You’ve probably seen the photo. Grainy and gray, it shows the neck and head of some type of large sea monster rising from the freshwater of Scotland’s Loch Ness. When the photo first appeared in 1934, many people believed it was real. After all, it was taken by Robert Wilson, a respected London doctor, and stories of a monster in the loch had been swirling around Scotland for more than 1,400 years.
But in the 1990s, the photo was exposed as a hoax. Ian Wetherell and his stepbrother, Christian Spurling, confessed they had created it by attaching a monster head to a toy submarine [source: Naish].
Hoaxes like the loch ness monster have been around for centuries, created by people as jokes, or for profit or attention. And as crazy as some of them seem in hindsight, people are always willing to buy into them. Maybe believing in seemingly unbelievable things is part of the human psyche. Or maybe we just like to believe in whatever scientists and experts don’t. Whatever the reason, don’t think you’ll never be fooled. Because sages and fools alike have been tricked by the following 13 hoaxes.
13: Shroud of Turin
Supposedly Christ’s burial cloth, the Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot (4.3 meter) piece of linen that bears the image of a crucified man. The shroud first emerged in France around 1350 B.C.E., according to the earliest records, when a French knight presented it to the dean of the church in Lirey. While there were many skeptics, there were also plenty of pilgrims eager to see and believe. They began flocking to the church, which began raking in the dough. Eventually Pope Clement VII declared it a fake. Yet that didn’t stop the debate about its authenticity, which continued throughout the centuries [source: Little].
More recently, in the 20th century, scientists began studying the cloth with modern scientific techniques. Still, there was no consensus. One group said the stains were real blood, for example, while another said their analysis showed the cloth dated to 1260-1390 BCE, well after Jesus’ death [source: Little].
Today, many Catholics consider the Shroud of Turin a precious icon, although it’s rarely on display. But in April 2020, when the new COVID-19 pandemic was devastating Italy, the archbishop of Turin provided a livestream of the shroud for the faithful [source: Little].
12: Alien Autopsy
People were astonished and intrigued when, in 1995, a short film appeared showing government pathologists dissecting a dead alien, presumably from a 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico. The 17-minute, black-and-white clip was grainy, yet the images were clear enough to discern. Almost immediately, controversy ensued. Was this alien autopsy real or fake [source: Lagerfeld]?
For 10 years, no one knew the answer. The film was released by Ray Santilli and Gary Shoefield, two London producers who claimed to have purchased it from a retired American military cameraman. But they refused to identify him, and no one was able to locate him. By 1996, most had decided the autopsy was a hoax.
In 2006, the show “Eamonn Investigates: Alien Autopsy” aired in Britain, featuring a clip of Santilli admitting to the host that the film was a fake. However, Santilli claimed that he and Shoefield had seen a true alien autopsy film, then recreated it when they weren’t able to purchase it [source: Lagerfeld].
11: Helicopter Shark
Today, internet pranks abound. But in 2001, during the internet’s infancy, one of its first photo hoaxes was the helicopter shark. A photo appeared online of a great white shark leaping out of the ocean attacking a military helicopter. The accompanying caption claimed it was a real shot taken near the South African coast during a British Navy military maneuver. The caption also claimed the photo was National Geographic’s “Photo of the Year” [source: Heart].
In reality, the unknown prankster merged a photo of a breaching great white, taken by South African photographer Charles Maxwell, with a photo of a U.S. Air Force helicopter hovering near the Golden Gate Bridge, shot by Lance Cheung. National Geographic eventually published an article in 2005 exposing the hoax, and noting the shot was never its Photo of the Year [source: Museum of Hoaxes].
10: War of the Worlds Broadcast
In the 1930s, the world was drawing closer and closer to a second global war. Radio broadcasts were constantly being interrupted to bring news of what was happening near and far. Technology was also rapidly evolving, with space travel looming on the horizon. And science fiction was emerging as a literary genre.
So maybe it wasn’t too surprising when, Oct. 30, 1938, thousands and thousands of Americans believed Martians were invading the United States. Why shouldn’t they? They’d been listening to the radio, when the program was interrupted by a news bulletin that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were preparing to attack [source: Lovgen].
