The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History

Khalid Elhassan - March 27, 2022

In a fascinating bit of brazen deceit, an early twentieth-century homeless German drifter looted a town treasury simply by dressing up as an officer. He got his hands on an army captain’s uniform, put it on, then ordered some enlisted soldiers he encountered in the street to follow him. The “captain” took the soldiers to a small town’s municipal hall, arrested the mayor, looted the treasury, and left behind a fake receipt for the money seized. Below are thirty things about that deception and other fascinating but lesser-known bits of deceit from history.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
German soldiers taking the Hitler oath. Wikimedia

30. Germans Were Often Mocked for This Perceived Cultural Trait

For centuries, Germans have been ribbed and mocked – not least by fellow Germans – for a perceived national trait and cultural tendency to blindly obey the orders of authority figures. For generations, an often repeated cliché had it that otherwise intelligent and rational Germans could simply turn off the independent thinking part of their brains in the presence of authority figures. As a consequence, they are said to turn into automatons who obey otherwise questionable commands simply because they are orders issued by higher ups.

The results can sometimes be horrific. Clearest example of that is the defense raised by many Germans prosecuted for war crimes after World War II. They sought to evade responsibility with variations of “I was only obeying orders“. Many or perhaps most genuinely believed that acting in accordance with the commands of superiors absolved them of legal and moral responsibility. Other times, as seen below, the consequences are merely absurd. Like that time when a homeless drifter walked into a mayor’s office, and in a hilarious bit of deceit, managed to order everybody around and loot the place simply because he was dressed in an officer’s uniform.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Wilhelm Voigt’s caper, as depicted in a 1956 movie. Just Dial

29. A Lifelong Petty Criminal’s Audacious Plan

Wilhelm Voigt spent most of his life as a vagabond, drifter, and petty thief. Born in 1849 in Prussia, his first recorded brush with the penal system occurred in 1863. Fourteen-year-old Voigt was arrested and prosecuted for stealing, convicted, sentenced to two weeks behind bars, and kicked out of school. It was the start of a long career on the wrong side of the law. Not a particularly successful career, though, as Voigt was no master criminal, and kept getting caught. In the 27 years from 1864 to 1891, for example, he racked up sentences of 25 years for various offenses such as burglary, forgery, and theft. Then he received his longest sentence yet, 15 years, for armed robbery.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Wilhelm Voigt in his Prussian captain’s uniform. Pinterest

He was released in February, 1906, and supported himself for a time in Berlin as a shoemaker, until he was expelled from the German capital as an undesirable. So he reverted to his old ways. While in prison, he had mused to a fellow inmate: “with some soldiers, you could really do some business“. Now, he decided to turn such musings into action, and rob a suburban town hall by deceit that involved the use of unwitting soldiers. He scouted several municipalities and finally settled on the small town of Kopenick, near Berlin. His plan was to simply waltz in, and order town officials to hand him their town’s treasury. As seen below, it worked.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Wilhelm Voigt. History Things

28. Blind Obedience to Authority Left These Officials Vulnerable to Deceit

Wilhelm Voigt bought the components of an army captain’s uniform from second-hand stores, and researched the movement of small squads of soldiers in the Berlin region. Then on the afternoon of October 16th, 1906, he sprang into action. Dressed as a captain, he stopped two squads of soldiers, ten men in all, near a railway station, and ordered them to follow him. He took them to Kopenick’s town hall, and there, barking commands and claiming to be acting on orders of “the highest authority, he used the soldiers to commandeer the place. Voigt arrested the mayor and other officials, and ordered the town treasurer to hand over all the cash in the town’s coffers – about 4000 marks. He then sent the “arrested” officials to a Berlin police station for interrogation in a car guarded by his soldiers.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Statue of Wilhelm Voigt in front of Kopenic’s town hall, where he pulled of a brazen bit of deceit. Wikimedia

He ordered the remaining soldiers to guard the place, then left with the cash, changed into civilian clothes, and disappeared. Unfortunately for Voigt, he did not enjoy his loot for long. Betrayed by the jailbird to whom he had mused about using soldiers, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years. The public was amused by the brazen deceit, and Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually pardoned Voigt in 1908. Upon his release, Voigt capitalized on his popularity and appeared in a play about his caper, wrote a book, signed photos, and made appearances in amusement parks, variety shows, and restaurants. He eventually moved to Luxemburg, where he worked as a shoemaker and waiter, and was supported by a pension from a wealthy heiress. He bought a house and retired, by was financially ruined by the post-WWI economic downturn. He died and was buried in Luxemburg in 1922.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
A gun concealed within a Q-ship’s fake lifeboat. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales

27. The Use of Wartime Deceit to Fight Submarines

In World War I, the British Royal Navy had its hands full as it tried to beat back the German submarine menace. Submarine and anti-submarine warfare were still in its infancy, and technologies such as sonar that enable the detection of enemies underwater had not yet been invented. So the Royal Navy turned to deceit with special decoy vessels known as Q-ships. Those were heavily armed merchant ships that carried concealed weapons. Intended as bait to lure enemy submarines, the seemingly unarmed Q-ships would unveil their guns and sink the U-boats once they emerged to make a surface attack. It met with some success in the war’s first years, before Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and began to sink merchant ships at sight and without warning.

The standard operating procedure at the time was for a U-boat to hail a civilian vessel, and allow its crew an opportunity to take to their lifeboats before it opened fire and sank it. U-boats could do that with a torpedo but preferred to use shells from the U-boat’s deck gun in order to save the significantly more expensive torpedoes for tougher targets. Q-ship decoys were usually trawlers or freighters with hidden guns in collapsible deck structures. They would sail routes known to be heavily infested with U-boats, in a bid to attract the attention of a German submarine and entice it to make an attack.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
A Q-ship. Imgur

26. Q-Ships Met With Mixed Results

When hailed by a U-boat, part of the Q-ship crew, known as the “panic party”, would act like normal merchant sailors terrified by the sudden appearance of an enemy submarine. They would rush to the lifeboats, and abandon ship. The use of expensive torpedoes to sink relatively easy targets such as trawlers and freighters were seen as overkill and was officially frowned upon. So U-boat captains would normally close the distance to the now “abandoned” ship, in order to open fire from close range and sink it with their deck gun. Once the submarine got close enough, hidden crewmen still on board the Q-ship would haul down the merchant flag and raise the Royal Navy’s ensign. Simultaneously, other crew would collapse the deck structure, reveal up to four guns manned and ready for action, and fire upon and sink the surprised U-boat.

The deceit was initially quite successful when first introduced, and within months, Q-ships claimed 11 German submarines. However, as the war progressed, German submariners learned to be wary, and to approach small vessels with a healthy dose of caution, lest they turn out to be Q-ships with concealed weapons. At the slightest suspicion, torpedoes were used as a first option to sink vessels from a safe distance. After the Germans turned to open submarine warfare in 1917 and began to sink ships without warning, the utility of the Q-ships came to an end. Their effectiveness had depended on U-boats hailing and coming close enough for the decoy ship to surprise them, and once the Germans stopped doing that, Q-ships became useless.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Nave of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Wikimedia

25. A Renaissance Founding Father and Epic Trickster

Italian architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446), was one of the key figures of the Renaissance. Early in his career, he rediscovered the principles of linear perspective once known to ancient Greek and Roman builders, but lost in the medieval era. He is considered the founding father of Renaissance architecture, and the first modern planner, engineer, and sole construction supervisor. His major work is the Duomo in Florence – the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Brunelleschi’s creativity was not limited to architecture: the man was also a prankster who mastered the practical joke like few have before or since. His most famous prank was an intricate deception that targeted a cabinet maker named Manetto, also known as il Grosso, or “The Fat”. Manetto was prosperous and good-natured, but he managed to tick off Brunelleschi when he missed a social gathering. So the architect set out to get him with an epic prank: he screwed with Manetto’s mind and got him to believe that he had switched bodies.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Filippo Brunelleschi. Wikimedia

24. An Elaborate Deceit

Filippo Brunelleschi was famous for his thorough preparation and for paying extra attention to detail in his career as an architect. He was equally thorough in his pranks, as evinced by the elaborate deception he inflicted upon the unfortunate Manetto. First, Brunelleschi assembled a wide cast of characters, and coached them on what was needed to convince the mark that he had metamorphosed into somebody else: a well-known Florentine named Matteo. Finally, one day in 1409, as Manetto closed shop, Brunelleschi went to his house, picked the lock, entered, and barred the door behind him.

