Popular Culture

15 of the Greatest Hoaxes of All Time


To steal a quote from comedian John Hodgman, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but never as strange as lies.”  For hundreds of years, people have been falling for some of the most twisted hoaxes and lies you can imagine.  Stranger still are the stories behind some of the greatest dupes of all time.

The Surgeon’s Photo

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It’s hard to imagine a time before the great pillars of cryptozoology.  Where would your crazy uncle be if he couldn’t rant about Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, or evil Jews bent on world domination?  But long before anyone knew the name Loch Ness, it was little more than a quiet Scottish town with a somewhat offbeat local legend of a monster that lived in the local loch.  Despite the inability of any life form to survive on the indigenous fare of Scotland, surgeon Robert Wilson decided he would get in on the burgeoning Nessie craze.  Wilson published the “Surgeon’s Photo”, which went on to become the most famous image associated with the myth, and the fuel that kept the bullshit fires burning for decades.

Skeptics tried to debunk the image, but thanks to its dark, out-of-focus, grainy quality, little true analysis could be performed.  So despite the fact that a close examination clearly reveals that the “monster” is in fact quite minuscule (unless Loch Ness is prone to 7-foot swells), the image refused to die until a man named Christian Spurling confessed to the fraud in 1994.  The fearsome giant monster was in fact a tiny toy submarine with a serpent head attached.  To make the story even more hilarious, this hoax was actually orchestrated to make up for another hoax perpetrated by Spurling’s associates where it was revealed that a set of “monster footprints” were actually made by a dried hippo-foot that Spurling’s friend Marmaduke Weatherell had been using as an umbrella holder. Indubitably!

The Upas Tree

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One of the favorite devices of dishonest writers is to exaggerate and sensationalize some otherwise true story in order to gain notoriety and encourage sales.  In 1783, a Dutch surgeon known simply as “Foersch” took this device to simply staggering heights when describing the Upas tree on the island of Java.  According to Foersch, this tree was so toxic it killed everything within a 15-mile radius.  In an era well before mankind made a regular habit of employing the habit of killing things in 15 mile radiuses, this idea caught hold with the public, and it became common knowledge that the Upas tree was the Enlightment-era version of a nuclear fallout.

Despite how awesome it would be to live in a world where the Upas had become weaponized and we now fought wars by secretly planting trees in Kabul, the whole thing was a complete fabrication.  The Upas tree is actually a real thing, and it actually is highly poisonous.  The Chinese have the incredible Kill-Bill-esque aphorism for those who are exposed to the poison that goes “Seven Up Eight Down Nine No Life”—which refers to the number of steps one can take uphill, downhill, and on level ground before falling dead.  But far from killing everything around it, the Upas is used by the Japanese as a shade tree thanks to its dense canopy.

The Well to Hell

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In May of 1970 the Soviet Union began drilling a hole in Siberia in an attempt to drill as far as possible into the Earth’s crust in an effort that was creatively dubbed the Kola Superdeep Borehole (The Kremlin described it as “double-plus good”).  While serving little scientific purpose and presumably justified in government documents as “Fuck you that’s why!” they succeeded in drilling approximately as deep in to the ground as Mount Everest is high.

If subsequent Scandinavian Tabloids are to be believed, they stopped drilling when they hit a cavern that was hot enough to melt steel two to three times over.  When the drill was removed, a bat-like creature flew up from out of the hole and streaked across the sky.  They then lowered a microphone made of some magical invulnerable metal and recorded the sounds of screams and human suffering.  The hole became known as the Well to Hell.