Panic ensued, as people tried to figure out whether, and where, to flee, and how to protect themselves from the poisonous gas the Martians were said to be releasing in New Jersey. People jammed the roads. Hid in their homes. Armed themselves. Some collapsed and received treatment for shock and hysteria [source: Lovgen].
But, of course, no Martians had landed. The program, narrated by writer-director Orson Welles, was merely a radio play based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 book “The War of the Worlds.” Before the play began, CBS Radio announced it was a play based on Wells’ novel. But many listeners had tuned in while the broadcast was in progress, and therefore missed the explanatory introduction. Some estimates say 20 percent of listeners believed in the invasion, or somewhere around 1 million people [source: Lovgen].
9: Escape of Anastasia Romanov
Who can resist the idea that somehow, some way, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov escaped and lived to see another day? Anastasia was the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. When Russia’s Bolsheviks revolted in the early 20th century, they rounded up the czar and his family and shot them all, execution-style. Anastasia was 17.
For years following the slayings, people whispered Anastasia had escaped. Some said her brother, Alexei, had survived as well. Then women began emerging in various spots around the globe, all claiming to be Anastasia. One woman, Anna Anderson, fought for 32 years — from 1938 to 1970 — to be legally recognized as the heir to the Romanov throne [source: Biography].
In the 1970s, a grave in Yekaterinburg was discovered that held nine bodies. The amateur archeologist who discovered it kept silent until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. That year, a forensic investigation concluded the bones belonged to members of the Romanov family and their servants. But the bones of Alexei and Anastasia were missing. Could it be that Anderson or another one of those female claimants really was Anastasia? Nope. In 2007, another grave was discovered near the Yekaterinburg one, and guess what DNA testing confirmed? The bones were those of Alexei and Anastasia, settling the mystery for good [source: Biography].
8: Hitler’s Diaries
And you thought Anne Frank’s diary was a big deal. In 1983, Der Stern, a German newsweekly publication, proclaimed one of its investigative reporters, Gerd Heidemann, had stumbled upon a set of 62 secret diaries penned by none other than Adolf Hitler. More than two dozen volumes had apparently been stashed away for decades by a man named Konrad Fischer after they were discovered near a Dresden-area plane crash in 1945, while others had apparently been smuggled out of the country by an East German general [source: UnMuseum].
Before Der Stern published this bombshell, it did subject the diaries to three separate handwriting tests for authentication, and the tests had come back positive. But the magazine didn’t conduct any other tests, probably because they were so anxious to publish such a major scoop — and profit from it by selling reprint rights to other publications [source: UnMuseum].
When the news broke, German World War II experts (and skeptics) pored over the diaries. West Germany’s Federal Archives also ran scientific tests on them. Der Stern had been tricked. The researchers found numerous historical inaccuracies in the documents, while the Federal Archive tests proved they were created with modern-day paper and ink [source: UnMuseum].
It turns out Konrad Fischer was really Konrad Kujau, an infamous Stuttgart forger. Heidemann was somehow in on it, too, although no one knows the exact arrangement between the two. But both profited from the estimated $4 to $6 million Der Stern had forked over for the diaries. Kujau, his wife and Heidemann ended up in the clink for forgery and embezzlement [sources: McGrane, UnMuseum].
7: Georgia Under Attack
Russian tanks rolled into former Soviet Georgia in 2008, supposedly to protect the Russian nationals living in South Ossetia, a Georgian province. South Ossetia was home to an antsy separatist movement, and Georgia had sent in troops to maintain control. Not surprisingly, the Georgian government wasn’t happy Russia was interfering in its business, and called Russia’s actions aggressive and hostile. A five-day war ensued, with Georgia squaring off against both Russia and South Ossetia. The result? Georgia lost control of South Ossetia and an area called Abkhazia [source: Harding].
Less than two years later, Georgians were terrified when the pro-government TV station Imedi interrupted prime time viewing one Saturday night to report the Russians were back. The station went on to report that Georgia’s pro-Western leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, had been assassinated [source: Harding].
