The Museum of Hoaxes
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The Hoax Archive — A collection of the most notorious deceptions throughout history
Time Period: 1914-1949
Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1868 1869-1913 1914-1949 1950-1976 1977-1989 1990s 2000s
Spectric Poetry, 1916. In 1916 a slender volume of poetry titled Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments introduced the Spectric school of poetry to the world. It joined many other experimental schools of poetry then currently in vogue, such as the Imagists, the Futurists, and the Idealists. The Spectric poems were rather bizarre and nonsensical, but were also fun, full of life, and decked out with colorful (albeit illogical) imagery. Continue…
Mencken’s History of the Bathtub, 1917. On December 28, 1917, H.L. Mencken published an article in the New York Evening Mail titled "A Neglected Anniversary." It described the history of the bathtub in America, noting that people were slow to accept tubs, believing they were dangerous to health. This attitude, Mencken said, changed when President Millard Fillmore became the first president to install a tub in the White House. Mencken's history of the bathtub was not true. He intended... Continue…
Stotham: The Town That Didn’t Exist, 1920. The quaint Massachusetts town of Stotham, described in an advertising monograph as an example of an unspoiled New England village, didn't actually exist. Continue…
Charles Ponzi and the Ponzi Scheme, 1920. Charles Ponzi (1883-1949) Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant living in Boston in the early twentieth century, was said by his worshipful followers to have "discovered money." In fact, what he really discovered was a way to bilk the public out of millions of dollars by means of a financial pyramid scheme. There were pyramid schemes before Ponzi came along, but his was so outrageous that this type of scam has ever since borne his name. Continue…
The Cottingley Fairies, 1920. In 1920 a series of photos of fairies captured the attention of the world. The photos had been taken by two young girls, the cousins Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright, while playing in the garden of Elsie's Cottingley village home. Photographic experts examined the pictures and declared them genuine. Spiritualists promoted them as proof of the existence of supernatural creatures, and despite criticism by skeptics, the pictures became among the... Continue…
King Tut’s Curse, 1923. In November 1922 Howard Carter located the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun. By February he and his team had unsealed the door of the Burial Chamber. But a mere two months later, on April 5, 1923, the sponsor of his expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died in his Cairo hotel room, having succumbed to a bacterial infection caused by a mosquito bite. The media immediately speculated that Carnarvon had fallen victim to King Tut's Curse. This curse... Continue…
The Disumbrationist School of Art, 1924. In 1924, Paul Jordan Smith, a Los Angeles-based novelist and Latin scholar, painted a picture of a South Seas islander holding a banana over her head. He intended the picture as a spoof of abstract styles of modern art such as Cubism, and as a joke he entered it into an art exhibition. He claimed it was the work of the Russian artist Pavel Jerdanowitch (a name he had invented), the founder of the Disumbrationist School of Art (another invention... Continue…
The Mysterious Glozel Finds, 1924. In 1924, a seventeen-year-old farmer, Emile Fradin, discovered an underground chamber that contained many mysterious artifacts. He did so while plowing a field on his grandfather's property in Glozel (near Vichy, in central France). Continue…
Lafayette Mulligan, 1924. In 1924 a man calling himself Lafayette Mulligan presented the Prince of Wales with the key to the City of Boston, while the Prince was vacationing in Massachusetts. However, the Mayor of Boston had no idea who Lafayette Mulligan was. In fact, Lafayette Mulligan was not a real person at all. Continue…
The Cornell Rhinoceros, circa 1925. After a heavy snowfall, the footprints of a large animal were found on the campus of Cornell University, leading up to the shore of the frozen Beebe Lake. A hole in the ice indicated that the animal must have fallen in and drowned. A zoologist examined the tracks and identified them as those of a rhinoceros. Word of the rogue rhinoceros spread around town, and since the University got its water supply from the lake, many students declared they... Continue…
The Case of the Midwife Toad, 1926. During the 1920s, Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer designed an experiment involving a species called the Midwife Toad. He wanted to prove that Lamarckian inheritance was possible. When his experiment produced positive results, the scientitic community was stunned. That is, until researchers had a chance to examine his toads more closely. Continue…
