The 10 Greatest Hoaxes In History

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
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Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

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The Shroud of Turin

As the Great Plague swept across Europe in the 14th Century the medieval world wallowed in a sea of religious hysteria and while some took to self flagellation the infinitely more clued up took to faking religious body parts such as the brain of St Peter, the foreskin of St. Gregory and the milk of the Virgin Mary. The most persistent of all these fakes has been the famed Shroud of Turin. Supposedly the burial shroud of Jesus, it was acquired, possibly from Constantinople, by the French knight, Geoffroy de Charny, who built a church to house it in 1355 only for it  to be  judged to be a fake by Pope Clement VII in 1390. Of course many a saintly dick and digit were regarded with suspicion but the validity of the shroud was reassessed when in 1898 Italian amateur photographer Secondo Pia discovered that the photographic negatives of the cloth exposed the image of a face that was otherwise invisible without such technology.  Ipso facto a cult was born.  In 1982 a group calling itself the Shroud of Turin Research Project declared it to be genuine, however in 1988 carbon dating placed the cloth to the mid 14th Century. More recently in 2005, Doctor Jacques di Costanzo and historian Paul-Eric Blanrue proved that such an image might easily have been achieved in the middle ages by simply rubbing an iron oxide mixed with gelatine onto cloth and yet the argument still rages as die hard believers drowning in their own ignorance refuse to accept the facts.

War Of The Worlds

On October 30th, 1938 the USA was thrown into mortal panic when listeners tuned in to CBS Radio to enjoy the welcoming strains of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra, but after just a few minutes the show was interrupted by an apparently live news broadcast stating that astronomers had seen massive blue flames emanating from the surface of Mars. After returning to the music the show was again sidelined as reports came in of a huge meteorite landing in New Jersey that subsequently was described as a spaceship from which tentacled Martian invaders emerged, blasting onlookers and 7000 soldiers with a deadly ray gun.  Reports claimed that an estimated one million listeners panicked, loaded up their cars and prepared to flee and while many such reports were undoubtedly exaggerated there is no doubt that many thousands completely bottled it when in fact what they had been listening to was a broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds by famed actor Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre. Indeed not a one off, the play caused similar panic in November 1944 when it was broadcast in Santiago, Chile, and in February 1949 caused such terror and ensuing unrest that the radio station in Quito, Ecuador that aired the work was surrounded and burned to the ground.

Hitler Dairies

On April 23rd 1983 the immensely reputable German magazine Stern issued a statement claiming that they had discovered the personal diaries of Adolf Hitler, comprising 62 volumes and dating from 1932-1945. Understandably the whole world jumped, historians salivated while publications en masse started a bidding war for circulation rights. At the centre of the affair was the gullible long time Stern journo, Gerd Heidemann who, being an avid collector of all things Nazi had been shown the first volume by fellow collector, Fritz Steifel, who had bought it from an antiques dealer whose identity he decided to keep secret. Rushing back to Stern with the news only one staff member took Heidemann’s discovery at all seriously and together they planned to lure the anonymous dealer out of hiding and offer him a king’s ransom. After much to do Heidemann and the greedy managers of Stern‘s parent corporation, Gruner and Jahr forked out an alleged DM10 million for the diaries.  WW2 historians Gerhard Weinberg and Eberhard Jackel both staked their reputations on the diaries’ authenticity while fellow historian Hugh Trevor Roper was also convinced and persuaded the Sunday Times to purchase the rights. Yet after just two weeks the books were exposed as a hoax having been created out of paper, glue and ink bought from a latter day stationers by Stuttgart ‘antique dealer’, Herr Fisher AKA Konrad Kujau, a small time forger. Consequently heads rolled and Stern was left with enough egg on its face to feed the whole of Europe. Two years later Kujau and Heidemann were both sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Panorama Spaghetti Harvest

Even though broadcast on April Fools Day 1957, the three minute segment featured on the BBC’s award winning Panorama which proclaimed that, due to an unusually mild winter and the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil”, southern Switzerland was enjoying an uncommonly bumper spaghetti harvest, still generated an enormous response.  Hundreds of gullible viewers listened to anchorman Richard Dimbleby’s dulcet tones providing a voice over for footage showing Swiss peasants plucking spaghetti off trees and placing the crop in baskets and were unable to resist phoning the Beeb for information on how to grow said crop. The BBC, enjoying one of their finest hours, answered such queries with the reply: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

Sans Serriffe

Amazingly on April 1st 1977 The Guardian newspaper threw caution to the wind and bravely published a seven page ‘special report’ that celebrated the beautiful republic of San Serriffe, situated in the Indian Ocean and made up of a series of idyllic semi colon shaped islands. A series of articles waxed lyrical, rejoicing in the simple  bucolic culture, untainted geography and tranquil beaches of San Serriffe while littering the copy with numerous details (such as its name) that were purely printers’ jargon. Of course none of this or the publication date stopped thousands of Guardian readers flooding the newspaper’s switchboards with calls demanding information regarding this latest groovy holiday destination.

