The Museum of Hoaxes
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The Hoax Archive — A collection of the most notorious deceptions throughout history
Time Period: 1800-1868
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1868 1869-1913 1914-1949 1950-1976 1977-1989 1990s 2000s
The Berners Street Hoax, 1810. In 1810 London was the largest, wealthiest city in the world, linked by trade with every continent, and fed by the manufacturing might of northern British cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Almost anything could be obtained in its shops, and on Monday, November 26 of that year, all of this mercantile abundance focused for one day upon a single residential address: 54 Berners Street, the home of Mrs. Tottenham (in some sources spelled... Continue…
Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine, 1812. In 1812 a Philadelphia man, Charles Redheffer, claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine that required no source of energy to run. He built a working model of the machine and applied for funds from the city government to build a larger version. But when inspectors from the city examined it, they realized that Redheffer had simply hidden the power source. To expose Redheffer, they commissioned a local engineer to build a similar machine,... Continue…
The Great Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814. In 1814 a man wearing a British military uniform rowed up to a dock on the coast of the English Channel and told the guards there that Napoleon had been killed. Immediately riders were sent to London. When traders on the London stock exchange heard the news they celebrated by bidding up the price of stocks. But soon after they realized the truth, that the war against Napoleon was still raging on. They had been tricked. Immediately the market... Continue…
Princess Caraboo, 1817. On Thursday April 3, 1817, a strange woman appeared in Almondsbury, a small town outside of Bristol, England. She wore a black shawl twisted turban-style around her head and had to communicate via hand gestures because she spoke no known language. She was initially sent to the Overseer of the Poor, but was subsequently taken in by a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Worrall, who found her fascinating. Slowly her story was pieced together, with the... Continue…
New York Sawed in Half, 1824. One of the legendary hoaxes of New York City is the tale of the man who formed a business in order to saw the city in half. The story goes that sometime around the summer of 1824 there was a group of tradesmen who used to meet every afternoon on the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets to talk about the news of the day. One day they began discussing a rumor that the island of Manhattan was tipping into the ocean, due to the weight of all the new... Continue…
Charles Waterton’s Nondescript, 1824. The Nondescript of Charles Waterton Charles Waterton was a famous English eccentric and naturalist. In 1821, he returned to England from an expedition to Guiana, bringing with him hundreds of specimens of South American wildlife, carefully stuffed and preserved. His boat docked in Liverpool, and a customs inspectors named Mr. Lushington boarded. Lushington took one look at the exotic specimens that Waterton had piled up in crates and ordered that... Continue…
Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe is celebrated for his dark, gothic tales of horror and suspense. But he also published six hoaxes during his brief life. Many modern anthologies of his works, however, fail to note that these stories were first presented to readers in the guise of nonfiction. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the "epoch of the hoax." Continue…
Joice Heth, 1835. Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention. When the public's interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead a... Continue…
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The New York Sun announced that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon by means of a new telescope "of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle." Creatures supposedly seen by Herschel included lunar bison, fire-wielding biped beavers, and winged "man-bats." The public was fascinated. It took several weeks before they realized it was all a hoax. Continue…
The Walam Olum of Constantine Rafinesque, 1836. The naturalist Rafinesque produced a document that he claimed was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) indians that he had been able to translate into English. Long accepted as authentic, it was exposed as a fraud, by linguistic analysis, in 1996. Rafinesque had translated the text from English into Lenape, rather than the other way around. Continue…
The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, 1836. In a tell-all book, Maria Monk described scandalous secrets of the Montreal convent where she claimed to have lived for 7 years. Nuns sleeping with priests. Babies killed and buried in the basement. Her revelations caused public outcry and stoked anti-Catholic sentiment. But investigations found no evidence to back up her claims. Nor evidence that she had even been at the convent. Continue…
The Hoaxes of P.T. Barnum. Barnum described himself as the "Prince of Humbug," an epithet he more than earned during his long career. He's best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name, but before the circus he ran a New York museum, and it was this museum that initially made him rich and famous. He attracted visitors to it by means of sensational publicity stunts, hoaxes, and plain-old false advertising. But he managed to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. Continue…
The Fortsas Bibliohoax, 1840.
An unusual auction was announced. Up for sale was the library of the Comte de Fortsas, who collected books of which only one copy was known to exist. He had only fifty-two books, but each one was absolutely unique. Book lovers were enthralled and traveled from far and wide to attend the auction in Belgium. Only to discover, upon arrival, that there was no Comte de Fortsas, nor any of his books. The entire auction was an elaborate practical joke. Continue…
The Feejee Mermaid, 1842. The exhibition at P.T. Barnum's New York museum of the body of a mermaid supposedly caught near the Feejee Islands generated enormous excitement. Huge crowds waited to see it, lured by ads showing a beautiful, bare-breasted creature. What they found inside was a small, wizened, hideous creature, that was actually the head of an ape stitched onto the body of a fish. The mermaid is remembered as one of Barnum's most infamous humbugs. Continue…
The Kinderhook Plates, 1843. Six bell-shaped pieces of flat copper inscribed with hieroglyphics were unearthed from an Indian burial mound in Illinois. According to some reports, the plates were taken to Mormon leader Joseph Smith, living nearby, who proceeded to translate the markings. After which, the plates were revealed to be the work of local pranksters who intended to embarrass Smith, as the hieroglyphics were meaningless. The Mormon church denies Smith translated the plates. Continue…
The Great Balloon Hoax, 1844. The New York Sun announced that the European balloonist Monck Mason had completed the first-ever successful trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. He had taken off from England on a trip to Paris, but had been blown off course due to a propeller accident and ended up floating to South Carolina. The story was quickly revealed to be a hoax, authored by Edgar Allan Poe. Continue…
The Roorback Hoax, 1844.
