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
Scientific Fraud
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…
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 Walam Olum of Constantine Rafinesque, 1836. The naturalist Rafinesque produced a document that he claimed was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) indians that he had been able to translate into English. Long accepted as authentic, it was exposed as a fraud, by linguistic analysis, in 1996. Rafinesque had translated the text from English into Lenape, rather than the other way around. Continue…
The Orgueil Meteorite, 1864. After a meteor shower fell in southern France, someone went to elaborate lengths to embed plant seeds within one of the meteorites. It may have been an attempt to hoax the French scientific community, but the hoax backfired because the seeds weren't noticed by anyone until the 1960s, almost a century later. Researchers initially thought the seeds might be of extraterrestrial origin,until they identified them as native to France. 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…
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 Holly Oak Pendant, 1889. In 1889 Hilborne T. Cresson, an archaeological assistant at Harvard's Peabody Museum, announced he had discovered a prehistoric seashell pendant that bore an engraving of a woolly mammoth. He said he had found it in a peat and forest layer near the Holly Oak railway station in northern Delaware. The pendant was an important find, since it suggested that prehistoric man must have been present in the Americas at the time when woolly mammoths still... 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…
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…
The Stone-Age Tasaday, 1971. A primitive, stone-age tribe found living in a rain forest in the Philippines was later alleged to be an elaborate fake. Continue…
The Himalayan Fossils Hoax. Viswa Jit Gupta was a prominent Indian fossil scientist who was discovered to have been faking fossil finds for many years. The fraud was exposed by Australian geologist John Talent in the late 1980s. 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.