The great 19th Century American showman, P.T. Barnum, once uttered a famous remark that you’ll surely have heard of: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Except it can’t be proved that he ever said it – his friends told a biographer such a statement was out of character, and the quote most likely originated from either a competitor or famed conman ‘Paper Collar Joe’ Bessimer. Barnum himself was one of the masters of the hoax, so it would almost be fitting that a mistruth be attributed to him in such a way. Here follow some of the greatest hoaxes ever devised by Barnum and others.
Barnum’s most famous fake creation, the Fiji Mermaid was his show’s version of the aquatic half-human, half-fish creatures that had existed in mythology for centuries. Exhibiting one was not even original in itself, but this taxidermy hybrid consisting of a baby monkey’s head and torso sewed onto a fish’s tail further enhanced the legend and popularised mermaid exhibits on the circus scene in the U.S. To believers, Barnum’s mermaid (which he actually leased from a fellow showman, Moses Kimball) was the most realistic that had ever been shown, so much so that following the loss of the exhibit in a fire in the 1860s, several imitators later exhibited what they claimed was the “true” Barnum Fiji Mermaid.
In 1708, the author Jonathan Swift published a fake almanac which predicted the death of one of England’s leading astrologers at the time, John Partridge. On the day that Partridge’s death was ‘predicted’ by Swift’s pseudonym, Swift has published a poem mourning the astrologer’s death. As a result, Partridge’s reputation was damaged and he was unable to publish any further astrological works for another six years. And we thought that Twitter ‘killing’ celebrities was a new thing…
You could have a top ten list of hoaxes made by television and film maker Chris Morris alone, but his ‘Cake’ piece in 1997 mockumentary series Brass Eye is a particular highlight. The show takes the format of a hard-hitting TV documentary about the dangers of drugs, highlighting one new drug imported from Eastern Europe called Cake and enlisting the help of various television personalities and even a Member of Parliament to give televised warnings to any watching teenagers to stay away from this ‘made-up drug’ (made up of chemicals, as opposed to natural ingredients). A string of unwitting celebrities looked stony-faced into the camera holding a dinner plate-sized yellow pill of ‘Cake’ and warning of the drug’s side effects, such as ‘Czech neck’ and ‘throwing up [your] own pelvis bone”.
While today faking a photo is as simple as making a few modifications using Photoshop (other image manipulation software is available), doing it in 1840 was trickier, considering that the process had just been patented by Louis Daguerre. One of the losers in the race to master and patent the process of making a photograph was another Frenchman by the name of Hippolyte Bayard. So distraught was he at not having his name in the history books, he created a photograph of his own deceased corpse and wrote a note on the back explaining that he had been neglected by the Government in favour of Daguerre and the corpse had been rotting for three days. Bayard was, of course, not dead, but had found a way to be remembered in the realm of photography: as the creator of the first fake photo.
There’s a portrait of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, with which many might be familiar, showing the famed statesman posing heroically beside a globe and American flag, one hand on his waistband and the other resting upon papers on a writing desk which read “union”, “constitution” and “proclamation of freedom”. Very stirring. Except Lincoln never posed for this portrait – in fact, this setting and pose was lifted directly from a portrait of Southern leader John Calhoun, with Lincoln’s head superimposed onto Calhoun’s body. In a before-its-time example of political spin, the words on the papers have also been changed – originally they read “the sovereignty of the states” and “free trade”. It’s probably OK now though, as kids growing up will likely think of Lincoln as looking like Daniel Day Lewis instead.
Without question the most famous fake photographs prior to the Internet age, the Cottingley Fairies were the creation of two schoolgirls in England during the First World War. Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie appeared in a series of photographs with fairies and a gnome and, though Elsie’s father immediately dismissed the pictures as some kind of trick, her mother showed them at a lecture on spiritualism and they began to be circulated among the community. After hitting the press and receiving recognition from famed spiritualist and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, many believed that the photographs offered definitive proof of the existence of supernatural woodland creatures. It was not until the 1970s that the photographs were properly debunked. Elsie confessed in 1981 that the ‘fairies’ has been drawn on paper.
In 1933, authorities in Scotland completed the construction of a new road along Loch Ness’ northern shore. Shortly afterward, a local newspaper reported the story of a couple who has observed “an enormous animal” in the lake, spawning the legend of the famous Loch Ness Monster. One year later, surgeon Colonel Robert Wilson took the iconic black-and-white photograph showing what was claimed to be the head of some kind of previously unknown marine animal. For decades, this photograph was cited as the best available evidence that Nessie existed until 1994 when Christian Spurling, one of three men involved in staging the photograph, admitted that he had created the model, while big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell took the picture and Wilson acted as the ‘reputable’ front-man to present the photograph and story to the media.
If you’ve never been to Death Valley and you try and imagine it, you may well picture a barren waste with perhaps the occasional cactus or lone bull’s skull, horns still attached. The bull’s skull in particular is something which cropped up in cartoons for years when the animators wanted to communicate that a character was lost in a dry, potentially deadly environment. Turns out, this image could well be linked to a controversial series of photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1936, in which a bull’s skull appeared against the background of the drought-stricken Great Plains in South Dakota. Newspapers criticised Rothstein for perceived over-dramatization of conditions for political purposes, and when it emerged that the young photographer had moved the skull around for compositional purposes, it stalked him for the rest of his career while the image, too, remained in the public consciousness.
You know how zombies seem to the sci-fi/fantasy flavour du jour at the moment? Well, in the mid-1990s the same could be said about the paranormal, particularly aliens. An Englishman named Ray Santilli developed a one-off TV show which claimed to show a medical examination and dissection of a dead extra-terrestrial which had been recovered from a crashed spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. At the time, the video prompted lively debate, with many believing the video to be genuine. The grainy, poor quality film was broadcast three times in the U.S. by Fox, and sold on to more than 30 other countries. In 2006, an interview with Santilli was broadcast in which he admitted the video was not genuine, but a ‘reconstruction’ of what he claimed was a now-degraded ‘real’ alien autopsy video which he had viewed in 1992. The ‘alien’ being dissected in the video was in fact a model made using, amongst other things, offal from a London meat market and raspberry jam.
Perhaps the first big Internet hoax of the 00s, Bonsai Kitten was a website which featured pictures of kittens in jars with the stated purpose of moulding the cat’s shape as it grew, similar to how one would precision shape and influence the growth of a bonsai tree. Though many viewers understood that the site was a spoof, and that ‘bonsai kitten proponent’ Dr Michael Wong Chang was in fact a pseudonym, animal rights groups and activists lobbied for the closure of the site and prosecution of its owners as awareness of the site itself spread via email and word-of-mouth. In the U.S., the FBI announced that they were to investigate the hoax on grounds of animal cruelty, forcing the site to change hosts and URLs several times. Though the site no longer exists at its original location and has always maintained it is a spoof and does not endorse animal abuse, it is still occasionally circulated in chain emails by animal rights activists.