Georgians ran out into the streets screaming. The country’s cellphone network went down. People ended up in the hospital, suffering from acute stress. One woman reportedly had a heart attack and died. In Russia, state news agency Interfax jumped on the Georgians’ announcement, sending out a quick report about the invasion and Saakashvili’s death.
Thirty minutes later, former reporter David Cracknell uncovered the truth: There was no invasion, and Saakashvili was alive. Apparently the fake broadcast was made to simulate what might happen in Georgia if Russia once again did invade and the citizens were so warned. Imedi claimed announcers had noted it was merely a hypothetical scenario before the broadcast, but most viewers didn’t pick up on that [source: Harding].
6: Cardiff Giant
In 1868, atheist George Hull hired a stonecutter to carve a slab of gypsum into a 10-foot (3-meter) tall man with 21-inch long (53-centimeter) long feet. He then had it buried on the farm of distant-relative William Newell in Cardiff, New York [sources: The Skeptic’s Dictionary]. The following year, workers digging a well on the property discovered the stone man, and people all over were quickly enthralled.
Was it an ancient carving? Or a fossilized giant? If it was the latter, some said, it was proof the Bible was literally true, for Genesis 6:4 says, “There were giants in the earth in those days …” [source: Radford].
Experts smelled a rat, and tried to warn people not to get too excited. But it was too late. People flocked to the remote farm site — hundreds and even thousands per day — paying 50 cents a head (a whole lot of money in those days) to see “Goliath.” Even more amusing, P.T. Barnum quickly created a duplicate which people paid to see, thinking it was the original. So they were double-duped [sources: The Skeptic’s Dictionary].
Hull created the behemoth as a practical joke, and also to make those who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible look foolish [source: Radford]. He confessed after an associate sued Barnum for claiming Barnum’s giant was the original one. The fake fossil is still around for viewing at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York [source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary].
5: Piltdown Man
The minute Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists began frantically searching for the “missing link.” Some kind of fossil from a transitional creature in between a full ape and full man. Someone in the midst of evolving. In 1912, Englishman Charles Dawson claimed he’d found it — eureka! — in a gravel pit in a place called Piltdown [source: Bartlett].
Taking the fossils they’d found, Dawson and a colleague recreated a skull with a human-sized brain and apelike jaw. The skull was dubbed Piltdown Man. England merrily celebrated its new status as the birthplace of modern man. But some scientists cried foul.
The skull didn’t match other finds around the world, namely the famed Australopithecines fossil discovered in South Africa. Dawson then announced in 1915 that he’d found another fossil similar to Piltdown Man. With evidence of two Piltdowns, most people believed the hoax [source: Bartlett].
Piltdown Man’s demise occurred in 1953, when British scientists, using new technology, dated his remains at 500 years old — not the 1 million years necessary to be the missing link. They also discovered his jaw was from an orangutan whose teeth were filed to match human wear patterns. All of the fossils had been stained to match each other. Piltdown Man wasn’t just an erroneously identified find, it was a hoax [source: Bartlett].
We’ll never know who perpetrated the hoax, as most of the folks involved were dead by the time the truth was revealed. One intriguing suspect is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Doyle lived near Piltdown, was a member of the same archaeological society as Dawson and was into spiritualism, which scientists mocked. Perhaps this was his way of getting back at them [source: Bartlett].
4: Cottingley Fairies
In 1917, when Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths, were young girls living near Cottingley, England, they wanted to prove fairies existed. So they took a few photographs of each other with fairies dancing around them. Elsie had drawn the paper cutouts, and the two used hatpins to invisibly set them in place. The girls’ parents assumed they were trick photos, although the girls refused to admit it [source: Coppens].
Their fairytale would have been nothing but a harmless home prank, except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — a possible culprit in the Piltdown Man hoax — heard about the photos. Doyle was a big believer in fairies, and was about to write an article about them. He viewed the photos and mentioned them in his article. Soon people all over the world were viewing the girls’ photos and excited to learn of the existence of fairies [source: Coppens].
