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
Literary Hoaxes
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, 1371. This popular book (a 'bestseller' for its time) purported to document the travels of an English knight throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. It described bizarre foreign lands and people, such as islanders who had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, and a race of one-eyed giants who ate only raw fish and raw meat. The book was widely regarded as factual, even though it was obviously fiction. Continue…
The Voynich Manuscript, c.1500. The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book consisting of pages of hand-written text and crudely drawn illustrations that depict plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. The text has defied all attempts at translation. One theory is that the book's text was simply nonsense gibberish that an alchemist used to impress clients. But no one knows for sure what the book's purpose was. Continue…
Cicero’s Consolatio. Carlo Sigonio was a highly respected Italian scholar who specialized in the history of Rome. Around 1583 he claimed that he had discovered a new complete work by the great Roman orator Cicero. It was titled De Consolatione or the Consolation. In it Cicero grieved for his daughter's death. Only small fragments of this work had ever been found before. The discovery of this manuscript caused great excitement. But when other scholars read it, the... Continue…
Madagascar, or Robert Drury’s Journal, 1729. A book detailing an Englishman's shipwreck and enslavement on the island of Madagascar has proved controversial. It was accepted as true during the 18th century, and dismissed as a hoax during the 19th century. But in 1996, a British scholar argued that the tale may, in fact, be true since the description of early 18th century Madagascar was highly accurate. Continue…
A Modest Proposal. In 1729 Jonathan Swift anonymously published a short work titled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Public. The essay began innocuously by discussing the problem of numerous starving beggars and homeless children in Ireland. But then it proposed a radical solution: Ireland's large, impoverished population could be turned... Continue…
James Macpherson and the Ossianic Controversy, 1761. Schoolmaster James Macpherson claimed he had discovered the text of an ancient epic poem written by a Scottish bard named Ossian. The work became an international bestseller. But other scholars, particulary Samuel Johnson, accused Macpherson of having written the work himself. Later examination of Macpherson's sources (or lack of them) suggests he probably was the author of much of the work. Continue…
Thomas Chatterton and the Rowley Poems, 1767. Young Chatterton wrote poems in the style of the old manuscripts he came across in his uncle's church and eventually produced a group of poems he claimed were the work of a 15th century priest named Thomas Rowley. The poems were praised. Encouraged, Chatterton left for London, hoping to make it as a writer. Four months later, unable to find work, he poisoned himself. The Rowley poems were recognized as forgeries after his death. Continue…
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. Continue…
William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare Forgeries, 1794. Bookseller Samuel Ireland was a passionate fan of Shakespeare, so he was overjoyed when his son, William Henry, claimed to have found a previously unknown play written by the Bard. Arrangements were made for the play to be performed. But the actors, suspecting a fraud, made a mockery of it. Soon after, William confessed the play was indeed his own work. However, his heartbroken father refused to believe the confession. Continue…
Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Grimm's Fairy Tales, first published in German in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmärchen, is considered to be one of the major works of 19th-century culture. Popular myth holds that the tales came from simple, peasant folk interviewed by the brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm. In reality, the bulk of the tales came from a handful of middle- and upper-class women. Some of the tales were French in origin, not German. Furthermore, the tales were heavily... Continue…
The Journal of Charles Le Raye. In 1812 a Boston printer published a journal, said to have been written by the French trader Charles Le Raye, describing his capture in 1801 by a band of Teton Sioux and subsequent travels through the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone regions. If the account is true, Le Raye would have been the first European to travel through that region and write about it, preceding the Lewis and Clark expedition by three years. But scholars now believe the... Continue…
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... Continue…
Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe is celebrated for his dark, gothic tales of horror and suspense. But he also published six hoaxes during his brief life. Many modern anthologies of his works, however, fail to note that these stories were first presented to readers in the guise of nonfiction. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the "epoch of the hoax." 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 Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, 1836. In a tell-all book, Maria Monk described scandalous secrets of the Montreal convent where she claimed to have lived for 7 years. Nuns sleeping with priests. Babies killed and buried in the basement. Her revelations caused public outcry and stoked anti-Catholic sentiment. But investigations found no evidence to back up her claims. Nor evidence that she had even been at the convent. Continue…
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. As the Wilkes Expedition, organized by the U.S. Navy, prepared to depart for South America and Antarctica during the late 1830s, polar travel received a great deal of attention in America. This was the context in which a serialized tale authored by Edgar Allan Poe appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in January and February, 1837. Titled "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," it presented the story of an explorer, Arthur Gordon Pym, who... Continue…
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.... Continue…
The Fortsas Bibliohoax, 1840.
