The Museum of Hoaxes
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The Hoax Archive — A collection of the most notorious deceptions throughout history
Time Period: 1869-1913
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1868 1869-1913 1914-1949 1950-1976 1977-1989 1990s 2000s
The Cardiff Giant, 1869. On October 16, 1869, a farmer in Cardiff, New York found an enormous stone giant buried in the ground as he was digging a well. He put it on display, and thousands of people made the journey to see it. Speculation ran rampant about what it might be: a petrified giant from Biblical times or an ancient stone statue. The reality was that it was an elaborate hoax, created by the farmer's cousin, George Hull, in order to poke fun at Biblical... Continue…
Vrain Lucas, 1870. Lucas produced thousands of letters he said had been written by historical personages such as Aristotle, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great. They were all bought by the esteemed mathematician Michel Chasles who didn't suspect they might be fake, even though they were all written in French, on modern paper. It took 18 years for Chasles to realize something was amiss and bring charges against Lucas, who then served two years in jail. Continue…
Lord Gordon-Gordon, 1871. Lord Gordon-Gordon was the most famous alias of a nineteenth-century imposter whose specialty was posing as a wealthy Scottish landowner. He did this so well that he succeeded in convincing many people who really were wealthy to trust him with their money, which he then spent. His most famous victim was the railroad developer/robber baron Jay Gould, for which reason Gordon-Gordon is sometimes referred to as the "robber of the robber barons". The... Continue…
The Bigamist of San Bernardino, 1873. On December 16, 1873 the Los Angeles Evening Express published an article describing a man in San Bernardino who, because of a loophole in the law, was legally allowed to remain married to two women, despite the efforts of townsfolk to force him to divorce at least one of his wives. News of the case caused an uproar in California. However, the story was entirely fictitious, as the Evening Express revealed two weeks later. Unfortunately, the... Continue…
The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar, 1874. On April 28, 1874, the New York World ran an article announcing the discovery in Madagascar of a remarkable new species of plant: a man-eating tree. The article included a gruesome description of a woman fed to the plant by members of the Mkodos tribe. Numerous newspapers and magazines reprinted the article, but 14 years later the journal Current Literature revealed the story to be a work of fiction written by NY World reporter Edmund Spencer. Continue…
The Global Warming Hoax of 1874. in early February 1874, the Kansas City Times ran a story claiming that scientists had discovered that the transatlantic telegraph cables were acting like enormous electromagnets, pulling the earth into the sun. Calculations indicated that if the earth's current trajectory continued unchecked, Europe would become tropical in 12 years, and the entire earth would be uninhabitable soon after. Finally the planet would plunge into the sun. Continue…
Solar Armor, 1874. An article published in 1874 described a man who invented "solar armor." The armor, made of sponges wetted with a special mixture of chemicals, cooled the wearer through evaporation. Unfortunately, the armor worked too well and caused its inventor to freeze to death in the middle of a Nevada desert during the Summer. Accounts of this invention appeared in papers throughout America and Europe. However, the story was the satirical creation of... Continue…
The Case of the Miraculous Bullet, 1874. In November 1874 an unusual article appeared in the introductory volume of The American Medical Weekly, a Louisville medical journal. It was written by Dr. LeGrand G. Capers and was titled, "Attention Gynaecologists!—Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, C.S.A." In the article Dr. Capers recounted an unusual case of artificial insemination he had witnessed on a Civil War battlefield in Mississippi, in which a bullet had... Continue…
The Central Park Zoo Escape, 1874. On November 9, 1874 the New York Herald published a front-page article claiming that the animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging through the city. A lion had been seen inside a church. A rhinoceros had fallen into a sewer. The police and national guard were heroically battling the beasts, but already forty-nine people were dead and two hundred injured. It was "a bloody and fearful carnival," the article... Continue…
The Chicago Theater Fire, 1875. "Burned Alive!" a headline on the frontpage of the Chicago Times declared on February 13, 1875. The story that followed described a horrific scene of destruction and mass death in an unnamed Chicago theater that was engulfed in flames when a gas burner fell over. People were said to have been roasted alive as they rushed en masse towards the exit. Firemen had to carry out 157 charred bodies from the remains. The story was identified as fictitious... Continue…
