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History Hoaxes
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 it as a joke, "some harmless fun in war days". However, few people recognized it as such. Details from Mencken's article began to appear in other papers. One scholar included the tale in a history of... More…
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 be raised about its reliability. The botanist Dr. John Hendley Barnhart published a brief article in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden suggesting some of the Cyclopedia's biographical... More…
The Journal of Julius Rodman
Extracts from the Journal of a "Julius Rodman" appeared in a series of six installments in Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine between January and June 1840. The journal purported to detail a 1792 expedition led by Julius Rodman up the Missouri River toward the Far North. This 1792 expedition, if true, would have made Rodman the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains. Julius Rodman's expedition was subsequently noted by a member of the U.S. Senate, Robert Greenhow, who wrote in a Senate document, "It is proper to notice here an account of an expedition across the American continent, made between 1791 and 1794, by a party of citizens of the... More…
John Howe, British Spy
In 1827 a Massachusetts printer named Luther Roby published The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy. It told the story of John Howe, a man said to have been a British spy during the Revolutionary war before switching sides to become an American soldier, then a settler, a frontier trader, an Indian preacher, and finally a smuggler. Howe was long accepted as an actual historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe in The Minutemen and Their World as a "quick-thinking English civilian-spy." The 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers Before 1800 contained an entry about... More…
De Situ Brittaniae, 1747
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. More…
The History of Crowland, 1413
When a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of Crowland Abbey's lands as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis. It was a series of land charters woven together into a history of the abbey. The document was accepted as legitimate, and the Crowland monks won their case. It wasn't until the 19th Century that historians realized the History was, for the most part, an invention. More…

The Donation of Constantine, 756 AD
The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine, granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast lands in the western Roman Empire. For centuries, it was accepted as authentic, until 1440, when the scholar Lorenzo Valla used textual analysis to expose it as a fraud. Valla's analysis represented the growing influence of Renaissance Humanism, and a new willingness in Europe to question long-held beliefs. More…
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