12 Famous Hoaxes That (Almost) Fooled Everyone
And no, they’re not all from the Internet age!
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Fool me once…
In today’s technology-saturated Internet age, fake news and misinformation are everywhere. But these are by no means new concepts! People have always had the tendency to dupe and be duped, as these major hoaxes, which occurred as recently as 2017 and as long ago as 1726, prove. Some were meticulously planned in hopes of striking it rich. A few were accidental consequences of otherwise harmless actions. Many were perpetrated to be funny or malicious, and still others were done to prove a point. No matter the reason, here are 12 hoaxes that hoodwinked the world. For some more recent scams, here are some of the most outlandish things the Internet told us that just weren’t true.
War of the Worlds
Orson Welles didn’t mean to mastermind one of the greatest hoaxes in history. Mass hysteria was simply a byproduct of a high-quality radio play in an era where world war loomed, the space race was in its early stages, and most people got news and entertainment from their receivers. According to History.com, the October 30, 1938, broadcast began at 8 p.m. with an introduction presenting the Mercury Theater’s update of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, but unfortunately, many people were listening to a popular ventriloquist on another station until 8:12 and therefore missed the disclaimer. Welles take on Wells’ Martian invasion tale started with a weather report and a concert live from the Hotel Park Plaza before news alerts about explosions on Mars, a meteor crashing into a New Jersey farm, and eventually aliens with tentacles, heat rays, and poisonous gas broke in. Terrified announcers were then saying cylinders had landed in Chicago and St. Louis, 7,000 National Guardsmen had been wiped out, and that people were fleeing.
Only the panic part turned out to be real as potentially a million listeners thought Earth was under attack. People crowded the highways, armed themselves, begged police for gas masks, requested their power be shut off so the aliens wouldn’t see them, and were treated for shock at hospitals. A woman ran into an Indianapolis church during evening service to proclaim, “New York has been destroyed. It’s the end of the world. Prepare to die!” When CBS got wind of hysteria IRL, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was fiction. The FCC investigation found no wrongdoing but networks agreed to be more cautious regarding programming going forward. The attention scored Welles a Hollywood contract, which enabled him to write, direct, and star in his 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Check out the UFO myths scientists wish you’d stop believing.
The Shed at Dulwich
For just six short months in 2017, The Shed at Dulwich, where patrons ordered entrees by mood, became the highest-ranked restaurant in London on TripAdvisor and the hardest reservation in town to get. Calls and emails poured in begging to be squeezed in for birthday dinners, romantic dates, and media coverage. All were ignored or told to call back as they were booked solid for more than half a year. Except that was a lie. The reason they couldn’t score a table was actually because the business was bogus. It was an experiment in algorithm manipulation and buzz creation by freelance writer Oobah Butler, who had been paid in the past by owners to review their restaurants positively without ever stepping foot inside on the site. To turn the South London garden shed he resides in into a fake fine dining experience, he bought a burner phone and a domain, created a website with soft-focus pictures of delicious-looking dishes made with ingredients you wouldn’t want to eat (paint, bleach tablets, shaving cream, the heel of his foot), and drummed up interest by providing minimum details, making it an appointment-only establishment, lying about it being full, and soliciting friends to write glowing reviews. According to The Washington Post, people contacted him looking for work and companies sent him free samples of their food products. He opened The Shed for one night and served canned soup—and some diners still asked to come again. Butler outed himself in an article and video for Vice a month after hitting the top spot and TripAdvisor removed the listing. Don’t miss the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.
The Cardiff Giant
George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress
This gentle giant remains one of 19th-century America’s most legendary hoaxes. Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols unearthed a ten-foot petrified “man” on October 16, 1869, while digging a well on the New York farm owned by William Newell. Word spread about the discovery and Newell put up a tent and started charging a quarter (and then 50¢ as business boomed) to take a peek at the ground Goliath. Hundreds of curious onlookers and amateur archaeologists made the pilgrimage, many believing it was an ancestor of the Onondaga people and some claiming it was proof of the giants mentioned in The Bible—even after most professionals like Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh said it a fake. The “mummy” was eventually sold to a group of businessmen who sent him on tour. Greatest showman PT Barnum offered to buy it for $50,000, and when they declined to sell, he made a plaster knockoff and arranged for it to be shown in a New York City museum. By December, Binghamton cigar salesman George Hull admitted this was a stone-cold swindle. He’d commissioned a German stone cutter in Chicago to carve it out of a block of gypsum he’d bought in Iowa before he and his cousin Newell buried the 2,990-pound statue. While it was a get-rich-quick scheme, Hull, an atheist, was also trying to prove a point about what he considered silly religious stories and how science could disprove most of them. Even after the hoax was revealed, the Cardiff Giant still made appearances and money. According to Archaeology.org, he showed up at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and was sold in 1947 to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, where he’s on display today. Read about other strange things on exhibit at these bizarre museums.
