The Museum of Hoaxes
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Hoaxes involving false or disguised identity
JT LeRoy, 2005
In 1994 a teenage boy called JT (or Jeremy "Terminator") LeRoy began to attract attention in the literary community. He published a few short stories, but he also aggressively reached out to other, older writers, communicating with them by phone, email, and fax. He was a sympathetic character — a transgendered, homosexual, drug-addicted, pathologically shy teenager who had been living on the streets, forced into a life of truck-stop prostitution by his mother. Writing seemed to offer a means for him to escape that life, and other writers strongly supported his efforts. In 1999 he published his first novel, Sarah, which was a critical... More…
The Yes Men’s Bhopal Hoax, 2004
On December 3, 2004 the BBC broadcast an interview with Jude Finisterra, who claimed to be a representative of Dow Chemical. The date was the 20th anniversary of the chemical disaster in Bhopal, and the BBC had sought out a representative from Dow to speak about the tragedy since Dow had inherited responsibility for the disaster via a corporate acquisition. During the interview, Mr. Finisterra shocked the BBC's audience when he said that not only had Dow decided to accept full responsibility for the incident, but that it was going to pay $12 billion in compensation to the victims. In response to the news, Dow's stock value promptly dropped. More…
Gorgeous Guy, 2001
A photo of a guy standing at a bus stop was posted on a Craigslist "Missed Connections" forum, describing him as a "Gorgeous Guy" whom the poster wanted to meet. The Gorgeous Guy at the bus stop then became an online mystery celebrity, as people theorized about who he was. He turned out to be a network engineer, Dan Baca. His internet fame had even attracted the attention of the national media, but an investigative journalist discovered that the majority of the initial posts about "Gorgeous Guy" all shared the same IP address, which suspiciously traced back to Baca himself. Though Baca insisted it was his co-workers who had played a prank on him. More…
Allegra Coleman, 1996
Esquire magazine's November 1996 cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. The feature article inside described the buzz building around her. Hollywood was intrigued. After Esquire ran the article, the magazine received calls from talent scouts, eager to get in touch with the new star. But as it turned out, Allegra didn't exist. Esquire had invented her as a spoof of the fawning puffery that many magazines shower on movie stars. The woman shown on the cover and in the photos inside was a (then) little-known actress called Ali Larter, who subsequently starred in the NBC series Heroes. More…
The Buckwheat Imposter, 1990
Buckwheat was the wide-eyed, African-American character played by William Thomas in the 'Our Gang' comedies of the 1930s and '40s. After leaving the show, Thomas dropped from the public eye. But in 1990, the news show 20/20 claimed it had found him working as a grocery bagger. Unfortunately for 20/20, the man they interviewed was not William Thomas. He was an imposter named Bill English who had been claiming to be Buckwheat for 30 years. The real William Thomas had worked as a film lab technician before dying in 1980 at the age of 49. The week after it aired the segment, 20/20 admitted its mistake. More…
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. More…

The Steps Experiment, 1975
Artwork accompanying Ross's 1979 article describing the Steps Experiment. In 1975 Chuck Ross was selling cable TV door-to-door, and dreaming of becoming a writer. However, he felt the odds were stacked against him since the publishing industry seemed incapable of recognizing talent. To prove his theory, he typed up twenty-one pages of a highly acclaimed book and sent it unsolicited to four publishers (Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), claiming it was his own work. The work he chose for this experiment was Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski. It had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and by 1975 had... More…
Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin was a white native Texan novelist and journalist with a strange idea that he couldn't get out of his head. What if a white man became a black man for six weeks and traveled through Deep South states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi? More…
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. More…
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 imprisonment and escape. He said he had been captured by the French in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and was placed in a prison camp. After killing a guard during an unsuccessful escape... More…
Lafayette Mulligan, 1924
In 1924 a man calling himself Lafayette Mulligan, claiming to be the social secretary of the Mayor of Boston, presented the Prince of Wales with the key to the City of Boston and invited him to visit the city, while the Prince was vacationing in Massachusetts. However, the Boston Mayor had no idea who Lafayette Mulligan was. In fact, Lafayette Mulligan was the invention of pranksters trying to embarrass the Irish Mayor, whose anti-British sentiment was well known. 'Lafayette Mulligan' subsequently became a running gag, and for some years lent its name to the prank of sending spurious invitations to non-existent events. More…
Phony 9/11 Deaths
As estimates of the death toll rose in the days following the 9/11 attacks, enormous amounts of sympathy and media attention flowed out towards those who had lost loved ones in the attack. Those who had participated in rescue efforts were hailed as national heroes. But simultaneously, many people (motivated, perhaps, by a desire for sympathy or attention) fabricated tales of phony heroics and lost loved ones in the weeks and months following 9/11. Listed are a few of the more notable cases of these phony 9/11 tales: 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.