Truth or Fiction? The Great Hoaxes of History

Hoax: a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth.


Hoaxes are not a new phenomenon, and one can find examples going back to the Middle Ages.  One would think that in today’s world, generally regarded as both far more sophisticated and cynical than in previous times (or so we might think), hoaxes would have a harder time flourishing, and the people responsible for them less tempted to try, but the facts show otherwise. They can take many forms and need not even be malicious: thanks to Guy Maddin’s docu-fantasia “My Winnipeg“, the Winnipeg Public Library received queries from as far as Texas about the memorable scene of horses drowning in the frozen Red River.  The event never took place but became “true” for many despite (or because of) the fact it came from fiction presented with a documentary “feel.” For the record: the fire was real, but the stable was empty at the time, no horses were harmed.

There are excellent books listing examples of  better-known impostors and their hoaxes throughout history.  The museum of hoaxes : a collection of pranks, stunts, deceptions, and other wonderful stories contrived for the public from the Middle Ages to the new millennium  by Alex Boese is to be recommended for its ease of reading, and how up to date it is.  The book includes examples of how hoaxers now use the Web as a new medium to spread potent lies in an age where fact-checking struggles mightily against the dissemination of unproven “news.”

Fakes & forgeries : the true crime stories of history’s greatest deceptions : the criminals, the scams, and the victims by Brian Innes, is recommended if one is interested in the career hoaxers, the professional forgers.  These  were the people who for profit used elaborate means, and also a great deal of talent, to make copies of works of art, money, utterly fake manuscripts, diaries, legal documents or even creatures (like the Cardiff Giant or the Feejee Mermaid) and managed to fool quite a few people–at least for a time.


A hoax’s ability to be believed in the information age is related to the desire of its audience for it to be true, to confirm its beliefs or fears.  They also make for great entertainment, and like a magic show, people will suspend disbelief when the tale  is “better” than real life.

A treasury of deception : liars, misleaders, hoodwinkers, and the extraordinary true stories of history’s greatest hoaxes, fakes, and frauds by Michael Farquhar deals not only with lies motivated by profit or pranks, but also the big lies that have been used throughout history to propel people’s rise to power, from witchcraft to pseudo-scientific arguments used to foment hatred against specific target groups.  It also includes the famous ruses used during warfare (like Sun Tzu suggested) to send enemy armies blundering into traps, like the elaborate hoax perpetrated against German intelligence before the Normandy Landings to fool them about the exact location where the Allies would land, complete with dummy armies and fake radio chatter.

In the 1800s New York City used to be the home of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, which was a unique mixture of zoo, museum, and freak show.  It displayed scientific expositions and a variety of entertainments that became a national popular attraction.  This is one of the stories told in The Sun and the moon : the remarkable true account of hoaxers, showmen, dueling journalists, and lunar man-bats in nineteenth-century New York by Matthew Goodman.  The title refers to the New York newspaper, The Sun, which published in 1835 the first accounts of the existence of life on the moon (complete with unicorns and man-bats!) by Richard Adams Locke, and dramatically increased its readership (even after being proven false) thanks to this entirely made-up story, which was widely-believed for several weeks and was never officially retracted.

      Catch Me If You Can (2002) Poster

Movies have been made about this subject as well.  The movie The Hoax (as well as the book it is based on, both available at the library) is based on Clifford Irving, an American writer, who became famous, then infamous for his “authorized autobiography” of eccentric-recluse-millionaire Howard Hughes which turned out to be false.  Mr. Irving did manage to fool many, including experts, for a time before being exposed

Just as in Catch Me If You Can, the story of a young con man who became renowned for his ability to forge cheques, we know from the beginning about the forgeries.  What keeps us interested is to see how close they came to being exposed and caught, and how they used their wits to avoid the inevitable and prolong the life of their lies.

A darker example would be the German movie The Counterfeiters, based on another true story, about the people, many of them professional criminals, who were forced to help the Nazi regime under threat of death in their efforts to bankrupt England and the United States by flooding their economies with forged money.

How about you – know any good tall tales?


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