The Most Infamous Hoaxes in History | History Hit

The Most Infamous Hoaxes in History

Frances Griffiths and the 'Cottingley Fairies' in a photograph made in 1917 by her cousin Elsie Wright with paper cutouts and hatpins. This photograph and others were considered genuine by a number of English spiritualists.
Image Credit: GRANGER / Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout history, discoveries of long-lost treasure, mysterious bones, natural phenomena and prized personal possessions have changed the way we think about our collective past. In addition, such findings can make those who uncover them rich and famous.

As a result, forgeries and hoaxes throughout history have, on occasion, baffled experts, confounded scientists and convinced collectors, sometimes for hundreds of years.

From a woman said to give birth to rabbits to a forged photograph of glittering fairies, here are 7 of history’s most compelling hoaxes.

1. The ‘Donation of Constantine’

The Donation of Constantine was a significant hoax during the Middle Ages. It consisted of a forged Roman imperial decree detailing 4th-century Emperor Constantine the Great gifting authority over Rome to the Pope. It also tells the story of the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity and how the Pope cured him of leprosy.

As a result, it was used by the papacy during the 13th century to support claims of political authority, and had a huge influence upon politics and religion in medieval Europe.

However, in the 15th century, Italian Catholic priest and Renaissance humanist Lorenzo Valla exposed the forgery via extensive language-based arguments. However, the document’s authenticity had been questioned since 1001 AD.

2. The woman who ‘gave birth to rabbits’

Mary Toft, apparently giving birth to rabbits, 1726.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1726, a young Mary Toft from Surrey, England, convinced various doctors that she had, after seeing a large rabbit while pregnant, given birth over a period of time to a litter of rabbits. A number of eminent medics such as the surgeon to King George I’s royal household went on to examine some of the animal parts that Toft claimed she’d birthed, and declared them as genuine.

However, others were sceptical, and after threats of a ‘very painful experiment’ to see if her claims were genuine, she confessed that she had stuffed the rabbit parts inside herself.

Her motivation was unclear. She was imprisoned then later released. Toft was then known as the ‘rabbit woman’ and teased in the press, while King George I’s medic never fully recovered from the humiliation of declaring her case as genuine.

3. The mechanical chess master

The Turk, also known as the Automaton Chess Player, was a chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century which had the uncanny ability to beat everyone it played. It was constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and consisted of a mechanical man seated in front of a cabinet who was able to play, amongst other games, a very strong game of chess.

From 1770 until it was destroyed by fire in 1854 it was exhibited by various owners around Europe and the Americas. It played and defeated many people at chess, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

However, unbeknownst to the audience, the cabinet had a complex clockwork mechanism which allowed a gifted chess player to hide inside. Various chess masters took on the role of the hidden player over the course of the Turk’s operation. However, American scientist Silas Mitchell published an article in The Chess Monthly that uncovered the secret, and when the machine was destroyed by fire there was little need to keep the secret any longer.

4. The discovery of the Cardiff Giant

In 1869, workers digging a well at a farm in Cardiff, New York, discovered what appeared to be the body of an ancient, 10-foot tall, petrified man. It caused a public sensation, and duped scientists into thinking that the so-called ‘Cardiff Giant’ was historically significant. Crowds flocked to see the giant, and some scientists speculated that it was indeed an ancient petrified man, while others suggested that it was a centuries-old statue made by Jesuit priests.

An October 1869 photograph showing the Cardiff Giant being exhumed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In reality, it was the brainchild of George Hull, a New York cigar manufacturer and atheist who had argued with a pastor about a passage from the Book of Genesis that claimed that there were once giants who roamed the earth. To both poke fun at the pastor and make some money, Hull had sculptors in Chicago produce a human figure from a huge slab of gypsum. He then had a farmer friend bury it on his land then commission some workers to dig a well in the same area.

Esteemed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh staid that the giant was “of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug”, and in 1870 the hoax was finally exposed when the sculptors confessed.

5. The golden tiara of Saitapherne

In 1896, the famous Louvre Museum in Paris paid a Russian antiquities dealer some 200,000 francs (c. $50,000) for a golden Greco-Scythian tiara. It was celebrated as a 3rd-century BC masterpiece of the Hellenistic period and was believed to have been a Greek gift to the Scythian King Saitaphernes.

Scholars soon began questioning the tiara’s authenticity, which featured scenes from The Iliad. However, the museum denied all chances of it being a fake.

A postcard depicting the tiara of Saitapherne being inspected.

Image Credit: Unknown Artist via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Eventually, Louvre officials learned that the tiara had likely been crafted just a year earlier by a goldsmith named Israel Rouchomovsky from Odesa, Ukraine. He was summoned to Paris in 1903 where he was questioned and replicated parts of the crown. Rouchomovsky claimed that he had been clueless that the art dealers who commissioned him had fraudulent intentions. Rather than ruining his reputation, his clear talent for design and goldsmithing sparked a huge demand for his work.

6. The Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, two young cousins Elsie Wright (9) and Frances Griffiths (16) caused a public sensation when they shot a series of garden photos with ‘fairies’ in them in Cottingley, England. Elsie’s mother immediately believed that the photographs were real, and they were soon declared genuine by experts. The ‘Cottingley Fairies’ quickly became an international sensation.

They even caught the eye of famed writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used them to illustrate an article about fairies he had been commissioned to write for The Strand Magazine. Doyle was a spiritualist and eagerly believed that the photographs were real. Public reaction was less in agreement; some believed they were true, others that they had been faked.

After 1921, interest in the photographs declined. The girls married and lived abroad. However, in 1966, a reporter found Elise, who stated that she thought it possible she had photographed her ‘thoughts’. By the early 1980s, however, the cousins confessed that the fairies were Elise’s drawings secured in the ground with hatpins. However, they still claimed that the fifth and final photograph was real.

7. Francis Drake’s plate of brass

In 1936 in Northern California, a brass plate which was supposedly engraved with Francis Drake’s claim to California quickly became the state’s greatest historic treasure. It was thought to have been left in 1579 by the explorer and the crew of the Golden Hind when they landed on the coast and claimed the territory for England.

The artefact went on to be featured in museums and school textbooks and was exhibited around the globe. However, in 1977, researchers conducted scientific analysis of the plate in the lead up to the 400th anniversary of Drake’s landing discovered that it was fake and had been produced recently.

It was unclear as to who was behind the forgery until, in 2003, historians announced that it had been created as part of a practical joke by acquaintances of Herbert Bolton, a history professor at the University of California. Bolton had been taken in by the forgery, judged it as authentic and acquired it for the school.

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