The intricate deceit began when the mark got home, and discovered that his door was barred from within. As he rattled the door, Manetto was alarmed to hear his own voice – actually that of Brunelleschi in a masterful impersonation – asking who it was. When he identified himself, he was called a liar by the voice on the other side of the door, who declared that he was Manetto. Brunelleschi’s assertion that he was Manetto so confused his mark, that he retreated to a nearby piazza. There he met an acquaintance, Donatello, who addressed him not by his given name, but as Matteo.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Renaissance Florence. Pinterest

23. Brunelleschi Seems to Have Gotten Just About the Whole City to Participate in an Intricate Deceit

Things got worse for Manetto when a bailiff passed by, and addressed him as Matteo. Despite Manetto’s protestations that he had the wrong man, the bailiff promptly arrested the cabinet maker for debt. The now thoroughly bewildered Manetto was taken to prison, where his name was entered into the register as Matteo. Thrown into lockup, his fellow prisoners – all of whom were also in on the hilariously cruel deceit – addressed him as Matteo. Discombobulated, the cabinet maker spent a sleepless night in jail.

While behind bars, he solaced himself with the notion that it was all a case of mistaken identity that would soon get cleared up. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. After a night in jail, things got worse for Manetto’s mental health when the morning brought two “relatives” – the real Matteo’s brothers – to the prison, who claimed him as their kin. They paid his debt and freed him, even as they berated him for his gambling and wastrel ways. More bewildered now than ever, Manetto was escorted to Matteo’s home on the other side of Florence.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Florence Cathedral’s il Duomo, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Flickr

22. Humiliated by an Elaborate Deceit, This Unfortunate Mark Moved to Another Country

In Matteo’s home, the cabinet maker’s protests that he was Manetto, and not Matteo, were dismissed with derision. It did not take long before he was nearly convinced that he had, indeed, morphed into somebody else. Eventually, Manetto was put to sleep with a potion supplied by Brunelleschi, and carried unconscious back to his own home for the final chapter of the deceit. When Manetto came to the following day in his own home, he discovered that his house was in disarray, with furniture, tools, and other items rearranged.

His confusion grew with the arrival of Matteo’s brothers, who now addressed him by his real name, Manetto. They shared a weird story about the previous evening, when their sibling got it in his head that he was Manetto. The story was confirmed when Matteo arrived, and described an odd dream in which he had been Manetto. That nearly drove Manetto around the bend, as he became convinced – at least for a while – that he had spent a couple of days morphed into Matteo. Eventually, when he discovered what had actually happened, Manetto felt so humiliated by the deceit in which so many had participated, that he left Florence and moved to Hungary.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Mir Jafar, left, and his son. Wikimedia

21. A Momentous Battle Decided by Deceit and Betrayal

On June 23rd, 1757, an East India Company army led by Robert Clive defeated Siraj al Dawlah, the Nawab or royal ruler of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. It was a major event that kicked off nearly two centuries of British rule in India. However, for something so momentous, the battle was an unimpressive affair militarily. Its outcome had been determined in advance by deceit and betrayal: Clive struck a deal with the Nawab’s main generals, key among them Mir Jafar, to simply stay put and do nothing.

An Arab by birth, Mir Jafar (1691 – 1765) had arrived in India as an adventurer. He rose high at the side of his father-in-law, general Ali Vardi Khan, whom Jafar assisted in a conspiracy that seized Bengal in 1740. He then double-crossed Ali Vardi’s grandson and successor, Siraj al Dawlah, to bring Bengal under British control, with himself installed as a British puppet ruler. Jafar was the commander of Bengal’s army when the British East India Company warred against Siraj al Dawlah, and he entered into secret negotiations with the British to betray his ruler.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Mir Jafar meets Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey. Wikimedia

20. Clive Bought Most of His Enemy’s Army Before the Battle

On June 23rd, 1757, an East India Company force of about 3000 men under the command of Robert Clive confronted a 65,000 strong native force, commanded by Siraj al Dawlah. Despite the odds, Clive was confident of victory. Aside from the higher training standards and morale of his force, he had cut a deal with Siraj al Dawlah’s commanders. At the battle, Mir Jafar and others defected with 15,000 cavalry and 35,000 infantry. The demoralized rump of the Bengal army was defeated, and their ruler fled the field, only to be captured later and executed.