Keely Motor Company, 1875. John Worrell Keely founded the Keely Motor Company in 1875 in order to develop and commercialize his invention: a "vibratory generator" that required only a quart of water to generate the equivalent of the power needed to pull a fully-loaded train for over 75 minutes. Following successful demonstrations of this miraculous device in his workshop, investors rushed to give him money, even though the scientific community derided his claims. For... Continue…
The Pine River Petrified Baby, 1875. "Effigy in Lava" (Harper's Magazine, 1863)In October 1875 two hunters reported finding a small stone man, or "petrified baby" as some newspapers dubbed it, embedded in a gravel bank alongside Pine River in Michigan. The petrified baby was about four feet tall, with an extremely wide, flat forehead. Local papers offered the following description of it: The right arm is bent. The forearm is lying across the body; the other is bent below the elbow.... Continue…
Professor Wingard’s Nameless Force, 1876. In February 1876, 'Professor' James C. Wingard of New Orleans announced he had invented a powerful new weapon that would utterly destroy any naval vessel, iron or otherwise, "so as to leave no trace of them in their former shape." Wingard was coy about the exact means by which his weapon operated. He would only say that it projected a "nameless force," which somehow involved the use of electricity, applied without any direct connection between... Continue…
Leonainie, 1877. Under the heading "Posthumous Poetry," Indiana's Kokomo Dispatch published a poem titled "Leonainie" on August 3, 1877. It was an unremarkable poem except in one way. The editor of the Dispatch, John Henderson, claimed it was a previously unpublished poem by Edgar Allan Poe. (Click here to read the poem.) The publication of this poem generated excitement among fans and scholars of Poe, and within a few weeks it had been reprinted in major papers... Continue…
Hoaxes of Joseph Mulhattan. During the 1870s and 1880s Joseph Mulhattan was perhaps the most famous hoaxer in America. He was a traveling salesman, not a reporter, but he was notorious for repeatedly succeeding in having his farfetched tales reported as news. If an outrageous or bizarre story appeared in the news, reporters would often assume it was the work of Mulhattan. The media showered him with epithets. They called him a "professional liar," "the author of more hoaxes... Continue…
The Diaphote Hoax, 1880. On February 10, 1880 an article ran in the Daily Times (of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) describing a remarkable invention recently demonstrated by a local inventor, Dr. H.E. Licks. The invention allowed images to be transmitted by telegraph. In other words, it resembled what people today would recognize as a television. However, Licks called his invention a "diaphote," from the Greek dia meaning "through" and photos meaning "light". Continue…
Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of medical journals published letters from a correspondent who identified himself as Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis. His letters usually discussed bizarre cases of a sexual nature. Both the case histories and the letter writer himself were bogus. Egerton Yorrick Davis was the pseudonym of Dr. William Osler, a Johns Hopkins University professor, who amused himself by sending these prank letters. Continue…
Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1887. When the six-volume Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was published between 1887 and 1889, it was one of the first and most definitive works of its kind in America. It contained biographical information about thousands of people (some famous, some obscure) in American history. It was hailed as a valuable source of information for both scholars and students alike. But thirty years after the Cyclopedia's publication, questions began to... Continue…
The Holly Oak Pendant, 1889. In 1889 Hilborne T. Cresson, an archaeological assistant at Harvard's Peabody Museum, announced he had discovered a prehistoric seashell pendant that bore an engraving of a woolly mammoth. He said he had found it in a peat and forest layer near the Holly Oak railway station in northern Delaware. The pendant was an important find, since it suggested that prehistoric man must have been present in the Americas at the time when woolly mammoths still... Continue…
Freund’s Electric Sugar Fraud, 1889. In the mid-1880s, Henry C. Freund showed up in New York, claiming he had invented a process that would revolutionize the sugar refining industry. He said he could refine one ton of raw sugar for 80 cents, whereas the techniques currently in use cost around $10 a ton. Plus, his method took only ten minutes, and it produced a high-quality granulated sugar, far finer than any seen before. But he insisted on keeping his process secret, disclosing... Continue…
