The Museum of Hoaxes
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False Rumors and Legends
The Wingdings Prophecies
Wingdings are a series of so-called "dingbat fonts" in Microsoft Word. They display symbols and pictures instead of letters, with each symbol corresponding to a different letter. In 1992, soon after the release of Windows 3.1, a rumor began to circulate alleging that anti-semitic messages had been coded into wingdings. The cause of this rumor was the (true) fact that if you typed the letters NYC using wingdings, you got a skull and crossbones, a star of David, and a thumbs up symbol. More…
The Neiman Marcus Cookie Recipe
During the 1980s a rumor began to circulate alleging that the luxury department store Neiman Marcus had once charged a customer $250 for a cookie recipe. The rumor was first reported in newspapers during the late 1980s. However, the tale was likely older than that. Pat Zajac, a Neiman Marcus spokeswoman in Dallas, when interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992, said that the tale had been circulating since she came to work for the chain in 1986. More…
Paul is Dead, 1969
In the Fall of 1969 a rumor swept around the world alleging that Paul McCartney, singer and bassist for the Beatles, was dead. In fact, that he had died three years ago on November 9, 1966 in a fiery car crash while heading home from the EMI recording studios. Supposedly the surviving band members, fearful of the effect his death might have on their careers, secretly replaced him with a double named William Campbell (an orphan who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest in Edinburgh). However, they also planted clues in their later albums to let fans know the truth, that Paul was dead. More…
The Disappearance of David Lang
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance. At least, this is what a popular tale that has circulated since the 1950s claims. More…
The Rip-Off Recipe Legend, 1940s
During the 1940s (though possibly earlier) a rumor began to circulate in America about a customer charged an exorbitant fee by a restaurant after requesting a copy of a recipe. According to the rumor, the customer (usually a woman) had enjoyed one of the items on the dessert menu and asked the management if they would be willing to share the recipe with her. The management responded affirmatively, but later sent her an outrageously large bill, which she learned that she was legally obligated to pay. In revenge, the woman decided to share the recipe with the general public, free of charge. More…
The Chesterfield Leper, 1934
A 1935 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, captioned: "Machines like this -- new and modern in every respect -- make Chesterfields."In the Fall of 1934 a rumor swept through America alleging that a leper had been found working in the Chesterfield cigarette factory in Richmond. Sales of Chesterfield cigarettes plummeted as smokers, fearful of catching the dreaded disease, switched to other brands. The Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company, maker of Chesterfields, repeatedly denied the rumor, but to no avail. The company even arranged for the mayor of Richmond to issue a statement assuring the public that the Chesterfield factory had been... More…

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 supposedly promised death to all who violated his tomb. More…
Monkeys Pick Cotton, 1899
In February 1899, numerous American newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, printed a story claiming that a farmer, W.W. Mangum, had successfully trained monkeys to pick cotton on his plantation in Smedes, Mississippi. The story was sourced to an article in the Cotton Planters' Journal by T.G. Lane. Reportedly Mangum was so pleased with the success of his monkey-labor experiment that he had ordered more monkeys from Africa, and he was urging other planters to join him in using simians as laborers. There is no evidence this story was true. In fact, the tale of monkeys being trained to pick cotton (or other crops) was one of the more... More…
The Great Duck Egg Fake, 1894
During the final decades of the nineteenth century, a conservation movement coalesced around a campaign to save the nation's birds, whose populations were under pressure because of the fashionability of hats decorated with feathers. The Audobon Society and the American Ornithological Union both formed out of this campaign. The campaign was given renewed urgency in the early 1890s when a report appeared in various publications, including the Northwest Sportsman of Oregon and the Sportsmen's Review of Chicago, that millions of waterfowl eggs were being collected in breeding grounds in Alaska and then shipped east for sale. The eggs, it was... More…
The Beheading of Baron Rothschild, 1890s
During the 1890s, Bosnian peasants, innocent of any crime, began surrendering themselves to the authorities with the request that they be beheaded. When the authorities investigated, they discovered that the peasants had heard a rumor alleging that the wealthy Austrian banker Albert Salomon von Rothschild had been sentenced to death and had offered a million florins to anyone willing to undergo the penalty for him. So syndicates had formed throughout rural Bosnia for the purpose of sharing the potential prize. Each member promised to sacrifice his life, should his lot be chosen, for the benefit of the other members. In reality, Rothschild hadn't been sentenced to death. He hadn't even been convicted of a crime, but the Bosnian authorities found it difficult to convince the volunteers of this, and new willing victims kept presenting themselves. More…
New York Sawed in Half, 1824
One of the legendary hoaxes of New York City is the tale of the man who formed a business in order to saw the city in half. The story goes that sometime around the summer of 1824 there was a group of tradesmen who used to meet every afternoon on the corner of Mulberry and Spring Streets to talk about the news of the day. One day they began discussing a rumor that the island of Manhattan was tipping into the ocean, due to the weight of all the new buildings being constructed. One of this group, a man named Lozier, proposed a solution: cut the island in half at Kingsbridge, tow the sinking half out to sea, turn it around, tow it back and then... More…
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. More…
The Patagonian Giants, 1766
When the Dolphin returned to London after circumnavigating the globe, a rumor spread alleging the crew had discovered a race of nine-foot-tall giants living in Patagonia, South America. It was said the name Patagonia actually meant "land of the big feet". But in reality, there were no South American giants. The crew had indeed encountered a tribe of Patagonians, but the tallest among them had measured only 6 feet 6 inches. More…
Pope Joan, 853 AD
According to legend, Pope Joan was a woman who concealed her gender and ruled as pope for two years. Her identity was exposed when, riding one day from St. Peter's to the Lateran, she stopped by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child. The legend is unconfirmed. Skeptics note that the first references to Pope Joan only appear hundreds of years after her supposed reign. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.