The cousins stuck to their story for decades, only admitting the photos had been faked in the 1980s, when they were old and long retired. Today, people still travel to Cottingley to see the glen where the fairies were photographed [source: Coppens].
3: Feejee Mermaid
There’s a sucker born every minute, as P.T. Barnum is famed for proclaiming. (Although someone else actually said it. But that’s another story.) Barnum, a circus operator and huckster, operated a popular 19th-century attraction, the American Museum, in lower Manhattan. The museum featured a show of “human curiosities,” many of whom were real people, such as the little person Tom Thumb and the Bearded Lady. Then, in 1842, he introduced the Feejee Mermaid (also spelled Fejee and Fiji) [source: Szalay].
The Feejee Mermaid, Barnum said, was the mummified remains of a real mermaid. But unlike the popularized idea of what a mermaid was — a beautiful maiden whose lower half was a fish tail — Barnum’s creature was a scary specimen that was likely the upper half of a young monkey sewn onto the bottom half of a fish. This grotesque mermaid only fascinated people more, and attracted throngs to his museum [source: Kageyama].
The Feejee Mermaid is believed to have been created in Asia earlier in the century; other similar “mermaids” existed during this time period [source: Szalay].
2: Balloon Boy
On Oct. 15, 2009, the world was riveted as images of a giant, homemade weather balloon floating through the skies — presumably with a 6-year-old boy huddled inside — flashed across their TV screens. Parents Richard and Mayumi Heene tearfully told authorities they’d created the silver, saucer-like helium balloon, launched it from their home in Fort Collins, Colorado, then noticed their son, Falcon, was missing. They searched their home, calling out for him everywhere, and realized with a sinking feeling that Falcon may have climbed inside the balloon’s compartment when they weren’t looking.
For 50 minutes, the balloon — which resembled a UFO — floated around the Colorado skies while authorities frantically tracked it in an effort to get Falcon safely back on terra firma. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) even suspended some departures from Denver International Airport during the debacle [source: Hughes and Bazar].
The balloon eventually landed, but Falcon wasn’t inside after all. He was later discovered hiding in the family’s attic. A media frenzy surrounded the Heenes, but only until their hoax was discovered, thanks to the honesty of little Falcon.
When he and his parents were on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” that’s when Falcon said the reason he didn’t come out from his hiding spot in the attic was because his parents had told him not to. The family, which had previously appeared on the reality show “Wife Swap,” had devised the balloon incident in the hopes it would interest TV producers in creating a reality show about them [source: CNN].
1: Mary Toft’s Bunny Births
One of the most amazing (and grossest) hoaxes of all time took place in England in 1726. That’s when Mary Toft, a servant from Godalming, in Surrey, went into labor and delivered some animal parts. Local obstetrician John Howard was called in, and, over the next month, he helped Toft deliver a rabbit’s head, the legs of a cat and nine dead baby rabbits, the latter all in one day.
Soon everyone from a Swiss surgeon-anatomist to the Prince of Wales’ secretary visited Toft, who had become a local celebrity, to witness the unbelievable births. And unbelievable they deemed them to be [source: University of Glasgow].
After examining one of the rabbits, a German surgeon found corn, hay and straw in its dung, proving it couldn’t have developed inside Toft. Others reached the same conclusion after studying the bunnies’ lungs and other organs. A porter was then caught trying to smuggle a rabbit into Toft ‘s room. Eventually Toft confessed she’d been inserting the rabbits and other animal parts into her vagina, then letting the various physicians “deliver” them [source: University of Glasgow].
Why in the world would she do this? Toft blamed her husband, mother-in-law and others for persuading her to perform this stunt. Some say she was looking for some extra cash, and maybe attention, too. She’s believed to have been more of a confused woman than a cunning one. Toft eventually served a few weeks in prison for her stunt, where the public could pay the wardens to see her in person [sources: White, University of Glasgow].
