CULTURE Fail History

15 Of The Most Infamous Fakes & Frauds

15 Of The Most Infamous Fakes & Frauds



Most of us like to think that we’re not easily fooled, but, every now and then, a story comes along so fantastical that we can’t help but get caught up.

Some hoaxes are just too great, too audacious, not to be believed. Many of history’s biggest stunts were completely taken up by a willing public, ready to believe in the fantastic, the scandalous and the downright astonishing. Indeed, even after being revealed as hogwash at the time, many of them are still hanging around, having since passed into public consciousness as sort-of-half-truths that probably happened in the dim, distant past.

Of course, there is a chance that some of this uncertainty is not entirely by accident. A lot of the evidence that people use to prove the existence of supernatural phenomena – ghosts, fairies, aliens – actually began as hoaxes that have been picked over and retold so often, that they have gone through the domain of “stunt” and passed straight into the realms of legend – or worse – fact. So, with all that misinformation out there, it’s time to get our facts straight as we embark on a journey through the history of the world’s biggest hoaxes.

How many did you fall for?

15. The Cardiff Giant


On the 16th of October, 1869, an enormous, petrified man was uncovered by a man called William Newell whilst digging a well in Cardiff, New York.

Newell claimed that it must the petrified remains of a giant and immediately set up a tent over the site and charged the public 25 cents to view it. People flocked to see the curiosity and even kept on coming when Newell doubled the entry fee.

Archaeologists pronounced the find as a fake, citing the fact, amongst others, that there was no good reason to dig a well in that spot (plus, you know, it was a giant). However, a number of religious scholars backed Newell and his giant, citing a passage in Genesis 6:4 that says that giants once roamed the earth.

Unfortunately for them, the giant was in fact a hoax, and it was inspired by that very passage. Newell, himself an atheist, had had an argument over a year previously at a Methodist revival meeting about it and decided to play the long con and create his own. He had his giant carved from gypsum, beaten and stained to age it then buried under his cousin’s farm, to which he would return a year later to dig it up.

The hoax was twofold in the end as, after having his offer to purchase the giant refused, the famous entertainer, P T Barnum, had a plaster copy made for his own display. He claimed that his was in fact the real giant and the one that Newell and his team were exhibiting was a fake. It is this incident that lead David Hannum, one of Newell’s men, to be quoted as saying “there’s a sucker born every minute” – a quote that would later be attributed to Barnum himself.

14. Piltdown Man


The Piltdown Man discovery is perhaps one of the most infamous hoaxes in palaeontology. Not only did it change the face of human evolution at the time of its discovery, but it was not uncovered as a hoax until nearly half a century later. There’s a practical joke that got seriously out of hand.

The “discovery” was made in a gravel pit in Piltdown, Sussex in the year 1912 by one Charles Dawson. He claimed to have found broken fragments, both in situ and scattered about the spoil heap of the gravel pits, of an early human skull. The specimen appeared to have the jawbone of an ape, but the cranium of a modern human and the discovery was hailed as the “missing link” between humans and apes, setting scientists on a big old wild goose chase that would last for the next 40 years.

Over the following years, other, genuine, fossils were discovered around the world that did not fit with the Piltdown Man and suspicions began to be raised about its authenticity. Eventually, in 1953, the fossil was exposed as a fake, composed of a medieval skull, the jawbone of an orangutan and the teeth of a chimpanzee. It had been aged with artificial staining and the filing down of its teeth.

The exact identity of the forger remains a mystery, with suspects ranging from Dawson himself to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

13. The Mummified Fairy


On April 1st, 2007, the supposed corpse of a fairy went up for online auction – eventually selling for nearly £300. The seller, Dan Baines from London, put the item online claiming that these were the genuine remains of a fairy and, despite the timing with April Fool’s Day, received over 20,000 hits in one day from believers.

The body was described as like that of a child, but with hollow bones like a bird, with skin, hair, teeth and wings intact. He claimed that the item had been found by a local dog walker and had been examined by anthropologists who confirmed that it was genuine (and were presumably just fine with handing the groundbreaking discovery back over to be sold to a whackjob on eBay).

On April 1st, Baines finally admitted to the fake and put the item up for auction with a full disclaimer to the hoax. Despite this, many believers have claimed that Baines’ revelation is merely him back-peddling on the truth and that the corpse is in fact genuine. He is accused of “covering up the truth” about the existence of fairies and many people still believe in the authenticity of the find.

