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
Entertainment and Show Business Hoaxes
The Great Bottle Hoax of 1749. Believing the public to be ever credulous, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that if he advertised an impossible feat would be performed, they would still "find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there." The Earl accepted the bet. So the Duke posted flyers promising the chance to see "a man jumping into a quart bottle." Every seat in the theater sold. But when the entertainment wasn't provided, a riot ensued. Continue…
The Great Chess Automaton, 1770. Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed was a chess-playing "thinking machine". It consisted of a wooden figure dressed in Turkish clothes whose trunk emerged out of a large wooden box. When wound up, the figure played chess against human opponents, actually moving pieces on its own, and it almost always won. The secret was that a man was hidden in the box, controlling the movements of the wooden figure. 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…
Joice Heth, 1835. Joice Heth was an elderly black woman whom a young P.T. Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with tales about the young George Washington, and her exhibition drew substantial attention. When the public's interest in her waned, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead a... Continue…
The Hoaxes of P.T. Barnum. Barnum described himself as the "Prince of Humbug," an epithet he more than earned during his long career. He's best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name, but before the circus he ran a New York museum, and it was this museum that initially made him rich and famous. He attracted visitors to it by means of sensational publicity stunts, hoaxes, and plain-old false advertising. But he managed to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. Continue…
The Free Grand Buffalo Hunt. Posters that appeared around New York City in the summer of 1843 advertised a "Grand Buffalo Hunt" that would take place across the river in Hoboken on August 31, 1843. For the entertainment of the crowd, which would be protected behind thick double-rail fencing, cowboys would pretend to hunt and lasso a herd of wild buffalo imported from New Mexico. Best of all, the event would take place free of charge. The organizer of this event was the... Continue…
Tom Thumb’s Baby. The most famous performer managed by P.T. Barnum was the diminutive Charles Sherwood Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb. 19th-century audiences were enthralled by the sight of him parading around dressed as Napoleon. On February 10, 1863 Tom married Lavinia Warren, a woman equally small in size. The two then toured together through Europe as husband and wife. To complete the scene of domestic bliss, Barnum often had Lavinia pose holding a baby.... Continue…
Sober Sue, 1907. The performer "Sober Sue" appeared on stage in New York, billed as the girl who never laughed. The theater offered a prize of $100 to anyone who could make her smile. People from the audience, as well as professional comedians, all accepted the challenge, but all failed. Sober Sue never so much as cracked a grin. The truth was only revealed after her run at the theater was over. It was impossible for her to laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed. Continue…
Fritz Kreisler’s Lost Classics, 1935. During the early twentieth century, Fritz Kreisler was considered to be one of the leading violinists of his time. Part of his popularity stemmed from his rediscovery of many 'lost classics' by famous composers. He explained he had found these works tucked away in libraries and monasteries throughout Europe. He would play these lost classics (which included pieces by masters such as Pugnani and Vivaldi) during his concerts, much to his... Continue…
The War of the Worlds, 1938. On October 30, 1938, thousands of people fled in panic after hearing CBS Radio report that Martian invaders had landed in New Jersey and were marching across the country, using heat rays and poisonous gas to kill Earthlings. But as soon became clear, Martians hadn't really invaded New Jersey. What people had heard (and mistook for a real news broadcast) was a radio version of H.G. Wells's story The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles and... Continue…
The Kidnapping of Nicole Riche, 1950. At 3 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, April 1, 1950 the 22-year-old French actress Nicole Riche walked into a Paris police station dressed in a flimsy white negligee. She had been missing for over two days. When the police questioned her about where she had been, she spilled forth a bizarre tale about being kidnapped by "Puritans" who kept her in a room without food while they lectured her about the immorality of her life. Finally, she said, her... Continue…
Twenty One. During the 1950s Twenty One was one of the most popular quiz shows on TV. Its ratings soared when Charles Van Doren, son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, appeared as a contestant on the show in late 1956. Van Doren seemed unbeatable. For week after week he answered every question correctly, winning a total of $129,000. But in 1957 a previous contestant, Herbert Stempel, revealed that the entire show was rigged. Van Doren, it turned... Continue…
Subways Are For Sleeping, 1962. On January 4, 1962, an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune for a Broadway play titled "Subways Are For Sleeping." Judging by the ad, it appeared the play was a critical success. The names of seven well-known theater critics appeared in the ad, and accompanying their names were the rave reviews they had given the play. But, in truth, the quotations came from ordinary people who happened to have the same names as the critics. Continue…
Allegra Coleman, 1996. Esquire magazine's November 1996 cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. "Forget Gwyneth, Forget Mira," the cover declared. "Here's Hollywood's next Dream Girl." The feature article inside described the buzz building around her. David Schwimmer, star of Friends, was said to be her on-again, off-again boyfriend, although he was getting some competition from Quentin Tarantino who had apparently dumped... Continue…
Balloon Boy, 2009. On October 15, 2009, millions of people sat glued to their TVs, watching a silver, saucer-shaped balloon float through the sky. The media was reporting that a six-year-old boy, Falcon Heene, was inside the balloon, in danger for his life as it drifted out of control. After several hours, the balloon landed a few miles from Denver International Airport, but the boy was nowhere to be found. There were fears he had fallen out. Thankfully he was... Continue…

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