Jafar was appointed to replace Siraj al Dawlah as Bengal’s ruler, under British auspices. A born intriguer, however, he eventually betrayed the British, and entered secret negotiations with their Dutch rivals. That deceit, and his failure to pay the British as much as he had promised he would, led to his removal and replacement by his son-in-law in 1760. However, the son-in-law turned out to be worse from a British perspective, with an independent streak and a desire to oust the British from Bengal. So he was overthrown in 1763, and Jafar was recalled to replace him as Bengal’s puppet ruler, a position he held until his death in 1765.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
A groat. String Fixer

19. Seventeenth-Century England’s Most Notorious Conman and Master of Deceit

William Chaloner (1650 – 1699) was a conman, but one with a resume that few other practitioners of deceit could match. The son of a Warwickshire weaver, he was a willful child who showed no interest in his father’s trade. So he was sent to apprentice to a nail maker in Birmingham. Chaloner had no interest in that line of work, either, but he did get drawn to another type of metalwork that Birmingham was famous for at the time: counterfeiting coins. He took to it like a duck to water.

Before long, Chaloner had gained expertise in the production of fake groats – a coin worth four pence. In the 1680s, he headed to London. There, he sold dildos and got started on a new career as a psychic and a quack doctor who sold fake miracle cures. He also gained a reputation as a particularly successful detective, whose ability to find and recover stolen items garnered widespread praise. What people did not know was that Chaloner’s success owed much to the fact that he had stolen those items himself, before he offered to “find them” in exchange for a reward.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
The arrest of Sir John Fenwick, an English Jacobite conspirator. Age Foto

18. A Talent for Deceit Took This Conman From Penny Ante Scams to Major Counterfeiter to Agent Provocateur

William Chaloner eventually grew tired of small-time scams, and decided to get into something far more lucrative: resume his career as a counterfeiter. This time, however, he would do so on an industrial scale. Around 1690, he got back into counterfeiting, but his days of cloning four penny groats were over. Now, he focused on higher-value coins such as French Pistoles, each worth about seventeen shillings, and fake English guineas. He established a well-oiled counterfeiting ring that produced coins in quantity.

Chaloner also set up a distribution network to pass on his counterfeit coins to contacts in the underworld for circulation. Soon, he had become a wealthy man, so he expanded operations and bought himself a nice house in the countryside. There, the noise of his machines were less likely to attract attention. By 1693, Chaloner had expanded his repertoire to take advantage of his talent for deceit and added anti-Jacobite agent provocateur to his resume. His prey were the Jacobites – supporters of the recently dethroned King James II, chased out of England by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – who were trying to restore James.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Counterfeiters trapped red-handed. Head Stuff

17. This Practitioner of Deceit Was Handsomely Rewarded for Setting Up Opponents of the Government

Being well-practiced in deceit, the side hustle of agent provocateur came easily to William Chaloner. It was easy for him to feign sympathy for the Jacobite cause, and thus draw supporters of the deposed James II into treasonous activity. He would then make a beeline for the authorities, and snitch in exchange for generous rewards. In one instance, he collected 1000 pounds – a small fortune – after he set up and then turned in a pair of Jacobite patsies, who were eventually executed.

It was not long before Chaloner decided that instead of wasting time trying to find Jacobite conspirators, it was easier to simply invent them out of thin air. In 1693, he informed the authorities that he had discovered a Jacobite plot to seize Dover Castle, and offered to infiltrate the network. As he told an accomplice, if he followed Chaloner’s lead: “they would bubble the government, who were the easiest to be cheated of any men in the world“.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
A 1690s French pistole, of the kind forged by William Chaloner. Pinterest

16. Little Honor Among Thieves

William Chaloner’s Dover Castle scam did not pan out. So he hit upon another lucrative deceit: he would provide the authorities with a fake list of Jacobites, and then manage to get himself employed by the government to investigate them. In one of his scams in this period, he got an accomplice named Coppinger to write a treasonous Jacobite satire. The idea was to use the satire to ensnare a printer and get him to print it, and thus commit a highly illegal and treasonous act.

