Famous hoaxes that (almost) fooled everyone
In today’s technology-saturated Internet age, fake news and misinformation are everywhere. But these are by no means new concepts! People have always had the tendency to dupe and be duped, as these major hoaxes, which occurred as recently as 2017 and as long ago as 1726, prove. Some were meticulously planned in hopes of striking it rich. A few were accidental consequences of otherwise harmless actions. Many were perpetrated to be funny or malicious, and still others were done to prove a point. No matter the reason, here are 11 hoaxes that hoodwinked the world. For some more recent scams, here are some of the most outlandish things the Internet told us that just weren’t true.
War of the Worlds
Orson Welles didn’t mean to mastermind one of the greatest hoaxes in history. Mass hysteria was simply a by-product of a high-quality radio play in an era where world war loomed, the space race was in its early stages, and most people got news and entertainment from their receivers. According to History.com, the October 30, 1938, broadcast began at 8pm with an introduction presenting the Mercury Theatre’s update of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, but unfortunately, many people were listening to a popular ventriloquist on another station until 8.12 and therefore missed the disclaimer. Welles take on Wells’ Martian invasion tale started with a weather report and a concert live from the Hotel Park Plaza before news alerts about explosions on Mars, a meteor crashing into a New Jersey farm, and eventually aliens with tentacles, heat rays, and poisonous gas broke in. Terrified announcers were then saying cylinders had landed in Chicago and St. Louis, 7000 National Guardsmen had been wiped out, and that people were fleeing.
Only the panic part turned out to be real as potentially a million listeners thought Earth was under attack. People crowded the highways, armed themselves, begged police for gas masks, requested their power be shut off so the aliens wouldn’t see them, and were treated for shock at hospitals. A woman ran into an Indianapolis church during evening service to proclaim, “New York has been destroyed. It’s the end of the world. Prepare to die!” When CBS got wind of hysteria IRL, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was fiction. The FCC investigation found no wrongdoing but networks agreed to be more cautious regarding programming going forward. The attention scored Welles a Hollywood contract, which enabled him to write, direct, and star in his 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane.
The Shed at Dulwich
For just six short months in 2017, The Shed at Dulwich, where patrons ordered entrees by mood, became the highest-ranked restaurant in London on TripAdvisor and the hardest reservation in town to get. Calls and emails poured in begging to be squeezed in for birthday dinners, romantic dates, and media coverage. All were ignored or told to call back as they were booked solid for more than half a year. Except that was a lie. The reason they couldn’t score a table was actually because the business was bogus. It was an experiment in algorithm manipulation and buzz creation by freelance writer Oobah Butler, who had been paid in the past by owners to review their restaurants positively without ever stepping foot inside on the site. To turn the South London garden shed he resides in into a fake fine dining experience, he bought a burner phone and a domain, created a website with soft-focus pictures of delicious-looking dishes made with ingredients you wouldn’t want to eat (paint, bleach tablets, shaving cream, the heel of his foot), and drummed up interest by providing minimum details, making it an appointment-only establishment, lying about it being full, and soliciting friends to write glowing reviews. According to The Washington Post, people contacted him looking for work and companies sent him free samples of their food products. He opened The Shed for one night and served canned soup—and some diners still asked to come again. Butler outed himself in an article and video for Vice a month after hitting the top spot and TripAdvisor removed the listing.
