The Museum of Hoaxes
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Entertainment and Show Business Hoaxes
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 alive. The entire time he had been safe at home, hiding in a room above his family's garage. The incident turned out to have been a bizarre hoax engineered by his parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, in an... More…
Allegra Coleman, 1996
Esquire magazine's November 1996 cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. The feature article inside described the buzz building around her. Hollywood was intrigued. After Esquire ran the article, the magazine received calls from talent scouts, eager to get in touch with the new star. But as it turned out, Allegra didn't exist. Esquire had invented her as a spoof of the fawning puffery that many magazines shower on movie stars. The woman shown on the cover and in the photos inside was a (then) little-known actress called Ali Larter, who subsequently starred in the NBC series Heroes. More…
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. More…
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 captors abandoned her in the Fontainebleau Forest, where she was found and helped to safety by kindly gypsies. The police believed none of her tale, and rightly so. Her "kidnapping" turned out to have... More…
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 the Mercury Theater. More…
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 audiences' delight. This became a signature part of his act. Over time many of these works became popular in their own right and entered the repertoire of other performers besides Kreisler. More…

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. More…
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. It was claimed that this was the child of Lavinia and Tom, but in fact it was simply an orphaned baby Barnum had provided them with. Because of her size, Lavinia was incapable of having a baby of her... More…
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 showman P.T. Barnum, and naturally he had a scheme to make money from it. He had secretly cut a deal with the operators of the Hoboken ferry, so that he would receive half of their net receipts. The more... More…
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. More…
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 mechanical automaton. People then revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether she was an automaton or a real person. Barnum displayed her until February 19, 1836, on which day she died. More…
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. More…
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. More…
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. More…
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Eras: 0-1699 1700s 1800-1849 1850-1899 1900-1949 1950-1979 1980s 1990s 2000s
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.