10 Hoaxes people actually believed

David Girvan | May 19, 2014

Would you have been fooled?

1. Bill Gates of Latter-Day Saints

Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, a press release bearing the Vatican dateline began circulating online, which claimed that electronics giant Microsoft had made a purchase… of the Catholic Church. According to the release, this was “the first time a computer software company has acquired a major world religion”. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates was then quoted saying that religion was a growth market, and concluding, “The combined resources of Microsoft and the Catholic Church will allow us to make religion easier and more fun for a broader range of people”. The deal’s terms outlined that Microsoft would acquire exclusive electronic rights to the Bible, and would make the Sacraments available online… And naysayers claim that Steve Jobs was the real technological messiah!

But of course this was a load of binary baloney, and a formal Microsoft denial in December 1994 put to bed the worries of millions about the future of their religion… And the Christians were pacified too.

2. America’s Alien Invasion

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On 30th October 1938, CBS listeners were terrified to hear a number of news reports claiming that Earth was playing host to an alien invasion. The various accounts were panicked, one newscaster in the field even describing the terrifying emergence of an alien from its spacecraft:

“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” he said, panicked. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face… I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate….The thing is raising up. The crowd falls back. They’ve seen enough… I can’t find words… I’ll have to stop the description until I’ve taken a new position. Hold on… I’ll be back in a minute.”

Mass hysteria ensued, as a reported 28% of the 6 million listening began preparing for annihilation. People jammed the roads, hid in their homes, many even armed themselves. Some of the terrified actually collapsed and received treatment for shock! If only they had tuned into the broadcast earlier, like the other 72% of listeners had, when it was revealed that Orson Welles was just about to read a dramatisation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Woops

3. The Hoax is Out There

Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, record producer and entrepreneur Ray Santilli claimed to be in possession of mysterious U.S. military footage from 1947, which showed an alien autopsy in Roswell, New Mexico. Santilli organised a screening of the footage at the Museum of London in May 1995, where media representatives, UFO ‘experts’ and other exclusive invitees gathered to contemplate the find. The screening sparked such widespread discussion and intrigue that the footage was eventually televised in 32 countries, and adapted into the 2006 Ant-and-Dec-starring comedy Alien Autopsy.

It was two days before the release of this film in fact, on 4th April 2006, that a documentary was aired on Sky in which Santilli finally revealed that there was no autopsy. Sadly the alien had been a load of cock and bull… and chicken entrails, sheep brains, knuckle joints and a blob of raspberry jam, when it emerged these were the ingredients used to form the alien (created by sculptor and Santilli-confidant John Humphreys). And standing in for the Roswell lab? An empty flat in the slightly less conspiracy theory-prone Camden, North London.

So, the truth may be out there somewhere, just not in NW1.

4. The Dark Side of the Moon

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A series of six articles were published in the New York Sun between 25th and 31st August 1835 which claimed that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had made a number of groundbreaking astronomical discoveries using a groundbreaking telescopic device. The article declared that Herschel had established a “new theory of cometary phenomena”; he had discovered planets in other solar systems; and he had “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy”. But not just that: apparently Herschel’s new evidence also claimed to have found life on the moon. But what kind of life, you ask?

Well, quite a variety it seems. According to the article, the telescope had seen bison, goats, unicorns and tail-less beavers which walked around like humans; trees, oceans, beaches; and- perhaps most interestingly of all- some humans with bat wings who’d built temples on the moon’s surface. In short, enough to put CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein and a Peter Fonda peyote-flashback to shame.

And just as quickly as these new discoveries began, they ceased. In explanation, the author declared that the telescope was no more; sadly its lens had inadvertently channelled light from the Sun into a ‘burning glass’ effect, turning the whole observatory to ash… God, don’t you just hate it when that happens to your revolutionary telescope?

It was only discovered to have been a hoax weeks later, when Sir Herschel denied responsibility for the breakthrough, and the real author- Sun journalist Richard Adams Locke- was identified. Apparently it had all been a publicity stunt to boost newspaper sales. Which it did, singlehandedly securing the future success of the New York Sun. A happy ending, built on blatant lies!

5. An Erotic Fantasy

Pixabay

Steamy novel scribe Penelope Ashe enjoyed surprise runaway success in 1969 with her book Naked Came the Stranger, and she was more than happy to fulfil the subsequent book tour and talk show obligations expected of a new writer. But there was one thing fans and critics didn’t count on: Penelope Ashe didn’t exist.

