The Death of Alan Abel, 1980
The New York Times announced the death of Alan Abel on its obituary page on January 2, 1980. The well-known media hoaxer, it said, had died of a heart attack at a ski resort in Utah. The Times provided a flattering account of Abel's career, noting that he had gained national recognition during the early 1960s on account of a faux campaign to promote decency by making animals wear clothes. There was just one problem. Abel wasn't dead. The Times learned this when Abel held a press conference the next day in which he revealed that the news of his death was a hoax engineered by himself and a team of twelve accomplices.
Rosie Ruiz Wins the Boston Marathon, 1980
Not only was 23-year-old Rosie Ruiz the first woman to cross the finish line in the 1980 Boston Marathon, but she also achieved the third fastest time ever recorded for a female runner. However, she looked remarkably sweat-free and relaxed as she climbed the winner's podium, and race officials almost immediately began to question her victory. The problem was that no one could remember having seen her during the race. An investigation soon revealed that she had simply jumped into the race during its final half-mile and had then sprinted to the finish line. Officials stripped her of her victory and awarded the title to the real winner, Jackie Gareau.
Janet Cooke and Jimmy’s World, 1980
Janet Cooke's article in the Washington Post about 'Jimmy,' an 8-year-old heroin addict, won her a Pulitzer Prize. But pressure mounted for Cooke to reveal where Jimmy lived so that authorities could help him. As Cooke steadfastly refused to do this, rumors began to swirl suggesting there was no Jimmy. Finally, the editors at the Post confronted Cooke and demanded she provide proof of the boy's existence. Cooke then admitted that she had never met Jimmy and that much of her story was fictitious. Cooke resigned, and the Post, humiliated by the incident, returned the Pulitzer Prize.
The Prediction of Tamara Rand, 1981
A few days after President Reagan was shot in March 1981, a startling piece of footage ran on many news programs, including NBC's Today show and CNN. It appeared to show that psychic Tamara Rand had accurately predicted that the attempt on Reagan's life would occur when she had appeared on a Las Vegas TV show, Dick Maurice and Company, two months earlier. If genuine, it was a remarkable prediction. But an AP reporter discovered that the footage had actually been taped the day after Reagan was shot. The Las Vegas show had collaborated in making it appear as if her prediction had been made before the assassination attempt, not after it.
Cockroach Pills, 1981
Dr. Josef Gregor held a press conference in New York in May 1981 to announce he had developed a miraculous pill that could cure colds, acne, anemia, and menstrual cramps. And it could even make people immune to nuclear radiation! The key ingredient in the pill, he said, was a hormone extracted from cockroaches. Over 175 newspapers published articles about the discovery. However, Dr. Josef Gregor was really long-time media hoaxer Joey Skaggs. Upon revealing the hoax, Skaggs commented, "I guess no one reads Kafka anymore." [More info: joeyskaggs.com]
Casablanca Rejected, 1982
If an unknown screenwriter submits a masterpiece to a movie agent, what are the chances that the agent will actually read the screenplay and recognize its value? Freelance writer Chuck Ross designed an experiment to find out. He slightly disguised the script of Casablanca (changing its title, the name of the author, and the names of some of the characters) and submitted it to 217 agencies. The majority of these returned it unread. 33 recognized the script. But 38 claimed to have read it and rejected it, saying the script simply wasn't good enough. One complained that the dialogue "could have been sharper" and that the plot "had a tendency to ramble."
The Hitler Diaries, 1983
The announcement by the German news magazine Stern that it had discovered the personal diary of Adolf Hitler generated a media frenzy. Magazines bid for the right to serialize it. Historians anticipated what revelations it would contain. Skeptics, however, insisted it had to be a fake, since Hitler had never been known to keep a diary. The skeptics turned out to be right. Less than two weeks after the initial announcement, forensics experts denounced the diaries as a "crude forgery." When all the dust settled, the diaries turned out to be one of the most expensive fakes in history. By some accounts, the debacle cost Stern as much as 19 million marks.