The Ithaca Chronicle published an extract from a book in which "Baron Roorback" described meeting a gang of slaves belonging to James Polk, the Democratic candidate for President of the United States. Polk's slaves, Roorback said, had all been branded with his initials. The idea that Polk would brand his slaves shocked voters, but the claim was a hoax. As was, it turned out, "Baron Roorback" himself. Continue…
The Southern Conspiracy to Confederate with Mexico, 1850. A letter appeared in newspapers detailing a plot hatched by Southern conspirators to leave the Union and confederate with Mexico. The capital of the proposed new nation was to be Mexico City. But historians have found no record of such a plot in diplomatic records from the period. Southern radicals were definitely dreaming of such schemes, but in 1850 such plots were still only dreams, existing only on paper. Continue…
Railways and Revolvers in Georgia, 1856. The London Times offered an example of the violence of American society. It printed a letter from an Englishman living in America who described bloody gunfights fought with "Monte Christo pistols" during a train ride through Georgia. American papers denied the story, but the Times stubbornly defended it, only relenting a year later after learning that "Monte Christo pistols" was slang for bottles of champagne. Continue…
The Pictographs of Emmanuel Domenech, 1860. Domenech, a Catholic priest who had spent many years traveling through Mexico, found a curious document full of strange drawings filed away in a Parisian library. He came to believe it was an ancient Native American manuscript. But after publishing a facsimile of it, critics claimed it was actually the scribbling book of a "nasty-minded little [German] boy," that had for some reason been stored in the library. Continue…
William Mumler’s Spirit Photography, 1861. While developing a self-portrait, Mumler noticed the shadowy figure of a young girl floating beside his own likeness. He assumed it was an accident, but spiritualists proclaimed it to be the first photo ever taken of a spirit, and Mumler didn't argue with them. Instead, he went into business as the world's first spirit photographer and grew wealthy producing "spirit photos" for grief-stricken clients who had lost relatives in the Civil War. Continue…
The Petrified Man, 1862. Nevada's Territorial Enterprise reported the discovery of a petrified man in nearby mountains. The body was in a sitting posture, leaning against a rock surface to which it had become attached. The report subsequently was reprinted by many other papers. However, it was pure fiction, written by a young reporter, Samuel Clemens, who would later be better known as Mark Twain. He later admitted surprise at how many people were fooled by his story, since he considered it "a string of roaring absurdities." Continue…
Empire City Massacre, 1863. A report in the Territorial Enterprise described a gruesome event. After losing his money by investing in San Francisco utilities, a man went insane and slaughtered his family, then rode into town carrying the "reeking scalp" of his wife and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted. However, it wasn't true. It was the invention of Mark Twain whose goal was to trick San Francisco newspapers into printing a story critical of the utility companies. Continue…
The Miscegenation Hoax, 1863. A pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races went on sale arguing for the benefits of white and black people having children with each other. By modern standards, the suggestion sounds enlightened, but the pamphlet was actually a hoax designed to insert the inflammatory issue of race into the 1864 presidential election. The hoax fizzled, but the pamphlet did introduce the word 'miscegenation' into the English language. Continue…
The Civil War Gold Hoax, 1864. An attempt at stockmarket manipulation. Several New York papers were tricked into printing bad news about the Civil War. In response, investors dumped stocks and bought gold, perceived as a safer investment. But the bad news had been planted by a newspaper insider who had previously invested heavily in gold, hoping to profit from the anticipated rise in its price. He was tracked down and arrested within 3 days. Continue…
The Orgueil Meteorite, 1864. After a meteor shower fell in southern France, someone went to elaborate lengths to embed plant seeds within one of the meteorites. It may have been an attempt to hoax the French scientific community, but the hoax backfired because the seeds weren't noticed by anyone until the 1960s, almost a century later. Researchers initially thought the seeds might be of extraterrestrial origin,until they identified them as native to France. Continue…
The Tichborne Claimant, 1866. The young aristocrat Roger Tichborne had been missing, presumed dead, for 12 years, when an Australian man showed up, claiming to be him. There were dramatic differences between the two men. Roger had weighed 125 pounds and spoke French and English. The Australian weighed over 300 pounds and spoke no French. But their facial features were similar. A long, protracted legal case followed to determine if the man really was Roger returned — a controversy that lingers to this day. Continue…
The Calaveras Skull, 1866. When workers found a human skull buried deep inside a California mine, scholars initially identified it as Pliocene age, making it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. But other scholars challenged its authenticity, sparking a debate that dragged on for years. Eventually the skull was determined to be a fake, but it isn't known who was responsible for it, though it's suspected the skull may have been planted by miners playing a practical joke. Continue…
The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley, 1867. Journalist Dan De Quille published an article about some unusual stones discovered in Nevada. Whenever separated from each other, the stones spontaneously moved back together. The article was a joke, but De Quille discovered that a lie once told cannot easily be untold. Years later, despite confessing to the hoax, he was still receiving numerous letters from people around the world wanting to know more details about these traveling stones. Continue…

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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.