Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History

Khalid Elhassan - February 2, 2020

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Orson Welles narrating on the radio. Battlefield Earth

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Headlines from the day after the War of the Worlds broadcast. Click Americana

6. From Alarm to Headless Chicken Panic

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Orson Welles defending himself to journalists after the War of the Worlds panic. Corbis

5. The Most Hated Man in America

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
A Japanese statue from the Jomon Period. Wikimedia

4. Hoaxing a Nation

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Shinichi Fujimura at a dig site. Tussel

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Artifacts discovered by Fujimura. ABC Science

2. “God’s Hands”

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.

Creative Pranks and Hoaxes in History
Shinichi Fujimura was caught on camera while burying artifacts. Neo Trouve

1. “The Devil Made Me Do It”

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

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Donation of Constantine

Archaeology Magazine, Volume 54, Number 1, January / February 2001 – “God’s Hands” Did the Devil’s Work

Ball, Warwick – Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000)

Cracked – 4 Impressively Weird Pranks From Centuries Ago

Cracked – The 6 Most Amazing Pranks (You Won’t Believe Worked)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

History Collection – 10 Remarkable Fraudulent Discoveries and Inventions that Shook the World

Guardian, The, December 11th, 2003 – Keely’s Trickster Engine

King, Ross – Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2013)

Listverse – 10 of History’s Most Prolific Con Artists and Their Famous Cons

Live Science, June 25th, 2008 – A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed

Lock Haven University – The Keely Motor Hoax

Marketplace, October 31st, 2018 – What Orson Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’ Taught Us About Economic Panic

Museum of Hoaxes – Keely Motor Company

Natural History Museum – Piltdown Man

New Yorker, The, October 21st, 2017 – Moon Shot: Race, a Hoax, and the Birth of Fake News

Palestine Herald Press, June 2nd, 2009 – Waco Attorney Still Going Strong at 91

Smithsonian Magazine, December 15th, 2009 – Crop Circles: The Art of the Hoax

Smithsonian Magazine, July 2nd, 2015 – The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time

Smithsonian Magazine, October 16th, 2017 – The Cardiff Giant Was Just a Big Hoax

Wikipedia – Japanese Paleolithic Hoax

Wikipedia – Piltdown Man