The novel had been dreamed up by Newsday columnist Mike McGrady as a satirical response to what he saw as the literary and moral bankruptcy of American literature of the day. McGrady enlisted the help of 24 Newsday columnists to collaborate on the novel, asking each to write a chapter in what was to be a sexually explicit novel with “no literary or social value whatsoever” (the finished book contained wildly scintillating scenarios including acrobatic trysts in tollbooths, sacrilegious encounters with rabbis, and a bizarre cameo of some Shetland ponies). Then the fictional Penelope Ashe, helpfully played by McGrady’s sister-in-law, attended publisher meetings and photo ops to seal the deal.

And it seemed success too was sealed for Naked Came the Stranger. Bookstores had already moved 20,000 copies before McGrady revealed the hoax a couple of months later, but perhaps more surprising was that over 400,000 more were sold in the following years to readers eager to get in on the joke. So to the rule of “if it bleeds it reads”, we respond that if you lie, readers most definitely buy.

6. American Prankster

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Vinnie “The Chin” Gigante, mafioso of the Genovese family, evaded conviction for 30 years. But he did this not through the usual Pablo Escobar-esque scare tactics; Gigante kept away from the clink by feigning mental illness. The Chin ‘went method’ for what became literally the role of a lifetime: he was regularly found walking dazedly around Greenwich Village in his pyjamas, smoking disused cigarettes, having arguments with his imaginary paisanos, and soiling himself.

And it worked! Gigante was so convincing in his deceit that he was pronounced insane by numerous prominent psychiatrists, even those hired by the prosecution. His evasion lasted all the way until he was convicted in 1997, and even then he kept up the ruse, allowing him to run the Genovese family from inside his cell. It was only in 2003, 2 years before Gigante’s death, that Chinny finally admitted the hoax. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, offered as an explanation that “I think you get to a point in life – I think everyone does – where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight”.

7. Photographing Fairies

Wikimedia Commons

In 1917 Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths, two children of Cottingley, Leeds, tried to prove the existence of fairies to their parents by taking photographs of themselves with some charming paper-cut outs. So far, so harmless, especially when the parents in question took one look at the photos and called ‘shenanigans’.

But the two girls refused to admit their own trickery, and eventually Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- a believer in fairies himself- caught wind of the story. Doyle was writing an article about the existence of fairies at the time, and he decided to cite the girls’ snaps to strengthen his discourse… And that’s when the photos did the 1917 equivalent of ‘going viral’. Soon people all over the world were viewing the pictures and many seemed convinced of the existence of fairies.

It was only decades later, in the 1980s, that the two pranksters came clean and admitted their past crimes. But it was too late: the legend couldn’t be quashed, and even today people travel to Cottingley to see the glen where the fairies were once photographed.

8. Cheating at Chess

Wikimedia Commons

‘The Turk’ was an infamous chess-playing contraption which debuted in 1770 at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. Its owner, Wolfgang von Kempelen, claimed the machine was a revolutionary self-operating automaton. First he would allow the audience to inspect the machine, they would see nothing untoward was occuring, and then The Turk would accept a challenger. Most were no match for the machine and the Turk’s legend spread, until it was playing and winning in the finest of surroundings against such celebrity opponents as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

And for 84 years the automaton continued to win; except that it wasn’t an automaton… During every game, until its destruction in 1854, the Turk was inhabited by a chess grand master, who would wait in squashed discomfort to snare another opponent, like a malformed chess-playing venus fly trap. It was only in 1857, in a series of articles written by Dr Silas Mitchell for Chess Monthly, that the Turk’s secrets were finally, fully revealed.

9. A Tall Tale


In October 1869, workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York must have been shocked when they unearthed The Cardiff Giant, a gigantic ten-foot tall stone man. What did this mean? Was it a priceless relic? The remains of an extinct species of ogre-like man?

Neither, it transpired. It was all a simple lampoon cooked up by Newell with the help of a stonemason friend. Stub only ‘fessed up to the hoax once thousands of curious New Yorkers had handed over their 50 cents to get a look at the behemoth.

The fake fossil is still around today for viewing at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

10. Flying Falcon

Metro

A Colorado family became the subject of an international media frenzy when Falcon, the six year old son of Richard and Mayumi Heene, allegedly went airborne in the family’s helium gas balloon. Falcon was quickly dubbed ‘Balloon Boy’ by the media, and the world waited with baited breath until the balloon fell to earth 50km and three counties later. But Falcon wasn’t inside.

Nope, he was upstairs in the family’s attic, where- it was revealed- his parents had told him to hide during the whole televised ordeal. But why? Well after starring in two episodes of Wife Swap USA, Richard and Mayumi got a taste for celebrity, and they decided to orchestrate the Balloon Boy hoax as a launchpad for a reality show about their family.

And they succeeded! Richard and Mayumi Heene will be appearing in the upcoming Dignity Swap- a new reality show where families trade their dignity for a cynical shot at stardom- this fall. Good luck guys!! (Disclaimer: Dignity Swap may or may not be a hoax)

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