A recent rumor that started on Twitter had people believing actor Jeff Goldblum had fallen off a cliff to his death while shooting a movie. The story was quickly revealed to be a hoax, but it wasn’t the first time the web has been used to spread misinformation, and well before the dawn of the internet there were numerous hoaxes that managed to fool the public, scientists, and the media, often for years on end. Here is a list of the top ten most famous cases in history.
10. The Howard Hughes Autobiography
In the 1920s, renowned industrialist Howard Hughes was one of the richest men in the world, but mental illness led to his becoming a total recluse, and by the 1950s he had entirely retired from public life. In 1970, struggling writer Clifford Irving and a friend hatched a plan to write a fake autobiography of the famed aviator and film producer, figuring that Hughes wouldn’t want to draw attention to himself by condemning it as a fake. Irving forged letters in Hughes’ hand, made up interviews and stories, and eventually managed to get a contract with a well-known publishing company for the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes.” Irving became a minor celebrity when the book was released, appearing on 60 Minutes and other television shows to discuss his supposed relationship with Hughes, but he was finally found out when the real Howard Hughes called a press conference and denied ever knowing him. Irving and his accomplice eventually spent some time in prison for the stunt, which remains one of the biggest literary hoaxes of all time.
9. Idaho’s Name
If the story behind it is indeed true, then the Idaho hoax remains one of the most successful pranks of all time. The story dates back to the 1860s, when a new territory was being mapped out in the Western United States. Industrialist George Willing suggested “Idaho” as a name for the new state, claiming that it meant “the sun comes from the mountains” in a Native American language. The name gained some popularity in the area, and in 1863 the region was named Idaho Territory, which would later become the state of Idaho. It was only then that Willing, a known eccentric, admitted that Idaho wasn’t a Native American word at all and claimed that he had simply made it up. Although historians still argue about whether or not Willing is really responsible for helping name the state of Idaho, his claim that it was an Indian word was widely reported, and it falsely appeared in history books well into the 20th century.
8. The Hitler Diaries
The Hitler diaries were a collection of documents penned by master forger Konrad Kujau and passed off as the personal journals of Adolf Hitler. The scammers claimed that after being recovered from the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Germany in 1945, the diaries were smuggled out of East Germany by a man known as “Dr. Fischer.” They were eventually bought for 10 million German marks by the magazine Stern, which published extracts from them in one of its issues in 1983. But the extreme amount of secrecy required to keep the story exclusive meant that historians and handwriting experts weren’t able to properly examine the diaries to confirm their authenticity, and it was only after the article was published that they were revealed to be fakes. The ensuing scandal resulted in several of the magazine’s editors resigning, and Kujau and the journalist he was working with both spent time in prison.
7. Paul Is Dead
The superstardom earned by The Beatles in late 1960s helped produce the “Paul is Dead” hoax, which still remains one of the biggest legends in music. It started when some fans began to claim that hidden messages stating that Paul McCartney was dead could be heard when certain Beatles songs were played backwards. The rumor gained steam with the help of radio disc jockeys and conspiracy theorists, and a legend arose that McCartney had died in a car accident during the recording of one of the band’s albums, with some even claiming that Paul had been replaced by a look-alike. McCartney was eventually forced to address the rumor in order to confirm that he was not, in fact, dead, but just who started the hoax remains a mystery. Many have put forth Beatles themselves as possible suspects, pointing to the frequent cryptic messages and wordplay found on their albums, but the band repeatedly denied this claim.
6. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is one of the biggest literary forgeries of all time, and since it appeared over 100 years ago, its effects have been unbelievably far-reaching. The book, which was deliberately forged by Russian journalist Matvei Golovinski sometime around 1900, purports to describe the secrets of a clandestine group of Jews known as the Elders of Zion. Mixing outright fabrication with plagiarism from other sources, it details a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination through brainwashing, governmental power and violence. Even though it was proven as a forgery both in the media and the court of law as early as 1938, it has been used time and again as a justification for anti-Semitism, most notably by the Nazis, and has helped inspire untold amounts of violence. At this point, the book has lost almost all credibility in academic circles, but it continues to have an influence, most famously in Middle Eastern nations like Egypt and Iran. Want to know more, here is a video.
