From Scams to Scandals: 50 Historical Hoaxes You Won’t Believe

Dive into the captivating world of deception as we unveil a curated collection of 50 historical hoaxes that have, throughout the ages, captured imaginations, shaped perceptions, and fooled the masses. From elaborate pranks to carefully crafted illusions, these stories reveal the incredible lengths to which individuals have gone to manipulate truth and challenge our understanding of reality. Join us on a journey through time as we explore the art of deception and the enduring impact of these intriguing historical hoaxes. To read part 1 of this series, click here.

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1 Gravity: Sokal’s Academic Hoax

Gravity: Sokal's Academic Hoax

In 1996, physics professor Alan Sokal published an article in the academic journal Social Text. In it, he claimed that gravity is a fiction that people are made to believe. Almost none of the reviewers noticed that the articles had already been published, and nearly all of the reviewers said the articles had “serious methodological flaws.” Later, he revealed it all to be a hoax to prove that 1) editors give more importance to academic authority and 2) damage of postmodern philosophy in science.


2 Chimpanzee Artist: Brassau’s Deception

Chimpanzee Artist: Brassau's Deception

In 1964, a Swedish art gallery displayed four paintings by unknown artist Pierre Brassau. Every single art critic praised the ‘avant-garde’ work-except one, who said, ‘only an ape could have done this’. In fact, it was all a hoax by a journalist, and ‘Brassau’ was actually a 4-year-old chimpanzee.


3 Taxil’s Vatican Humiliation Hoax

Taxil's Vatican Humiliation Hoax

In 1890, an anticlerical journalist (Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pages, under the pen name Leo Taxil) pulled off a 12-year hoax to humiliate the Vatican, involving inventing a cult of satanic Freemasons, paying his typist to play the part of a Luciferian Templar Mistress, and revealing it all to have been a hoax once the Vatican had endorsed it.


4 Project Alpha: Randi Exposes Researchers

Project Alpha: Randi Exposes Researchers

Stage magician James Randi exposed paranormal researchers in a four-year sting operation called “Project Alpha,” where two teenage magicians infiltrated the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research using sleight-of-hand tricks. Despite dropping hints and suggesting foolproof experiments to the researchers, they initially refused but eventually conducted the experiments, leading to the exposure of the deception. The revelation by Randi publicly humiliated the researchers, leading to the shutdown of McDonnell Laboratory after a few years.


5 Vespucci’s False South American Glory

Vespucci's False South American Glory

In a historical hoax, Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine explorer, falsely claimed to have landed in Venezuela before Columbus. Despite doubts about the authenticity of Vespucci’s voyages, a German cartographer, having read Vespucci’s letters, named the southern continent “America” in 1507. This choice, which another cartographer confirmed in 1538, contributed to Vespucci’s unjustified elevation to the position of a key figure in the naming of the Americas.


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6 Diamond Hoax: Arnold and Slack’s Scheme

Diamond Hoax: Arnold and Slack's Scheme

In the midst of the California Gold Rush, cousins Philip Arnold and John Slack plotted a diamond hoax in Colorado, inspired by the 1870 South African diamond rush. They “salted” a mine to deceive investors, including a banker named William Ralston, who founded the New York Mining and Commercial Company, raising $10 million in stock. The scheme unraveled in 1872 when geologist Clarence King exposed the secret mine, leading to financial losses for investors, and Arnold and Slack disappeared with $600,000.


7 Welles’ War of the Worlds Panic

Welles' War of the Worlds Panic

On Halloween Eve in 1938, Orson Welles created mass panic with a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Introducing the story as an unexpected interruption, Welles omitted clues to its fictional nature. The broadcast triggered widespread panic as listeners believed in an actual alien invasion, prompting Welles to interrupt the program to clarify its fictional nature, leading to both notoriety and a subsequent Hollywood career.


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8 Climate Change Hoax: Bacteria vs. Humans

Climate Change Hoax: Bacteria vs. Humans

In a recent climate change-related hoax, skeptics were handed what seemed like evidence against human involvement, with an obscure journal attributing global warming to underwater bacteria, not human activities. The 2007 report claimed these bacteria produced carbon dioxide 300 times more than human industries. The perpetrator, British author David Thorpe, revealed he initiated the hoax to convey a satirical message and demonstrate how people readily believe information that aligns with their biases.


9 Cardiff Giant: Hoaxing Ancient Giants

Cardiff Giant: Hoaxing Ancient Giants

In 1869, a supposed ancient giant was discovered in Cardiff, New York, attracting crowds willing to pay to see it. The owner, William Newell, sold a majority stake for $30,000 to businessmen who took the Cardiff Giant on tour. Experts soon declared it a statue, leading to suspicions that George Hull, Newell’s cousin, had orchestrated the hoax to disprove religious beliefs about giants mentioned in the Bible.


10 Moon Hoax of 1835

Moon Hoax of 1835

In 1835, the New York Sun published The Great Moon Hoax, presenting a fictional science series as real accounts from astronomer Sir John Herschel’s expedition to South Africa. The story exaggerated telescope capabilities, describing fantastical discoveries like half-bat humans and one-horned goats. Despite being fiction, the public, influenced by a mix of fact and hyperbole, initially believed the hoax, prompting widespread confusion until the author, Dr. Andrew Grant, revealed the story’s fictitious nature.


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