The Cardiff Giant was a prank by an atheist named George Hull, who got the idea after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that giants had once inhabited the earth. Hull bought a ten-foot block of gypsum and commissioned a stonecutter to shape it into the likeness of a man, after swearing him to secrecy. Chemicals were applied to give the carving an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface, making it look more weathered.
Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax. Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fraud. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity, and crowds of the curious and faithful kept coming in ever greater numbers.
Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for the equivalent of about half a million. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever-larger crowds. Eventually, huckster P. T. Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City, declaring it to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake.
Barnum’s brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see his copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants’ fakes and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
Excitement gripped America in the summer of 1835 when a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. In a series of six articles, beginning on August 25th, Thus Sun described how Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of outer space. What he saw overturned all human knowledge.
The astronomer’s accomplishments were astonishing. “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Sir John Herschel had discovered planets in other solar systems, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“. All of that was just a tip of the iceberg: according to The Sun, Herschel had discovered life on the Moon.
As detailed by The Sun in a 17,000 word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science, Sir John Herschel had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. From his observatory, Herschel saw oceans, rivers, and hints of vegetation. A closer look revealed a beach and a string of pyramids.
As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came blue goats that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment. More creatures roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffaloes, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures with bat wings, who built houses and temples.
The biggest shocker came in the fourth installment of The Sun’s lunar series, which announced the discovery of hominids, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings. “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat, and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when the mounting excitement grew into a fever pitch. It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility.
The articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. But they ended up being taken as gospel truth. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass. The result was a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the astronomical discoveries attributed to him.
15. The “Luminiferous Ether” and the Revolutionary Engine
American hoaxer and huckster John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) worked a variety of jobs as a young man, including stints as a circus performer, painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, carnival barker, and a mechanic. In 1872, he declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power.
At the time, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that all space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether“. It was a hypothetical substance thought necessary for the movement of light or electric waves, and without which those things would be impossible. Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) substance. Having unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy.
As John Keely put it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely Engine, people could tap into limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, one could use its “etheric force” to power motors. Put another way, the Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – an impossibility under the basic laws of physics, for violating the first or second laws of thermodynamics.
Nonetheless, Keely demonstrated a prototype in his workshop by pouring water into its engine, then playing harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the contraption with sound vibrations. Soon, the machine would start gurgling, rumbling, then come alive, providing pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Harnessing that power, Keely arranged demonstrations in which thick ropes were ripped apart, iron bars were bent, twisted, and snapped in two, and bullets were driven through twelve inch wooden planks.
Keely spouted science-y sounding words and phrases to describe the principles of his invention. He began by describing his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he started telling observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. At other times, he told gullible investors that he was going to make them filthy rich with his “hydro pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. And whenever a listener sounded a note of skepticism, he drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”.
Such words sounded impressive to non-scientists but were actually nothing more than pseudo-scientific gibberish. It was effective pseudo-scientific gibberish, however: within a short time, he convinced investors to give him the equivalent of about $20 million in 2020 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of another 100 million dollars for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.
12. The Keely Engine Took Investors on a Decades-Long Ride
Keely closely guarded the secrets of his invention for more than two decades, refusing to share its details with anybody. But he kept promising investors that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. In the meantime, gullible investors kept giving him more and more money, notwithstanding the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible.
Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed to the world. It had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors beneath his workshop. The air compressor was connected to the Keely Engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.
11. The Silly Prank That Started an International Craze
In 1976, people in Wiltshire, England, were baffled by a wheat field whose crops were mysteriously flattened in a circle. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery.
Theories ranged from secret weapons testing, to restless spirits and ghosts acting out, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, expressing her distress at what humanity had done to her planet. Early on, one explanation that gained great currency was that the circles were created by space aliens, communicating with mankind in code. Needless to say, all the pseudo-scientific and mystical explanations were hogwash.
The argument that aliens were behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, labeling them “[flying] saucer nests”. Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge, and the region is rife with burial mounds and ancient marker stones. New Age types had long claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths.
For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear nearby. Before long, theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism.
9. “Let’s Go Over There and Make It Look Like a Flying Saucer Has Landed”
The crop circles were the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, while drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, the duo got to talking about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. Midway through the conversation, Bower suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they confessed in 1991, it had been incredibly easy. Demonstrating their technique to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in mere minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line.
A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him, when it was revealed that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987, when other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined in on the fun.
Other pranks and hoaxes on this list were deliberate, but here is one that came about quite by accident. In the 1930s, the Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network hosted The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was a live radio drama series created by director and producer Orson Welles, that presented classic literary works.
