The Top 6 Greatest Hoaxes of History

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So,  the 21st December 2012 has hit us and the distinct lack of hellfire engulfing my laptop strongly suggests that the end of the world has not occurred. That’s just as well: nothing would ruin Christmas like the entire destruction of Planet Earth. Instead, the Mayan apocalyptic prophecy can join the increasing list of hoaxes subjected to the human race throughout history, whilst its promoters reap the economic benefits of panic buying and hysteria.

But why are we so susceptible to pranks and fraudsters? This is hardly the first, or the most sensational, occasion where the human race has been swindled by an elaborate hoax. Instead, it seems that a readiness to believe theories backed with even the smallest amount of evidence is inherent in human nature. In support of this, I have compiled a list of what I consider to have been the most bizarre and unbelievable hoaxes that managed to fool humans throughout history. I chose not to include Nick Clegg’s apology about tuition fees, because that didn’t fool anyone.

6. Mary Toft’s Rabbit Birth, 1726.

In November 1726 Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to a litter of rabbits, along with various other animal parts. When this was confirmed by a local surgeon, the whole country became fascinated with the story and a member of the court of King George I was even sent to examine Toft due to the royal family’s interest in the case. As some families began to stop eating rabbit, Mary Toft’s tale was soon exposed as a scam when it was revealed that rabbits had been purchased before each “Birth”. She eventually confessed to her forgery and was imprisoned.

Personally, I much prefer Arial. (Image by Brian Omura)

5. The Fiji Mermaid, 1842.

The corpse of a mysterious animal that appeared to be a human-fish crossover appeared in an exhibition under the title of the “Feejee Mermaid” in 1842. Despite fooling many, it was in fact the mummified corpse of a monkey and a fish sewn together, wrapped in paper mache. Disney fans all over the world were devastated, and had to wait another 150 years until Ariel and Sebastian.

4. The Turk, 18th-19th Century.

Constructed in the late 18thcentury, the Turk was described as a robotic human that could supposedly beat any person at chess. It toured Europe and was viewed by many as the pinnacle of technology but, amazingly, it was simply a man dressed up in a robot suit. Unfortunately, this did not stop thousands being fooled.

Special effects that would make James Cameron salivate: The Turk, circa 1820. (Image by Library Company of Philadelphia)

3. The War of the Worlds Hoax, 1938.

H.G. Wells’ famous novel was adapted for radio by Orson Welles and was broadcasted between 1938 and 1939. Despite the book’s extreme tale of an attack of Earth by alien creatures, many listeners believed that the events were real and that the Earth was seriously being invaded by aliens. The story was entirely fictitious however.

2. The Cottingley Fairies, 1917.

With the help of a camera and some cardboard cut-outs, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths (aged 16 and 10) created 5 amateur photographs showing them playing with fairies in their garden. The pictures gained much support, fooling Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who used them to argue the existence of fairies. In the 1980s after years of scrutiny, Wright and Griffiths finally admitted that the photos had been faked.

1. Spaghetti Trees, April 1957.

On April Fools’ Day 1957, the BBC broadcasted a programme which claimed that Spaghetti could be grown on trees in Switzerland. Voiced by the respected presenter Richard Dimbleby, the broadcast outlined the process of growing spaghetti and the optimum conditions needed for a good harvest. The BBC was soon inundated with calls regarding the purchasing of such a plant and eventually revealed that the broadcast had in fact been a hoax. The BBC suggests that this was one of the first times the medium of television had been used for an April Fools’ Day hoax.

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