The Museum of Hoaxes
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1868 1869-1913 1914-1949 1950-1976 1977-1989 1990s 2000s
The Hoax Archive — A collection of the most notorious deceptions throughout history
Hoaxes by Journalists
Silence Dogood. Between April and October 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New England Courant written by a middle-aged widow who called herself Silence Dogood. In her correspondence she poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals, religious hypocrisy, the persecution of women, the fashion for hoop petticoats, and particularly the pretensions of Harvard College. Silence Dogood's letters became quite... Continue…
The Witch Trial at Mount Holly. On October 22, 1730 an article appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette describing a witch trial that had recently been held in Mount Holly near Burlington, New Jersey. According to the article, over 300 people had gathered to witness the trial of two people, a man and a woman, who had been accused of witchcraft. The charges included "making their neighbours sheep dance in an uncommon manner, and with causing hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to... Continue…
Hoaxes of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century. Throughout his long life he was many different things: a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. He used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. Continue…
The Trial of Polly Baker. In 1747 the London General Advertiser printed the text of a speech said to have been given by a woman, Polly Baker, at her trial. She had just given birth to her fifth child, was unmarried, and had been charged with having sexual intercourse out of wedlock. Polly Baker readily admitted her guilt but argued that the law itself was unreasonable. Why was she being punished, she asked, while the men who committed the crime with her were let off scot... Continue…
The Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle. In 1782 a shocking letter was printed in the Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle. It alleged that Indian warriors were sending hundreds of American scalps as war trophies to British royalty and Members of Parliament. The scalps included those of women, as well as young girls and boys. Soon the letter had crossed the Atlantic and began to circulate throughout Europe, where it shocked European public opinion. But in fact, the British... Continue…
The Dutch Mail, 1792. According to legend, the editor of the Leicester Herald was pressed for time one day and couldn't complete a column. So he threw together a scramble of meaningless letters and headlined it as the latest "Dutch Mail." The editor later reported meeting a man who had kept the "Dutch Mail" edition of the Herald for thirty-four years, hoping to one day get it translated. Continue…
The Unparalled Adventures of One Hans Pfall. An article titled "The Unparalled Adventures of One Hans Pfall" appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in late June of 1835. It claimed to be the text of a note dropped from a hot-air balloon that had appeared recently above Rotterdam. The note described Hans Pfall's journey to the moon in order to escape his earth-bound creditors. Pfaall had spent five years living among the inhabitants of the moon before sending one of the lunar... Continue…
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The New York Sun announced that the British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the moon by means of a new telescope "of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle." Creatures supposedly seen by Herschel included lunar bison, fire-wielding biped beavers, and winged "man-bats." The public was fascinated. It took several weeks before they realized it was all a hoax. Continue…
The Great Balloon Hoax, 1844. The New York Sun announced that the European balloonist Monck Mason had completed the first-ever successful trans-Atlantic balloon crossing. He had taken off from England on a trip to Paris, but had been blown off course due to a propeller accident and ended up floating to South Carolina. The story was quickly revealed to be a hoax, authored by Edgar Allan Poe. Continue…
The Paulding County Hyena. On February 6, 1858 the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that a ferocious hyena had broken loose from his cage and was at large in Paulding County. It had already been spotted attempting to dig up several graves in search of food, and it had killed a man who tried to capture it. Understandably, readers were concerned. But a few days later, a correction appeared in the paper. There was no hyena. "He is not there now, never was there, and, it is... Continue…
The Petrified Man, 1862. Nevada's Territorial Enterprise reported the discovery of a petrified man in nearby mountains. The body was in a sitting posture, leaning against a rock surface to which it had become attached. The report subsequently was reprinted by many other papers. However, it was pure fiction, written by a young reporter, Samuel Clemens, who would later be better known as Mark Twain. He later admitted surprise at how many people were fooled by his story, since he considered it "a string of roaring absurdities." Continue…
Empire City Massacre, 1863. A report in the Territorial Enterprise described a gruesome event. After losing his money by investing in San Francisco utilities, a man went insane and slaughtered his family, then rode into town carrying the "reeking scalp" of his wife and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted. However, it wasn't true. It was the invention of Mark Twain whose goal was to trick San Francisco newspapers into printing a story critical of the utility companies. Continue…
The Miscegenation Hoax, 1863. A pamphlet titled Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races went on sale arguing for the benefits of white and black people having children with each other. By modern standards, the suggestion sounds enlightened, but the pamphlet was actually a hoax designed to insert the inflammatory issue of race into the 1864 presidential election. The hoax fizzled, but the pamphlet did introduce the word 'miscegenation' into the English language. Continue…
The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley, 1867. Journalist Dan De Quille published an article about some unusual stones discovered in Nevada. Whenever separated from each other, the stones spontaneously moved back together. The article was a joke, but De Quille discovered that a lie once told cannot easily be untold. Years later, despite confessing to the hoax, he was still receiving numerous letters from people around the world wanting to know more details about these traveling stones. 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 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 Materialization of John Newbegin. On December 19, 1874 the New York Sun published a long letter on its front page which it said had been sent from a businessman who lived in the small community of Pocock Island, located seventeen miles off the coast of Maine. In his letter this businessman related an unusual tale about a spirit that had materialized during a seance, but which had then refused to unmaterialize and had resumed his former life as a fisherman. 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…
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…
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…
