Truth is stranger than fiction, and throughout history, a legion of pranksters, hucksters, and frauds have exploited humanity’s innate hunger for the extraordinary. Whether motivated by money, fame, politics, or reasons even they couldn’t explain, hoaxers all have one thing in common: for a brief moment, at least, the made us fall for it. Here are 42 nearly believable facts about history’s most infamous hoaxes.
1. Monkey Business
Do you get modern art? Neither do we. And neither did Swedish journalist, Dacke Axelsson. In 1964, he took a jab at the art world when he displayed a series of works by an upcoming French painter named Pierre Brassau. The art community lavished praise on Brassau’s work until Axelsson revealed the humiliating truth. “Pierre Brassau” was actually a four-year-old chimp named Peter who lived in the Borås zoo.
2. Good Eye
Dacke and Peter didn’t fool everybody: one critic wrote “Only an ape could have done this.”
3. Mars Attacks!
In 1949, inspired by Orson Welles’ legendary radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, an Ecuadorean radio station aired a fake news report that aliens had landed. Listeners were alarmed at first, but when they discovered it was a hoax, they stormed the radio station. They had their revenge, but it came at a devastating cost. The ensuing riots led to the deaths of six people.
4. Imitation of Christ
In 1884, a Presbyterian minister named William Dennes Mahan produced a document called “the Archko Volume.” It seemed to be a biblical scholar’s holy grail: a contemporary account of the life of Jesus Christ. Mahan claimed that a “chief guardian of the Vatican” gave him the sacred text, though biblical scholars noticed that the document was riddled with inconsistencies and anachronisms. Best of all, large sections were lifted word-for-word from the novel Ben-Hur.
5. Classic Literature
Mahan was suspended from his ministry for his part in the hoax, and promised to withdraw the book from the market. Nonetheless, The Archko Volume has been reprinted several times, and remains in publication to this day.
6. Unidentified Film Object
In 1995, the Fox Network broadcast a 17-minute video it acquired from a British entrepreneur named Ray Santilli. The video supposedly depicted an utterly gruesome act: an autopsy performed on one of the aliens who had crash landed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The special was a ratings smash for Fox, and led to widespread speculation over whether or not the footage was real.
7. The Truth is Out There
After the special aired, and given two further repeat broadcasts, a Fox producer admitted the video was a hoax. The set, the producer claimed, was constructed in the living room of a flat in London. The alien itself was assembled from various bits acquired at a local meat market. Even so, Santilli continued to insist the footage was real.
8. Doctored Footage
In 2006, Santilli admitted the video was a hoax…sort of. According to Santilli, while the video was a fake, it was an accurate recreation of a video he had obtained in 1992. That video had deteriorated to the point that it could not be displayed, leaving Santilli with no choice but to replicate it. Apparently some of this original footage was still in good enough condition to be incorporated into the later video, but Santilli will not say specifically which parts are original and which are “recreations.”
9. Which Came First?
Mary Bateman, a con artist from North Yorkshire, drew all of England’s attention in 1806. Out of the blue, her hens began laying eggs inscribed with the phrase “Christ is coming.” As Yorkshire prepared for His arrival, Bateman returned to business as usual. She gathered the eggs, wrote on them in acid, and then reinserted them into the hens.
10. Headline Noose
Let this be a warning: a mostly harmless prank can get out of hand very quickly. After the truth of her hoax came to light, Mary Bateman was accused of being a witch by William and Rebecca Perigo. In retaliation, Bateman dialled it up to 11 and poisoned her naysayers. Apparently, the local police didn’t appreciate Bateman’s prank. After her arrest, she suffered the ultimate punishment. Bateman was hanged for murder in 1809.
11. Doggone It
The ape-artist Pierre Brassau was joined in the art world by Alexis Boyar, a six-year-old Afghan hound, whose chewed up mitten won the 1974 Mid-Mississippi Art Competition. The “piece” was titled “Anitra’s Dance” and described as “a small fiber wall hanging in off-white, with a range of interesting textures and a central phallic shape.” When the runners-up complained, Alexis’ owner, Elliott McDonald remarked that he was “sorry anyone had been made unhappy by a dog’s artistic accomplishment.”
12. Outsider Art
“Anitra’s Dance” won Alexis $50 and a blue ribbon, but McDonald returned the prize. McDonald did commend the judges for their integrity in choosing an artist who had never exhibited before or had even been to art school.
13. Truly Petrifying
October, 1869. A regular dreary day in Cardiff, New York, until well-diggers uncovered something amazing. It appeared to be the body of a man, only it was 10 feet tall and had been petrified. The owner of the land, William “Stubb” Newell, began charging villagers 25 cents to see “the Cardiff Giant.”
