5 Famous Historical Hoaxes

5 Famous Historical Hoaxes

People Fell for Them Hook, Line and Sinker

1. The Bathtub Hoax

CLown in bath

H.L. Mencken was an early 20th century journalist and social critic known for, among other things, covering the Scopes trial on evolution in schools where he coined the term “monkey trial”. He was known to imbue his writing with a hefty dose of satire so, when he published an article on the history of the bathtub, people should have been a bit more skeptical.

The article was titled “A Neglected Anniversary” and was published in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917 (read it here in its entirety). It mentioned how December 20 marked the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub in the United States. Mencken went on to give a detailed history of the bathtub and how it was invented. He gave a lot of credit to President Millard Fillmore for having a tub installed in the White House in 1851 and making it a popular fixture in bathrooms throughout the nation.

There was just one problem, though. Mencken made up the whole thing. This didn’t stop everyone from believing him, though. Initially, Mencken dismissed his hoax as nothing but a bit of playfulness during wartime. Nine years after the original article, Mencken published a confession in the Chicago Tribune (which you can read here). However, by this time he decried the gullibility of the public, the media and even historians who repeated his “buncombe” as fact. This article proved far less successful, though, and decades later people still believe the bathtub hoax. Don’t believe us, just check out this Kia commercial from 2008.

2. Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine


There’s a fine line between a hoax and a scam. Typically, a scam is regarded as deception that people intend to profit from while a hoax can be done just to have a bit of a laugh. In that regard, Charles Redheffer’s perpetual motion machine might be regarded more as a scam, but its popularity after 200 years warrants a mention.

The laws of thermodynamics prohibit the existence of perpetual motion machines, but in the early 19th century this wasn’t as well established. Which is why when a man showed up in Philadelphia in 1812 exhibiting one such device, it became a huge sensation. Redheffer made his money off the general public, but he got greedy and applied for city funds to build a large version of his machine. This prompted an inspection from city commissioners to verify that his machine worked as promised. Despite Redheffer’s best efforts to keep them as far as possible, one of the inspectors saw through the scam. The perpetual motion machine was attached to a second machine which, according to Redheffer, was being powered by the first one. Actually, the opposite was true – that secondary machine was powering his perpetual motion device.

Once Redheffer’s hoax was discovered, he fled to New York where he started again from scratch. American engineer Robert Fulton was the one who exposed him here. This time Redheffer went for a more basic approach – his new “perpetual motion” machine was powered by a hand crank turned by an old man through a cable hidden in the wall.

3. The Loveland Potato Hoax

potato hoax

Taken in 1894, this might be the first viral fake photo in history. As you can see, it shows a farmer named J.B. Swan of Loveland, Colorado proudly showing off his “Maggie Murphy” potato weighing in at 86 lbs and 10 oz.

As you can imagine, the potato is fake. It was actually a cutout attached to a wooden board. It was the brainchild of a local newspaper editor to promote Swan’s potato farm at a local fair. The image became well-known in the community, but didn’t make it big until a New Yorker passing through sent the image to Scientific American. The editors of the magazine didn’t realize the photo was a fake and published it in their September 18, 1895 issue, promoting it as the Mammoth Potato. By the time they realized their mistake, the photograph became a national sensation. The farmer dismissed the whole thing as nothing more than a publicity stunt, but eventually got tired of all the explanations and simply said that the potato was stolen, further strengthening the myth.



4. Disumbrationism


If you ever had a feeling that some art critics are just making stuff up as they go along, then disumbrationism pretty much proves your point. This was a hoax disguised as a new art movement in the early 20th century initiated by writer Paul Jordan-Smith.

Smith had a grudge against certain art critics who belittled his wife’s realistic still life paintings in favor of modern art. To reveal them as the pretentious snobs he thought they were, in 1924 Smith adopted the pseudonym of Pavel Jerdanowitch, an artist who followed the (fictional) disumbrationist school of art. Never having painted anything in his life, Smith did a very crude picture of a Pacific islander woman holding a banana. He gave the painting a pompous name (Exaltation) and a fancy description (“breaking the shackles of womanhood”) and, as he expected, the critics heaped it with praise.

More paintings followed in the years to come and each one found its set of critics who hailed it as a brilliant piece of modern art. In 1927, Smith gleefully revealed the hoax in the Los Angeles Times and left the aforementioned critics with egg on their face and shattered reputations.

5. The Cottingley Fairies

Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, two cousins named Elsie and Frances took a picture in their garden showing one of the girls with fairies dancing around her. They then took a second picture with the other girl playing with a gnome. Elsie’s mother showed the photos around to some purported experts who proclaimed them genuine. In 1920, the photos made their way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes creator and a huge believer in the paranormal. At his request, the girls took three more photographs and these five images became known as the Cottingley Fairies.

Thanks mainly to Doyle, the photographs made the rounds throughout England and became hugely popular in the paranormal community who saw them as irrefutable proof of the existence of fairies. Of course, the whole thing was a hoax and the fairies were nothing more than cardboard cutouts from a children’s book supported with hatpins. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that two small girls managed to fool the author of Sherlock Holmes along with paranormal and photography experts plus scores of enthusiastic believers.