When most of us plan a hoax, it’s pretty small, like tricking our office mates into thinking the printer is voice activated. Others? They think bigger. They fools newspapers, nations, and entire decades of people. Sometimes for the lulz, sometimes because of hate, these 19 hoaxes fooled too many people, sometimes with deadly results.
19. Col de Vence Medusa
Just to prove that we are in no way immune to stupid hoaxes in this day and age comes the Medusa of the Vence mountain pass, a UFO photograph that popped up in 2009 to much attention from the already scatter-brained UFO-following crowds. Col de Vence is famous for being a home to supernatural occurrences, and everyone went wild when a tourist sent a photo to a local newspaper of a floating object that looked like a medusa jellyfish, allegedly flying through the sky. Local UFO groups analyzed the photograph in insane detail, claiming it legitimate. Actually, it was just a parachute made out of a garbage bag and a little editing, but it fooled plenty of people.
18. Steve Brodie
In 1886 New York, the Brooklyn Bridge was newly opened, and a man had previously died attempting to dive off the bridge. Unemployed and poor, Steve Brodie hatched a plan to make his fortune: he set up an elaborate ruse, betting his friends that he could survive the jump. He trained off of other bridges, gained witnesses from newspapers, and then on the day he had a dummy thrown off the bridge where he was waiting below, then swimming to shore. Not only did he succeed in fooling all of New York (and even the rest of the world) he spun the hoax into his lifelong advantage, becoming a prominent local actor and bar-owner. His story was so famous that the term “taking a brodie” entered English slang for almost a hundred years.
17. Drake’s Plate of Brass
Claimed to be left by Sir Francis Drake in Northern California in 1579, the plate is actually a forgery from the early decades of the 20th century, and even funnier is that it’s just a prank that went horribly awry. It was made by a bunch of historians to trick a friend of theirs, and everyone had a good laugh at it. However, it was lost and then rediscovered by people thinking it genuine, at which point the prank turned into a hoax â€” even though the metal and crafting methods of the plate were obviously modern.
16. The Masked Marauders
The Masked Marauders was an epic hoax pulled by an editor of Rolling Stone magazine, back in the day when they were good. Parodying the late 60’s trend of supergroups, the Masked Marauders was said to be a collaboration jam-session between Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, though none of their names were on the cover for legal reasons. The magazine review of the album painted it as the greatest thing ever, and reader interest was so high that they actually made the album with the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band â€” eventually selling 100,000 copies.
15. Princess Caraboo
In Victorian England, people had a never before matched interest in other nations, but travel was still painfully slow and expensive, so getting beyond, say, France, was outside the realm of possibility for most people â€” which made life easy for hucksters like Princess Caraboo. Caraboo (aka Mary Baker) claimed to be a shipwrecked Princess from an island in the Indian ocean. She pretended to speak no English at all, and with the help of an “interpreter” spun a tale of being kidnapped by pirates. Her ruse was so successful that people bought into her fake writing system, and she lived like visiting royalty until the hoax was exposed.
14. Alien Autopsy
The 17-minute, black and white alien autopsy video was released in 1995, claiming to be an actual dissection of aliens by doctors after the Roswell crash site. It spawned a huge following, multiple TV shows, and generated unparalleled interest in the paranormal. It was, of course, a massive hoax, and made the creators of the film insane amounts of money. Producer Ray Santilli has since said that the film was a dramatic reenactment of the real thing, but nobody’s buying that. The funny thing is? In 1995 I heard an analyst give the perfect reason for it being a fake: the video shows telephones with coiled cords, which weren’t introduced until years after the Roswell incident.
13. Priory of Sion
Do you really need proof not to trust Dan Brown when it comes to…well…anything on the planet? The priory was founded in the 50s as a bunch of really extreme Catholics. The founder faked the history of the organization, claiming ” it as a secret society founded on Mount Zion in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, which is devoted to installing a secret bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty on the thrones of France and the rest of Europe.” The group didn’t exist before the 50s, and was all a ploy to gain more political power for the founder, Pierre Plantard. They don’t control anything, they aren’t a secret cabal running the world, and they use their position as conspiracy fodder to further their own goals.
12. The Cottingley Fairies
I’m generally loathe to characterize people from another time period as less intelligent or more gullible than us currently (we’re still plenty stupid) but how can you look at the photos of the Cottingley Fairies, and not instantly tell that they’re fake? They’re obviously not real, and yet still all of Great Britain was believing these two little girls that they took photos of the fairies at the end of the garden. Even Arthur Conan Doyle bought into it. The photos were taken in 1917, but it wasn’t until the 80’s that the pair admitted they were cardboard cutouts.
11. George Psalmanazar
George Psalmanazar is like Princess Caraboo, a hoaxer who convinced the English that he actually came from a distant exotic land. His claim was that he was from Formosa â€” now known as Taiwan. It’s funny that no one cottoned on to the fact that he was obviously not Asian. He went pretty far out with his deception, crafting a new language and calendar, worshiping the sun and moon, and just generally acting like a loon for attention. In England he claimed to have converted to Anglicanism, thus gaining favor with the church, and even then published a book about his country â€” mostly cribbed from travelogues of South America.
During the Falklands war in the early 80s, anarchopunk band Crass secretly produced a hoax audio tape they claimed was a recorded conversation between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The conversation between the two had Reagan wanting to use Europe as a battleground for their attacks on the USSR, while Thatcher suggested that the sinking of the HMS Sheffield (which was instrumental in convincing the British public to go to war) was a deliberate sacrifice in order to gain public support. The USA claimed the tapes were Soviet propaganda, but somehow The Observer tracked down the real origins.