12. The Fiji Mermaid


The origins of this curious object are still uncertain, but there are a number of theories. Chief of these is that it is an object created by local artists  and potentially “improved” by the Japanese fishermen that sold it to western sailors. There are lots of versions, but they generally all follow the same blueprint of a mammalian torso with the lower half of a fish, probably using the torso of a monkey.

The first person to introduce the curiosity to the west was an American sailor by the name of Samuel Barrett Edes. Far from the beautiful reputation of mermaids of legend, the Fiji Mermaid is definitely not a looker. It had fish scales, animal hair, large, pendulous breasts and a flat face with bared, pointed teeth. Edes had bought it from some fishermen on his travels for some $6000 and returned to America with it in 1822. The famous P T Barnum had it examined and agreed to display it in his museum of novelties.

Must controversy arose around the object, which was eventually destroyed when Barnum’s museum caught fire. Despite this, many other copies have surfaced all around the world – many of which claiming to be the original – and the legend of the Fiji Mermaid lives on.

11. Clever Hans


Clever Hans was a horse that could count – or at lest, that’s what his owner claimed.

Hans would solve complex arithmetic, spell, tell the time keep track of calendar dates and even had an understanding of music. His owner Wilhelm von Osten, a mathematics teacher and amateur horse trainer, would exhibit Hans throughout Germany and would never charge the public to see his incredible talents.

Hans would answer questions by stamping his foot. So if he was asked what was three plus four, he would tap his hoof seven times. There were many studies carried out on Hans, including isolating him from Von Osten. Hans was still able to perform his tricks when questioned by a stranger, so the possibility of trickery was eliminated. It was, however, when Hans was questioned by somebody who did not already know the answer that his amazing abilities would fail.

It turns out that Hans was not actually performing complicated mathematics, but was in fact picking up on the subtle, unconscious body language of the humans that were questioning him. He would simply tap his foot until his questioner appeared to relax and then he knew that he would get a round of applause and a handful of oats or something. Sounds like a better life for a horse than pulling a plough, perhaps he really was Clever Hans after all.

10. The Mars Hoax


Unless you’ve been living under a rock at the bottom of the Mariana trench, you’ve probably had this hoax turn up on your newsfeed at some point. The original claim was circulated via email stating that in October 2003, Mars was going to appear larger than the Moon in the night sky. It has since done the rounds on which ever social media platform is flavour of the month every year since its inception.

While it was true that Mars was going to be at its closest point to Earth, the spectacular claims of Mars’ size, plus the assertions that “NO ONE WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN IN THEIR LIFETIME” were just a tad overstated. Mars was indeed going to be the brightest object in the sky…after the Moon, the Sun and Venus. For anyone who has ever seen Venus, you’ll know that this is not that bright at all, and certainly not as bright as the Moon.

Whether this hoax is simply the result of some people getting their wires crossed over the years, or whether the shrill claims of the cosmic spectacle that was about to thunder across our skies was a teenage girl’s ploy to get more Facebook likes (they certainly sound like it at any rate), we’ll never know. But, do the world a favour, and smugly point out the truth the next time this one rolls around.

9. The Perpetual Motion Machine


In 1812, Philidephia, an unknown and fairly barmy American inventor named Charles Redheffer claimed that he had invented a perpetual motion machine. Seeing as the general consensus in the scientific community is that this machine would violate both the first and second laws of thermodynamics, this was a pretty big claim.

A perpetual motion machine is a device that, once started, can maintain its motion without further input. This machine, with our current understanding of physics are an impossibility, but may inventors like to play fast and loose with terms such as “impossible”, resulting in many attempts to create one.

Redheffer purported to have invented just such a device. However, when he applied to the government for money to fund his project, they sent some inspectors round to see where their money was going. Redheffer did not manage to play it particularly cool, freaking out every time the inspectors got close to his machine, claiming that he feared they would damage it.

Despite this, one of those beady-eyed inspectors noticed that that something wasn’t quite right with the machine – he saw that it appeared to be being powered by the device that Redheffer claimed it was powering.

Eventually, a string was discovered that led to another room. In this room was sat an old, bearded man turning a crank handle with one hand and eating a crust of bread with the other. After the old man’s discovery, an angry mob trashed the machine and Redheffer disappeared in to obscurity.