14. That Sucks
Soon, Newell upped his fee to 50 cents a look. The attraction grew so popular that legendary huckster PT Barnum offered Newell $50,000 for the giant. When Newell refused, Barnum covertly made a mold of the giant, cast and his displayed his replica, and denounced Newell’s as a fake. Barnum was referring to giant-watchers when he issued his famous dictum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
15. Giant Troll
By the following year, the truth came out. It was all an elaborate revenge plot by an atheist named George Hull. Hull got into an argument with a group of Methodists who insisted that, because they appeared in the Bible, giants must be real. Hull saw his opportunity and seized it, planting the “giant” to embarrass the Cardiff faithful.
16. Massive Undertaking
Hull purchased a 10-and-a-half foot long block of gypsum from a quarry in Iowa, and then hired a Chicago-based stonecutter sculpt his giant. The giant was meticulously carved, with acids applied to simulate skin discoloration, weathering and even pores made one by one with a sewing needle.
17. Solidly Built
In all, the giant cost Hull the equivalent of $48,000. He later sold it for 10 times that much. The immense profitability of the Cardiff giant led to several imitators, including Hull himself. He planted another petrified giant in Beulah, Colorado in 1897. “The Solid Muldoon,” as this giant came to be known, stood 7’6”.
18. Taco ’bout False Advertising
In 1996, Taco Bell got in on the prank game. The fast food fixture put out a press release claiming to have bought the Liberty Bell. Politicians around the country were flooded with angry messages before Taco Bell was forced to remind people that it was April Fools’ Day, after all. To show there were no hard feelings, Taco Bell announced they would donate $50,000 to support the bell’s preservation.
19. Vatican 2.0
One of the earliest viral hoaxes was a 1994 “article” which claimed that Microsoft was in talks to buy the Roman Catholic Church.
20. Sticks and Stones
Fed up with poor treatment at the hands of their arrogant boss, two professors decided to play an ingenious prank. Geographer J. Ignatz Roderick and librarian Johan Georg von Eckart made several small limestone carvings of animals, inscribed them with the name God in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and then planted them where their boss, Johann Beringer would find them.
21. Off His Rocker
The field of paleontology was relatively new in the 18th century, so Beringer’s incredulity was not especially strained when he discovered the “fossils” in 1725. Looking to be his own hype man, Beringer immediately wrote a book, the Lithographiae Wircebergus, in which he chalked his discovery up to God Himself. When critics pointed out that the stone bore unmistakeable chisel marks, Beringer simply insisted they were the work of God’s own chisel.
22. Serves Them Right
When Beringer realized he’d backed himself into a corner, Roderick and von Eckart finally revealed themselves to be responsible for the carvings. Beringer responded by suing the hoaxers. He had been thoroughly discredited, but the prank had far darker consequences. It ruined both Roderick’s and von Eckart’s careers as well. The university fired Von Eckart. Roderick even had to leave town.
23. King of the Pranksters
Since the late 60s, no one has pulled off more hoaxes than Joey Skaggs. Skaggs routinely conned the media into reporting on a variety of phoney business ventures and events, including a brothel for dogs, a law firm staffed by psychics, and a lottery to win naming rights to the Brooklyn Bridge.
24. It’s a Bet
In 1809, Theodore Hook decided to make an unusual wager with his friend, Samuel Beazley. Hook bet Beazley that he could turn any house in London into the most famous house in the city within a week. Beazley took him up on the offer, and selected 54 Berners Street, the residence of one Mrs. Tottenham.
25. Unexpected Company
On the appointed day, Hook and Beazley sat at a café across the street from the Tottenham residence. As Beazley watched the residence, his jaw dropped. Mrs. Tottenham turned away priests and chimney sweeps, doctors, shoemakers, priests, bakers carrying fleets of wedding cakes, and even a team of six men carrying a pipe organ. Hook had sent out thousands of letters requesting all manner of salesmen and servicers to pay a visit to the home. Even the Duke of York made an appearance.
26. The Artful Dodger
It was only meant to be a bit of fun, but Hook’s joke ended up bringing London to a standstill by bringing chaos and frustration to the city. Fearing he might be found out and held responsible for his prank, Hook laid low for two weeks, and then fled.
27. Screw Ball
April Fool’s Day, 1985, just happened to coincide with the release date for that week’s issue of Sports Illustrated. In recognition of the event, writer George Plimpton decided to have some fun. He invented Sidd Finch, a Buddhist monk living in Tibet who could throw a 168-mph fastball. Plimpton’s article reported that the monk had signed with the New York Mets, prompting excited Mets—and a couple of legit major league managers—to write to the magazine asking for more information.
28. Extra Inning
In response to the enthusiastic response, Sports Illustrated ran a short article the following week announcing that Sidd Finch had decided to retire.
29. Spelling It Out
It’s worth remarking that the subheading of Plimpton’s article read “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and party recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga—and his future in baseball.” Only eagle-eyed readers will notice the writer’s ingenious secret message. The initials of the subheading spell “Happy April Fool’s Day—A[H] Fib.”
