Lying gets a bad rap but, oftentimes, it can help keep life interesting. Lies can inspire people to greater heights of achievement, even as they often sink the liar to lower depths. Lies save more lives and livelihoods than you’d ever believe (trust us; we’d never lie about that.) So here’s to ten of those who most successfully raised dishonesty to an art form.
This ancient Greek historian recorded the events surrounding the Greco-Persian war in the fifth century B.C., as seen in such films as 300. A contemporary described him as “the father of lies” and one esteemed historian of the times, named Thuycides, called him a mere “storyteller.” In The Cartoon History of the Universe, Prof. Larry Gonick revealed that those lovely quotes from Spartan king Leonidas like “come and get them!” when they were told to surrender their weapons, or the responding to the Persian threat that their arrows would blot out the sun with, “then we shall fight in the shade” were 100% fabricated. Probably no other historian’s lies have done so much to entertain audiences.
9. Robert Ripley
When a person starts a cultural institution called “Believe It or Not,” you have to expect that the truth will not be a barrier to a good story. Goodness knows the empire his novelty facts publications that started in 1929 (with a complaint about America’s lack of national anthem) showed that the scheme worked. By 1932, he’d been voted “most popular man in America,” and had films, magazines, comic strips, and a radio show devoted to him. There are now museums around the world devoted to him, and Ripley exhibitions are covered by the New York Times. Unfortunately, his legacy introduced such nonsense into the public psyche as the idea that Albert Einstein flunked math as a child.
8. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
In 1856, French authorities in Algeria were threatened by a revolt. Learning that the rebel forces were being influenced by the alleged magical abilities of their mullahs (the Islamic equivalent of priests,) Robert-Houdin was dispatched to one-up their magic. Doing such tricks as the infamous bullet catch, and one with an electromagnet (where he made strong men seem too weak to lift containers with metal,) he nonviolently prevented a rebellion in Algeria for much of the century. During his career, he all but created much of what we see in modern magic, including the traditional magician suit template (which was nice, but probably didn’t prevent too much bloodshed.)
7. Count of St. Germain
He was an 18th-century court regular of Louis XV, serving as a diplomat, a secret agent, a composer, and author. He also claimed to be a magician capable of various elaborate forms of alchemy. Most importantly, he first won court favor by claiming to remove flaws from gems, and managed it by taking a low value gem, and switching it out with a flawless one he found elsewhere in France. He claimed to be in with many secret societies, and that he was four thousand years old. Amazingly, some devout followers believe he is still alive today.
6. Jasper Maskelyne
“If I could stand in the focus of powerful footlights and deceive attentive and undisturbed onlookers, separated from me only by the width of the orchestra pit, then I could most certainly devise means of deceiving German observers a mile away or more.” That’s not a quote from Maskelyne himself, but from a movie made about him, 2001’s The War Illusionist. It captured the spirit of his accomplishments however, especially the untrue ones. During World War II, he perfected the innovative “fake army for surveillance” technique that made the Normandy invasion successful, and helped liberate North Africa from the Axis. Then he hilariously exaggerated his accomplishments, by making claims that he invented a flashing light system that disrupted German night bombing runs. It’s a shame there’s only the one movie about him so far.
5. Aleister Crowley
These days, Crowley is mostly famous for being a supposed member of magical societies in Great Britain in the early-20th Century, and for seeming like he was just messing about, because there was a period of religious revivalism in the late-19th century that he was needling. He also claimed to possess the power to make himself invisible, among other things. Then he lampooned his own claims with “The Book of Lies,” which was a ninety-three page book, with ninety-three chapters, where he made even more obviously untrue claims. But then (and this really is too good to be true,) he claimed to have actually been offered induction into the Freemason Society, on the basis of his knowing “the secret.” He turned the group down however, because he’d made up the secret.
4. Raoul Wallenberg
Returning to the subject of lying to the Nazis, Raoul Wallenberg’s magnificent lies saved thousands of lives in Hungary in 1944. In history’s greatest act of forgery, this Swedish representative distributed thousands of illegal phony passport visas, that would allow Jews who had been previously seeking relative asylum in Hungary passage to Sweden. He went so far in his pursuit to save people, that he was known to physically stand on top of moving trains, in order to continue handing them out to passengers.
3. Harry Gerguson
After the Romanoffs were killed in 1917, many people came forth to claim to be lost royal stock. No one was more successful than Harry Gerguson, who was actually just a New York City orphan. Most of his success stemmed from the fact that he kept claiming, up until his death in 1962, he was actually Michael Romanoff. He would keep up this lie even after he’d been arrested, sued, and deported from America ten times. In fact, he used his invented royal credentials (which almost all royal credentials are, to be honest) to found a high-profile Hollywood restaurant, make the usual celebrity friends, and enroll in Harvard. It just goes to show: stick to the lie, and eventually people might find the whole thing charming.
2. Alan Abel
Sufficiently high-profile enough that the New York Times published his 1980 obituary (which was exposed as a lie two days later,) Alan Abel is a still-surviving prankster that likes to embarrass major news outlets and satirically point out how willing people are to get angry over nothing. His awesome list of pranks that he’s pulled on the public include “The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals,” which got worldwide coverage by demanding animals receive clothing, the prisoner advocacy group “Females for Felons,” and numerous other incidents and phony organizations. You can, and should, read all about it at his website.
1. Wilhelm Voigt
Not many people can become national folk heroes by simply lying about being in the armed forces. Of the ones that do, almost none of them do it with the zest that Wilhelm Voigt brought in 1906. Renting a fake captain’s uniform that didn’t fit and wasn’t kitted properly, while also fresh from a life of destitution due to a lack of a work permit, he went to a barracks, ordered ten soldiers to come with him as an honor guard, and went to the city hall of Berlin suburb Koepenick. There he had the mayor and town treasurer arrested, took 4,000 marks in loot, and told his soldiers to stand guard at the city hall and watch as the prisoners high-tailed it. He was arrested ten days later, and became so beloved by the anti-militaristic section of the German population that he was set for life after spending less than two years in jail.