More giants and petrified men
Cardiff’s big guy wasn’t the only fake giant among gullible men and women. That colossal chicanery inspired at least a dozen similar hoaxes, including The Solid Muldoon, “found” in Beulah, Colorado, in 1876 with a tail and likely perpetrated by Hull and former Barnum employee William Conant. Also in Colorado, con man Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith buried and found “McGinty” in Willow Creek and then charged $1 to look at him on display at his saloon, the Orleans Club, in Creede. When a scientist came to authenticate the giant, it had conveniently disappeared. Soapy soon followed suit. To get a leg up on his competition, Cataract House, the owner of Lake Cayuga, New York’s Taughannock House hired a foundry worker in 1877 to blend together a petrified man and then planted it for workers widening the hotel’s road to find. His prank proved to be a wonderful promotion—drawing huge crowds—until someone who helped bury the fake drunkenly let the truth slip at a bar and the iron filings used in the creature’s mix began rusting. Find out some more unsolved mysteries that can be easily explained by science.
Michael Jordan is dead
In February 2015, an article published on the Cronica MX website said that former Chicago Bull Michael Jordan had gone to that big basketball court in the sky after suffering a heart attack while he slept. It even quoted his wife, Yvette Prieto. They also posted a video clip designed to resemble a breaking news segment on YouTube with footage of a tearful ESPN reporter Rich Eisen saying goodbye. According to Snopes.com, the footage was real but recycled from a NFL Game Day episode from a month earlier when Eisen had learned that his longtime co-worker and friend Stuart Scott had lost his battle with cancer. It recirculates every once in a while, always trying to lure fans to click through to a spammy site or to provide their personal information. The same story was used again in 2017, this time by a site called Viral Mugshot, according to Inquisitr.com. Despite it containing the same spelling and grammar errors, it went viral on social media until debunking sites and news agencies reported it as fake news. And Jordan isn’t the only celebrity targeted by pranksters and hackers. If you believed everything you read on stars’ sites, fake Twitter accounts, or items reported by newspapers erroneously, many of your favorites would have been gone long before their time, including: former President Barack Obama (assassinated while campaigning in an Iowa restaurant), Will Ferrell (died in a 2006 paragliding accident), Nick Jonas (heart attack after a lap dance in a Dallas strip club), Justin Bieber (suicide twice, nightclub shooting, and an overdose), and, of course, Mikey from the Life cereal commercials (a deadly combo of Pop Rocks and soda made his stomach explode). Check out even more celebrity death hoaxes.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock
Since Charles Darwin released his evolution theories in 1859, scientists have been on the lookout for proof of the missing link—a phase between full ape and full man—and in 1912, Englishman Charles Dawson announced he’d found it in a gravel pit in Piltdown. He used the fossils to build a skull model with a human-sized brain and an ape-like jaw and England declared itself the real birthplace of modern humanity. But other scientists immediately took issue, mostly because it didn’t match other fossils found around the world including the Australopithecines one dug up in South Africa. In 1915, Dawson doubled down and claimed he retrieved a second similar fossil, which was enough evidence for many average Joes. The hoax was not revealed until 1953 when British scientists used new technology to date the Piltdown pair. They deduced that the remains were only 500 years old, not the 1 million years old needed to be the link. They also took a bite out of his claim by discovering that the jaw was from an orangutan whose teeth had been filed to resemble human wear patterns and that the bones had been stained to match each other. Most people involved were dead by the 1950s so the prank plotter was never identified. One whodunit theory, according to the BBC: The doer was none other than Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He lived near the pit and was a member of Dawson’s archaeological society. The motive was revenge for being constantly mocked by scientists for his belief in spiritualism. Here are some real (but weird!) discoveries archaeologists have made.