The Great Duck Egg Fake, 1894. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, a conservation movement coalesced around a campaign to save the nation's birds, whose populations were under pressure because of the fashionability of hats decorated with feathers. The Audobon Society and the American Ornithological Union both formed out of this campaign. The campaign was given renewed urgency in the early 1890s when a report appeared in various publications, including the... Continue…
The Winsted Wild Man, 1895. In August 1895 New York City papers received a wire story about a naked, hairy man that was terrorizing townspeople in Winsted, Connecticut. Intrigued, the papers sent reporters up to Winsted to find out what was happening. At first the reporters did not find much happening up in Winsted. But as they began asking local residents if they had seen an unusual creature lurking around, memories and tongues began to loosen. Soon reports of a "wild... Continue…
The Mammoth Potato Hoax of Loveland, Colorado, 1894. Joseph B. Swan was proud of his potatoes. On his farm outside Loveland, Colorado, in the late nineteenth century, he grew 26,000 pounds of potatoes in one year on a single acre of land. He also claimed to have grown a giant potato that weighed 13lbs 8oz. W.L. Thorndyke, editor of the Loveland Reporter, came up with an idea to help Swan promote his spuds at an 1894 street fair. Thorndyke's idea was to create a hoax photograph of Swan showing off a... Continue…
Lou Stone, the Winsted Liar. Louis Timothy Stone (1875-1933), more popularly known as Lou Stone, or the Winsted Liar, was a journalist famous for the hundreds of fanciful articles he wrote about the strange flora and fauna surrounding his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. It was said he had a "faculty for seeing the unusual in stories." Continue…
Hearst’s War, 1897. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, had a reputation for never letting truth get in the way of a good story. According to one famous tale, when hostilities broke out between the Spanish and the Cubans, Hearst sent the illustrator Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw pictures of the conflict. Finding that not much was happening, Remington cabled Hearst in January 1897: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be... Continue…
The Gold Accumulator, 1896. Prescott Jernegan claimed he had found a way to cheaply extract gold from sea water. His "Gold Accumulator" consisted of a wooden box, inside of which was a pan of mercury mixed with a secret ingredient. A wire connected the mercury to a small battery. When lowered into the ocean, this contraption supposedly sucked gold out of the water. A test conducted in Narragansett Bay in February 1897 proved the gold accumulator worked. After a few hours... Continue…
The Great Wall of China Hoax, 1899. On June 25, 1899 four Denver newspapers reported that the Chinese government was going to tear down portions of the Great Wall of China, pulverize the rock, and use it to build roads. American companies were said to be bidding on the enormous demolition project. Newspapers throughout the country picked up the story, but it eventually became apparent the news was not true. The Chinese were not planning to tear down the Great Wall. Four Denver... Continue…
Monkeys Pick Cotton, 1899. In February 1899, numerous American newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, printed a story claiming that a farmer, W.W. Mangum, had successfully trained monkeys to pick cotton on his plantation in Smedes, Mississippi. The story was sourced to an article in the Cotton Planters' Journal by T.G. Lane. Reportedly Mangum was so pleased with the success of his monkey-labor experiment that he had ordered more monkeys from Africa, and he was urging... Continue…
The Great Mammoth Hoax, 1899. Woolly mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago. But in October, 1899 a story appeared in McClure's Magazine titled "The Killing of the Mammoth" in which a narrator named H. Tukeman described how he had recently hunted down and killed a mammoth in the Alaskan wilderness. Continue…
The Strange Bequest of Francis Douce, 1900. Francis Douce (1757-1834) was a wealthy English antiquarian, known for his collection of books, prints, drawings, coins, and artifacts. In particular he specialized in collecting material related to children's books and games, fools and jesters, as well as death, demonology, and witchcraft. He also worked briefly at the British Museum, where he held the post of Keeper of Records. When he died in 1834 he left an unusual stipulation in his will. He... Continue…