The BBC Radio Panic, 1926. On 16 January 1926, BBC Radio interrupted a broadcast of a speech from Edinburgh to give a special announcement: an angry mob of unemployed workers were running amok in London, looting and destroying everything in sight. Listeners were stunned. Anxiously they gathered around their radios to hear the frightening news. They heard that the National Gallery had been sacked and the Savoy Hotel blown up. The alarming reports continued with news that... Continue…
Hoaxes of Hugh Troy. By trade Hugh Troy (1906-1964) was an artist. He illustrated many children's books, including "Maude for a Day," "The Chippendale Dam," and "Five Golden Wrens." But by nature he was a practical joker, with numerous pranks to his credit. When asked once what advice he would give to aspiring practical jokers, he replied that one should never sit down and try to deliberately think up a practical joke. This was a sure way to arrive at uninspired... Continue…
The Killer Hawk of Chicago, 1927. The story of the Killer Hawk of Chicago is a classic tale of early 20th century American journalism. It involves a hawk that may or may not have terrorized the pigeon population of downtown Chicago. Continue…
The Channel Swim Hoax, 1927. On October 10, 1927, Dorothy Cochrane Logan entered the water at Cape Gris Nez, France. Her goal was to swim across the English Channel. Thirteen hours later she reappeared at Folkestone, England. Her time had set a new world record, for which a newspaper awarded her a prize of 1000 pounds. But a few days later Logan confessed her crossing had been a hoax. She had only spent four hours in the water. The rest of the time she had traveled on board... Continue…
Margaret Mead and the Samoans, 1925. In 1925, 24-year-old Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa where she stayed for nine months. On her return she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. It portrayed Samoa as a gentle, easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups. Premarital sex was common. Rape was unheard of. Young people grew to adulthood without enduring the adolescent trauma typical in western countries. She used these findings to support her... Continue…
The Brazilian Invisible Fish. Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931) was a publicist whose career spanned the early twentieth century. He was responsible for promoting many movies and show business personalities. In his autobiography, Phantom Fame (written with the help of David Freedman), Reichenbach described a publicity stunt he devised early in his career that has since become a classic example of inventive (though misleading) low-budget promotion. It involved a creature called... Continue…
The Cradle of the Deep, 1929. Joan Lowell claimed she grew up on her father's schooner, traveling the South Seas. She described her maritime adventures in The Cradle of the Deep, published in 1929. But in reality she grew up in Berkeley, California and had spent only a few months at sea. Continue…
Hugo N. Frye, 1930. In 1930 Republican leaders throughout the United States received letters inviting them to a May 26 party at Cornell University in honor of the sesquicentennial birthday anniversary of Hugo Norris Frye, aka Hugo N. Frye. The letter explained that Hugo N. Frye had been one of the first organizers of the Republican party in New York State. None of the politicians could make it to the event, but almost all of them replied, expressing sincere... Continue…
Oscar Daubmann, Last German Prisoner of War, 1932. Alfred Hummel as Oscar DaubmannIn the early 1930s the French government informed the German reich that it had discharged all the prisoners of war taken during World War I. All soldiers still missing had to be presumed dead. But in May 1932 this statement appeared to be contradicted when a soldier, Oscar Daubmann, returned to Germany, claiming he had spent the last sixteen years in a French prisoner-of-war camp. Daubmann told a dramatic tale of... Continue…
Death in the Air, 1933. A book called Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot was published in 1933. It contained numerous pages of spectacular aerial photographs of World War One dogfights supposedly taken by a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Since very few photos of aerial fighting had been taken by the military, the photographs caused a great sensation. Interest in them grew even greater when they were exhibited at galleries in New York... Continue…
Baby Adolf, 1933. In 1933 a picture supposedly showing Adolf Hitler as a baby began circulating throughout England and America. The child in the picture looked positively menacing. Its fat mouth was twisted into a sneer, and it scowled at the camera from dark, squinted eyes. A greasy mop of hair fell over its forehead. Continue…