The Cock Lane ghost
Even royals can fall prey to paranormal pranks, according to The Daily Mail. In 1762, Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, visited a home on Cock Lane in London that was said to be haunted by Scratching Fanny, a woman who had died of smallpox in the rented house after her loan shark lover William Kent had lent their landlord money with a high interest rate. Kent took the landlord Richard Parsons to court over the loan and won. Strange noises that sounded like a cat scratching a chair were reported at the property around this time, and Parsons and his daughter Elizabeth, who the noises actually emanated from, claimed the ghost was Fanny. To prove it, they held séances regularly, which were written up in the newspaper and drew religious leaders, the prince, the mayor, and so many other onlookers that the street became impassable. At the time, people widely believed that a person would return from the great beyond to warn the living or seek revenge, so they quickly accepted that it was Fanny communicating via a system of knocks that Parsons and a preacher developed. During one such communing, the “ghost” accused Kent of poisoning her and requested he be hanged. To clear his name, Kent and two doctors who had tended to Fanny on her deathbed attended a séance, and again Fanny declared he was her killer. But during a later gathering, Dr. Samuel Johnson witnessed Elizabeth creeping from the bed where she was during encounters to pick up a piece of wood that she used to knock. She’d usually hidden the branch in her clothes. Parsons was trying to frame Kent after losing the case, but it was he who ended up behind bars for two years. (His wife also got a year in prison.) Check out some of the strangest mysteries surrounding the British royal family.
The Hurricane Harvey freeway shark
Alessandro De Maddalena/Shutterstock
Between social media sites and the 24-hour news cycle, it is impossible not to be bombarded with insane photos of daring rescues and heartbreaking destruction following any natural disaster these days. Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston in 2017 was no exception, with one image in particular proving you can’t always believe what you see. Twitter user @Jeggit posted a startling shot of a shark swimming in the floodwater that filled a Houston highway. It appeared to have been taken from the driver’s seat of a stalled car. It was retweeted almost 84,000 times and liked by 141,733 users fairly quickly. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Fox News host Jesse Watters was also fooled by the photo, even mentioning it during his show The Five. He later apologized for the mix-up on his Twitter account once Politifact tracked the doctored photo back to 2011. It appears to have first been circulated after Hurricane Irene struck Puerto Rico and posted on imgur.com. In 2012, social media users posted it saying it was taken in New Jersey during Sandy. It is believed that whoever created this fishy photo took the shark from an image that ran in Africa Geographic in 2005. Here are some more sneaky signs that what you’re looking at is fake news.
Hitler’s fake diaries
In 1979, Der Stern Magazine reporter Gerd Heidemann met with Nazi memorabilia collector Fritz Stiefel, who claimed to have a diary penned by Adolf Hitler. Stiefel said it’d been recovered from a 1945 crash of a plane transporting Hitler’s personal effects. (Records indicated the crash was real and that a chest was also recovered likely containing other journals.) After a couple of handwriting experts authenticated the script, more volumes turned up through Konrad Fischer, who’d procured them from an East German General who was planning to smuggle them out of Germany in pianos, according to the UnMuseum.org. Heidemann convinced his outlet to pony up 9.9 million marks (almost $4 million) for 60 diaries. The magazine knew it could make their money back and then some from reprints. In April 1983, Stern broke the story and then Newsweek and London’s Sunday Times ran excerpts.
Historians immediately balked, as Hitler loathed writing and there had been no indication from those close to him that he’d kept notes. Also, the content sparked skepticism as they portrayed Hitler as having little knowledge of concentration camps and wanting to deport, not exterminate, Jews. After many experts questioned the handwriting, the West German Federal Archives ran more tests. They concluded that the paper, ink, and glue were manufactured after the war had ended and Hitler had died. Heidemann, who always maintained he wasn’t in on it but had inflated the asking price and skimmed money off the top, was fired. Fischer turned out to be Konrad Kujau, a criminal specializing in forgery. He faked memorabilia first and worked his way up to whole documents and paintings. (In fact, a quarter of the works that were featured in the 1983 book Adolf Hitler: The Unknown Artist were done by Kujau.) Both Kujau and Heidemann were sentenced to almost five years in prison. Most of the money was never retrieved. While Heidemann was a pariah after serving, The Guardian reports that Kujau made regular appearances on talk shows and became a minor celebrity.