The Ghosts of Versailles, 1901. On August 10, 1901 two English women visited the gardens of the Petit Trianon near Versailles. The controversy over exactly what these women saw there on that day would linger on for decades. The two women were Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both academics, principal and vice-principal respectively of St. Hugh's College, Oxford. They were on vacation in France and decided to spend a day at Versailles. They first toured the palace and then... Continue…
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1903. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was first published in Russia in 1903. It was said to be the text of a speech given by a Zionist leader outlining a secret Jewish plan to achieve world power by controlling international finance and subverting the power of the Christian church. The manuscript was used to justify hate campaigns against the Jewish people throughout the twentieth century, including the Russian pogroms of the early twentieth... Continue…
Cassie Chadwick, 1904. Between 1897 and 1904, Cassie Chadwick scammed millions of dollars from Ohio banks by claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. The banks, believing they could charge Carnegie high interest rates, happily loaned her the money without asking too many questions. Chadwick had used a simple ruse to lay the groundwork for her scam. She had asked a Cleveland lawyer to accompany her to Carnegie's house. He waited in the carriage... Continue…
The Captain of Köpenick, 1906. On October 16, 1906, an out-of-work German shoemaker named Wilhelm Voigt donned a second-hand military captain's uniform he had bought in a store, walked out into the street, and assumed control of a company of soldiers marching past. He led them to the town hall of Köpenick, a small suburb of Berlin, arrested the mayor and the treasurer on charges of embezzlement, and took possession of 4,000 marks from the town treasury. He then... Continue…
Sober Sue, 1907. The performer "Sober Sue" appeared on stage in New York, billed as the girl who never laughed. The theater offered a prize of $100 to anyone who could make her smile. People from the audience, as well as professional comedians, all accepted the challenge, but all failed. Sober Sue never so much as cracked a grin. The truth was only revealed after her run at the theater was over. It was impossible for her to laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Continue…
The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax, 1909. Six years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight in a heavier-than-air craft, aviation technology was still fairly primitive. Planes could only fly a few miles. But in 1909, a Massachusetts inventor, Wallace Tillinghast, announced a breakthrough. He claimed to have built a plane capable of flying 300 miles, carrying three passengers, and maintaining a speed of 120 mph. But he refused to show the plane to anyone, saying he... Continue…
The Dreadnought Hoax, 1910. "The Emperor of Abyssinia" and his suiteFrom left to right: Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf), Duncan Grant, Horace Cole, Anthony Buxton (seated), Adrian Stephen, Guy Ridley. On February 7, 1910 the Prince of Abyssinia and his entourage were received with full ceremonial pomp on the deck of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the British Navy's most powerful battleship. Although the Commander-in-Chief of the Dreadnought had only received a last-minute... Continue…
The Piltdown Man, 1912. In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The skull was unmistakably human, whereas the jaw appeared to be from an ape, but their proximity within the pit suggested they came from the same creature. The discovery was believed to be of great significance. The fossil was possibly the long-sought missing link between man and ape. For almost forty years the authenticity of the... Continue…
The Damp Spot That Hoaxed D.C., 1912. F. Rodman LawFrederick Rodman Law (1885-1919) was a well-known daredevil active in the early 20th century. His stunts included parachuting from the top of the Statue of Liberty and jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. In late April 1912, he requested permission to parachute from the top of the Washington Monument, but he was turned down. However, on May 7, 1912, a pedestrian standing on the corner of Fourteenth and F streets exclaimed that Law... Continue…
The September Morn Hoax, 1913. The French painter Paul Chabas completed "September Morn" in early 1912. The painting shows a young woman demurely bathing nude by the edge of Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie, France. When Chabas showed it that year at the Paris Salon, it won a gold medal of honor. Critics praised it. But when copies of the painting made their way to America, it provoked a bitter controversy there about nudity, art, and public morality. Thanks to this controversy,... Continue…

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