Chaloner would then make a beeline for the authorities, and turn in the printer in exchange for a generous reward. There is little honor among thieves, however, and the accomplice tried to hog the entire reward for himself by getting Chaloner out of the way. Coppinger denounced Chaloner for counterfeiting and had him sent to Newgate Prison. Somehow, Chaloner managed to talk his way out of it. He even turned the tables on his erstwhile accomplice, and paid Coppinger back for his deceit by getting him hanged for writing the Jacobite satire.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Sir Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint from 1696 to 1699. Wikimedia

15. It Took the Genius of Sir Isaac Newton to Bring Down this Master of Deceit

William Chaloner next targeted the newly-established Bank of England, which had introduced new £100 bank notes in 1695. He secured a stock of the right kind of paper, and churned out £100 notes. He was caught, but got away on a technicality. Remarkably, although counterfeiting coins had long been a capital offense, forging bank notes was not made a punishable crime until 1697. Chaloner immediately turned King’s Evidence (state’s witness), and turned in his accomplices to curry favor. He did such a good job snitching that he received formal thanks from the Bank of England, a £200 reward, and also got to keep all the profits he had made from his earlier £100 bank note forgeries. Chaloner’s criminal career was going great, but unbeknownst to him, the master of deceit had acquired a relentless new nemesis: Sir Isaac Newton.

The famous scientist had been appointed Master of the Mint. It was a position intended as a sinecure, but Newton took the job seriously. He zeroed in on Chaloner, and devoted himself to building an airtight case against him. To have one of mankind’s greatest geniuses devote himself to bringing you down is probably bad news for anybody, and so it was for Chaloner. Newton used a network of spies, informants, and investigators, who raked through Chaloner’s past to dig up dirt, and found plenty. Sir Isaac then had Chaloner tried before a hanging judge, who lived up to his reputation after the conman was found guilty and sentenced him to hang. On March 22nd, 1699, William Chaloner met his end at the end of a noose on the gallows at Tyburn.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Statue of Arminius. Rouven Kegel

14. A Roman Villain, and a German Hero

Arminius, also known as Hermann (circa 18 BC – 19 AD), was a German leader of the Cherusci tribe. A Romanized German, Arminius began his military career in Roman service, and eventually rose to command an auxiliary cohort. He then committed one of history’s greatest double-crosses. It was a momentous deceit that transformed him into a loathed Roman villain and a celebrated German national hero. His gigantic statue and memorial, the Hermannsdenkmal, stands today near Detmold in Westphalia, close to where he pulled off his grand betrayal.

Arminius had won the admiration and confidence of the Romans, who granted him their citizenship and high social status, and enrolled him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. He was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to Augustus. Rome’s first emperor tasked Varus with the completion of the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe River. Varus’ approach was heavy-handed, however, worsened by the imposition of onerous taxes on the German tribes. So the Germans rose up in revolt.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Wikimedia

13. An Ancient Deceit That Shaped Europe for Centuries

When the Germanic tribes rebelled against Rome, the Romanized Arminius realized that he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers. In 9 AD, as Varus led three legions from his summer camp at the Weser River to their winter camp at the Rhine, his guide Arminius used deceit to lead him to his doom. Arminius fabricated reports of a local rebellion, and Varus decided to nip it in the bud. He swung his legions along a path recommended by Arminius, only to end up lured alongside his army into a massive ambush. In what came to be known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the three legions were annihilated, and Varus was forced to commit suicide to escape the ignominy of capture.

The catastrophe shocked Rome to its core. In the aftermath, Augustus roamed his palace, and banged his head against the wall as he wailed: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Aside from ruining the tranquility of Rome’s greatest emperor in his twilight years, the disaster halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania and Central Europe. The region remained outside the Roman Empire, and eventually became a springboard and highway for the waves of barbarians who eventually destroyed the empire. Germania was never Latinized in the way Gaul was. The resultant cultural and political differences were reflected in the centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, which played a significant role in shaping Europe for centuries.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Lord Gordon-Gordon. Imgur

12. The Fake Lord Who Used Deceit to Bilk a Gilded Age Tycoon Out of a Fortune

Lord Gordon-Gordon was not a lord. Instead, he was a successful nineteenth-century British con artist who used deceit to bilk the unwary wealthy out of large sums of money. His real name and identity are unknown, but he first appears in the record in 1868, when he posed as “Lord Glencairn” in an attempt to secure an estate in Scotland. He did not get the estate, but he did get £25,000 from some London jewelers, then fled to America. He ended up in Minnesota, where he posed as Lord Gordon-Gordon, and convinced the Northern Pacific Railway that he wanted to buy a huge tract of land to settle tenants from his over-populated Scottish estates. The Northern Pacific’s land commissioner spent about $45,000 to court and secure the Scottish Lord as a client, in the belief that he would invest millions in return.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Erie Railway company stock. Collectible Stocks and Bonds

