Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is often more compelling than truth. From petrified giants to alien invasions and how to grow your own spaghetti tree, these hoaxes convinced many that the world had changed—before each "discovery" was proven to be a whole lot of bunk.
Dr. Johann Beringer, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, was overjoyed when in 1725 his students began bringing him stones that they claimed to have found on the outskirts of a Bavarian town. These stones were carved with a variety of strange images, astronomical symbols, and Hebrew letters. Beringer was so taken with the stones, which he believed were relics from the Biblical Great Flood, that he wrote a book on the subject.
Only after his book was published did his students bring Beringer the last stone, one inscribed with Beringer’s own name, along with the revelation that the stones had been fabricated by two of his colleagues. From then on, the stones became known as lugensteine, or “lying stones.”
The History of the Bathtub
In 1917, the Evening Mail published a story by H.L. Mencken entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” In it, the renowned journalist (and, it should be noted, satirist) lamented that not enough attention had been given to the recent 75th anniversary of the invention of the modern bathtub. The article was laced with phony facts, including the claim that Millard Fillmore was the first U.S. president to put a bathtub in the White House. Of course, it was all a lot of bunk. Mencken had made the whole story up as a hoax to highlight the gullibility of the American public.
Unfortunately for him, it worked too well, and even after he had admitted to his deception in 1926, the article continued to be reprinted. Its “facts” continued to be repeated as true and even showed up in reference books for years to come.
The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, workers on a farm in Cardiff, New York were digging a well when they encountered what appeared to be the remains of a 10-foot-tall petrified man. Dubbed the “Cardiff Giant,” the man was soon put on display by the farm’s owner, William “Stub” Newell. Newell charged an admission for the crowds who flocked from all over the country to see his find. Included among them were members of the scientific community, who speculated that the find was anything from an ancient sculpture to an actual petrified human.
It wasn’t until after Othniel Charles Marsh, one of history’s most famous paleontologists, declared the whole thing to be “a most decided humbug” that the perpetrators of the hoax came forward. It turns out that the Cardiff Giant was fabricated to order for George Hull, a cigar manufacturer and dedicated atheist, who had the giant constructed to poke fun at a minister over a passage in the Bible about giants walking the earth. Hull was a friend of Newell, and the two had worked together to get the Cardiff Giant into the ground and then subsequently have him “discovered.”
The War of the Worlds
Mencken’s “Neglected Anniversary” wasn’t the only time that a fabricated news story duped the American people. On October 30, 1938, a radio program called The Mercury Theatre on the Air performed an audio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, in which warlike Martians invaded earth. The first part of the broadcast was made up of simulated news bulletins that were apparently real enough to fool many of the show’s listeners, who took the program seriously and believed that the earth really was under attack.
While we now know that the scale and intensity of the panic was likely overblown, Wells' stunt remains perhaps the most famous case in history of people being duped by “fake news.”
The Spaghetti Tree
In 1957, a show on the BBC called Panorama broadcast an episode featuring a Swiss family harvesting pasta from a so-called “spaghetti tree.” What was originally intended as an April Fools’ Day joke turned out to be a bit of a joke on the programmers themselves, as the station was subsequently inundated with calls from people asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees.
We humans are always on the lookout for something that confirms our long-held beliefs, even when that proof is a bit on the fishy side. Maybe that’s why even National Geographic magazine was duped by the discovery of a feathered dinosaur fossil called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, calling it “a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds.”
Unfortunately, the “missing link” in question was actually just a bunch of unrelated fossil fragments found by a Chinese farmer, glued together and sold to a dealer, who in turn sold the so-called Archaeoraptor to a United States museum. National Geographic should perhaps have been a bit more skeptical, as something not dissimilar had happened years before with the infamous “Piltdown Man” hoax, leading many to dub the Archaeoraptor the “Piltdown Bird.”
Area 51 Alien Autopsy
Everyone knows that a UFO crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that the remains of the craft and the aliens inside are now stored at a secret military base called Area 51, right? Well, regardless of what really happened at Roswell in 1947, the rumors about the crash landing and this secret desert base outside Rachel, Nevada have made their way into popular culture all over the place. One of the most persistent hoaxes associated with the supposed crash is a film purporting to feature an autopsy on an actual alien at the secret facility.
This hoax was perpetrated by Ray Santilli, a music and video producer from Britain, who claimed that he had received the footage from a retired military cameraman. Santilli’s story was full of details, including how many reels of film there were, and how much he paid for them. What the story wasn’t full of was facts. In 2006, in a documentary released to help promote a parody film called Alien Autopsy (of which Santilli was an executive producer), Santilli admitted to creating the footage in a London apartment. Yet he maintained that there was real footage out there. It's just that the original reels were in such bad shape that a recreation was necessary.
These are just a few of the innumerable hoaxes that have been perpetrated—sometimes knowingly, sometimes by accident—throughout history. The cases above remind us to remain vigilant, vet sources, and always take what we’re told with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Featured photo of Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic: Wikimedia Commons