Originally Published: Dec 10, 2012
Lots More Information
- Bartlett, Kate. “Piltdown Man: Britain’s Greatest Hoax.” BBC. Feb. 17, 2011. (May 23, 2022) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/archaeology/piltdown_man_01.shtml
- Biography. “Anastasia Romanov.” May 7, 2021. (May 23, 2022)https://www.biography.com/royalty/anastasia-romanov
- Brown, R.J. “P.T. Barnum Never Did Say ‘There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute.'” History Buff. (Nov. 19, 2012) http://www.historybuff.com/library/refbarnum.html
- CNN. “Authorities: ‘Balloon boy’ incident was a hoax.” Oct. 19, 2009. (Nov. 13, 2012) https://www.cnn.com/2009/US/10/18/colorado.balloon.investigation/index.html
- Coppens, Philip. “Fairy dust: the Cottingley Fairies.” Philip Coppens. (Nov. 18, 2012) http://www.philipcoppens.com/cottingley.html
- Cottingley. “Cottingley Fairies.” (May 23, 2022) http://www.cottingley.net/fairies.shtml
- Harding, Luke. “Russian invasion scare sweeps Georgia after TV hoax.” The Guardian. March 14, 2010. (May 23, 2022) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/14/russia-georgia-fake-invasion-report
- Heart. “Shark attacks a helicopter.” (May 24, 2022)https://www.heart.co.uk/photos/best-internet-hoaxes-all-time/shark-attacks-helicopter/
- Hughes, Trevor and Emily Bazar. “Lawyer: Family in balloon incident ‘under siege.'” USA Today. Oct. 19, 2009. (Nov. 19, 2012) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-10-17-balloon-boy_N.htm
- Kageyama, Ben. “The Fiji Mermaid.” History of Yesterday. Dec. 12, 2020. (May 24, 2022)https://historyofyesterday.com/the-fiji-mermaid-4cb689583f6c
- Lagerfeld, Nathalie. “How an Alien Autopsy Hoax Captured the World’s Imagination for a Decade.” Time. June 24, 2016. (May 24, 2022)https://time.com/4376871/alien-autopsy-hoax-history/
- Little, Becky. “The Shroud of Turin: 7 Intriguing Facts.” History. March 25, 2021. (May 24, 2022)https://www.history.com/news/shroud-turin-facts
- Lovgen, Stefan. “‘War of the Worlds’: Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic.” National Geographic News. June 17, 2005. (May 23, 2022) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0617_050617_warworlds.html
- McGrane, Sally. New Yorker. “Diary of the Hitler Diary Hoax.” April 25, 2013. (May 24, 2022) https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/diary-of-the-hitler-diary-hoax
- Mother Nature Network. “Hoaxes: Fiji mermaid.” (Nov. 13, 2012) http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/photos/15-of-the-biggest-scientific-hoaxes/fiji-mermaid
- Museum of Hoaxes. “Helicopter Shark.” (May 24, 2022)http://hoaxes.org/photo_database/image/helicopter_shark
- Naish, Darren. “Photos of the Loch Ness Monster, revisited.” Scientific American. July 10, 2013. (May 23, 2022)https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/photos-of-the-loch-ness-monster-revisited/
- Radford, Benjamin. “A History of Religious Hoaxes.” LiveScience. Oct. 1, 2012. (May 23, 2022) http://www.livescience.com/23609-religious-hoaxes.html
- Radford, Benjamin. “New Nessie Photo: ‘Convincing’ Proof of Loch Ness Monster?” Live Science. Aug. 3, 2012. (May 23, 2022) http://www.livescience.com/22118-loch-ness-monster-nessie-photo.html
- The Skeptic’s Dictionary. “Cardiff giant.” Jan. 5, 2016. (May 23, 2022) http://skepdic.com/cardiff.html
- UnMuseum. “The Hitler Diaries.” (May 23, 2022)http://www.unmuseum.org/hitlerdiaries.htm
- University of Glasgow Library Special Collections Department. “The Curious Case of Mary Toft.” August 2009. (Nov. 13, 2012) http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/aug2009.html
- White, Edward. “An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits.” The Paris Review. July 5, 2016. (May 24, 2022)https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/07/05/an-extraordinary-delivery-of-rabbits/