9. The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk
While less prevalent now, the last couple of hundred years have actually been pretty rife with the specter of anti-Catholic sentiment, which is as brutal and violent as any other sort of religious discrimination. In 1836, a woman published a book called “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk”, in which she claimed that in her time as a nun in Montreal, she had been forced to have sex with local priests. It sparked a moral outrage and naturally sold hugely. Why wouldn’t it? Scandal, sex, violence, insanity. It was a best seller! She even claimed that there was a tunnel between the seminary and monastery for the comings and goings, and that the children of such unions were brutally murdered. It was, of course, completely fictional without even a vague semblance of truth, but that didn’t stop it from whipping up massive amounts of anti-Catholic sentiment.
We all knew that kid in middle school. The one who claimed to know everything about drugs, and said that if you scraped out the stuff inside a banana peel and smoked it, it would get you high. Which is right up there with eating two tablespoons of cinnamon in terms of psychoactivity. The hoax was originally published satirically in an underground newspaper at Berkeley, but got put in the Anarchist’s Cookbook in the 70s as the author didn’t get that it was tongue-in-cheek, and from there it spread to desperately bored kids the world over. Alas, all it will do is give you a headache. Sorry kids.
7. Perpetual Motion Machines
True perpetual motion machines cannot exist. They break at least one, possibly two of the laws of thermodynamics. That’s just not how physics works! However, that never stops people from claiming they’ve invented them, and the media flocks to the situation, before eventually being debunked. There are a number of devices which are self-powered and will move more or less on their own, but all consume the energy around them in one way or another, and still contribute to entropy. Sorry sippy bird toy.
6. The Turk
You know how people refer to a mechanical Turk as someone hired for a task that could theoretically be automated, but it’s cheaper and easier just to use underpaid labor? That’s because of the original mechanical Turk, more accurately just known as “The Turk”, a chess playing robot that wowwed Europe in the 18th and 19th century. The Turk toured for fifty years, and it was only after that long that it was exposed as a fraud: there was a secret compartment in the chest it was resting on, that allowed for a rather cramped chess master to huddle inside, playing for the machine, and beating all comers. Even though a fake, it was still monstrously complex in order to have the verisimilitude to fool people.
5. Michelle Remembers
I’m guessing most of our readers will be two young to remember, but in the 80s and 90s, middle America was terrified of Satanism. They were sure that hiding in the suburbs, people were having orgies and sacrificing animals to the dark lord. Lonely teenagers had their D&D books burned, heavy metal was blamed for everything, Wiccans were mocked more than usual, and Magic cards were banned in school the world over. What sparked this controversy? A hoax book claiming to be the repressed memories of a girl abused by a satanic cult. Pretty much everything in the book was fake, and none of the rituals she described could have gone unnoticed, as they involved screaming, murder, and hundreds of people. Not that that ever stopped a good moral panic.
4. Crop Circles
Crop circles popped into public consciousness in the 1970s, and sparked the imagination of alien fans the way few others have â€” which is unfortunate as to just how easy they are to fake that almost all of them are hoaxes. It’s a wonderful case of people believing what they want to believe, and ignoring Occam’s Razor. It’s remarkably easy to make your own crop circle â€” all you really need is some rope attached to the center of a circle, and a big piece of wood to push down the grass or wheat or whatever’s in your field. Draw yourself up some plans, get together some friends, use the rope like a compass, and make your circle over the course of a night. Boom, done, and you’ll be happy to see the confused farmers and news coverage the next day. Bonus points if you can get some mysterious lights in the air at the same time.
3. Mary Toft
Toft deserves some credit for having the ball-bearing ovaries to trick the medical profession and British public into believing that she was giving birth to animal parts, and convincing at least one person that animals were breeding in her ovaries. I get that in 18th century Europe medical science isn’t what it is today, but surely they had at least basic knowledge of how reproduction worked, and that it wasn’t popular to be dropping bits of animals out of your vagina? Toft succeeded in fooling a great many doctors, and was eventually proven a fraud when she was kept sequestered from outside contact for a period of time, and stopped popping out animal bits. You guessed it, she was just secretly shoving raw chunks of animal in her vajayjay, then pushing them out for a crowd. Her exposure as a hoax caused the destruction of the trust of the medical profession in England, and their constant mockery for years.
2. Hitler’s Diaries
In April of 1983, German magazine Stern paid 10 million Marks for what they thought were sixty volumes of Hitler’s diaries. Except, as you’ve no doubt guessed, they were completely fake. You know what should have given them a hint? The fact that the initials on the front of the volumes were FH, not AH. They were made on modern paper with modern ink and filled with inconsistencies and anachronisms. Frankly, an even vaguely qualified historian should have spotted the hoax instantly, but many still fell for it, and Stern never lived it down.
1. Protocols of the Elders of Zion
There has been no publication more damaging to a group of people than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic publication which claimed to be the plans of the Jewish ruling elite to run the world financially. Originally from Russia in the beginning of the 20th century, it quickly spread and was translated, and Henry Ford â€” legendary douchebag that he was â€” had 500,000 english version printed and disseminated. It was used by the Nazis to justify genocide, and the oppression of Jewish people the world over. It was a complete fiction, and lead to the murder of millions.