The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes Throughout History
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
18th-Century Hoaxes
The Native of Formosa, 1702
A white-skinned, blond-haired man showed up in northern Europe claiming to be from the island of Formosa (Taiwan). He regaled scholars and members of high society with tales of the bizarre practices of Formosa, such as the supposed annual sacrifice of 20,000 young boys to the gods. Luckily for him, no one in Europe knew what a Taiwanese person should look like, which allowed him to keep up his masquerade for four years before finally being exposed. More…
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly, 1702
Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. More…
The Hoaxes of Jonathan Swift
Swift was a master of the satirical hoax. In his brief essay A Modest Proposal, he pretended to make a case for the benefits of feeding poor children to the rich, as a way of commenting on the inhumanity of the rich towards the poor. And in his Bickerstaff hoax of 1708 he poked fun at astrology by claiming he had accurately predicted the death of the famous astrologer John Partridge, even though Partridge wasn't yet dead. More…
The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer, 1725
Dr. Johann Beringer, a University of Würzburg professor, acquired a bizarre set of fossils that showed images of plants, insects, birds, snails, hebrew letters, and even astronomical objects in three-dimensional relief. Beringer thought he had made a remarkable discovery. But the stones had been created by two fellow professors to hoax him. This was revealed, much to Beringer's embarrassment, only after he had authored a book about the stones. More…
The Rabbit Babies of Mary Toft, 1726
Mary Toft claimed she was giving birth to rabbits, and she performed this feat in the presence of the King's personal surgeon. She was taken to London, where she continued to give birth to rabbits. But when the physician Sir Richard Manningham threatened to operate on her in order to examine her miraculous uterus, she confessed it was a hoax. She had been hoping to gain a pension from the King on account of her strange ability. 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…

Hoaxes of Benjamin Franklin
Franklin was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century. Throughout his long life he was many different things: a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. He used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. More…
De Situ Brittaniae, 1747
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. More…
The Great Bottle Hoax of 1749
Believing the public to be ever credulous, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that if he advertised an impossible feat would be performed, they would still "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there." The Earl accepted the bet. So the Duke posted flyers promising the chance to see "a man jumping into a quart bottle." Every seat in the theater sold. But when the entertainment wasn't provided, a riot ensued. More…
Lucina Sine Concubitu, 1750
The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. 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…
The Patagonian Giants, 1766
When the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor spread alleging the crew had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. It was said the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants. The crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. 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…
The Great Chess Automaton, 1770
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a chess-playing "thinking machine". It consisted of a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes whose trunk emerged out of a large wooden box. When wound up, the figure played chess against human opponents, actually moving pieces on its own, and it almost always won. The secret was that a man was hidden in the box, controlling the movements of the wooden figure. More…
Graham’s Celestial Bed, 1775
James Graham was a notorious medical quack. He promised customers he could cure them of a variety of ills if they slept in his "celestial bed," for which he charged £50 a night. The bed had a mattress filled with "sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers." Electricity crackled across its headboard. Spending a night in it may have been a novel experience. But it had no curative powers. 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…
The Dutch Mail, 1792
According to legend, the editor of the Leicester Herald was pressed for time one day and couldn't complete a column. So he threw together a scramble of meaningless letters and headlined it as the latest "Dutch Mail." The editor later reported meeting a man who had kept the "Dutch Mail" edition of the Herald for thirty-four years, hoping to one day get it translated. 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 Duckbilled Platypus, 1799
The British Museum received a specimen of an Australian animal that appeared to be a combination of a duck and a mole. Naturalists there suspected it was a hoax. It was only when more specimens of the strange creature arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly admitted it was real. Today we know the creature as the Duckbilled Platypus. It is one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all. More…
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.