On the evening of Sunday, October 30th, 1938, Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a Halloween special. It ended up causing widespread panic when many listeners mistook the radio play about a fictional alien invasion for a news broadcast describing an actual alien invasion.
7. There’s Always Somebody Who Didn’t Get the Memo
The original War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells described a Martian invasion of Victorian Britain, in which the aliens swiftly crushed mankind with advanced technology such as unstoppable death rays and lethal poison gasses. Orson Welles’ adaptation converted the novel into a series of news bulletins, describing an alien invasion of 1938 New Jersey.
Welles’ broadcast made it clear at the beginning that it was a radio play. However, not everybody got the message: many listeners had tuned in mid-broadcast, and thus missed the notification that what they were hearing was a play, not actual news. For such listeners, what they heard was alarming, as Welles, playing the part of a news announcer, fired off a series of news bulletins describing the arrival of Martians.
The alarm triggered by Orson Welles’ broadcast soon turned into panic for many, when the Martians demonstrated their hostile intent by falling upon the good people of New Jersey with an unparalleled ferocity. Things got worse when an actor who sounded like President Franklin Roosevelt told America: ” Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . .
we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.” That was followed by reports that the US Army was heavily engaged in a desperate fight to resist the invaders, then by news bulletins announcing that New York City was being evacuated.
The War of the Worlds broadcast was frequently interrupted to clarify that it was just a play. However, many listeners had not lingered by their radios long enough to hear such clarifications. Soon as they heard that Earth was under attack by extra terrestrials, many panicked and ran out of their homes screaming, or packed their cars and fled into the night. Telephone operators were swamped as thousands of frightened listeners called radio stations, police, and newspapers. Some people rushed to churches to pray, others donned improvised gas masks, and others simply ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.
The following day, Orson Welles woke up to discover that he was the most talked about – and hated – man in America. Once it became clear that Earth was not under attack, public panic was replaced by public outrage at Welles, who was accused of having deliberately caused the widespread hysteria.
Hard to imagine, but some countries – or at least one country – have a national passion for archaeology: Japan. There, archaeology is particularly popular with the general public. The Japanese people revel in their country’s uniqueness and exhibit greater fascination with their prehistory than any other people do about theirs.
New archaeological finds are frequently announced in bold headlines on the front pages of leading Japanese newspapers, and bookshops have entire sections devoted to Stone Age Japan. In that environment, self-taught archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura became a national celebrity, and his findings were incorporated into school textbooks and taught to Japanese children for years. Unfortunately, his archaeological discoveries were nothing but a string of hoaxes.
3. Hoaxing 101: Tell People What They Want to Believe
In 1981, Shinichi Fujimura discovered stone age artifacts dating back 40,000 years. That established that humans were present in Japan for at least that long. It was a spectacular find which launched Fujimura’s career, gained him national and international fame, and quickly put him in the forefront of Japanese archaeology.
Fujimura’s discovery was particularly significant for the Japanese. Japan has a longstanding love-hate relationship with China, and is constantly uneasy with the fact that its civilization and culture are derived from China’s. Evidence of human presence in Japan for tens of thousands of years offered an out, and supported a counter-thesis that Japanese culture and civilization might have actually developed independently of China’s. A discovery that supports what people want to believe is a discovery that will be eagerly embraced by the public.
After his first spectacular discovery, Shinichi Fujimura worked on over a hundred archaeological projects around Japan. Amazingly, the stellar good fortune with which he began his career continued without cease or letup. Fujimura kept finding older and older artifacts, that kept pushing Japan’s human pre-history further and further back. His fame and prestige, already high, reached stratospheric levels in 1993, when he discovered stone age evidence of humans near the village of Tsukidate, which dated back over half a million years. At a stroke, Japan became the equal of its rival, China, in the antiquity scale.
By any measure, Fujimura’s streak was remarkable. So fortunate did he seem in his ability to unearth objects that no other archaeologists could find, that awestruck admirers began referring to the seemingly divinely guided Fujimura as “God’s Hands”. His skills just seemed too good to be true – and as the saying goes, things too good to be true usually are.
Fujimura’s spectacular streak of discoveries – and his reputation – came to a screeching halt and crashed in 2000. That year, Japan was rocked when a daily newspaper published three photographs showing the respected and celebrated archaeologist planting supposedly ancient stone age tools at a dig site.
Fujimura was forced to confess after he was caught on film, red-handed. He admitted to planting evidence not only at that site, but in other locations across Japan, and throughout his entire career. When asked why he did that, a sobbing Fujimura tearfully responded “the devil made me do it“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading