Hoax & Forgery: 10 of History's Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries

Khalid Elhassan - February 18, 2018

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
A decoy ship with concealed platforms for guns and torpedoes. Byrd Words

World War I Decoy Ships

As a densely populated island nation, Britain relies on shipping for its survival. During WWI, the British were hard-pressed by German U-boats, whose predation on merchant shipping threatened to disrupt vital supplies and derail Britain’s war effort. As part of a multi-pronged strategy to beat back the U-boats, the British Royal Navy resorted to decoy vessels, known as Q-ships, which carried concealed weapons. When the U-boats surfaced to attack, the seemingly unarmed Q-ships would uncover their guns and sink the U-boats.

The British typically used freighters and trawlers with concealed guns in collapsible deck structures. Acting as bait, the decoys would sail routes known to be heavily infested with U-boats, in the hopes of attracting the attention of a German submarine and enticing it to make an attack. When hailed by the U-boat, a portion of the crew, known as the “panic party”, would act like normal merchant sailors, terrified by the sudden appearance of an enemy submarine, and rush to the lifeboats to abandon ship.

The use of expensive torpedoes to sink relatively easy targets such as trawlers and freighters was considered overkill, and was officially frowned upon. So U-boat captains would normally close the distance to the now “abandoned” ship, and open fire from close range and sink it with the deck gun. However, once the U-boat drew near, hidden crewmen remaining aboard the decoy would haul down the merchant flag and raise the Royal Navy’s ensign. Simultaneously, other crewmen would collapse the deck structure, revealing up to four guns manned and ready for action, which would open fire and sink the surprised U-boat.

The decoy ships were successful when first introduced, and within months, they sank 11 German U-boats. However, as the war progressed, experience taught German submariners to be wary and to approach small vessels with caution lest they turn out to be Q-ships carrying concealed weapons. If any suspicion was aroused, torpedoes were used to sink the target ship from a safe distance.

The decoy ships’ utility finally came to an end in 1917, when the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare and began sinking ships on sight and without warning. The decoy’s utility had depended on U-boats hailing them, then coming close enough for the armed merchantmen to surprise them. Once the Germans abandoned that standard operating procedure, the stratagem became useless.

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
Piltdown Man. Pinterest

A Disgruntled Employee Pulled Off One of Science’s Greatest Hoaxes

One of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the world of science began in 1912, when an amateur English archaeologist, Charles Dawson, announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. Dawson had unearthed fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts, in a Pleistocene layer. Britain’s premier paleontologist declared the fossils were evidence of an unknown proto-human species. They were judged the “missing link”, buttressing Darwin’s then-still controversial theory that man had descended from apes.

Additional excavations were made nearby in 1913 and 1914, during which stone tools were discovered. Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone resembling a cricket bat. Excitement mounted with each new find, and the fossils were accepted uncritically by many leading British scientists.

At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. That however meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many in the British scientific community.

Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the racist theories of the day by humanity’s African origins. Moreover, if the “missing link” discovered in the English countryside was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the prevailing racist assumptions that Europeans were a distinct, and superior, branch of the human tree, could continue unchallenged. All the preceding produced confirmation bias on the part of British scientists, which led them to interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices.

As it happened, the Piltdown discovery was a hoax, but because of incompetence, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.

Nonetheless, and despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were unearthed in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Still, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and the ape teeth had been filed down to look more human-like. As to the perpetrator, it turned out to be a disgruntled museum employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
Woodcut of an 1877 private demonstration of the Keely Engine. Fine Art America

Charlatan Uses Science-Sounding Gibberish to Hoax Millions Out of Investors

One of the 19th century’s most fascinating hoaxes was perpetrated by John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898). Keely had tried his hand at many occupations in his youth, and by turns became a carpenter, painter, carnival barker, member of a theatrical orchestra, and a mechanic. His true calling however was as a conman. In 1872, Keely declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force with unlimited power.

