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
Science Hoaxes
Lusus Naturae. Medieval naturalists spent a lot of time studying Lusus Naturae, or Jokes of Nature. The term described any creature or specimen that defied classification. The idea was that Nature was a master hoaxer, creating weird anomalies in order to confound the expectations of men. One example was the "Vegetable Lamb." Believed to be a real creature, it resisted classification, being a lamb from whose belly grew a thick stem firmly rooted in the ground. Thus it was part plant, part animal. Continue…
Athanasius Kircher, Victim of Pranks. Athanasius Kircher was one of the central figures of Baroque scientific culture, but he was also reported to be the target of many pranks and was often portrayed as being a bit of an Intellectual Fool. According to one story, some young boys buried stones carved with meaningless symbols at a construction site. When dug up, Kircher was asked to interpret them, and he pompously proceeded to give an elaborate interpretation of the nonsense signs. Continue…
The Charlton Brimstone Butterfly, 1702. Entomologists were fascinated when, shortly before his death, William Charlton presented them with a specimen of a rare, one-of-a-kind butterfly. Sixty years later, Linnaeus examined it and declared it to be a new species, although none other of its kind had ever been found. Thirty years after that, a Danish entomologist decided to examine it more closely, and it was only then discovered to be a common Brimstone butterfly with black spots painted on its wings. Continue…
Lucina Sine Concubitu, 1750. The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. Continue…
The Electric Kite Hoax. On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity. Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the... Continue…
The Duckbilled Platypus, 1799. The British Museum received a specimen of an Australian animal that appeared to be a combination of a duck and a mole. Naturalists there suspected it was a hoax. It was only when more specimens of the strange creature arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly admitted it was real. Today we know the creature as the Duckbilled Platypus. It is one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all. Continue…
The Calaveras Skull, 1866. When workers found a human skull buried deep inside a California mine, scholars initially identified it as Pliocene age, making it the oldest known record of human existence in North America. But other scholars challenged its authenticity, sparking a debate that dragged on for years. Eventually the skull was determined to be a fake, but it isn't known who was responsible for it, though it's suspected the skull may have been planted by miners playing a practical joke. 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…
The Taughannock Giant. The Taughannock Giant was a stone giant unearthed on July 4, 1879 on the shores of Lake Cayuga in Ithaca. It was pronounced to be of ancient origin by scientists and physicians. However, it turned out to be the work of Ira Dean who had spent months carving it in his home, with the simple desire of fooling someone. Continue…
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... Continue…
The Piltdown Man, 1912. In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The skull was unmistakably human, whereas the jaw appeared to be from an ape, but their proximity within the pit suggested they came from the same creature. The discovery was believed to be of great significance. The fossil was possibly the long-sought missing link between man and ape. For almost forty years the authenticity of the... Continue…
The Case of the Midwife Toad, 1926. During the 1920s, Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer designed an experiment involving a species called the Midwife Toad. He wanted to prove that Lamarckian inheritance was possible. When his experiment produced positive results, the scientitic community was stunned. That is, until researchers had a chance to examine his toads more closely. Continue…
Margaret Mead and the Samoans, 1925. In 1925, 24-year-old Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa where she stayed for nine months. On her return she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. It portrayed Samoa as a gentle, easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups. Premarital sex was common. Rape was unheard of. Young people grew to adulthood without enduring the adolescent trauma typical in western countries. She used these findings to support her... Continue…
The Sokal Hoax, 1996. Alan SokalAn article that appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the cultural studies journal Social Text bore the portentous title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." At first glance the article appeared to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. It was written in the typical style of academic articles, slightly overbearing and verbose, and it came armored with a bristling flank of footnotes... Continue…
The Piltdown Chicken, 1999. The Piltdown Chicken (artist's reconstruction) The National Geographic Society held a press conference on October 15, 1999 to announce a major discovery: It had found a 125-million-year-old fossil in northeastern China that appeared to be the long-sought missing link between dinosaurs and birds. For over twenty years paleontologists had debated whether birds were descended from dinosaurs. This fossil seemed to provide conclusive proof they... Continue…
The Stone Age Discoveries of Shinichi Fujimura, 2000. As a young man, Shinichi Fujimura developed an interest in Japan's pre-history and taught himself archaeology. Soon he was making spectacular finds that caught the attention of researchers around the world. By the age of 50, he had established himself as one of Japan's leading archaeologists. Fujimura's first major discovery occurred in 1981 when he found stoneware that dated back 40,000 years — the oldest stoneware ever found in Japan.... Continue…

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