5. The Turk
Built by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in 1770, the Turk was a fake “automaton chess player” that gained fame in the courts of Europe and was exhibited around the world for more than 80 years. Conceived by Kempelen in order to impress the Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk was purported to be a chess playing machine that worked by a series of mechanical cogs and cranks, but in reality it was an illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside a compartment and operate the pieces using magnets. The Turk gained much fame during its exhibitions in Paris, London, and the United States, during which it won most of its matches against some of the most respected chess players in the world. It famously defeated both Napoleon Bonaparte and Ben Franklin, and when it was shown in America it inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write a magazine article speculating on how it might work. The Turk inspired much debate and fascination, with some claiming it was operated by a spirit or some kind of magic, and it continued to be exhibited even after Kempelen and one of its most famous operators, William Schlumberger, had both died. After being given to a museum, the Turk was destroyed in a fire, and shortly thereafter its secrets were revealed in a series of magazine articles.
4. The Niger Uranium Forgeries
Perhaps no hoax has had more far reaching effects than the Niger Uranium forgeries, which played a big part in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. The hoax started when a series of documents were recovered by Italian military intelligence. The papers supposedly provided evidence that Sadaam Hussein had made efforts to purchase quantities of Yellowcake Uranium from the country of Niger. These documents ultimately became the biggest evidence that Iraq was looking to build weapons of mass destruction, and were one of the major reasons for the initial invasion of Iraq by American and British forces. It was only after the documents’ existence had been made public that the CIA made further inquiries into their authenticity and discovered that they were fakes. In the time since, the forgeries have been a constant source of speculation and debate, but no one has ever been charged with creating them, though members of the Italian and American intelligence communities have been put forth as suspects.
3. Piltdown Man
Perhaps the most famous scientific hoax in history, the Piltdown Man was a skeleton of a primitive humanoid that was discovered in 1912 in Piltdown, England. The shape of the creature’s skull was different from any previously discovered early humans, and the two men who popularized the find, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward, were quick to advance the theory that Piltdown Man was the famed “missing link” between apes and humans. Skepticism eventually arose in the scientific community, and several paleontologists and anthropologists called the find a fake. Despite the controversy, Piltdown Man was generally accepted as a major piece of history for forty years until 1953, when a team of scientists finally proved it to be a forgery assembled from human, orangutan, and chimpanzee bones and teeth aged with chromic acid. A number of possible suspects have been put forth over the years, but recent evidence points to Dawson, Piltdown Man’s original finder, as the mastermind behind the hoax.
2. The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, a tobacconist named George Hull orchestrated what has become one of the most famous hoaxes in American history: the Cardiff Giant. After hiring a stonecutter to create the likeness of a ten-foot tall giant out of gypsum, Hull had it buried on his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York. A year later, he hired some men to dig a well on the spot, knowing that they would uncover the petrified man. Sure enough, the men uncovered the giant, and the find soon became a media sensation. Hull built a tent on the dig site and started selling tickets to it for 50 cents, and even though most scientists immediately condemned the find as a fake, people flocked to the farm to get a glimpse of the petrified giant. The find became such a success that P.T. Barnum attempted to rent the giant for his circus, and when he was turned down, he built a replica and started exhibiting it as the real thing. The owners of the Cardiff Giant sued Barnum, but in the course of the trial it eventually came out that both of the finds were hoaxes, and in 1870 Hull finally confessed to engineering a forgery.
1. The War of The Worlds Radio Show
In what is remembered as the most famous hoax in entertainment history, a 1938 radio play version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is said to have caused mass hysteria and panic among its listeners. The show aired on Halloween and was directed and narrated by Orson Welles, who would later make the classic film Citizen Kane. It was presented in the form of a special news bulletin and interrupted a weather report, leading many to believe that the story’s description of a Martian invasion of Earth was actually happening. It is estimated that some six million people heard the broadcast, and it is said that police stations were overrun with distress calls. In one small town in Washington, the broadcast coincided with a freak citywide power failure, leading many of the town’s residents to arm themselves with guns and flee into the mountains. The media backlash from the broadcast was huge, and CBS radio, which aired the program, went on to promise never to try a similar stunt again. The whole incident did succeed in jump-starting Orson Welles’ career, and it has been said that when Pearl Harbor was attacked three years later, many people initially thought the news reports to be yet another radio prank like the War of the Worlds hoax.