An unusual auction was announced. Up for sale was the library of the Comte de Fortsas, who collected books of which only one copy was known to exist. He had only fifty-two books, but each one was absolutely unique. Book lovers were enthralled and traveled from far and wide to attend the auction in Belgium. Only to discover, upon arrival, that there was no Comte de Fortsas, nor any of his books. The entire auction was an elaborate practical joke. Continue…
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The December 1845 edition of the American Whig Review contained an account of an unusual experiment designed to test whether hypnotism could delay the arrival of death. According to the article, a terminally ill patient, M. Ernest Valdemar, who only had hours left to live, was placed in a trance by a hypnotist. The effect was quite remarkable. Valdemar appeared to go into a state of suspended animation, moving only in response to the hypnotist's... Continue…
Von Kempelen and His Discovery. The April 14, 1849 edition of The Flag of Our Union contained an article titled "Von Kempelen and his Discovery." It described the discovery by a German chemist, Baron Von Kempelen, of an alchemical process to transform lead into gold. The account concluded by noting that news of the discovery had already caused a two hundred per cent leap in the price of lead in Europe. The story was fictional, although this was not indicated anywhere. Its... 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…
Milton Rejected. In 1887 a "disappointed literary aspirant," hoping to illustrate the ignorance of publishers and the diffulties faced by unknown authors, copied out the text of Milton's drama "Samson Agonistes," retitled it "Like a Giant Refreshed," and sent it as an original work of his own to publishers and editors. None recognized the work. One rejected it because it was too like a sensational novel. Another said it was "disfigured by Scotticisms." A third... Continue…
Spectric Poetry, 1916. In 1916 a slender volume of poetry titled Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments introduced the Spectric school of poetry to the world. It joined many other experimental schools of poetry then currently in vogue, such as the Imagists, the Futurists, and the Idealists. The Spectric poems were rather bizarre and nonsensical, but were also fun, full of life, and decked out with colorful (albeit illogical) imagery. Continue…
The Cradle of the Deep, 1929. Joan Lowell claimed she grew up on her father's schooner, traveling the South Seas. She described her maritime adventures in The Cradle of the Deep, published in 1929. But in reality she grew up in Berkeley, California and had spent only a few months at sea. Continue…
Ern Malley, 1944. The 1944 cover of Angry Penguins devoted to the work of Ern MalleyMax Harris was a glamorous young Australian poet who was making a reputation for himself as something of a rebel as editor of Angry Penguins, a cutting-edge literary magazine. Harris wanted to shake up the artistic community by exposing it to new ideas and new writers, and in 1944 he thought he had found a writer worth taking under his wing. That writer's name was Ern Malley. Continue…
I, Libertine, 1955. On September 20, 1956 Ballantine Books published I, Libertine, a novel by Frederick R. Ewing. It was advertised as a "turbulent, turgid, tempestuous" tale of eighteenth-century court life in London. However, Ewing didn't actually exist. Both he and the book were the creation of nighttime deejay Jean Shepherd, devised as an elaborate hoax upon "day people." Continue…
Report From Iron Mountain, 1967. Front cover of Report From Iron Mountain. In 1967 the war in Vietnam was escalating and race riots were breaking out in many major U.S. cities. Popular distrust of the federal government was growing. It was in this context that on October 16 a book appeared titled Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. It was published by Dial Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Leonard C. Lewin, a New York freelance writer,... Continue…
Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan, 1968. In 1968 Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. It described his encounters with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman from Mexico. Don Juan supposedly trained Castaneda in ancient forms of knowledge, such as how to use drugs to communicate with animals (or even to become an animal). Castaneda's book became a bestseller and... Continue…
Naked Came the Stranger, 1969. Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary and artistic taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States, driven down by a relentless flood of media sensationalism that catered to the lowest common denominator. So he decided to design an experiment to test the depths of the American cultural morass. He would commission the writing of a novel lacking in any redeeming features: no plot or character development, no... Continue…
The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, 1971. This remains one of the most brazen literary hoaxes of all time. Clifford Irving forged the "autobiography" of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, while Hughes was still alive. His hope was that the famously reclusive billionaire would be unwilling to emerge from his seclusion to expose the fraud. For a long time it seemed like Irving was going to get away with it, but ultimately his plan failed, because Hughes did emerge to blow the whistle on the scheme. Continue…
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,... Continue…
Casablanca Rejected, 1982. Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, weak story line Casablanca is arguably the most famous movie in the history of film. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943, and was voted as one of the top three American films ever made by the American Film Institute. It's a movie that everyone in the film industry should instantly be able to recognize. But in 1982 freelance writer Chuck Ross asked himself this question: Would contemporary... Continue…
Jane Somers (aka Doris Lessing), 1983. In 1983 the novel The Diary of a Good Neighbor was published in Great Britain and the United States. It told the story of a successful middle-aged magazine editor who befriends a lonely old woman. The cover identified the author as Jane Somers, a name that was said to be the pseudonym of a "well-known English woman journalist." The book received little critical attention, and had only modest sales. Approximately 1500 copies sold in the UK and... Continue…
The Claire Chazal Experiment. Claire Chazal Claire Chazal was a well-known newswoman who presented the evening news on France's TF1 network. Like many French celebrities, she had decided to write a novel. She titled it L'Institutrice (The Primary School Teacher). It was published in 1997 by Plon and became a bestseller. In 2000, the editors of Voici magazine, a weekly tabloid, decided to use her novel to prove that the success of novels by celebrities has little to do with... Continue…
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Final Farewell. Gabriel Garcia MarquezDuring the summer of 1999 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of such classics as One Hundred Years of Solitude, was treated for lymphatic cancer. Following this, there were persistent rumors about his failing health. On May 29, 2000 these rumors appeared to be confirmed when a poem signed with his name appeared in the Peruvian daily La Republica. The poem, titled "La Marioneta"... Continue…
Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love. Norma Khouri's bestseller Honor Lost (published in Australia, Khouri's home, as Forbidden Love) told the story of a Jordanian 'honor killing.' Dalia, a young woman living in Jordan, falls in love with a Christian man and is murdered for this transgression by her father in order to defend the 'honor' of the family. Khouri claimed the story was nonfiction, based on the life (and death) of a woman she met while growing up in Jordan. But the Sydney... Continue…
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... Continue…
Angel at the Fence, 2008. The story of how Herman Rosenblat first met his wife, Roma, was remarkable. Rosenblat was imprisoned as a child in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He claimed that Roma, a Jewish girl disguised as a Christian who lived in the nearby town, used to throw apples over the fence for him. Twelve years later, the two met in Coney Island and realized where they had previously seen each other. They fell in love and got married. Rosenblat first shared... Continue…

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