The Museum of Hoaxes
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Old-Time Photo Fakery, 1900 to 1919
The Great Electric Sugar Swindle, 1884
The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, 1959
Eccentric's last prank, 66 years after his death, 1900
The Cradle of the Deep, a literary hoax, 1929
Princess Caraboo, servant girl who became a princess, 1817
Swiss peasants harvest spaghetti from trees, 1957
The Great Wall of China Hoax, 1899
What do the lines on Solo cups mean?
The Instant Color TV Hoax, 1962
Ada Emma Deane’s Armistice Day Series
Ada Emma Deane spent most of her life working as a cleaning lady before launching a new career as a photographic medium at the age of 58. She quickly became one of the most famous mediums in Britain. Her signature effect was that eerie, disembodied heads would appear in pictures taken by her. These heads, so it was claimed, were the manifestation of departed spirits. Skeptics pointed out that in order to produce this effect, Deane required that photographic plates be submitted to her in advance so that she could "pre-magnetise" them with her psychic powers. This gave her ample opportunity to tamper with the plates. But her defenders (who included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) insisted that no trickery was involved. They often argued that she was merely a simple cleaning lady who lacked the expertise to pull off such deception.

Deane's most famous photos were those she took, with the help of spiritualist Estelle Stead, during the two minutes silence at services commemorating Armistice Day and the end of World War I. In these photos ghostly figures and faces — supposedly the spirits of dead war heroes — could be seen floating above the crowd. She took the first such picture in 1921, and then again in 1922 (top) and 1923 (second from top). By 1924 her Armistice Day photo was highly anticipated, and newspapers bid on the rights to it. The Daily Sketch won the rights and published the resulting photo (second from bottom) on November 13, 1924. The photo showed a group of faces floating in a cloud above the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

But two days later The Daily Sketch announced it had discovered the photo to be a fraud. The faces in the cloud were not dead war heroes. Instead, they appeared to be living football players and boxers, including Battling Siki and Jimmy Wilde. The paper published portraits of the athletes alongside Deane's spirit photo (bottom). It denounced Deane as a "charlatan" who had perpetrated "a cruel fraud designed to deceive credulous people and bereaved relatives of the glorious dead."

Deane's defenders argued that they failed to see the similarity to the athletes — that, in fact, the faces were too blurry to positively identify. Deane herself said, "If I had wanted to produce a fraudulent photograph, is it likely I would have used portraits of well-known footballers or boxers?" Nevertheless, the incident put a serious dent in her reputation. She continued to work as a photographic medium for a number of years, but she never again took an Armistice Day photo.

Links and References
• Fischer, Andreas. "The Most Disreputable Camera in the World: Spirit photography in the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century." in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. Yale University Press. 2004.
• Jolly, M.T. (2003). Fake Photographs: Making Truths in Photography. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Sydney. [PDF]
Cloud with spirit faces. Flickr.
Mrs. Ada Emma Deane's Ghost Picture. Columbia.edu.


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