Monty’s Double

The spitting image of one of WW2’s greatest leaders, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, part time actor Meyrick Edward Clifton James (1898 - 1963) was born in Perth, Australia and fought in WW1, but it wasn’t until seven weeks before D Day that Lieutenant Colonel J.V.B. Jervis-Reid noticed Clifton James' uncanny resemblance to Monty and decided to dupe Gerry. Recruited by English Hollywood actor Colonel David Niven, Clifton James was part of a massive ruse to persuade the Germans that the Allies were going to invade Southern France prior to their landings in Normandy. Codenamed Operation Copperhead, poor old James was ushered into HQ and given a crash course in being Monty. He had to give up smoking, lay off his beloved bevy and have a prosthetic digit attached to replace a missing finger. Clifton James was then bundled off to Algiers and made to do the rounds of public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, Head of The Allied Forces. It was an inspired hoax that caused Gerry to move several divisions south and weaken their Northern front, contributing to the success of the D-Day landings.

Belgium Disappearing

A cracking wheeze that took some two years to plan, when the Belgian State Broadcaster RTBF’s La Une Channel was interrupted at 8:21am on Wednesday 13th December 2006 with the announcement that Flanders had separated from Belgium and a new border had been established, the nation shook with the news. Following film of patriotic Flemish Nationalists waving flags in celebration and footage of Belgian King Albert II fleeing the country, the channel’s switchboard was swamped with 2,600 complaints and the whole country buzzed with concern. Designed basically to provoke public debate prior to an election, the hoax opened the nation’s eyes to what might happen in the near future and made a whole country think again.

The Left-Handed Whopper

In 1998 Burger King published a full page advertisement in USA Today publicising the launch of a brand new item: the "Left-Handed Whopper" specially created for the 32 million left-handed Americans. Thrilled by the news, thousands of customers flocked into their outlets requesting this wonderful new innovation while many others, not to be left out, demanded their very own 'right handed' burger.  The new addition comprised just the same ingredients as the original Whopper but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. The following day Burger King, much to the eternal dismay of their devoted fans, issued a follow-up press announcement that the Left-Handed Whopper was indeed, very much, a hoax.

The Roswell Alien Autopsy

On the 28th August, 1995 some ten million Americans tuned into the Fox Network to watch a grainy badly shot black and white film of a recently deceased bug eyed ‘alien’ being supposedly dissected by American government scientists after a UFO crash in Roswell in 1947.  The footage belonged to London based film producer Ray Santilli who claimed he had bought the tape for $100,000. Of course the US Air Force dismissed the film as a fake but that just fuelled even more conspiracy theories. The big fat chickens came home to roost in 2006 when Alien Autopsy, a film about the footage, was released in the UK in 2006 and John Humphreys, a sculptor and consultant on the film came admitted that he had made the models for the footage out of latex and that it was not filmed in New Mexico in 1947 but at a flat in Camden, London in 1995. Humphreys, who also appears as chief surgeon, also explained that the aliens were filled with knuckle joints, sheep brains and chicken entrails. Humphreys, Santilli and four others shot the film. It is claimed that a billion people saw the footage.

Piltdown Man

In 1912 fragments thought by many leading experts of the day to be the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early human were discovered in a gravel pit at Piltdown, a village near Uckfield, East Sussex. Excited, enthralled and enthused experts soon gave the collected fragments of a skull and jawbone the Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni -"Dawson's dawn-man", after collector and finder Charles Dawson - and the discovery was hailed as the most significant archaeological find ever made that did indeed provide the missing link between man and ape. The crude hoax was not exposed until 1953 after 40 years of due reverence, while the suspected perpetrator was none other than Dawson himself. Solicitor and curiosity collector Dawson’s impeccable abilities in locating such treasures had earned him the name ‘The Wizard of Sussex’ while more recent examination of his artefacts have proved that at least 38 were downright fabrications including his sighting of a huge sea serpent in the English Channel.

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