The Museum of Hoaxes
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Time Period: 1840-1899
Portrait of the Photographer as a Drowned Man. (1840) Louis Daguerre was the first to patent a photographic process. But Hippolyte Bayard had independently invented a rival photographic process known as direct positive printing, and had done so as early as Daguerre, but his invention didn't earn him fame and riches. Frustrated, he created a photograph to express his feelings, showing himself pretending to be a suicide victim. More…
The Valley of the Shadow of Death. (April 23, 1855) Roger Fenton took this photo while documenting the Crimean War for the British government. This image, considered a masterpiece of war photography, shows a simple, but haunting view of a cannonball-strewn road near Sevastopol. But in 1981 historian Mark Haworth-Booth determined that Fenton probably staged this scene, moving cannonballs from the ditch onto the road in order to create a more dramatic image. More…
Street Urchins Tossing Chestnuts. (1857) This may look like a real-life scene caught by the camera, but in fact is staged. Cameras were too slow in the 1850s to record something as quick-moving as a tossed chestnut. So Oscar Rejlander suspended a chestnut in mid-air with a piece of fine thread in order to create the scene. More…
Interior of the Secundra Bagh. (March or April 1858) Human bones were disinterred and scattered around to recreate the aftermath of a battle. More…
Mumler’s Spirit Photos. (1861-1879) Image created by William Mumler, 1872. "Bronson Murray in a Trance with the Spirit of Ella Bonner." Mumler created the genre of the spirit photo: ghostly images supposedly caught on film. More…
A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep. (Taken in 1863. Exposed as a fake in 1961.) Civil War photographers used a corpse as a movable prop. More…
Petticoat Politics. (May 1865) A Northern photographer created this image of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a dress. More…
Lincoln’s Portrait. (Late 1860s) This standing portrait of Lincoln was created soon after the American Civil War. It hung in many classrooms, but Lincoln never posed for it. An unknown entrepreneur created it by cutting-and-pasting a headshot of Lincoln onto a portrait of the Southern leader John Calhoun. This was done because there were hardly any appropriate "heroic-style" portraits of Lincoln made during his life. More…
The Martyr Lincoln. (late 1860s) Following the assassination of Lincoln, the Army didn't allow any pictures to be taken of him in his casket. Therefore, con artists stepped in to fill the demand. This image was one of many that circulated purporting to show the dead President, but it's fake. It shows a man lying down, probably only pretending to be dead. But that man is not Lincoln. More…
Dickens in America. (December 1867) An early example of how a celebrity's appearance could be tidied up in the darkroom. The portrait of Dickens on the right was taken in 1861. But during Dickens' 1867 tour of the U.S., the Matthew Brady studio used darkroom techniques to improve the photo, producing the portrait on the left, which they sold to the public, promising that it showed "Mr. Dickens just as he is in his readings." More…
The Rope Trick. (ca. 1888) A young lady poses on a swing in a photographer's studio. Except, she isn't really on a swing. 19th-century photographers needed subjects to remain stationary to get the proper focus and exposure. So swinging back and forth was out of the question. The swing was actually a prop available from a catalog. The ropes remained rigid and were not attached to anything above. More…
The Silent City. (ca. 1889) Alaskan prospector Dick Willoughby claimed this was a photo of a "silent city" mirage visible from Muir Glacier in southeastern Alaska. The "silent city" was supposedly the reflection of a real city thousands of miles away in Russia. Willoughby sold thousands of copies of this photo and even took people on guided tours to see the mirage. But the photo was actually a blurry shot of Bristol, England that he had creatively recaptioned. The "silent city" mirage didn't exist. More…
Mammoth Potato of Loveland. (1894) Colorado farmer Joseph Swan created this amusing photo (with help from a local photographer) as a tongue-in-cheek ad to show off his potato-growing skills. But copies of the photo began to circulate, and soon it was being reprinted in magazines as a supposedly real photo, causing Swan to receive hundreds of letters from people seeking seeds from his "mammoth potato" so they could grow their own. This is a very early example of a "viral" fake photo. More…
A Man’s Portrait Retouched. (1895) In their 1895 work Photography: Artistic and Scientific, authors Robert Johnson and Arthur Brunel Chatwood offered an example of how retouching could improve a portrait. They also defended the practice, writing: "that judicious retouching is a very great advantage we have no doubt whatever; it is an absolute necessity, in our opinion, in order to obtain the best result, which is admittedly the object of all art." More…
The Sympsychograph. (September 1896) David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, published an article in Popular Science Monthly announcing the discovery of a new form of photography, "Sympsychography," that allowed mental images to be made visible on a photographic plate. This photo, he said, was an example. It was a psychic projection of "a cat in its real essence." He intended his article as a joke, but was surprised when many took it seriously. More…
All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.