The Curious World of Historical Hoaxes: Infamous Frauds That Fooled the World
Throughout history, cunning individuals have concocted elaborate hoaxes, duping the public and even experts with their fabrications. These hoaxes have ranged from fake artifacts to invented creatures, captivating the imagination and generating headlines. Here are some of the most notorious historical hoaxes that left the world bewildered.
The Cardiff Giant: A Stone Giant’s Deception
In 1869, a 10-foot-tall petrified “giant” was discovered on a farm in Cardiff, New York, causing a sensation across America (Swancer, 2017). The Cardiff Giant was the brainchild of George Hull, a cigar manufacturer who, after a heated debate about giants in the Bible, decided to create his own to prove a point (Nickell, 2008). Hull commissioned a sculptor to carve the giant from a block of gypsum and buried it on his cousin’s farm. The giant was later “discovered” and showcased to the public for a fee, fooling thousands of people before being exposed as a hoax (Swancer, 2017).
Piltdown Man: The Missing Link That Never Was
In 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed to have found the remains of a previously unknown early human species in Piltdown, England (Piltdown Man, n.d.). Dubbed the “Piltdown Man,” the fossils were believed to be the long-sought “missing link” between apes and humans. For four decades, the scientific community accepted the Piltdown Man as genuine until new dating techniques revealed the skull was a forgery, constructed from a human cranium and an orangutan jaw (Piltdown Man, n.d.).
The Cottingley Fairies: Enchanting Photographs That Hoodwinked a Nation
In 1917, two young girls in Cottingley, England, took a series of photographs that appeared to show them playing with fairies (The Cottingley Fairies, n.d.). The images captured the attention of the public, including the renowned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed them to be genuine evidence of the existence of fairies (The Cottingley Fairies, n.d.). Decades later, in the 1980s, the girls admitted the photos were a hoax, created using cardboard cutouts of fairies (The Cottingley Fairies, n.d.).
The Great Moon Hoax: Life on the Moon
In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of articles claiming that astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon using a powerful new telescope (The Great Moon Hoax, n.d.). The articles described lush vegetation, winged humanoids, and even a temple made of sapphire, captivating readers and boosting the newspaper’s circulation (The Great Moon Hoax, n.d.). The hoax was eventually exposed, but not before the Sun had become one of the most widely read newspapers in the world.
The Turk: The Chess-Playing Automaton
In 1770, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled an extraordinary mechanical device: a life-sized automaton dressed as a Turkish man that could play chess against human opponents (Standage, 2002). The Turk amazed audiences across Europe and the United States for decades, defeating renowned chess players and even Napoleon Bonaparte (Standage, 2002). However, the Turk was ultimately revealed to be an elaborate hoax, with a hidden compartment for a human chess player to control its movements (Standage, 2002).
The Feejee Mermaid: A Curious Sea Creature
In 1842, American showman P.T. Barnum unveiled the Feejee Mermaid, an alleged half-human, half-fish creature that he claimed had been caught near the Fiji Islands (Boese, 2002). Barnum’s mermaid attracted huge crowds and generated widespread debate over its authenticity. In reality, the Feejee Mermaid was a carefully crafted fake, created by stitching together the head and torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish (Boese, 2002).
The Taured Man: A Traveler from a Parallel Universe?
In 1954, a mysterious man arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, claiming to be from a country called Taured, which did not exist on any map (Clark, 2015). The man possessed a passport, currency, and other documents from Taured, sparking speculation that he had somehow traveled from a parallel universe (Clark, 2015). After being detained by authorities, the man mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace behind (Clark, 2015). The Taured Man story has been widely circulated as a true account, but it is likely an urban legend, with no credible evidence to support its claims (Clark, 2015).
The Hitler Diaries: Faking the Führer’s Thoughts
In 1983, German magazine Stern published excerpts from what they claimed were the diaries of Adolf Hitler, discovered in East Germany (Hamilton, 2016). The publication caused an international sensation, but within weeks, forensic experts determined that the diaries were forgeries, created by notorious German forger Konrad Kujau (Hamilton, 2016). The scandal tarnished the reputations of Stern and its journalists, and Kujau was later convicted of fraud (Hamilton, 2016).
The Loch Ness Monster: The Elusive Beast of the Scottish Highlands
The Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie, is perhaps one of the most famous and enduring hoaxes in history. First reported in the 1930s, the creature is said to inhabit the depths of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands (Bauer, 2006). Over the years, numerous photographs, eyewitness accounts, and even sonar scans have claimed to provide evidence of Nessie’s existence, sparking countless investigations and debates (Bauer, 2006). However, many of these “proofs” have been debunked as hoaxes or misidentifications of ordinary objects, and no definitive evidence of the Loch Ness Monster has ever been found (Bauer, 2006).
The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast: Panic on the Airwaves
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds” (Schwartz, 1998). The broadcast, which presented the story as a series of realistic-sounding news bulletins, led some listeners to believe that Earth was actually being invaded by Martians (Schwartz, 1998). Although the extent of the ensuing panic has been exaggerated over time, the incident remains a prime example of how easily hoaxes can spread and the power of mass media to shape public perceptions (Schwartz, 1998).
Crop Circles: Intricate Patterns with Earthly Origins
Crop circles, intricate patterns formed by the flattening of crops in fields, have fascinated the public since the 1970s (Haselhoff, 2001). These mysterious formations have been attributed to various causes, including extraterrestrial beings, secret government projects, and natural phenomena (Haselhoff, 2001). However, in 1991, two British men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, admitted to creating hundreds of crop circles using simple tools such as planks, ropes, and garden rollers (Haselhoff, 2001). Since then, numerous other crop circle makers have come forward, revealing the phenomenon to be an elaborate and creative form of human-made art (Haselhoff, 2001).
Bauer, H. H. (2006). The case of the Loch Ness Monster. In The Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved September 2021 from https://skepticalinquirer.org/2006/01/the_case_of_the_loch_ness_monster/
Boese, A. (2002). The Feejee Mermaid. In The Museum of Hoaxes. Retrieved September 2021 from http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_feejee_mermaid
Clark, J. (2015, August 20). The mystery of the man from Taured. Historic Mysteries. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.historicmysteries.com/man-from-taured/
Hamilton, W. (2016, April 24). How the Hitler diaries were exposed as a hoax. The Guardian. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/24/hitler-diaries-exposed-as-hoax-1983
Haselhoff, E. H. (2001). The Deepening Complexity of Crop Circles: Scientific Research and Urban Legends. Frog Books.
Piltdown Man. (n.d.). In The Natural History Museum. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/piltdown-man.html
Schwartz, A. B. (1998). Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. In Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/10/orson-welles-war-of-the-worlds
Standage, T. (2002). The Turk: The life and times of the famous eighteenth-century chess-playing machine. New York: Walker & Company.
Swancer, B. (2017, August 29). The curious case of the Cardiff Giant. Mysterious Universe. Retrieved September 2021 from https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2017/08/the-curious-case-of-the-cardiff-giant/
The Cottingley Fairies. (n.d.). In The National Media Museum. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/collections/photography/cottingley-fairies
The Great Moon Hoax. (n.d.). In The Library of Congress. Retrieved September 2021 from https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/hoaxes/the-great-moon-hoax.html