8. The Nacirema


The Body Ritual Among the Nacirema Poeple is an anthropological study of a tribe  of people living in North America, focusing on their complex rituals regarding oral cleanliness and moral purity. The study reveals that “the fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease” and that this can be warded off using a mixture of potions contained in a shrine with a fountain of water. It is at this shrine that the tribe perform the daily “mouth ritual”.

The paper, which goes in to great detail, is in fact a hoax designed to satirise the way that anthropologists study “other” cultures. It is simply describing the practice of westerners brushing their teeth, but using the language of anthropological papers that invariably describe their subjects with a huge emphasis on exoticism and otherness.

“Nacirema” is just “American” spelt backwards and the paper is now often used to demonstrate to students how easy it is to fall in to the trap of viewing other cultures as highly ritualised, strange and exotic (all underpinned by a vaguely smug sense of superiority), whilst failing to see it in their own.

7. The Tasaday Tribe


The Tasaday Tribe were supposedly a community of people that had remained isolated from the rest of the world since the Stone Age, living peacefully in jungle caves. It was said that this group had no words for conflict or violence and coexisted in harmony with one another.

Access to the tribe was tightly controlled by a man named Manuel Elizalde, Jr., who allowed many visitors, including celebrities and anthropologists, to visit the tribes in their caves, carefully guiding them around. They seem to have been used as yet more “proof” that modern culture ultimately corrupts the peaceful nature of man, playing into the popular paranoia that there is something deeply wrong with western culture.

The hoax was blown open, however, when a Swiss Journalist named Oswald Iten visited the tribes unexpectedly, only to find them chilling in huts wearing jeans and t shirts. Upon questioning via a translator, they admitted that they weren’t a stone age tribe after all and that Elizalde had made them live in caves in return for cigarettes and money.

There has been backlash from those who claim that the “proof” of a hoax is in fact a hoax. The modern interpretation is that the truth lies somewhere in between. The Tasaday, were perhaps not living the pure stone age lifestyle that Elizalde claimed, but it was certainly a primitive one, perhaps in itself altered by the amount of tourism generated by the original claims in the first place.

6. Life Discovered On the Moon


The Great Moon Hoax was a series of six articles that ran in The Sun newspaper in 1835, supposedly reporting the discovery of life on the moon.

The paper claimed that the discoveries were made by the astronomer Sir John Herschel, using a magnificent new telescope at the Cape of Good Hope. The articles went on to describe a vivid ecosystem of trees, rivers, beaches, bison, goats and unicorns, as well as winged, bat-like humanoids who built temples. The articles were supposedly written by a travelling companion of Herschel’s, who turned out to be as fictitious as the moon dwelling bat people.

It is unsure as to the motivations behind the hoax. It is generally considered to have been a scheme to create a sensation and sell more papers – an entirely believable scenario – but there have also been claims that it was an attempt to satirise the multitude of ridiculous scientific news stories that were being printed without due research and skepticism at the time. Either way, the whole world believed it. Some things never change.

5. Crop Circles


Crop circles are viewed by many as proof that we are in fact being visited by aliens. Markings have been appearing in crops as far back as the 1600s, but many of these were thought to be cause by storms or the effects of fungal “fairy circles”, it is only in recent years that they have been attributed to the remarkably intricate landing gear of little green men.

The debate still rages as to whether these are evidence of aliens, or the endless ingenuity of bored teenagers. The most famous tricksters were Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who made headlines when they claimed to be behind the “flying saucer nests” that were appearing in cereal fields in the 70s.

These pranksters demonstrated how they created the intricate patterns using a simple set of tools consisting of a plank of wood and a length of rope. Since Bower and Chorley came forwards, there has begun a crop circle arms race, with countless intricate and sophisticated designs “cropping” up all over the world (no, we’re not sorry about the pun).

Despite the hordes of people who will merrily lay claim to the crop creations, assertions of their paranormal origins are still legion and mental as they ever were, with many believers going into great depth as to how exactly the landing gear of interstellar spaceships are able to cause the marks.

These claims are most prevalent in western countries and Japan, where New Age thinking is much more widely accepted. Weirdly, crop circles do not seem to occur at all in most Muslim countries where that thinking is not so widespread. Who knew aliens were so culturally aware?