30. One Way to Get a Head
By 1912, evolution was accepted by virtually everyone in the scientific community. There was just one nagging question left: if humans and apes shared a common ancestor, where was the missing link? Enter amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson and his ground-breaking discovery. He found a skull in Piltdown, England with a cranium like a man, but a jaw like a chimpanzee.
31. One Way to Get Two Heads
Naturally, the scientific community was careful not to jump to conclusions. Then the impossible occurred: Dawson found a second skull, much like the first. People started to believe that, finally, they’d found the famed missing link.
32. Broken Bones
While Dawson’s finds were met with skepticism, it took until 1953 for the truth of the “Piltdown Man” to finally come to light. That year, a study conclusively showed that the bones in both skulls were from two different species—humans and chimpanzees. What’s more, the bones were not millions of years old but, at most, 100,000. But if Piltdown Man was a hoax, who was the perpetrator?
Naturally, suspicion fell to Dawson himself, but others have suggested a far more twisted explanation. They say that the paleological prankster was none other than the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Doyle was a close friend of Dawson’s, spent time in Piltdown, and even speculated in one of his books that it wouldn’t be hard to fake a fossil.
34. Fairy Stories
Plus, Doyle was involved in another famous hoax: the Cottingley Fairies. A series of photographs taken in 1917 showed two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, surrounded by fairies. The photos divided the public, but Doyle, an ardent spiritualist supported them whole-heartedly and even ran them in his magazine, The Strand. The cousins insisted that the photos were real all the way until 1983, when they finally admitted the fairies had just been cut out and added to the picture.
35. Hidden Tracks
In 1969, Rolling Stone reviewed a record by a band called the Masked Marauders. This was not just any band, however—according to editor and reviewer Greil Marcus, the Masked Marauders were, in fact, a super-group of the best-known artists in rock history. Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan holed up in an isolated recording studio in northern Canada to record the album. For contractual reasons, Marcus explained, none of the artists could print their own names on the record.
36. Cover Band
After a flood of letters from curious music fans, Marcus decided that the next step was to actually release the record. There was just one problem: it, er, didn’t exist. Marcus decided to enlist a local folk group to record themselves impersonating the famous rock stars. In addition to covers of “Duke of Earl” and “Season of the Witch,” the band also recorded a few original tunes and parodies of hits by Dylan and the Stones.
37. It’s a Hit
The Masked Marauders’ “self-titled” album was released in 1969 on Deity Records and reached number 123 on the Billboard album charts. Those who bought the album were treated to an additional track, explaining the whole thing was a hoax.
38. Limited Editions
“Deity Records” was itself a bit of a joke. Warner Brothers created the label as a subsidiary just to release the Masked Marauders’ record. To date, Deity Records has only released two albums: The Masked Marauders and its 2003 re-issue.
39. To CERN With Love
And now for something completely modern. In August, 2016, a video started making the rounds on social media which supposedly showed a group of hooded figures engaging in a chilling ritual. They stabbed a woman to death beside a statue of the Hindu god Shiva. The video would have been disturbing enough, except the setting appeared to be the CERN, the massive particle research facility which houses the Large Hadron Collider.
40. Nuclear Reactions
For the next few weeks, rumors swirled that the CERN researchers were trying to open an inter-dimensional portal. Supposed reasons for this included unleashing the antichrist or summoning pagan gods. A CERN spokesperson put the speculating to rest when they came out and admitted the video was real.
41. Safety First
Yes, you read that right. According to CERN, the video was a prank made by a group of ne’er-do-well physicists, and was done without the research centre’s permission. CERN denounced all pranks that take place near a massive nuclear device.
42. Won’t Get Fooled Again
As these hoaxes have shown, it’s important to read things with a healthy dose of skepticism. But sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. When European scientists were first presented with the body of a platypus, they were convinced it was fake. One scientist even took a pair of scissors to the body, looking for stitches.
43. The Southern Television Broadcast Interruption
Possibly one of the most chilling hoaxes in history remains unsolved to this day. On 26 November 1977, in the Southern television area of the US, the normal TV broadcasts were suddenly taken over by a rogue signal. Suddenly, the picture got distorted and was replaced by a creepy voice delivering an insane message.
The voice claimed to be an intergalactic alien communication and the message was as follows:
This is the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, speaking to you. For many years you have seen us as lights in the skies. We speak to you now in peace and wisdom as we have done to your brothers and sisters all over this, your planet Earth. We come to warn you of the destiny of your race and your world so that you may communicate to your fellow beings the course you must take to avoid the disaster which threatens your world, and the beings on our worlds around you.
The message goes on to explain how humanity must embrace peaceful existence, before it was too late.
It was a hoax of course, but one which was so terrifying and inexplicable that to this day nobody knows who did it, or how.