The Three Modiglianis, 1984
According to legend, when artist Amedeo Modigliani left Livorno, Italy in 1909, he dumped a number of sculptures in a canal, upset because they had been criticized by a friend. So in 1984, the city of Livorno decided to spend $35,000 to dredge the canal to see if they could find the lost works. They were delighted when three carved heads were fished out. Appraisers estimated them to be worth $1.5 million. But then three university students came forward and revealed they had made one of the heads — and had a videotape of its creation to prove it. Hopes that the other two heads were genuine were dashed when a local dockworker proved to be their creator.
The Diary of a Good Neighbor, 1983 The Diary of a Good Neighbor by Jane Somers received little attention, and only modest sales, when it was published in 1983. The novel told the story of a magazine editor who befriends a lonely old woman. But when a sequel appeared a year later, a surprise announcement accompanied its publication. The book's true author was the acclaimed writer Doris Lessing (who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Lessing explained that she had concealed her authorship in order to show how difficult it is for unknown authors to attract attention. Also, she wanted to play a prank on critics who insisted on pigeonholing her as one type of writer or another.
During the taping of the Donahue talk show, on January 21, 1985, seven members of the audience fainted. The producers of the show theorized that the hot temperature inside the studio caused the people to collapse, but a few days later it was revealed that "professional hoaxer" Alan Abel had paid them to pretend to faint. He said that the stunt was a protest against the deteriorating quality of daytime talk shows and claimed that a group called FAINT (Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic TV) had spearheaded the protest. "We want to raise the consciousness of the public by going unconscious," he said.
Sidd Finch, 1985 Sports Illustrated revealed that the New York Mets’s were hiring a new rookie pitcher, Sidd Finch (short for Siddhartha Finch), who could throw a ball with startling, pinpoint accuracy at 168 mph. Sidd Finch had never played baseball before but had mastered the “art of the pitch” in a Tibetan monastery under the guidance of the “great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa.“ Mets fans celebrated their teams good luck and flooded Sports Illustrated with requests for more information. They were crestfallen to learn that Sidd Finch was nothing but an April Fool's Day hoax who sprang from the imagination of author George Plimpton.
The Dayton Hudson Hoax, 1987
The news that a private investment firm was buying the retailer Dayton Hudson for $6.8 billion sent the company's stock price soaring, and then crashing back down again when investors learned the report was false. The source of the news was a 46-year-old investment adviser, P. David Herrlinger, who had phoned the Dow Jones News Service and told them he was buying the company. The news service had taken his word for it, but Herrlinger, it turned out, was suffering a nervous breakdown and was delusional, which sparked concern at how easily a single irrational individual had manipulated the market.
The Great Potato Play, 1987
During a game between the double-A Williamsport Bills and the Reading Phillies, everyone thought they saw catcher Dave Bresnahan throw the ball wild past third base. So how was it that when the man on third came running toward home, Bresnahan still had the ball and tagged him out? It was because Bresnahan had actually thrown a peeled potato into left field, and not a ball. The stunt cost Bresnahan his job with the Bills, but it also earned him an immortal place in baseball history. A year after the event, fans paid one dollar and one potato as admission to celebrate Dave Bresnahan Day.
The Tawana Brawley Case, 1987
The case of Tawana Brawley initially appeared to be a shocking, racially motivated crime. The teenager was found lying inside a trash bag with racial insults written on her body. She claimed that a group of white men, including police officers, had raped and beaten her. The black community rallied around her, and the Reverend Al Sharpton appointed himself her spokesman. But the material evidence didn't back up Brawley's claims. Her body displayed no signs of assault. So suspicions mounted that Brawley had made up a wild story in order to avoid punishment at the hand of her stepfather for having run away from home for three days.
Billy Tipton, 1989
When Billy Tipton got his start in jazz during the 1930s, he made a name for himself as a saxophone and piano player. During the 1950s, he formed his own group, the Billy Tipton Trio (shown in the thumbnail, with Tipton in the center). He had a number of wives and adopted three sons. So when he died in 1989 at the age of 74, it shocked almost everyone to learn that Billy Tipton was a woman. Even his wives claimed not to have known his true gender. He guarded the secret so closely, that he even refused medical treatment for the bleeding ulcer that killed him because doing so would have required disclosing his gender to the hospital staff.