4. Spaghetti Trees


Not often know as a prankster, the BBC managed to fool the nation one April in 1957. For April Fools Day, the BBC aired an episode of its flagship documentary show, Panorama, dedicated to the “Spaghetti Harvest”. Spaghetti was relatively unknown in Britain at the time, and audiences were captivated by images of a Swiss family bringing in the harvest from their spaghetti tree. It was reported that farmers were experiencing a bumper harvest due to the mild weather and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil”.

Many viewers actually contacted the BBC for advice on how to grow their own spaghetti tree, to which they responded that they should “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”. It seems absurd now that millions of presumably intelligent people could be fooled by such ridiculous claims, but this was during a time when the most exotic thing most people had come into contact with was a lemon.

The mockumentary, shot on a budget of £100 and voiced by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, has been described as “the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled”.

3. Alien Autopsy


A grainy, black and white film supposedly showing the autopsy of an alien life form surfaced in the early 90s and caused a sensation. Wen it was first released, it was claimed that it depicted the experiments carried out in 1947 on a body recovered from a “flying disk” that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. The video shows a small, potbellied alien stretched out on an operating table with a severe injury to its right leg, and a group of hazmat suited doctors performing an autopsy.

The footage is conveniently grainy enough that true detail can not be picked out, and the cameraman could well have won some awards for “Least Steady Hands in the Universe”, but it was convincing enough that many people still believe in its authenticity. In 2006, the film’s creator, Ray Santilli, admitted that the video was a fake, shot in a flat in Camden with two alien dummies, animal organs and lashing and lashing of raspberry jam. However, this was with the caveat that it was actually a recreation of the original that he had seen in 1992, which had since become so damaged that it was rendered useless.

It is this detail that still adds fuel to the fire of the suspicion that surrounds the Roswell crash as the original film has seemingly disappeared forever. It still remains one of the most elaborate and hotly debated hoaxes ever to be attempted.

2. War Of The Worlds


Whilst not technically an intentional hoax, the original radio broadcast of War of the Worlds by H.G Wells (not the overwhelmingly vanilla 2005 film with well-loved loose screw, Tom Cruise) reportedly caused mass panic amongst listeners who, due to the “news report” format of the play, thought that the earth was being invaded by bloodthirsty Martians.

Following the broadcast, there was widespread outrage in the media at the deceptive nature of the show, claiming that it was a cruel trick to play on the unsuspecting public. A war-fearing nation of 1938 had apparently gone ballistic at the thought of little green men coming to steal their women and their tax dollars, causing riots, suicides and stampedes. There were a number of lawsuits brought against Wells and the makers of the show but all were thrown out except one for a claim for a pair of shoes by a man from Massachusetts, who had spent his shoe budget to escape the Martians. Wells reportedly insisted that this man was paid.

The hoax element, however, seems to be in the claim of a hoax itself. The “national panic” generated by the programme largely seems to have been a fabrication of the press (whom were losing out on their audiences and advertising revenue due to the popularity of radio) and perpetuated by those hoping to make some money out of it in court. Wells himself doesn’t seem to have done much to stamp the reputation out, preferring instead to let it add to the legend.

1. The Cottingley Fairies


The Cottingley Fairies may well be one of the most well known pranks in the history of hoaxes. It consists of a series of five photographs apparently showing two young girls playing with the fairies that live at the bottom of their garden.

The photographs even captured the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who, despite his brilliantly logical mind, became convinced of the existence of fairies.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the girls, now old women, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, finally admitted to the fraudulent nature of the photographs. They recounted how Elise had copied the illustrations from a popular children’s book of and propped them up with hatpins.

The two fully admit to the first four photographs being faked, however, they disagree on the origins of the fifth – Elise claiming that it is a fake and Frances insisting that it is the one genuine photograph that they took.

This photo doesn’t feature either of the girls, but a couple of fairies in some long grass. Both women claim to have taken the photo, despite their disagreement on its legitimacy. It has been suggested that it is in fact an unintentional double exposure of the cutouts and the grass, meaning that it is perfectly possible that both women are correct in their assertions that they took the picture and explains their differing opinions about its content.

The legacy of the photographs have continued to capture the imagination of generations since. The paraphernalia associated with the girls is now on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford including prints of the photographs, paintings of fairies by Elsie, two of the cameras that the girls used and a nine-page letter from Elsie admitting the truth about the fairies at the bottom of her garden.

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