At the time, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether” – a hypothetical material that scientists thought was necessary for the movement of light or electric waves. Keely was no scientist, but he read about the luminiferous ether somewhere, then claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from it.

Keely declared that he had unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, and could tap into the power of atoms in water. As he explained it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could draw upon limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, you could use its “etheric force” to power motors. In other words, the Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – an impossibility under the basic laws of physics, because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics.

However, Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop that convinced them that he was on to something. In the demonstration, Keely would pour water into the engine, then play a musical instrument to activate the machine with sound vibrations. The engine would come alive, providing pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. By harnessing that power, Keely demonstrated that iron bars could be bent, twisted, and snapped in two; thick ropes could be torn apart, and bullets could be driven through twelve inches of wood.

Keely made up scientific-sounding terms to describe the principles of his invention. He termed his engine a “vibratory generator”, and told observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. Gullible investors were told that they would grow filthy rich off Keely’s “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. If a listener sounded skeptical, Keely would swamp him in a flood of science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.

The terms were pseudo-scientific gibberish, but they were effective. Within a short time, Keely convinced investors to hand over the equivalent of $20 million in 2017 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors coughed up the equivalent of an additional 100 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s company.

Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, and for more than two decades, he refused to share its details with anybody. But he strung his investors along, by promising them that the perfection of a commercial version of his engine was right around the corner. During that time, gullible investors kept throwing money at him, despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible. It was only after Keely died in 1898 that the secret of his engine was revealed. It had not been powered by water vibrations, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to the Keely engine by concealed pipes and hoses.

10 of History’s Most Remarkable Hoaxes and Forgeries
Trofim Lysenko measuring the growth of wheat. The Atlantic

Quack Revives 19th Century Hoax, and Makes it Official Scientific Dogma of the USSR

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a 19th-century French biologist, theorized that physiological changes acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be passed on to its progeny. Thus, according to what came to be known as Lamarckian Inheritance, if you hit the gym and worked out hard to develop six-pack abs, you could pass six-pack abs on to your kids.

Lamarck was wrong: heritable traits are passed through genes, hardcoded with their own instructions, and subject to the occasional mutation. An organism’s genes neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. Your genes might pass on to your descendants a predisposition for six-pack abs, but only if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, no matter how many sit-ups and ab crunches you do, it will have zero impact on whether your kids will have an easy time developing six-pack abs. By the late 19th century, only a few quacks still believed in Lamarckian Inheritance.

In the 1930s, however, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the Soviet Union. That was when a quack named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckian Inheritance into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and that weeds could be transformed into grain crops.

It was as scientific as a Medieval alchemist claiming the ability to transform lead into gold, and just as laughably ludicrous. However, in a sinister twist, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his theories: Joseph Stalin. In the scary political environment of Stalin’s USSR, criticizing Lamarckian theories was equated with criticizing Stalin. You did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin if you knew what was good for you.

Challenging Lamarckian Inheritance was treated as political subversion and deviancy. The logic was chilling and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. That makes you a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.

Soviet scientists who challenged Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or simply executed. Lysenko instigated a campaign to eliminate his opponents, in which more than 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed. Before Lysenko, Russia and the Soviet Union had been world leaders in the field of genetics. However, genetic research disproved Lamarckian Inheritance, so genetic research was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.


Sources & Further Reading

Anti Defamation League – A Hoax of Hate: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

History Collection – The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats

Guardian, The – ­Keeley’s Trickster Engine

Museum of Hoaxes – The Cottingley Fairies

History Collection – Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Natural History Museum – Piltdown Man

New Yorker, The – Diary of the Hitler Diary Hoax

History Collection – Best April Fools’ Day Pranks and Hoaxes of All Time

Shen Yun Performing Arts – Three Kingdoms: Zhuge Liang Captures Arrows With Boats of Straw

Smithsonian Magazine – The Infamous “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast Was a Magnificent Fluke

Wikipedia – Piltdown Man

Wikipedia – Trofim Lysenko