The Northern Pacific Railway scam was just an appetizer. Lord Gordon-Gordon’s next victim was Gilded Age railroad tycoon and robber baron Jay Gould. In 1872, His Lordship convinced Gould that he controlled over 600,000 shares in the Erie Railway. At the time, Gould was in a desperate fight with other tycoons to gain control of the Erie Railway. So he bribed Lord Gordon-Gordon with $200,000 in cash and $1 million in stock to assign him those shares. By the time Gould realized that he had been conned, Gordon-Gordon had sold the stock. The fake lord was put on trial in 1873, but the court granted him bail. He promptly fled to Canada.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Jay Gould was taken in by Gordon-Gordon’s deceit. Library of Congress

11. A DIY Bid to Extradite This Master of Deceit Threatened to Trigger a War

After he jumped bail, the fake Lord Gordon-Gordon’s whereabouts were unknown for months. Jay Gould offered a $25,000 reward for the arrest of His Lordship, and eventually, word arrived that the conman was living in Manitoba, Canada. Gould tried to get him extradited to the US, but Gordon-Gordon convinced the Canadian authorities that the charges against him were false. A little bit of deceit helped. His Lordship offered to buy large tracts of Manitoba – an investment that promised to bring great prosperity to Canada. That explains the Canadian authorities’ reluctance to extradite him. An understandably incensed Gould financed a Minnesota posse to cross the border into Canada, and kidnap Gordon-Gordon.

The kidnappers seized their target from his front porch in Manitoba. However, they were undone when they were stopped at the border, arrested, and thrown into a Canadian jail. An international incident then ensued, and American newspapers urged an invasion of Canada to free the Minnesota kidnappers. Eventually, things simmered down, and the Americans were released through diplomacy. Lord Gordon-Gordon settled down to enjoy his loot, but then in 1874, he was finally identified as the “Lord Glencairn” who had fleeced London jewelers in 1868 out of £25,000. As the Canadian authorities moved to deport him to Britain, the fake lord realized that the jig was finally up. He did not want to spend the rest of his life behind bars, so he hosted a farewell party in his hotel room, then shot himself dead on August 1st, 1874.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Israeli soldiers guard Egyptian prisoners captured in the Six-Day War. Greenville Post

10. One of the More Remarkable Instances of Deceit in Modern Warfare

One of the more remarkable instances of deceit to achieve strategic surprise in modern warfare occurred in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War. A surprise attack against Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula, it kicked off a war between Israel and a coalition of Egypt and Syria, supported by expeditionary forces from other Arab states. To achieve surprise, the Egyptians resorted to deceptive measures that successfully fooled the Israelis about the timing of the attack, and caught them off guard when the blow fell in the Sinai.

Israel had seized and occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. In subsequent years, Egyptian and Israeli forces glared at each other across the narrow Suez Canal, which separated the rivals. Across that waterway, low-intensity warfare simmered for years, comprised in the main of sporadic artillery exchanges, commando raids, and bombing attacks. In the meantime, Egypt sought to regain its lost territory and to wipe out the humiliation of the catastrophic 1967 defeat. It rebuilt, reorganized, and retrained its military for a rematch that all knew would come, sooner or later.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
An Israeli officer on the east bank of the Suez Canal watches Egyptians on the opposite bank in October, 1967. Historic Images Outlet

9. A Long Term Plan to Lull an Enemy Into Complacency

Long in advance of the planned attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat began to run massive military maneuvers and exercises in the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The aim was to accustom the Israelis to large-scale Egyptian troop movements nearby. That way when the time came for the actual attack, they would be lulled and dismiss its preparations as just another Egyptian military drill. However, unbeknownst to the Egyptians, the Israelis, through a highly placed Mossad agent, were aware by mid-1973 of the general Egyptian plan of attack. What the Israelis did not know, however, was just when the attack would occur.

To know the when was vital for the Israelis, whose small population precluded a large full-time military. Israel could not afford to permanently park hundreds of thousands of soldiers in fortifications opposite the Egyptian positions, just so they would be in place if and when the Egyptians finally attacked. Instead, the Israeli system relied upon fleshing out a small standing military with rapid and massive mobilization of civilian reservists. However, such mobilizations were highly disruptive, as well as quite expensive. The mass of civilians taken from their daily occupations and put into the military could not be kept in uniform indefinitely. The Egyptian strategic deceit plan played upon that vulnerability.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Egyptian soldiers celebrate crossing the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War. Reddit

8. A Costly Bit of Military Deceit

Months before the actual planned attack, the Egyptians tricked the Israelis into believing that an attack was imminent. In response, Israel declared a disruptive and expensive emergency mobilization, but no war came. Burned once by that false alarm, the Israelis were reluctant to call another mobilization a few months later, when the Egyptians began preparations for the real attack. A week before they commenced hostilities, the Egyptians conducted massive military maneuvers in the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians called up reservists, but Israeli intelligence, aware of massive troop movements towards the canal, dismissed them as just another military drill. To further their strategic deceit and lull their enemy, two days before the actual attack, the Egyptians announced the demobilization of the reservists called up for the “military exercise“.

Some dissenters within Israeli intelligence suspected that these were real preparations for actual war, but they were ignored. Thus, when the Egyptians launched their attack across the Suez Canal on October 6th, 1973, Israel was caught completely off guard and wrong-footed. The IDF suffered high casualties as its forward fortifications were swiftly overrun, and the Egyptians secured a beachhead on the eastern side of the canal. The Israelis eventually clawed their way back from defeat, encircled an entire Egyptian army weeks later, and prevailed in the war. However, their early setbacks and unaffordable high casualties early in the war were a direct result of the successful Egyptian military deceit operation.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
John Keely and his engine. Wikimedia

7. A Hard Worker Who Eventually Figured Out He Could Make More Money by Deceit Than by Hard Work

John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) tried his hand at a variety of jobs as a young man. A hard worker, he was employed at times as a painter, a carpenter, a member of a theatrical orchestra, a carnival barker, and a mechanic. Eventually, he came to the realization that he could make more money by deceit than by hard work. In 1872, he declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world because it drew its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power. The claim fell on receptive ears. Back in the nineteenth century, 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) ether. 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 he explained it to listeners, 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, you 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, because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
An older Keely and his fraud, still going strong. Great Big Canvas

6. An Inventor Who Got Rich Throwing Science-y Sounding Words Around

John Keely demonstrated a prototype of his machine to guests in his workshop. He would pour water into its engine, then play a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device would gurgle, rumble, then come alive, with pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Keely harnessed that power and 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.

He made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. He described his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he began to tell 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”. Whenever a listener sounded a note of skepticism, Keely drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”. As seen below, he made a lot of money with such deceit.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
The compressed air tank beneath Keely’s lab, that powered his engine. Wikimedia

5. This Fraudster Kept Up an Elaborate and Lucrative Deceit for a Long Time

John Keely tossed around a jumbled science word salad that sounded impressive to nonscientists. In actuality, what he said was pure pseudoscientific gibberish. It was effective pseudoscientific gibberish, however: within a short time, he managed to convince investors to give him the equivalent of $25 million in 2022 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors handed him the equivalent of $110 million in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.

Over two decades, Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, and refused to share its details with anybody. But he continued to promise investors that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. Throughout that time, the gullible continued to give him more and more money, despite 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 below. It was connected to the Keely engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
An ancient bust of Alexander the Great. Flickr

4. An Ancient Standoff Between a Greek and Indian Army

In May of 326 BC, the Battle of the Hydaspes was fought in what is now the Punjab between Alexander the Great of Macedon and the Indian King Porus. The Macedonian monarch successfully carried out a brilliant piece of military deceit that wrong-footed his opponent and caught him off guard, and set the stage for a complete Macedonian victory. When Alexander marched into the Punjab, King Porus set out to intercept the invaders. He beat them to the Hydaspes River, which Alexander would have to cross if he wanted to penetrate into Porus’ territory.