The Surgeon’s Photo, 1934. In April 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, came forward with a picture that appeared to show a sea serpent rising out of the water of Loch Ness. Wilson claimed he took the photograph early in the morning on April 19, 1934, while driving along the northern shore of the Loch. He said he noticed something moving in the water and stopped his car to take a photo. For decades this photo was considered to be the best evidence of... Continue…
The Chesterfield Leper, 1934. A 1935 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, captioned: "Machines like this -- new and modern in every respect -- make Chesterfields."In the Fall of 1934 a rumor swept through America alleging that a leper had been found working in the Chesterfield cigarette factory in Richmond. Sales of Chesterfield cigarettes plummeted as smokers, fearful of catching the dreaded disease, switched to other brands. The Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company, maker of... Continue…
Fritz Kreisler’s Lost Classics, 1935. During the early twentieth century, Fritz Kreisler was considered to be one of the leading violinists of his time. Part of his popularity stemmed from his rediscovery of many 'lost classics' by famous composers. He explained he had found these works tucked away in libraries and monasteries throughout Europe. He would play these lost classics (which included pieces by masters such as Pugnani and Vivaldi) during his concerts, much to his... Continue…
Van Gogh’s Ear Exhibited, 1935. The illustrator Hugh Troy was frustrated by the crowds at New York's Van Gogh exhibit, which made it hard for art lovers such as himself to view the works. He was also convinced that most of the people were there out of lurid interest in the man who had cut off his ear, not out of a true appreciation for the art. To prove his point, he fashioned a fake ear out of a piece of dried beef and mounted it in a velvet-lined shadow box. He snuck this... Continue…
The Veterans of Future Wars, 1936. Future veterans march to demand their bonuses In 1935 veterans of World War One lobbied Congress to pay them their war bonuses ten years early in order to ease the economic hardship they were experiencing during the Great Depression. Congress readily acquiesced and passed the Harrison Bonus Bill in January 1936. This pre-payment was a source of inspiration for Lewis Gorin, a senior at Princeton University. It seemed logical to him that if... Continue…
Hoaxes & Stunts of Jim Moran. Jim Moran (1907-1999) was called, at various times, "super salesman number one," "America's No. 1 prankster," and "the last great bunco artist in the profession of publicity." He became famous during the 1930s and 40s for devising outrageous stunts on behalf of his clients. His favorite technique was to test the validity of popular sayings. For instance, he sold an icebox to an eskimo, found a needle in a haystack, and walked a bull through a... Continue…
The Milton Mule, 1938. On September 13, 1938 Boston Curtis won the post of Republican precinct committeeman for Milton, Washington, by virtue of fifty-one votes cast for him in the state primary election. Boston Curtis ran no election campaign, nor did he offer a platform. However, he also ran uncontested, so his election should not have been a surprise. But when the residents of Milton realized who Boston Curtis was, they were surprised, because Boston was a... Continue…
The War of the Worlds, 1938. On October 30, 1938, thousands of people fled in panic after hearing CBS Radio report that Martian invaders had landed in New Jersey and were marching across the country, using heat rays and poisonous gas to kill Earthlings. But as soon became clear, Martians hadn't really invaded New Jersey. What people had heard (and mistook for a real news broadcast) was a radio version of H.G. Wells's story The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles and... Continue…
Jean Gauntt, the Immortal Baby, 1939. In 1939 a secretive cult known as the Royal Fraternity of Master Metaphysicians made headlines when its leader, James Bernard Schafer, announced their intention to conduct an unusual experiment. They were going to raise an immortal baby. Continue…
Hitler’s Silly Dance, 1940. On June 21, 1940, Hitler accepted the surrender of the French government at a ceremony in Compiegne, France. He melodramatically insisted on receiving France's surrender in the same railroad car in which Germany had signed the 1918 armistice that had ended World War One. After Hitler accepted France's surrender, he stepped backwards slightly, as if in shock. But this isn't what audiences in the Allied countries saw who watched the movie-reel of... Continue…
