back in 1912. There's been enormous speculation about what the package might contain. Money? A diary? Stock certificates?

Finally, last Friday, the 100-year-mark arrived, and the town gathered to open the package. There was a live video feed, so the entire world could share in the excitement. The mayor carefully opened the package, peeked inside... and it turned to contain: "not-too-valuable notebooks, newspaper clippings, community council papers, a letter, small drawing and other bits of paper." In other words, nothing of any value. [time.com].

Some of the newspapers were dated 1914 and 1919, which means someone must have opened the package after 1912 to put them in there. Perhaps they removed whatever was in there and inserted junk in its place.

The affair reminds me the bequest of Francis Douce. When he died in 1834, Douce, who was a wealthy collector, willed a box to the British Museum with instructions that it be opened on January 1, 1900 — in 66 years. The British Museum did wait, as instructed, but when they finally opened the box, it contained nothing but a bunch of worthless papers. According to rumor, there was also a note from Douce in the box explaining that he thought it would be a waste to leave anything of greater value to the philistines at the British Museum.

I wonder if Nygaard had heard of Douce's bequest? He might have read about it in 1900 and decided to do something similar. Probably not. But it's a possibility.
Posted: Mon Aug 27, 2012.   Comments (8)

The Mystery of the Burnley River Skull — Back in May, a Lancashire couple, Mick and Elaine Bell, found a human skull in a shallow section of the Burnley River while out walking their dogs.

They gave the skull to the police, who initially suspected that rain had washed it down from a nearby cemetery. But as forensic experts examined it, they grew puzzled. The features of the skull indicated the person had been a man who was either an Australian aboriginal or from a South Pacific Island. How had he ended up buried in Lancashire?

Elaine Bell with the skull

Carbon dating the skull produced no results. Initially the scientists thought this was because the bone was fossilized, but after subjecting it to chemical tests, they realized it was a fake, cast from a real skull.

The mystery deepened because it was a really good fake — much better than the kind that are typically commercially available — featuring details such as a fracture, incision marks indicating a pre-death operation, and signs of infection around the nose and mouth.

Currently, the police still don't know what substance the skull is made out of, nor how long it was in the river. Det. Supt. Charlie Haynes offers their best guess about what this thing is: "In the early 1800s skulls from Papau New Guinea were collectable - which ties in with the features of this skull. It may be a very accurate replica of a collectable."

The question is, why would someone have buried a very expensive fake skull? Perhaps it was buried back in the 19th Century by someone trying to perpetrate an archaeological hoax?

Links: Lancashire Telegraph, Burnley Express.
Posted: Wed Jul 11, 2012.   Comments (5)

Hoaxes as a class project—and learning lessons from failed hoaxes — Prof. T. Mills Kelly teaches a class on hoaxes at George Mason University titled, "Lying About the Past." It's a study of hoaxes throughout history (the Museum of Hoaxes is on his syllabus!), but also uses hoaxes to teach critical thinking and historical analysis. As part of the class, the students have to create a historical hoax of their own and launch it on the web. I could have sworn that I'd posted previously about Kelly's class, but couldn't find where I did so.

Back in 2008, his students crafted a successful hoax about Edward Owens, a supposed Chesapeake pirate. This year they tried to create a tale about a possible 19th-century New York serial killer. But when they tried to ensnare redditors by posting a link on reddit asking "Opinions please, Reddit. Do you think my 'Uncle' Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?" -- their hoax was exposed in just 26 minutes. Redditors noticed that the supporting wikipedia articles had all been recently created by the same people.

This leads Yoni Appelbaum, in an article on atlantic.com, to ponder why the students' hoax succeeded in 2008 but failed so quickly this year when it encountered the reddit sleuths. He concludes (rightly, I think) that it all comes down to a question of trust. If the source of the information doesn't seem trustworthy (which it didn't, to the redditors), then the hoax isn't going to succeed. In other words, it's the old lesson that "Information is only as good as its source" -- which I identified as the golden rule of hoax-busting in Hippo Eats Dwarf. So if you want to perpetrate a successful hoax, you've got to make it difficult for people to trace the original source of the info back to you.

How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit

T. Mills Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet.

Posted: Thu May 17, 2012.   Comments (0)

Notice to Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunko-Steerers —

Warning notice posted in Las Vegas, New Mexico, March 24, 1882. Had to post it because I love the term "Bunko-Steerers". From New Mexico's Digital Collections (via Kate Nelson).
Posted: Thu May 10, 2012.   Comments (0)

How Abraham Lincoln Invented Facebook (a hoax) — On Wednesday, Nate St. Pierre posted an interesting story on his blog. He detailed his discovery of an attempt by Abraham Lincoln in 1845 to create and patent a social-networking system that very much resembled Facebook. Only it was an all-paper version of Facebook, and Lincoln didn't call it Facebook. In his patent application he supposedly called it "The Gazette," and he described it as a system to "keep People aware of Others in the Town."

He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where "every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors."

Lincoln created a sample Gazette page (below) for himself, to show the patent office what he was talking about. St. Pierre commented how much it resembled a Facebook status page because it included a picture of Lincoln in the top left, and then had columns in which Lincoln discussed various details of his life. For instance, in one column Lincoln described his great enjoyment at visiting P.T. Barnum's circus.

