The Cardiff Giant, 1869.
Like one of our hoaxes from last week, this one was pretty much conceived of just to prove someone else wrong. George Hill had an argument with a minister about whether or not giants had ever existed on earth - supposedly, a passage in Genesis said they once did. So, to prove a point, Hull had a huge chunk of gypsum unearthed in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He had the gypsum sent to a stonecutter in Chicago, who carved it into the shape of a 10-foot-tall man and
"aged" it using acid, stain, and knitting needles (to make the gypsum look porous). Once the masterpiece was completed, it was shipped to Hull's cousin in Cardiff, New York. The "giant" was buried on his farm for a year before some workers who were hired to dig a well "discovered" it.
People were charged 50 cents to see the phony giant even though scholars had already called the bluff. It became such an attraction that P.T. Barnum wanted to lease it for three months for $60,000. When he was turned down, he simply created his own and put it on display instead, then claimed that his was the real one and the giant found in Cardiff was the fraud.
The hoopla was short-lived - in 1870, court testimony revealed that neither one of the giants were real. But people still flock to see it. After a brief stint as a coffee table in an Iowan's basement, the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., bought it. It's kind of an odd choice for it - the rest of the museum is largely displays of textiles, crafts, and farming implements.
The Great Moon Hoax, 1835
Any newspaper that purposely published a hoax just to increase their circulation numbers would immediately be put of out business the minute they were discovered in this day and age. Or not... I guess that's why the Weekly World News was so popular for so long.
But the New York Sun predates the WWN by 150 years or so. (Not the 2005 startup.) In 1835, the Sun published a series about the recent discovery of life on the moon. They made their claims sound factual by attributing the info to Sir John Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers of the day. There were all kinds of interesting creatures on the moon, according to the Sun: unicorns, beavers, human-like beings with bat-like wings and even the mundane - goats.
The article may also have been to poke fun at some "discoveries" that had recently made news - one professor in Munich published a paper about the evidence of life on the moon, including buildings. Another man, Thomas Dick, claimed that the moon probably had more than 4,200,000,000 citizens.
Despite being outed as a hoax a few weeks after publication, the Sun never did retract their story. But then again, it didn't have too long (by newspaper standards) to prove how trustworthy they were: they ceased publication in 1850.
The Bathtub Hoax, 1917
Journalist H.L. Mencken was tired of all of the war-talk and death toll counts of WWI, so he decided to publish something a little more light-hearted: the history of the bathtub in the United States. Well, the fictional version. The problem? No one else realized it was a joke.
His article, "A Neglected Anniversary", appeared in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917. In it, he said that the bathtub had only been in the U.S. since about 1842, and that taking baths wasn't a wide-spread practice until then-president Millard Fillmore had one installed in the White House in 1850.
The article has been quoted as fact ever since, even though Mencken wrote another article several years later exposing his hoax and explaining that it was just supposed to be a bit of fun. Even as recently as 2004, the Washington Post ran a snippet of trivia that said something to the effect of, "Bet you didn't know that Millard Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House!" They retracted it a couple of days later.
Woman Impregnated by Bullet, 1874
This one might be my favorite. In 1874, The American Medical Weekly ran an article by a Dr. LeGrand Capers (that's him in the picture) who claimed he witnessed this very thing on a Civil War battlefield. Apparently there was a house very close to the Confederate lines, and a bullet (a "minnie ball") hit a soldier, "carrying away the left testicle", and then continued its course toward the house. One of the daughters in the house had also been hit by a stray bullet, which was lost in the abdominal cavity somewhere.
Because the doctor was stationed with the army nearby, he continued to check on the wounded girl over the next several months. Around the six-month mark, he discovered that the girl was pregnant. Around the nine-month mark, she gave birth to a nine-pound baby boy. The family was beyond embarrassed that their unmarried daughter was apparently having "indiscretions", but the girl swore that she was a virgin. The doctor examined her and said it was true - she had never had sex. Meanwhile, the little boy was very sick and he had some incredible swelling in the groin area. The doctor decided to operate, and when he did, he pulled out a minnie ball. He put two and two together and figured out that the bullet must have picked up some semen went it ripped through the soldier's testicle, and managed to impregnate the girl when it lodged inside of her stomach. Supposedly, the girl and the soldier ended up getting married and having two more kids.
The problem? The doctor had invented the whole story in order to mock the ridiculous stories that were coming out of the battlefield. But it was taken as fact, and was even reprinted in 1959 in the New York State Journal of Medicine.
The Linnaeus Butterflies, 1763
This is another one that would probably be easily seen through today, but it wasn't so easily seen through at the time. In 1763, Carl Linnaeus published the 12th edition of Systema Naturae with these images of three different butterflies from the Papilio species. Except... they're not. The middle butterfly was real, but it had already been discovered in Europe and was well-known as the Brimstone butterfly. The other two were Brimstone butterflies as well, but with painted spots on them to make them appear different. The hoax wasn't discovered until the 19th century, when an insect expert saw the images and exposed the "mistake".
Photo from the Museum of Hoaxes
The Time-Traveling Man
In 1950, a guy popped up out of nowhere in Times Square. He had mutton-chop sideburns and horribly old-fashioned clothes. Witnesses said that he looked surprised, and then horrified, and then he was hit by a car and killed immediately.
Of course the police came; they found nineteenth-century money on him, and business cards with his name - Rudolph Fentz. Apparently, though, the man didn't exist - no records of him could be found anywhere. They did find a Mrs. Rudolph Fentz, and when they went to talk to her, they discovered that she was the widow of Rudolph Fentz, Jr. Apparently Junior's dad disappeared out of the blue in 1876 with no clues whatsoever as to where he might have gone. Suspicious, no?
Yeah, with good reason. Although the story was accepted as fact years, a researcher eventually discovered that the story was written by Jack Finney and was originally published in a sci-fi anthology in 1951. The story was reprinted a couple of years later, but without permission from Mr. Finney and without any disclaimer whatsoever that the story was fiction. It's thought that the man who reprinted the story was trying to make the public believe in a fourth dimension and time travel - concepts he wholeheartedly believed in.
Update 9/24/08 - sources: Museum of Hoaxes, Wikipedia, Anomaly Info, and The Encyclopedia of Useless Knowledge by William Hartston.
For more hoaxes, please visit Alex Boese's fantastic Museum of Hoaxes website.