The Museum of Hoaxes
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Legal Hoaxes
The Caltech Sweepstakes Caper, 1975
Caltech student Becky Hartsfield shows off the prizes she won. Caltech is known for producing world-class scientists and engineers. But a few of its students have also demonstrated a flair for the law, as a highly controversial 1975 prank that turned on the legalistic reading of a sweepstakes entry form proved. The sweepstakes in question was held by McDonald's. It ran from March 3rd to March 23rd, 1975, at 187 participating McDonald's restaurants in Southern California. The prizes included a year of groceries, a Datsun Z, McDonald's gift certificates, and cash. But one part of the contest rules caught the attention of three Caltech students... More…
The Strange Bequest of Francis Douce, 1900
Francis Douce (1757-1834) was a wealthy English antiquarian, known for his collection of books, prints, drawings, coins, and artifacts. In particular he specialized in collecting material related to children's books and games, fools and jesters, as well as death, demonology, and witchcraft. He also worked briefly at the British Museum, where he held the post of Keeper of Records. When he died in 1834 he left an unusual stipulation in his will. He wanted all his personal papers donated to the British Museum, but they were to be first sealed in a box and only opened sixty-six years after his death. More…
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 retraction was not as widely publicized as the original story, and so the case made its way as fact into a number of legal textbooks. More…
The Blue Laws of Connecticut, 1781
The Rev. Samuel Peters published a book which included sensational details about "blue laws" that had supposedly once existed in Connecticut, making it illegal to do such things as kiss a child or shave on Sunday. But in fact, such laws had never formally existed. Peters was a wealthy Anglican who had been forced to leave America during the Revolution, so he was trying to make his former countrymen look as uptight and repressive as possible. More…
The Trial of Polly Baker, 1747
On April 15, 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 free? According to the article, Polly's argument so moved the judges that one of them asked her hand in marriage the next day. Polly Baker's speech became a popular sensation, and it... More…
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 the great terror and amazement of the King's good and peaceable subjects in this province." More…

A Case of Pregnancy without Intercourse, 1637
A pamphlet published in Paris described the case of a woman who had given birth to a son, even though her husband had been absent for four years. When charged with adultery, the woman claimed innocence, explaining that her husband had impregnated her in a dream. The court accepted this argument. The report of this ruling caused an uproar throughout Paris, but upon investigation the pamphlet was revealed to be a hoax. More…
Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull, c.1455
Count Jean V d'Armagnac of France (shown above) fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. Then he sought approval from the Pope to marry her. The Pope refused. Undeterred, the Count bribed a papal official to forge a papal bull allowing the marriage. When the Pope learned of this, he excommunicated the Count. Later, King Charles VII's army killed the Count and dragged his body through the streets. 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…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.