And this is where St. Pierre's story falls apart, historically speaking. Because Barnum didn't own a circus in 1845. (He had his New York museum, at which he was perpetrating hoaxes such as the Feejee Mermaid exhibition.) Nor did the technology exist in 1845 to include a photograph on a newspaper page. Daguerre had only announced his invention of photography in 1839, and there was no way to make multiple copies of daguerrotypes, short of taking a photograph of the photograph, which meant the quality degraded with each reproduction.

The reality is that no part of St. Pierre's story is true. Lincoln never submitted a patent for a 19th-century version of Facebook. The story is pure historical fantasy. Though that hasn't stopped over 16,000 people from sharing the story on Facebook. (And one suspects a good percentage of those people might have thought the story was true.)

For those interested in real history, the nineteenth century did produce some social-networking innovations that definitely were the distant predecessors of Facebook. The penny press, introduced in 1835 1832, was the most important of these. As the name implies, the penny press was simply the idea of selling newspapers at the cut-rate price of a penny each. This made papers cheap enough to become a mass-market commodity, hugely increasing their readership. Like Facebook, the penny papers were full of local gossip and news. They pioneered the concept of "personal ads" placed by individuals. They relied heavily on advertising for their income. And the owners of the most successful penny papers became filthy rich. I go into quite a bit of detail about the penny papers in my article on the Great Moon Hoax of 1835.
Posted: Thu May 10, 2012.   Comments (1)

Recreating the Cardiff Giant —
ms cardiff giant
Syracuse-based artist Ty Marshal has created a replica of the Cardiff Giant, according to its original size specifications (ten-feet tall). His replica is going to be buried in Syracuse's Lipe Art Park and then unearthed on October 16, the anniversary of the date on which the Giant was first "found" on William Newell's farm back in 1869.

After being unearthed, Marshal's giant will remain on display in the park, under a tent, for one week. Visitors will be allowed to view it for 25 cents. Then, using a horse and cart, the Giant will be transported to the Atrium in Syracuse's City Hall Commons where it will be displayed until the end of October. Visitors will also be able to buy Cardiff Giant-themed merchandise: soap, chocolate, wine, and coffee. (As a long-time collector of hoax-themed merchandise, I HAVE to get all of that stuff!)

You can find more details about Marshal's project on his website: syracusecardiffgiant.com.

There's actually a long history of recreating the Cardiff Giant. Back in the 1870s quite a few showmen paid artists to recreate the Giant, which they then displayed, as a way to cash in on the popular interest in the phenomenon. The most famous of these replicas was displayed by P.T. Barnum in New York City, and (much to the annoyance of the owners of the real giant) attracted more visitors than the actual giant, which was simultaneously on display a few blocks away.

In 1976, a service club in Cardiff, New York created a "Mrs. Cardiff Giant", which they buried and then unearthed. You can see it (note the breasts) in the slightly blurry picture below.

ms cardiff giant

Currently there are four Cardiff Giants on display (not counting Marshal's new one): at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown (this is the real giant), the Fort Museum in Fort Dodge, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Detroit, and the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2011.   Comments (2)

Ancient shroud casts doubt on Shroud of Turin — Archaeologists have found a burial shroud sealed within a 2000-year-old tomb in Jerusalem. Comparing the newly found shroud to the Shroud of Turin adds to the evidence that the Shroud of Turin is a fake. From nationalgeographic.com:

The newfound shroud was something of a patchwork of simply woven linen and wool textiles, the study found. The Shroud of Turin, by contrast, is made of a single textile woven in a complex twill pattern, a type of cloth not known to have been available in the region until medieval times, Gibson said.

Posted: Mon Dec 21, 2009.   Comments (44)

Fake Gospel of St. Mark — A version of the Gospel of St. Mark, once thought to date from the Byzantine era, has now been determined to be a late-19th-century fake. From the Chicago Sun Times:

The manuscript, written in Greek, originally was believed to have been written as early as the 14th century. But strong suspicions that it might not be nearly so old surfaced in 1989, after it was discovered that a blue pigment on one of the pages wasn't available until 1704, Mitchell said.
It took carbon dating, advanced microscope technology and good sleuthing to discover the faker's crafty handiwork.
Through analysis of parchment, ink and paints used in the book, Joseph Barabe, a senior research microscopist at Westmont-based McCrone Associates, determined the book was created after 1874 using materials not available until the late 19th Century.

More support for Jean Hardouin's Theory of Universal Forgery.
Posted: Wed Dec 16, 2009.   Comments (2)

The Vinland Map, the controversy continues — Every few years I post an update about the Vinland Map (a map, supposedly from the early 15th century, showing part of North America). In 2002 I posted that an analysis of the map's ink proved it was a fake, but in 2003 I wrote that a new study indicated it might be genuine. And in 2004 I linked to a Scientific American article that described historian Kirsten Seaver's theory that the map was created in the 1930s by a German Jesuit priest, Father Josef Fischer, in order to tease the Nazis by "playing on their claims of early Norse dominion of the Americas and on their loathing of Roman Catholic Church authority."

Now a scholar, Rene Larsen of the School of Conservation under the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, says that the map is genuine:

Larsen said his team carried out studies of the ink, writing, wormholes and parchment of the map, which is housed at Yale University in the United States.
He said wormholes, caused by wood beetles, were consistent with wormholes in the books with which the map was bound.
He said claims the ink was too recent because it contained a substance called anatase titanium dioxide could be rejected because medieval maps have been found with the same substance, which probably came from sand used to dry wet ink.

I don't expect Larsen's arguments will end the debate, since the opposing sides in the controversy seem to be pretty well entrenched.
Posted: Mon Jul 20, 2009.   Comments (5)

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