Infamous Hoaxes of the Past Century
Hoaxes have a history dating back to antiquity. While the Notre Dame “fake dead girlfriend” saga seems shocking and bizarre (and understandably so), it is only the latest in a long tradition of hoaxes that have, at least temporarily, fooled the public.
Most of these hoaxes would have been exposed sooner if the media and general public had examined them closely. Major media outlets sometimes seem so intoxicated by a great story that they automatically take it at face value and forget to fact check. The famous phrase "there's a sucker born every minute" comes to mind. Unfortunately, clever hoaxes have the ability to make suckers of us all. Here’s a look at five of the most infamous hoaxes of the past century.
In November 1996, Esquire Magazine put an actress named Allegra Coleman on their front cover, hailing her as the world’s next big movie star. According the magazine’s breathless cover story, Coleman was poised for big things. Woody Allen was apparently desperate to sign Coleman for his next film. David Schwimmer of “Friends” was having a torrid love affair with her. Talent scouts and Hollywood studios were curious after reading Esquire’s profile and wanted to offer Coleman movie roles. Others criticized Esquire for lavishing so much attention on an actress who came across as vapid and shallow. New age guru Deepak Chopra, supposedly Coleman’s friend, allegedly described her as “spongy and luminescent.”
It turned out that Coleman was as nonexistent as Manti Teo’s girlfriend. The magazine had created a fake actress as a satirical publicity stunt. The young woman on the magazine’s cover was actually a then-obscure actress named Ali Larter. Ironically, Larter went on to achieve a measure of success and fame. She is best known for portraying Nikki Sanders in “Heroes” and Clear Rivers in “Final Destination” and “Final Destination 2”.
In October 2009, the parents of a six year old boy named Falcon Heene frantically reported to police that their son was flying through the air in a homemade hot air balloon that had been launched from the family’s backyard. The balloon traveled fifty miles before finally landing near an airport in Denver. The incident received a very significant response from the police. National Guard helicopters tracked the balloon, airplanes’ flights were diverted, and Denver International Airport was shut down. The national and international media quickly caught wind of the story and gave it intense news coverage.
The balloon was found with no one inside. At first, authorities suspected that Falcon had fallen out of the craft. Soon, however, the possibility of a hoax emerged. The family’s suspicious behavior in several televised interviews led to increased speculation. After a police examination showed that the balloon could not have lifted a fifty pound child, authorities publicly announced that they believed the incident was a hoax. It turned out that Falcon was hiding in his family’s garage during the entire incident. His parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, concocted the hoax in a bizarre attempt to get their own reality television show. Both Richard and Mayumi Heene pled guilty to charges. Richard received a 90 day jail sentence. His wife received 20 days. They’re still waiting for someone to give them a reality show.
In 1917, teenage cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were staying with their aunt in Cottingley, a village in England. While exploring the area by themselves, the girls took five stunning photographs that appeared to show themselves in the company of fairies. The pictures created a firestorm of controversy.
Sir Conan Arthur Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was the most famous person to be taken in by the photographs. Doyle was already a believer in psychic phenomena and quickly hailed the pictures as genuine. In 1920, he wrote a magazine article about the photographs, leading to widespread exposure for Frances and Elsie's pictures.
Others noticed several problems with the photographs. Some of the fairies had contemporary clothes and hairstyles. Not to mention that they looked suspiciously like they were made out of paper. ..
Both Wright and Griffiths stuck to their story for many years. In 1983, they finally admitted to the hoax in a magazine interview. The fairies had been cardboard cutouts propped up with hatpins. However, both still claimed to have seen fairies and Griffiths even insisted that the fifth and final photograph was genuine. Griffiths died in 1986. Wright passed away in 1988.
Today, it seems obvious that the “fairies” in all of these pictures are just paper cutouts. The girls were certainly clever in the way that they posed the fairies and took the photographs. But how could so many people have been fooled at the time?
One theory is that the believers were desperate for something inspirational in the wake of World War I. Many people longed to believe in something fanciful and magical after four years of horror. The Cottingley fairies filled an emotional void.
The Little Blue Man
The citizens of the small town of Elkton, Michigan began seeing something strange in 1958. A hideous blue monster would jump out at them as they drove down the area’s isolated rural roads. The entity had bright eyes and appeared to glow in the dark. After frightening motorists, the creature would run away, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. Was Elkton being visited by an extraterrestrial being? Or were the witnesses allowing their imaginations to run wild? Tales of UFO’s and flying saucers were very popular at the time. The story was picked up by the national media and became a major story.
It turned out that the witnesses were neither lying nor crazy. They really were witnessing something, but the blue man turned out to be very much of this earth. After a police investigation, three local men (Jerry Sprague, Leroy Schultz, and Don Weiss) confessed to creating the costume using a football helmet, combat boots, flashing lights, and a blue sheet covered with glowing blue spray paint. Sprague was the one who wore the costume. The police warned the men to immediately cease their activities and the little blue man was never seen again.
The Surgeon’s Photograph
The Loch Ness Monster, nicknamed Nessie, is one of the most famous creatures in cryptozoology. It is alleged to resemble a plesiosaur, a long-necked aquatic creature that existed alongside the dinosaurs. Scientists and archeologists believe that plesiosaurs became extinct millions of years ago. Nevertheless, many people have claimed to have seen, and even photographed, the Loch Ness Monster.
In 1934, a respected British doctor named Robert Kenneth Wilson allegedly snapped a photo that appeared to show the head and neck of the Loch Ness Monster. For years, his picture, dubbed “the Surgeon’s photograph”, was considered one of the most iconic pieces of evidence for the creature’s existence. Believers argued that the photograph was genuine, while skeptics claimed that the animal in the photo was an elephant, an otter, or an eel. They were all wrong.
The photo was revealed as a hoax in the early '90s. The “creature” had been made from of a plastic monster head attached to a wooden toy submarine. Duke Wetherell, a hunter, invented the deception as revenge against The Daily Mail, a newspaper that had mocked him. The newspaper had ridiculed his finding of Nessie footprints (which turned out to be hippo footprints) in a prior issue. Wetherell decided to create something that would “prove” the monster’s existence and fool the media. Dr. Robert Wilson and several other people, including Whetherall's son-in-law Christian Spurling, had conspired to create the hoax. Spurling finally admitted the deception in 1993.
Believers in the creature argue that one hoaxed photograph does not disprove Nessie's existence. This seems like a reasonable argument but, despite several expensive expeditions, the Loch Ness Monster remains elusive to this day.
- The Museum of Hoaxes
A reference guide to hoaxes, pranks, practical jokes, frauds, tricks, and other forms of deception.
- The Case of the Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 two teenage girls from Cottingley, England, produced photographs of fairies in the garden.
- The UnMuseum: Loch Ness Hoax Photo
- The 'Blue Man' of Bad Axe, Michigan, page 1