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 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…
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…
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…
Hugh Stewart’s Sextuplet Hoax, 1951. In August 1951, 59-year-old science reporter Hugh Stewart approached his editors at the Chicago Herald-American with a hot tip. He had learned that a Chicago mother was about to give birth to sextuplets. It would be the first time a confirmed birth of sextuplets had occurred in America. Stewart offered no verifiable sources for the news. He insisted that "if I break my informants' confidence it will ruin me." Nor could he disclose the mother's... Continue…
The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, 1957. On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil." The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling... Continue…
The Virginia City Camel Race. In 1959 Bob Richards, editor of the Nevada-based Territorial Enterprise, announced that a camel race would be held that year down the main street of Virginia City. He challenged other local papers to race their camels in the event. Continue…
Instant Color TV, 1962. In 1962 there was only one tv channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. On April 1st of that year, the station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their tv screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in.... Continue…
Robert Patterson’s Tour of China, 1971. In June 1971 Robert Patterson, a 66-year-old newsman, filed a series of five reports for the San Francisco Examiner detailing his odyssey through mainland China. His journey was inspired by the popular interest in Chinese culture following President Nixon's official visit to that country. The series ran on the Examiner's front page. Patterson discussed details such as his difficulty obtaining an entry visa, witnessing Chinese citizens doing... Continue…
Dan Rattiner, the Hoaxer of the Hamptons. In 1960, twenty-year-old Dan Rattiner started a small paper during his summer vacation in the Hamptons. He gave copies of it away for free, making money from the advertisements. It was the first free paper in the United States. Gradually Dan started more papers, each of them serving a different community in the Hamptons. He called all of them collectively Dan's Papers, and they soon became the most widely read papers in the Hamptons. Dan wrote... Continue…
San Serriffe, 1977. On April 1, 1977, the British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic said to consist of several semi-colon-shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean. A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. The Guardian's... Continue…
Janet Cooke and Jimmy’s World, 1980. Janet Cooke during an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show (January 1982) An article that appeared in the Washington Post on September 29, 1980 told a heartwrenching tale. It detailed the life of 'Jimmy,' a young boy who had apparently become a victim of the thriving heroin trade that was devestating the low-income neighborhoods of Washington D.C. Caught in a cycle of addiction, violence, and despair, Jimmy had become a heroin addict after being... Continue…
The Hitler Diaries, 1983. On April 22, 1983 the German news magazine Stern announced it had discovered the personal diary of Adolf Hitler -- a multi-volume work spanning the years 1932-1945. Stern's announcement generated a media frenzy. Magazines and news agencies bid for the right to serialize the diary. Skeptics, however, insisted it had to be a fake, and the skeptics turned out to be right. Less than two weeks later, forensics experts at the Bundesarchiv denounced the diaries as a "crude forgery." Continue…
Sidd Finch, 1985. Sidd Finch In its April 1985 edition, Sports Illustrated published an article by George Plimpton that described an incredible rookie baseball player who was training at the Mets camp in St. Petersburg, Florida. The player was named Sidd Finch (Sidd being short for Siddhartha, the Indian mystic in Hermann Hesse's book of the same name). He could reportedly pitch a baseball at 168 mph with pinpoint accuracy. The fastest previous recorded speed for... Continue…
Russia Sells Lenin’s Body, 1991. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Russian government struggled to mend its ailing economy, but the nation's financial situation remained dire. In November 1991, Forbes FYI, an American business magazine, revealed just how hopeless the Russian economic situation had become. It reported that the Russian government, desperate for foreign currency, had decided to sell the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin to the highest bidder.... Continue…
Ghostwatch, 1992. On 31 October 1992, Britain's BBC TV aired a 90-minute documentary called Ghostwatch. The program was advertised as a live investigation into reports of supernatural activity at a council house in North London. The show was anchored by a group of well-known television reporters: Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles. Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith both reported from a TV studio, where calls were being taken from the... Continue…
Allegra Coleman, 1996. Esquire magazine's November 1996 cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. "Forget Gwyneth, Forget Mira," the cover declared. "Here's Hollywood's next Dream Girl." The feature article inside described the buzz building around her. David Schwimmer, star of Friends, was said to be her on-again, off-again boyfriend, although he was getting some competition from Quentin Tarantino who had apparently dumped... Continue…
Stephen Glass, 1998. During the mid-1990s, Stephen Glass was a young writer at the New Republic. He had a reputation for always getting the best scoops. For instance, in his most celebrated article, "Hack Heaven," he told the story of a fifteen-year-old hacker who broke into the computer system of a software corporation, Jukt Micronics, and then succeeded in extorting money, a job, a Miata, a trip to Disney World, and a lifetime subscription to Playboy from the... Continue…
Monkey Fishing. Jay Forman wrote an occasional "Vice" column for the online magazine Slate.com. In it he often described various bizarre activities he had engaged in or witnessed over the years. For instance, one column probed the synergies between guns and liquor. Another discussed his short career in the pornography trade. In his 8 June 2001 column, he described his participation in the extreme sport of monkey fishing. Monkey fishing, in Forman's usage of the... Continue…
Jayson Blair. When Jayson Blair got a job writing for The New York Times, he was a young man, straight out of college. He advanced quickly, despite frequent complaints about the quality of his work, and became a full-time staff reporter in 2001. He was promoted to the national desk in 2002. But in April 2003, a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News notified the Times about suspicious similarities between a story Blair had just written and one she had... Continue…
Flemish Secession Hoax, 2006. In 2006, on a Belgian TV station news broadcast, it was announced that Flanders, the Dutch-speaking half of the country, had seceded from the country. Thirty minutes into the news bulletin,only after the station''s phonelines were swamped, it was revealed to be a "War of the Worlds"-style hoax. Continue…

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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.