When traced back to its source, the story is revealed to be an urban legend that emerged several decades after the Kola Superdeep Borehole was dug by the Russian government.  TBN was the first major news organization to report on the story in 1989, which prompted Norwegian Ã…ge Rendalen to perpetuate the hoax as a protest against mass stupidity (seriously).  Rendalen took an unremarkable article about a local building inspector, mistranslated it into a completely false “report” of the Well to Hell and sent it to TBN with a “hope this helps” note.  Major news organizations across the world carefully fact-checked the story and—oh no, wait — they just ran with it without bothering to double-check a single fact or stopping to think for a half-second about how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was.  While they can’t be blamed for thinking it was completely natural for hell to be located in Russia, they can be blamed for not tracing the story back to its origins.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

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A really good lie, if vague and insidious enough, will never die.  Such is the case with Astrology and the Anti-Semitic screed known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Emerging some time around the turn of the century, this book claimed to be a secret text circulated among Jewish elders that laid out their plan to take over the world.  It was quickly debunked a few years later as a plagiarized forgery of an earlier satire that lampooned Napoleon III’s plans to take over the world.  But this wasn’t before it was used by the emerging Soviet Union as a propaganda tool to stoke hatred of Jews and capitalism.  But, once debunked, it faded into obscurity and was rarely mentioned again except by fringe conspiracy theorists.

Just kidding. Despite the fact that everyone knew it was fake, it went on to become pretty much the foundation of Antisemitism in the 20th century.  Any time you hear someone say “the Jews are behind Hollywood/the banks/the government”, they are essentially quoting the patently false, century-old claims of this book.  Hitler was obviously a huge fan and distributed it throughout Germany while using it as a handbook for his annihilation of the Jewish race.  Today, many Arab governments hold up the book as a factual justification for the destruction of Israel and general Jew hating.  While this book’s longevity is strange enough, the fact that a plagiarized critique of a French Christian Monarch’s autocracy and world control-ambitions gets held up as a reason to persecute one of the most consistently abused and enslaved population in history is about as strange as it gets.


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The nice thing about most hoaxes is that usually the worst that happens is some innocent people get duped into spending money and little other harm is done.  In this case however, an entire state ended up with a fictitious made-up name. As if there weren’t enough reasons to think of Idaho as a big joke, it turns out that its name is most likely the result of some random lobbyist’s imagination.

The story goes that George M Willings suggested Idaho as the name for a new territory that was being formed in the Rocky Mountains.  Claiming it was derived from the Shoshone “ee-da-how” which meant “Gem of the Mountains”, Willings almost got Congress to bite before he confessed that he completely made it up.  The territory was renamed the Colorado Territory and went on to become the state of the same name.  Now in case you’ve noticed that we in fact ended up with a state named Idaho, you’re wondering what happened afterward.  Well apparently the completely farcical name took hold for whatever reason, being applied to a county, a town, and even possibly a steam boat.  By the time Congress was ready to form a new territory out of what remained from the Colorado incorporation, Idaho had insinuated itself as just kind of what that area was called and the territory was dubbed Idaho Territory.  So while some parts of America ended up named after some pretty silly Native American words (such as Chicago meaning “stinky river”), at least their names weren’t made up on the spot.

Roswell Alien Autopsy

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Like many conspiracies based on raw, grainy footage, the Alien Autopsy story persists mostly because it’s difficult to prove a negative.  Released in 1995 by a man named Ray Santilli, the footage claimed to depict scientists performing an autopsy on alien corpses recovered from the alleged UFO crashes in Roswell, New Mexico.  After several experts examined the footage and responded with a universal “meh, maybe” to its authenticity, Santilli proceeded to distribute the footage to multiple networks and reap the financial reward.

Then in 2006, humanity, in a rare and startling outburst of mental clarity, decided to thoroughly investigate Santilli’s film.  Several inconsistencies were discovered, and Santilli was pressed to provide explanation.  The subsequent juvenile dodging employed by Ray Santilli is truly epic.

First, Santilli admitted that some scenes from the film had been re-enacted by himself and a film crew in a studio.  Bizarrely, he stood fast in his claims that some parts of the film were in fact authentic, and were purchased through some shady connections that Santilli refused to explain.  Oh, also, he refused to point out which parts of the film were original and which were reenactments.  Swearing up and down that everything that was reenacted was true to footage Santilli had witnessed but had subsequently been destroyed, Santilli was later forced to admit that he had, in fact, hired a homeless man off the street to play the role of a cameraman who swears he filmed the autopsy and that the footage is real.

Sweet Alabama Pi

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While many hoaxes are straight funny on their own, sometimes the best part is the ensuing shitstorm.  After a joke article was published on April Fools stating that the Alabama legislature had changed pi from its actual value of 3.14159… to the “traditional biblical value of 3.0”, the story made the rounds on the internet.  In case you haven’t been on the internet in the past 15 years, you should know that—especially back in the day—it was primarily populated with angry victims of Asperger’s who thought just being an Atheist made them edgy and intelligent.

While it is somewhat plausible to believe that Alabama is just that stupid, being so conceited as to think the legislature was incapable of doing some simple division is probably just as dumb.  Angry letters, e-mails and blog postings spread like wildfire, ironically revealing the online atheist community as being capable of just as much gullibility and block-headedness as the fundamentalists the article was originally written to satirize.

Starring Alan Conway as Stanley Kubrick

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Alan Conway was a travel agent born in Whitechapel, London in 1934.  He had a long history of shameless impersonation, once claiming he was a Polish Jew who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  After leaving his wife for another man who subsequently fell victim to AIDS, Conway descended into alcoholism before one day drunkenly stumbling onto the idea of impersonating Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick, who by the 90s had become a famous recluse, was the perfect target.  He had attained near-legendary status as a director, but was an intensely private man — so many of his life details were hazy and indefinite.  Conway used this to his advantage, insinuating his broke ass in to Hollywood parties and exchanging non-existent roles in the upcoming Eyes Wide Shut for favors and expensive dinners.  Conway was eventually found out when an intrepid journalist decided to, oh you know, actually bother to double-check Conway’s story.  The story was eventually made in to the movie Color Me Kubrick starring John Malkovich.  Perhaps the strangest part of the whole story was Stanley Kubrick’s reaction to the revelation that someone had been impersonating him.  Instead of being enraged or feeling violated, the eccentric director was—true to form—quite fascinated with the concept.

The Amityville Horror

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Well known nowadays thanks to multiple movies, the story of the Amityville horror is the stuff of Hollywood wet dreams.  A house is built on old Indian burial grounds, and the current inhabitants are haunted by apparitions and specters.  This was the story told in the book published as a true story in 1977.  It became a huge hit, and the rights were snapped up and turned into no fewer than two movies, one made as recently as 2005 and starring Van Wilder.  Unfortunately, though it’s impossible to directly refute all the claims made, it appears as if the whole thing was simply an elaborate money-making scheme.

It turns out that almost none of the experiences claimed by the Lutz family and recorded in the book can be independently verified, and most experts believe that it was simply made up.  The truly funny part about all of this is that it’s theorized that the Lutz family was inspired by the then-outrageously-popular The Exorcist.  Many parts of the story, including an actual exorcist, are lazy reapplications of many of the same scenarios in the movie.  So to lay it all out for you: a movie inspired a hoax which inspired a book which inspired even more movies that were successful because they were simple retellings of an already popular movie with an added veil of verisimilitude.

The Montauk Monster

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When a strange, leathery animal corpse washed up on a New York beach in July of 2008, the pictures exploded across the internet.  Several theories that make one lose faith in the human race were posited: it was a turtle without its shell (as if turtles’ shells weren’t attached to their spines), it was a secret military experiment (as if the military needed evil hellbeasts to make Iraqi civilians hate them even more) or it was some strange mutant (as if genetics worked like that).

While it would be cool if the military was secretly developing chupacabra attack beasts, the world is actually really, really boring and the “monster” is most likely a heavily decayed raccoon.  As any zombie fighter can tell you, hair is one of the first things to go when a body decays, and the creature’s repulsive-looking “beak” is actually just what the exposed skull of a raccoon looks like.  Good luck convincing the internet or rags like the Daily Mail of this, however.  They’ve taken to referring to any half-decayed otter corpse as the “more evolved” Montauk monster.

E-Mail Tax

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While strange internet hoaxes that make outrageous-yet-almost-believable claims about how immigrants are taking over the US or Facebook is going to become a pay-for-service site are a common and hilarious thing, very few of those actually get addressed by national political candidates.  This particular e-mail had been circulating in the late 90s, claiming that the postal service would begin charging everyone 5 cents per e-mail.  Despite the fact that, if you know anything about the internet, this scenario is immediately and obviously infeasible, grandmas and AOL users perpetuated the myth until Hilary Clinton was actually forced to comment on it when running for the Senate in 2000.

