In this age of internet misinformation, it can be easy to fall for hoaxes. We see someone quoting a factoid or posting a picture on social media that we believe is the real deal, only to discover later that it’s been misattributed or made up whole cloth.
However, it can help to remember that we’re by no means the first people to be taken in by hoaxes. In fact, these kinds of pranksters have existed throughout history, sometimes with nefarious (or simply greedy) motives, other times just playing practical jokes on people that go too far. And some of the most learned authorities have fallen for them, as was often the case with these historical hoaxes that fooled thousands and shook the world of history, archaeology, anthropology, and more. 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.
Sir Francis Drake’s Plate of Brass
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake and the crew of the Golden Hind were in the midst of circumnavigating the globe when they landed in a protected cove in what is now northern California. Despite meeting peacefully with the local Miwok people, Drake claimed the land for England, naming it Nova Albion and leaving behind a brass plaque to mark his claim, fitted with a sixpence bearing the figure of Queen Elizabeth I. At least, so the story goes.
In 1936, what seemed to be the plate in question was discovered in northern California. It was eventually taken to Herbert E. Bolton, who was then chair of the history department at the University of California, Berkeley. Bolton authenticated the plate, calling it “one of the world’s long-lost historical treasures.” There was just one problem: the plate was a forgery.
The hoax persisted for decades, however, with photographs of the plate appearing in textbooks. Despite early skepticism from some quarters, it wasn’t until 1977, when the plate was subjected to a battery of chemical and metallurgical tests in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing, that the actual provenance of the artefact became apparent. It turns out that it was created in 1917 by associates of Bolton himself, though whether he was in on it or not is unclear.
What we do know is that numerous historians have argued that Sir Francis Drake never actually landed in California at all, instead making landfall farther north in what is now Oregon or Washington. These views were being advanced at the time of the plate’s “discovery,” and it is very possible that the people who put the plate together—possibly including Bolton himself—did so partly to discredit this line of research.
As the creator of the world’s most famous detective, we tend to imagine Arthur Conan Doyle as a fairly shrewd individual, but even he was taken in by a hoax perpetrated by two young girls, aged 16 and nine at the time.
Elsie and her younger cousin Frances lived in Cottingley, England and had borrowed a camera from Elsie’s father. With it, they captured the first of five photographs, purporting to show them interacting with fairies. By today’s standards, the true nature of the photographs is relatively apparent just by looking at them, but it must be remembered that in 1917, when the hoax began, photography was still a relatively new art.
Also contributing to the spread of the hoax was a desire by many to believe in its reality. The photographs first became public when Elsie’s mother attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society, where she passed the earliest photos along to the individual who had given that evening’s lecture on “fairy life.” From there they made their way to others, including Conan Doyle, who used the photographs to illustrate an article on fairies that he had written for The Strand Magazine.
It was not until the 1980s, near the end of both of their lives, that the two cousins admitted to their duplicity in forging the photographs. The “fairies,” they confessed, were nothing more than paper cutouts of drawings and tracings done by Elsie, secured to the ground with hatpins—a fact that Elsie’s father, himself an amateur photographer, had suspected from the start.
The hoax that became real. While most hoaxes are eventually found out, I, Libertine took on a life of its own, far beyond what its originator ever intended. In the 1950s, Jean Shephard, co-screenwriter of the beloved holiday film A Christmas Story, was working as a late-night radio host in New York. Annoyed at the way bestseller lists were determined, Shephard made up an imaginary book and encouraged his listeners to request it from their local bookstores.
Shephard’s fictious book was called I, Libertine. It had an equally fictitious author (Frederick R. Ewing) and even a ready-made history, including having been banned in Boston. Fans of the show took the project farther than Shephard had imagined, however, and before long the nonexistent book was appearing on the New York Times bestseller list.
It seemed a shame to let so much buzz go to waste and, over lunch, Shephard, publisher Ian Ballantine, and novelist Theodore Sturgeon hatched a scheme to actually publish the book. Sturgeon wrote it in one marathon typing session, with Betty Ballantine completing the final chapter after Sturgeon fell asleep on their couch. The real novel sold well, too, with all of the initial the proceeds being donated to charity.
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 the December 28, 1917 edition of the New York Evening Mail, celebrated journalist (and, it should be noted, satirist) H. L. Mencken lamented the passing of what he called “A Neglected Anniversary”—specifically, the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub to the United States.
In this article, Mencken gave a truncated history of the bathtub and its acceptance in the U.S. He claimed that the modern bathtub had been invented by Lord John Russell of England in 1828 and that the first American to take up the invention was Adam Thompson of Cincinnati. The bathtub, according to the article, was not quickly adopted in the United States, and faced stiff opposition, including from the medical field, where doctors argued that bathing was unhealthy. In fact, Mencken’s article cites several instances in which baths were banned in various parts of the country.
Of course, Mencken’s history of the bathtub—and its fanciful neglected anniversary—are pure hokum written, in his own words, “in a time of war, when more serious writing was impossible.” Indeed, Mencken has stated that his goal was never actually to hoodwink anyone, and that the whole exercise was merely jocularity, describing himself as “vastly astonished” by the seriousness with which it was subsequently treated. Intentional hoax or not, however, Mencken’s story “went viral,” to use our modern parlance, and was shortly reprinted seriously in newspapers throughout the country, not to mention textbooks, and certain details from it are still repeated as fact to this day.
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.
Almost certainly one of the most notorious hoaxes in the history of the scientific community, the so-called Piltdown Man was “discovered” in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown, East Sussex (hence the name). Believed to be a “missing link” between humans and apes, the human-like skull and other bones were thought to come from a human ancestor some 500,000 years ago, and it was given the Latin name Eonthropus dawsoni after its discoverer, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson.
The bones were discovered in 1912 and their authenticity was widely accepted for more than 40 years, despite initial skepticism from many circles. It was not until 1953 that the bones were conclusively revealed for what they really were: an amalgamation created, likely by Dawson himself, by combining the jaw of an orangutan with the skull of a modern human.
The perpetrator of the hoax is still inconclusive, with suspects ranging from Dawson himself to fellow archaeologists to none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Though the specifics of the hoax remained a mystery until 1953, there was incredulity from the very beginning. As early as 1913, in an issue of Nature, David Waterston of King’s College London correctly predicted that the discovery was nothing more than an ape jawbone mixed with pieces of a modern human skull. Despite this, Piltdown Man entered first into the halls of accepted science—and then into the annals of elaborate historical hoaxes.
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.