A Brief History
On August 25, 1835, the New York newspaper The Sun published the first of six articles about alleged new scientific discoveries concerning the moon, specifically that a civilization had been found thriving there. People bought the newspapers in eager anticipation of each new report about this fabulous discovery. Throughout history people have been fooled by tricksters that perpetrate hoaxes, sometimes for profit, sometimes just for fun. Here 10 of those hoaxes are listed.
10. Cardiff Giant, 1869.
In an effort to make fun of Biblical references to giants, George Hull, a New York atheist, had a “giant” carved out of a 10-foot-long chunk of gypsum and then secretly buried on his Cardiff, New York property. When he had workmen dig a well at that exact location, they “discovered” the “petrified” remains of a giant man. Visitors paid the Hoaxster 50 cents to see the wonder, and circus-founder PT Barnum offered Hull $50,000 to buy it. Hull eventually sold the “giant” for $23,000.
9. Fiji (or Feejee) Mermaid, 1842.
This creation was a product of the fertile mind of PT Barnum. He had the head of a monkey sewn onto the body of a fish with distinct breasts and presented it to the public as a mummified mermaid. The original goofy exhibit was destroyed by fire in the 1860s, but other similar fake mermaids have also been created.
8. Hitler’s Diaries, 1983.
The German publication Stern reported that it had received copies Adolf Hitler’s diaries that had been recovered from an East German airplane crash. British and American “experts” declared the documents genuine, and the “diaries” were published. Of course, juicy stuff like this is often too good to be true, as once again was the case. Exposed as a fraud, the diaries cost Stern 9 million Deutsche Marks and a big chunk of their credibility. Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon, admitted in 2012 that he had known the documents were probably false but ordered them printed anyway (See our April 22, 2014 article).
7. Spaghetti Trees, 1957.
As an April Fools joke, the BBC showed British television viewers Swiss farmers growing and harvesting spaghetti from trees. The not-so-bright members of Britain’s gene pool besieged the broadcaster for further information on how they could acquire such wonderful trees. The gullible callers were instructed to put a spaghetti noodle in a can of tomato sauce to grow their own trees (See our April 1, 2014 article).
6. Loch Ness Monster Photo, 1934.
The famous photo of “Nessie” swimming in the picturesque Loch Ness in Scotland was, in 1975, revealed to be hoax by Christian Spurling, the man who took the photo. His story became the subject of the 1999 book, Nessie – The Surgeon’s Photograph Exposed. The amazing thing is that despite the confession, as many people as ever believe in the monster and are still convinced the photograph is genuine (See our April 21, 2014 article).
5. Bigfoot, 1958.
Not to be confused with the Monster Truck by that same name, Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, or whatever you prefer to call him, was a minor mythological creature who supposedly lived in the remote forests of North America, especially in the northwest area of the U.S. In 1958 tracks made by giant, human-like feet were “found” at a logging site in northern California. These were photographed and preserved as plaster cast impressions. The floodgates were opened, and Bigfoot sightings, tracks, hairs and stories have been rampant ever since. Television and the movies are filled with Bigfoot stories, and the beef-jerky producer Jack Link’s has an ongoing campaign of Sasquatch-related television commercials. In 2002 the family of the man who had created the fake Bigfoot tracks in 1958 revealed that the whole thing was a hoax, and they even showed the fake feet used to create the prints. Other evidence of bigfoot fraud includes a man who in 2012 was hit and killed by two cars as he was wearing a bigfoot costume in an attempt to generate “sightings.” The drivers of the cars were teenaged girls (15 and 17) who were left traumatized. Sometimes a hoax can be dangerous!
4. U.S. Moon Landing, 1969.
This tremendous technological achievement by the U.S. is all the more impressive because no other country has of yet managed to recreate the feat in the 45 years since then. On the other hand, thousands, if not millions, of people world wide believe to their core that the whole thing was a hoax, a kind of Hollywood production to bamboozle everyone. Now if NASA were to claim Bigfoot was found on the moon, they might believe that!
3. Piltdown Man, 1912.
A paleo-anthropological find in England, the “fossil” turned out to be an orangutan lower jaw, some chimpanzee teeth and a human cranium made to look more ancient than they were. The truth was finally revealed in 1953, an unbelievable 41 years later. This hoax temporarily distracted the field of archaeology in its drawing of the human evolution timeline, making it one of the more harmful ones. The perpetrator of the hoax was probably Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist who had originally presented this “find” to the scientific community. He was later found to also have other phony “finds” in his collection (See our December 18, 2013 article).
2. The Great Moon Hoax, 1835.
Mentioned in the introduction, this hoax was a combination ploy by reporter Richard Locke to improve sales of the newspaper and to make fun of some contemporary astronomers who claimed to have found signs of life on the moon. The main astronomer who purportedly made the observation was a real-life scientist whose name was used in the articles without his permission. In a fascinating side story, Edgar Alan Poe had published his own version of the Moon Hoax, The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal, a couple of months before Locke. In it he described the use of a hot air balloon as the means to travel to the moon. Poe also published a series of moon-hoax stories in 1844 in which the astronaut uses a gas-filled balloon to get to the moon. Oddly enough this series was published in the Sun. A good source to read about the whole thing is Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon, 2008.
1. The War of the Worlds, 1938.
As part of its Halloween program for October 30, 1938, CBS radio aired an adaptation of HG Wells’ 1898 science fiction story The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles narrated, and in his version of the invasion of Earth by Martians, news bulletins were simulated for the first 40 minutes of the hour-long broadcast. Americans who had missed the beginning of the show that explained that the broadcast was fictional panicked, and fear of alien landings spread like wildfire. As listeners told their friends and neighbors that Earth was being invaded, many more listeners tuned in until the nation was abuzz with panic. Critics bitterly denouncing the broadcast as a cruel, irresponsible hoax, but all the press only made Orson Welles that much more famous and helped further his career. On October 31, 1968 a new adaptation of the story was played by a Buffalo, New York radio station. In spite of extensive advertising to preclude a panic, some listeners once again fell for the story and believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other hoaxes would you include? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 25, please see the History and Headlines article: “UK and Poland Sign Mutual Defense Agreement…What a Joke!“
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For more information, please see…
Goodman, Matthew. The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. Basic Books, 2010.
Sifakis, Carl. The Big Book of Hoaxes: True Tales of the Greatest Lies Ever Told! (Factoid Books). DC Comics, 1996.