Longing for the Limelight: Four Historic Hoaxes

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In October 2009, the Heene family duped the entire United States when they claimed their six-year-old son had floated away in a hot-air balloon. Now known as the “balloon boy hoax,” the ruse continued to shock and anger Americans long after the boy, Falcon, was found safe and sound. The Heenes may be the most dishonest people to be covered by the media in recent memory, but their scam was actually just one in a long line thereof that have occurred throughout history. These four famous hoaxes, all recorded in ListVerse.com’s The Ultimate Book of Top Ten Lists, take deception to another level. 

The Cardiff Giant (1869)
This is one of the most famous hoaxes in history. Two men, Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York, unearthed a ten-foot-tall “petrified man” on October 16, 1869. Upon finding the giant, one of the men said, “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” 

Little did he know, the giant was a fake. New York tobacconist George Hull, an atheist, decided to create it after an argument with a fundamentalist minister named Turk over a passage in the Bible from Genesis 6:4: “There were giants on the earth in those days …” Hull hired men to carve out a ten-foot-long, 4.5-inch-wide block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on the pretense that it was intended for a monument of Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired a stonecutter to carve it into a man’s shape, all the while swearing him to secrecy. Hull used stains and acids to weather the giant and beat the figure with steel knitting needles embedded in a board, to simulate pores. He buried the giant for a year before hiring Emmons and Nichols to dig that well. 

Buzz around the giant caught the attention of circus showman P.T. Barnum, who offered Hull $60,000 for a three-month lease of it. When Hull turned him down, Barnum hired a man to discreetly make a plaster replica of the giant’s head and put the ersatz giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the real thing and that the Cardiff Giant was a fake. On February 2, 1870, both giants were revealed as frauds in court. Luckily for Barnum, the judged ruled that he couldn’t be sued for calling the fake a fake. 

Piltdown Man (1912)
In 1912, an amateur archeologist named Charles Dawson began collecting fragments of a skull and jawbone from a gravel pit in Piltdown, England, in East Sussex. At the time, many experts thought the fragments were the fossilized remains of a previously unknown early human and dubbed the specimen Eoanthropus dawsoni

Immediately after the Piltdown findings, however, scientists expressed their skepticism. They increasingly regarded Piltdown Man as an aberration in hominid evolution inconsistent with the fossil record found elsewhere. 

Piltdown Man was exposed as a fraud in 1953 and revealed to be the lower jawbone of an orangutan combined with the skull of a modern adult male. Though the identity of the forger remains unproven, suspects have included Dawson himself, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who took part in the discovery of Peking Man, a similar collection in China), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

The hoax is one of the most famous in history. Forty years elapsed between the discovery of the “fossil” and its exposure as a fake. 

The Cottingley Fairies (1917)
Frances Way Griffiths and Elsie Hall, two young cousins from Cottingley, England, took a series of five photographs depicting themselves in various activities with supposed fairies. Elsie, the daughter of one of the earliest qualified electrical engineers, Arthur Wright, borrowed her father’s quarter-plate camera to take the photographs. When Mr. Wright saw the pictures, he assumed they were fakes and forbade Elsie further use of his camera, but his wife, Polly Wright, was sure the fairies were real. 


In the summer of 1919, the Cottingley Fairies leaked to the public, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, wrote a magazine article defending the photographs’ authenticity. Not everyone believed the fraud, but many did—even after Frances and Elsie admitted that the first four pictures were fakes in late 1981 and mid-1982, respectively. Both claimed that the fifth photograph was real until their deaths. 

The Priory of Sion (1956)
The Priory of Sion has regained popularity through The Da Vinci Code, in which the author, Dan Brown, claims that the group’s existence is fact. Other sources claim the Priory of Sion is a hoax created by Pierre Plantard, a pretender to the French throne, in 1956. Between 1961 and 1984, he created a pedigree of the organization and developed the myth that it was the offshoot of the monastic order housed in the Abbey of Sion, which had been founded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the First Crusade and later absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617. Plantard hoped that the Priory of Sion’s influence would help him claim the throne of France. 

The Jig Is Up
It takes a lot of work to pull off a successful hoax. You need money, resources, and patience (to bury a gypsum man for a year!). But even the most skillful swindlers eventually have to admit defeat.



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