The Cardiff Giant
This gentle giant remains one of 19th-century America’s most legendary hoaxes. Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols unearthed a ten-foot petrified “man” on October 16, 1869, while digging a well on the New York farm owned by William Newell. Word spread about the discovery and Newell put up a tent and started charging a quarter (and then 50¢ as business boomed) to take a peek at the ground Goliath. Hundreds of curious onlookers and amateur archaeologists made the pilgrimage, many believing it was an ancestor of the Onondaga people and some claiming it was proof of the giants mentioned in The Bible—even after most professionals like Yale palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh said it a fake. The “mummy” was eventually sold to a group of businessmen who sent him on tour. Greatest showman PT Barnum offered to buy it for $50,000, and when they declined to sell, he made a plaster knockoff and arranged for it to be shown in a New York City museum. By December, Binghamton cigar salesman George Hull admitted this was a stone-cold swindle. He’d commissioned a German stone cutter in Chicago to carve it out of a block of gypsum he’d bought in Iowa before he and his cousin Newell buried the 1356-kilogram statue. While it was a get-rich-quick scheme, Hull, an atheist, was also trying to prove a point about what he considered silly religious stories and how science could disprove most of them. Even after the hoax was revealed, the Cardiff Giant still made appearances and money. According to Archaeology.org, he showed up at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and was sold in 1947 to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, where he’s on display today.
Michael Jordan is dead
In February 2015, an article published on the Cronica MX website said that former Chicago Bull Michael Jordan had gone to that big basketball court in the sky after suffering a heart attack while he slept. It even quoted his wife, Yvette Prieto. They also posted a video clip designed to resemble a breaking news segment on YouTube with footage of a tearful ESPN reporter Rich Eisen saying goodbye. According to Snopes.com, the footage was real but recycled from a NFL Game Day episode from a month earlier when Eisen had learned that his long time co-worker and friend Stuart Scott had lost his battle with cancer. It recirculates every once in a while, always trying to lure fans to click through to a spammy site or to provide their personal information. The same story was used again in 2017, this time by a site called Viral Mugshot, according to Inquisitr.com. Despite it containing the same spelling and grammar errors, it went viral on social media until debunking sites and news agencies reported it as fake news. And Jordan isn’t the only celebrity targeted by pranksters and hackers. If you believed everything you read on stars’ sites, fake Twitter accounts, or items reported by newspapers erroneously, many of your favourites would have been gone long before their time, including: former President Barack Obama (assassinated while campaigning in an Iowa restaurant), Will Ferrell (died in a 2006 paragliding accident), Nick Jonas (heart attack after a lap dance in a Dallas strip club), and, of course, Justin Bieber (suicide twice, nightclub shooting, and an overdose).
Since Charles Darwin released his evolution theories in 1859, scientists have been on the lookout for proof of the missing link—a phase between full ape and full man—and in 1912, Englishman Charles Dawson announced he’d found it in a gravel pit in Piltdown. He used the fossils to build a skull model with a human-sized brain and an ape-like jaw and England declared itself the real birthplace of modern humanity. But other scientists immediately took issue, mostly because it didn’t match other fossils found around the world including the Australopithecines one dug up in South Africa. In 1915, Dawson doubled down and claimed he retrieved a second similar fossil, which was enough evidence for many average Joes. The hoax was not revealed until 1953 when British scientists used new technology to date the Piltdown pair. They deduced that the remains were only 500 years old, not the 1 million years old needed to be the link. They also took a bite out of his claim by discovering that the jaw was from an orangutan whose teeth had been filed to resemble human wear patterns and that the bones had been stained to match each other. Most people involved were dead by the 1950s so the prank plotter was never identified. One whodunit theory, according to the BBC: The doer was none other than Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He lived near the pit and was a member of Dawson’s archaeological society. The motive was revenge for being constantly mocked by scientists for his belief in spiritualism.