The Indian monarch then waited on the river’s far bank with his army to prevent Alexander from crossing. When the Macedonians arrived, Porus set his camp across the river from Alexander. He then shadowed Alexander’s movements from the opposite side, as the invader marched up and down the far bank in search of a safe crossing. So long as Porus shadowed the Macedonians from the opposite bank, a crossing of the deep and fast-moving river could prove catastrophic if made against opposition.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Phalanx attacks the center of King Porus’ army, by Andre Castaigne, 1898. Wikimedia

3. A Brilliant Piece of Deceit to Lull an Enemy Into Complacency

Alexander found himself in a standoff at the Hydaspes River, with an Indian army camped across the water from his own. If the Macedonians tried to cross, the Indians would be able to strike them at their most vulnerable mid-river. They could also fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s on the Indian side of the river before the crossing was completed. So Alexander turned to a bit of brilliant deception to lull King Porus. The Macedonian marched his troops up and down his side of the river each day. The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first. Over time, however, they became accustomed to them and grew complacent.

Alexander then quietly drew off the bulk of his army, and left behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep the Indians fixated on them. In the meantime, Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver, and safely got his force across the river, unopposed. Once on Porus’ side of the Hydaspes, Alexander advanced to attack him, and caught the Indians in a pincer. Porus’ army found itself between the main force under Alexander’s command, and the smaller contingent he left behind on the opposite side of the river to keep their enemy occupied. That contingent crossed the Hydaspes and fell upon the Indians’ rear and flank when they turned to face Alexander and the battle commenced. It was hard-fought, but the outcome was a total Macedonian victory, thanks to the successful deceit.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Many fell for the Tasaday deceit. National Geographic

2. A Stone Age Tribe in the Modern World

The world of anthropology was roiled by an elaborate bit of deceit that began on July 16th, 1971. That evening, an amazing discovery was announced on NBC’s Nightly News: “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 existed… and they didn’t know the outside world existed. Their way of living is approximately that of the Stone Age.” The discovery of the Tasaday was announced by Manuel Elizalde, head of the Philippine government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

As Elizalde described it, he discovered the Tasaday after he received a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao. Elizalde tracked down the tip, and was astonished to find that the tribe had been isolated for over a thousand years, with no contact with the outside world. As the discoverer of the Tasaday put it: “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“.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Cover of a book about the ‘gentle Tasaday’. Live Science

1. A Deceit That Fooled the World

Overnight, the Tasaday went from unknown to globally famous. Their pictures appeared on the covers of magazines, including National Geographic. Clips of the tribe were featured on news programs, numerous documentaries were made about the stone age denizens of the jungle, and a bestselling book, The Gentle Tasaday, was written about them. Celebrities flocked to visit and be photographed with them. However, when professional anthropologists sought to study them, the Tasaday 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 story of the stone age Tasaday was a fraud.

The Most Deceitful Events that Played Out In History
Real Tasaday. Wikimedia

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. Interviews revealed that Elizalde had pressured them to pretend to be stone-age primitives. Elizalde profited greatly from that deceit. 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, after he stole millions from the foundation.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Physical Society News, March 2011, Volume 20, Number 3 – This Month in Physics History, March 16, 1699: William Chaloner Hanged

Central European History Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2003) – The ‘Captain of Kopenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice 1891-1914

Chaudhury, Sushil – The Prelude to Empire: Plassey Revolution of 1757 (2000)

Cracked – 4 Impressively Weird Pranks From Centuries Ago

Cracked – German ‘Robin Hood’ Once Got the Military to Help Him Rob a Mayor

Dictionary of Canadian Biography – Lord Gordon Gordon

Donaldson, William – Brewer’s Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics: An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages (2004)

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt – Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974 (1978)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Arminius, German Leader

Encyclopedia Britannica – Filippo Brunelleschi

Esquire, August 3rd, 2020 – Tasaday: The Stone Age Tribe That Never Was

Fuller, John Frederick Charles – The Generalship of Alexander the Great (1958)

Green, Peter – Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography (1974)

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

Head Stuff – William Chaloner, Master Counterfeiter

Herzog, Chaim – The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East From the 1948 War of Independence to the Present (2005)

History Collection – The Perfect Crime: 5 Criminals Who Disappeared Without a Trace

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

Le Fleming, H. M. – Warships of World War I (1961)

Levinson, Thomas – Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist (2010)

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

Lock Haven University – The Keely Motor Hoax

Murdoch, Adrian – Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre at the Teutoburg Forrest (2008)

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

Museum of Hoaxes – Keely Motor Company

Museum of Hoaxes – Lord Gordon-Gordon

Naval History Net – World War I at Sea: British Special Service or Q-Ships

National Geographic Magazine, February, 2014 – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Spear, Thomas George Percival – Master of Bengal: Clive and His India (1975)