Perhaps no single hoax has had a greater impact in shaping history than the one perpetrated by now-anonymous medieval monks, and known as the “Donation of Constantine”. The monks made up a document recording a generous gift from Roman emperor Constantine the Great, transferring authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors.
The text described how Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine from leprosy, which convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. The emperor showed his gratitude by making the Pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast landed estates throughout the Roman Empire are also granted, for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Pope and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire.
31. The Donation of Constantine Transformed Popes From Mere Priests To Power Players
Incredibly, people – including kings, popes, and emperors – eventually ended up believing in the Donation of Constantine, and acted accordingly. The donation of such vast territories elevated the Popes from mere priests and religious leaders to independent princes and sovereign rulers of territory in their own right.
In reality, the Donation was forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine the Great and Sylvester I were dead and buried. The forgery had little impact when it was concocted, but centuries later, during a period of political upheavals that wracked Medieval Europe, the Donation ended up playing a huge role in shaping Christendom and the West.
30. Dusting Off and Weaponizing the Donation of Constantine
The Donation of Constantine was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years after its initial forgery. Then, in the mid-eleventh century, Pope Leo IX dusted it off and cited it as evidence to assert his authority over secular rulers.
Surprisingly, the Donation was widely accepted as authentic, and almost nobody questioned the document’s legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation of Constantine carried significant weight whenever a Pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers.
It took the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism to finally challenge the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine. With the revival of classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. One hint was the use of words and terms that did not exist in the fourth century when the document was supposedly written, but that only came into use hundreds of years later.
Additionally, the document contained dating errors that a person writing at the time could not possibly have made. The Popes did not officially renounce the document, but from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, they stopped bringing up and referring to the Donation of Constantine in their Papal Bulls and pronouncements.
In 1912, an amateur English archaeologist named Charles Dawson announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. In a Pleistocene gravel bed, Dawson had found fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other bones. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. They were also deemed the “missing link” between ape and man, supporting the then-still controversial theory that man descended from apes.
The pronouncements were accepted uncritically by many leading British scientists. Further excavations in the vicinity were made 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. The excitement mounted with each new find.
27. The Toxic Mix That Fueled Britain’s Greatest Scientific Hoax
At the time of the Piltdown discovery, 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.
The day’s prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism buttressed British scientists’ confirmation bias, causing them to interpret the Piltdown “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices. Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the era’s racist theories by humanity’s African origins. So leading British scientists embraced the discovery, and defended it against all critics.
If the Piltdown Man discovery in England was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. The “missing” link between man and ape would have occurred in Europe, not Africa. That would buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the racist assumption that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged.
In actuality, the Piltdown discovery was a crude hoax. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. It was also one of history’s more damaging hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.
Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-humans were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Nonetheless, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until the 1950s that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific examination.
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 filed down to look more human-like. As to the perpetrator, he was a disgruntled museum employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.
NBC Nightly News announced an amazing discovery on July 16th, 1971: “The outside world, after maybe a thousand years, has discovered a small tribe of people living in a remote jungle in the Philippines. Until now, the outside world didn’t know they existedâ¦ and they didn’t know the outside world existed. Their way of living is approximately that of the Stone Age.”
Known as the Tasaday, the tribe’s discovery was announced by Manuel Elizalde, head of the Filipino government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and a crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to Elizalde, he discovered the Tasaday after receiving a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao. Tracking down the tip, Elizalde was astonished to discover that the tribe had been isolated for over a thousand years, with no contact with the outside world.
23. The Peaceful Tasaday “Have No Words For Weapons, Hostility, or War”
As Elizalde described the Tasaday: “They didn’t realize there was a country. They didn’t realize there was a sea beyond Mindanao. … they did not even know what rice was.” They were also complete pacifists: “They have no words for weapons, hostility, or war“. Overnight, the Tasaday went from unknown to globally famous.
Their pictures appeared on magazine covers, including National Geographic, and clips of the tribe were featured on news programs. Numerous documentaries were made about the stone age primitives, and a bestselling book, The Gentle Tasaday, was written about them. Celebrities flocked to visit and be photographed with them.
When professional anthropologists sought to study the Tasaday, they and their region were abruptly declared off-limits by Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was only after his overthrow in 1986 that the truth came out, and it was revealed that the whole thing had been a huge hoax. Once journalists and anthropologists gained access to the Tasaday, they discovered that, far from being primitive stone agers, they lived like modern people, not in caves, but in houses. They did not run around naked and barefoot but wore shirts, jeans, flip flops and shoes.
Investigations revealed that Elizalde had pressured the Tasaday into pretending to be stone-age primitives. As to Elizalde? He had set up a charitable foundation which raised millions of dollars to protect the Tasaday, their “way of life”, and their jungle habitat from encroachment by the outside world. In 1983, he fled the Philippines, absconding with millions from the foundation.
In October of 1869, laborers were digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell, in Cardiff, New York, when they struck stone about three feet down. Clearing the soil around the obstruction revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, they continued digging and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a 10-foot tall man.
As news of the find spread, hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm, where he charged visitors fifty cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While it seemed to many to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth. The skeptics were right: it was all a prank.
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