The Cock Lane ghost
Even royals can fall prey to paranormal pranks, according to The Daily Mail. In 1762, Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, visited a home on Cock Lane in London that was said to be haunted by Scratching Fanny, a woman who had died of smallpox in the rented house after her loan shark lover William Kent had lent their landlord money with a high interest rate. Kent took the landlord Richard Parsons to court over the loan and won. Strange noises that sounded like a cat scratching a chair were reported at the property around this time, and Parsons and his daughter Elizabeth, who the noises actually emanated from, claimed the ghost was Fanny. To prove it, they held séances regularly, which were written up in the newspaper and drew religious leaders, the prince, the mayor, and so many other onlookers that the street became impassable. At the time, people widely believed that a person would return from the great beyond to warn the living or seek revenge, so they quickly accepted that it was Fanny communicating via a system of knocks that Parsons and a preacher developed. During one such communing, the “ghost” accused Kent of poisoning her and requested he be hanged. To clear his name, Kent and two doctors who had tended to Fanny on her deathbed attended a séance, and again Fanny declared he was her killer. But during a later gathering, Dr Samuel Johnson witnessed Elizabeth creeping from the bed where she was during encounters to pick up a piece of wood that she used to knock. She’d usually hidden the branch in her clothes. Parsons was trying to frame Kent after losing the case, but it was he who ended up behind bars for two years. (His wife also got a year in prison.)
The Hurricane Harvey freeway shark
Between social media sites and the 24-hour news cycle, it is impossible not to be bombarded with insane photos of daring rescues and heartbreaking destruction following any natural disaster these days. Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston in 2017 was no exception, with one image in particular proving you can’t always believe what you see. Twitter user @Jeggit posted a startling shot of a shark swimming in the floodwater that filled a Houston highway. It appeared to have been taken from the driver’s seat of a stalled car. It was retweeted almost 84,000 times and liked by 141,733 users fairly quickly. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Fox News host Jesse Watters was also fooled by the photo, even mentioning it during his show The Five. He later apologised for the mix-up on his Twitter account once Politifact tracked the doctored photo back to 2011. It appears to have first been circulated after Hurricane Irene struck Puerto Rico and posted on imgur.com. In 2012, social media users posted it saying it was taken in New Jersey during Sandy. It is believed that whoever created this fishy photo took the shark from an image that ran in Africa Geographic in 2005.
Hitler’s fake diaries
In 1979, Der Stern Magazine reporter Gerd Heidemann met with Nazi memorabilia collector Fritz Stiefel, who claimed to have a diary penned by Adolf Hitler. Stiefel said it’d been recovered from a 1945 crash of a plane transporting Hitler’s personal effects. (Records indicated the crash was real and that a chest was also recovered likely containing other journals.) After a couple of handwriting experts authenticated the script, more volumes turned up through Konrad Fischer, who’d procured them from an East German General who was planning to smuggle them out of Germany in pianos, according to the UnMuseum.org. Heidemann convinced his outlet to pony up 9.9 million marks (almost US$4 million) for 60 diaries. The magazine knew it could make their money back and then some from reprints. In April 1983, Stern broke the story and then Newsweek and London’s Sunday Times ran excerpts.
Historians immediately balked, as Hitler loathed writing and there had been no indication from those close to him that he’d kept notes. Also, the content sparked skepticism as they portrayed Hitler as having little knowledge of concentration camps and wanting to deport, not exterminate, Jews. After many experts questioned the handwriting, the West German Federal Archives ran more tests. They concluded that the paper, ink, and glue were manufactured after the war had ended and Hitler had died. Heidemann, who always maintained he wasn’t in on it but had inflated the asking price and skimmed money off the top, was fired. Fischer turned out to be Konrad Kujau, a criminal specialising in forgery. He faked memorabilia first and worked his way up to whole documents and paintings. (In fact, a quarter of the works that were featured in the 1983 book Adolf Hitler: The Unknown Artist were done by Kujau.) Both Kujau and Heidemann were sentenced to almost five years in prison. Most of the money was never retrieved. While Heidemann was a pariah after serving, The Guardian reports that Kujau made regular appearances on talk shows and became a minor celebrity.
Mary Toft’s bunny babies
In 18th-century Europe, people paid good money to see weird stuff, particularly human deformities and unexplained phenomena. It gave poor Surrey servant Mary Toft a particularly gross idea in England in 1726, according to HowStuffWorks.com. She went into “labour” and her neighbour and mother-in-law “delivered” a liverless cat. After other animal bits were retrieved from her nether region, they rang local obstetrician John Howard. Over the next month, he “delivered” a rabbit’s head, a hog’s bladder, the legs of a cat, and nine dead baby bunnies. (Womb-ship Down happened in the course of one day, according to the University of Glasgow Library’s special collections.) She became the talk of the town and many paid to witness the bizarre births, including a Swiss anatomist and the Prince of Wales’ secretary. But her foetal fame didn’t last long. A German surgeon proved a rabbit could not have developed inside Toft because he found corn and hay in its dung. Someone was then caught smuggling a rabbit into her room. The jig was up and Toft confessed she’d been inserting animal parts into her vagina after suffering a miscarriage.
On October 15, 2009, the nation could not take its eyes off the non-stop news coverage of a homemade silver helium-filled balloon that looked like a UFO floating around the Colorado skies. After releasing it from Fort Collins, Richard and Mayumi Heene called emergency services to report that their six-year-old son Falcon was trapped aboard. National Guard helicopters and local police followed the blimp, which topped out at 7,000 feet, for 90 minutes and 80 kilometres until it landed 24 kilometres from the Denver airport. Falcon was not inside, but as some had seen something fall from the balloon, a land search ensued. That too turned up nothing. Several hours later he came out from hiding in the attic at home. When interviewed on air by Wolf Blitzer, the kid slipped and said his father had told him they were doing it to get a reality show. The first responders didn’t like their time or money wasted and the Heenes were arrested for the hoax. According to CNN, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department tallied the cost to be at least US$47,000. In addition, the FAA imposed an US$11,000 fine because airport traffic was delayed because the balloon had flown and landed close to it. The case’s judge decided it was “clearly a planned event done for the purpose of making money” and that it was “exploitation of the children, exploitation of the media, exploitation of the emotions of the people.” Both parents were sentenced to jail, four years probation, and more than 100 hours of community service and agreed to pay restitution of US$36,016. On the five-year anniversary, USA Today found the family living in Florida and the sons had started a heavy metal band. One of their CDs has a song called “Balloon Boy No Hoax.”
Russian royal or insane Polish factory worker?
The 1918 grisly basement execution of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children aged 13 to 22 in the dead of night by bullet and bayonets by Bolshevik revolutionaries is hardly the stuff of fairy tales. Which is likely why so many people wanted to desperately believe the rumours that the youngest daughter, Anastasia Romanov, had escaped. The mystery and hope were fuelled by the fact that no bodies had been found. Women popped up all over the world claiming to be her, the most believable of which was Anna Anderson, according to Refinery29. She had tried to kill herself by jumping off a Berlin bridge two years later and landed in an asylum for two years. She was the right age, had scars on her body, and a Russian accent. Some relatives and former Romanov friends and servants confirmed her identity while others denounced it. The murders had become common knowledge and Soviet counterintelligence did nothing to quell survival rumours. Her tale inspired multiple books, tabloid fodder, an Ingrid Bergman classic, an animated film, a stage musical, and an Amazon Prime TV series.
After leaving the hospital, Anderson bounced around Europe, staying with distant relatives and wealthy supporters, but she was usually uncooperative, even malicious, when people tried to prove or disprove her identity. She also knew things the late royal would have known, which is how the son of a doctor who was killed with the family became her most ardent defender. Together they hired an attorney to try to get legal recognition of her title and access to the Tsar’s estate. The case lasted 32 years, the longest in German history, and ended without any conclusions. During the investigation, her detractors posited that she was Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish worker who disappeared after being declared insane after being injured in a factory explosion shortly before the incident at the bridge. Anderson died in 1984. Seven years later, five skeletons were found in a forest near the town where the family was executed and DNA testing identified them as Romanovs. With two bodies still missing, people argued she had been telling the truth all along. But that did not last long, as they tested their DNA against an intestinal sample from a prior Anderson surgery. No match. In 2007, the final two bodies were found at a different gravesite.
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