The Nazi Air Marker Hoax, 1942. On August 10, 1942 the U.S. Army's public-relations office issued a press release warning the public of "secret markers" that had been found on farm fields throughout the eastern United States. These markers were patterns formed by the arrangement of fertilizer sacks or the way a field had been tilled. From the ground they looked like nothing, but from the air they formed the shape of arrows, apparently created by Nazi sympathizers in order to... Continue…
Operation Mincemeat, 1943. In 1943 the body of a British officer, Major William Martin, was discovered off the coast of Spain, near Huelva. British diplomats strongly requested that all documents found with the body be returned to them, and the Spanish government eventually complied. But upon examination, it was obvious the documents had been opened and read before their return. This was exactly what the British had hoped would happen, because Major Martin did not exist.... Continue…
The Flypaper Report, 1943. During World War II, the illustrator Hugh Troy was given a desk job stateside. He found it excruciatingly boring. So to amuse himself he began preparing Daily Flypaper Reports in the style of standard army regulations. These were counts, printed on official-looking paper, of all the flies trapped on flypaper in the mess hall during the last twenty-four hours. He analyzed the results according to wind direction, nearness to windows, nearness to... Continue…
Ern Malley, 1944. The 1944 cover of Angry Penguins devoted to the work of Ern MalleyMax Harris was a glamorous young Australian poet who was making a reputation for himself as something of a rebel as editor of Angry Penguins, a cutting-edge literary magazine. Harris wanted to shake up the artistic community by exposing it to new ideas and new writers, and in 1944 he thought he had found a writer worth taking under his wing. That writer's name was Ern Malley. Continue…
Robert Archer, aka Tanis Chandler, 1944. (left) Robert Archer in The Desert Song(right) Tanis ChandlerTanis Chandler was a 20-year-old woman working as a teletypist in a Hollywood brokerage office, but dreaming of becoming a movie star. However, she was having trouble getting any roles, so she decided to try another strategy. There was a shortage of male actors in 1943 because of the war, so Tanis figured she might have better luck if she were a man. She put on a pair of pants and... Continue…
USC Glamour Queen Hoax, 1944. In April 1944, the University of Southern California held its annual Campus Queens beauty contest. 20 contestants vied for the title. Six winners were to be selected. The prize was that their full-length portrait would appear in the yearbook. But that year an imposter appeared among the candidates. The odd-woman-out (or rather, odd-man-out) was Sylvia Jones. She was actually a he — a male USC student who had dressed up as a woman in order to enter the contest. Continue…
The Rip-Off Recipe Legend, 1940s. During the 1940s (though possibly earlier) a rumor began to circulate in America about a customer charged an exorbitant fee by a restaurant after requesting a copy of a recipe. According to the rumor, the customer (usually a woman) had enjoyed one of the items on the dessert menu and asked the management if they would be willing to share the recipe with her. The management responded affirmatively, but later sent her an outrageously large bill,... Continue…
Naromji, 1946. A woman displays "Three Out of Five" by Naromji. (Life Archive) In November 1946 the Los Angeles Art Association included a painting titled "Three Out of Five", by a previously unknown artist, Naromji, in an exhibition of abstract art. The work hung beside works by well-known modern artists such as Helen Lundeberg and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and it was given a price tag of $1000. But the Art Association was embarrassed when, at the end of the... Continue…
Han van Meegeren, 1947. In 1947 Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), a Dutch artist and art dealer, was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis. He was charged with selling a painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) titled 'Christ and the Adulteress' to Reich Marshal Hermann Goering. This painting was considered a national treasure, making it a crime to sell it to the enemy. Van Meegeren admitted selling the painting to Goering, but he defended himself by revealing that the... Continue…
A Homemade UFO, 1947. July 11, 1947: Ten days after residents of Twin Falls, Idaho reported seeing flying saucers in the sky, a woman reported finding a flying saucer embedded in the lawn of her neighbor's home. Police came out to investigate, followed by the FBI and three army officers who flew out from Fort Douglas, Utah. What they found was a small, gold-and-silver-colored saucer about the size of a bicycle wheel. It had gouged long strips in the lawn as it landed.... Continue…

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