Clearly one of our most capable national politicians, a woman who almost became president and currently serves as Secretary of State would immediately recognize this as a ridiculous farce and treat it as such.  Except she didn’t, stating firmly that she was against this nonexistent measure.  To her credit, at a time when the internet was still relatively new it’s plausible to assume that the then-53 year-old candidate was one of the panicked mothers who forwarded the e-mail in the first place.

The Patterson-Gimlin Film

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Much like the Surgeon’s Photo, the Patterson Gimlin film is one of those pieces of the cryptozoological pantheon that refuses to die.  The video depicts some grainy footage of a gorilla-like creature walking upright through the forest.  For decades, it has fueled the Bigfoot mythos and remains the most famous video evidence of the creature, buoyed by claims from scientists that “no man could imitate that gait“.  This has left most normal, sane people scratching their heads since the creature in the video, as impressive as it is, seems to be walking like a totally normal, if slightly hunched, human gait.

The debate over the veracity of the footage is strangely pitched, especially since the man in the suit came forward many years ago and outed the video as a forgery.  Bob Heironimus, a tall, muscular man who appears in other parts of the complete footage, was a friend of Patterson and Gimlin who claims to have been paid $1000 to put on the suit.  Lest you are convinced by the oh-so-scientific analysis of the gait, keep in mind the Heironimus (who had little to gain by coming forward and risked a possible fraud suit) dismisses these analysis since they never took in to account the somewhat obvious idea that the suit was built on risers to give Heironimus an unnatural walk.

GI Joe Held Hostage by Barbie

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In 2005, when the Iraq war was hovering somewhere between “terrible” and “that’s depressing change it to American Idol” in the minds of the American people, Islamic militants released photos of a captured American soldier.  After a brief freak out kind of disturbing speculation that soon footage would surface showing the soldier’s beheading, someone bothered to look at the soldier’s sculpted jaw and stoic expression.  Then they realized the expression was, in fact, sculpted.  The “American Soldier” was a cheap action figure.

Everyone had a nervous, relieved laugh at the silly terrorists, what with their lighting their shoes and underpants on fire and trying to fool us with action figures.  But the truth is that we were fooled, however briefly… but let’s not talk about that because the Bachelorette is on.

Iran Rocket Photoshop

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In July of 2008, Iran released a set of unremarkable saber-rattling photos portraying their latest missile tests.  The photos were published in a few minor news reports, but went largely overlooked.  That was until someone noticed something strange about the photos.  As anyone with a little Photoshop experience will tell you, the clone tool is your best friend.  They will also tell you that the last thing in the world you want to clone are swirling, chaotic images—things like smoke and fire or, I don’t know, missile exhaust.  Like a fingerprint, it’s easy to spot two identical ones because they’re all supposed to be different.

If you look at those photos linked above, you’ll notice that the two rockets on the right have the exact same smoke trail.  Apparently the government of Iran was embarrassed because one of the test rockets didn’t launch properly, so they just edited a successful launch over it.  Of course they made the mistake of just copying the launch right next to the failed rocket.  Never ones to pass up an opportunity to feel superior, Americans had a field day with the fiasco, starting many hilarious “Iran has Photoshop, Not Afraid to Use It” contests.

Mary Toft

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After a miscarriage in 1726 that left her broken, depressed, and batshit insane, Mary Toft was left with a hole in herself.  Specifically a hole in her damaged cervix that allowed her easy access to her uterus.  Instead of, like most people, recoiling in horror at that sentence, Toft decided that the best course of action would be to shove dead animals up there and claim to have some sort of magical vagina that gave birth to rabbits.

Toft was eventually examined by experts who were baffled by her ability to seemingly birth wild animals.  It was only after she was placed in isolation and her husband was discovered trying to sneak rabbits in to her room did the twisted, revolting truth become clear.  Thank goodness we now live in a more enlightened age where we know giving birth to dead rabbits is impossible, and someone like Mary Toft could make a lot of money doing extreme fetish porn instead of, you know, embarrassing herself.


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