The First 'Confidence Man' And Other Historic Cheats
The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats

Khalid Elhassan - November 18, 2019

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
The Piltdown skull. The Washington Post

5. Turns Out It Was a Disgruntled Worker

Humanity’s shared African origins challenged the era’s racist theories, but Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative. Also, a “missing link” discovered in England would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Ergo, the assumptions that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. In reality, it was all a crude hoax, pulled off by a disgruntled employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, for denying him a raise. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno-nationalism, and racism, it was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Group portrait of British scientists examining the Piltdown skull in 1915. Wikimedia

It was also one of history’s most 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 1953-1954 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and that the ape teeth had been filed down to make them look more human-like.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Cover of a book about the Tasaday. Live Science

4. The Fake Stone Age Tribe

Throughout history, many have pictured and yearned for a more innocent age, when mankind was still pure and un-corrupted by civilization. That explains in large part why a perfect storm of international public interest erupted on July 16th, 1971, when NBC Nightly News announced an amazing discovery: “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 tribe, as the stone age group was known, was attributed to Manuel Elizalde, head of the Philippine government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and a crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to Elizalde, he had 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.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Many fell for the Tasaday hoax. National Geographic

3. The Tasaday Turn Out to Be a Fraud

As Manuel 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 graced 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.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Tasaday as they actually are. Wikimedia

It was not until 1986, after the Marcos regime was toppled, that the truth finally came out: the Tasaday stone age story was a fraud. Once journalists and anthropologists gained access to the tribe, they discovered that, far from being primitive stone agers, they lived like modern people in houses, not in caves. They did not run around naked and barefoot, but wore shirts, jeans, flip-flops and shoes. Interviews revealed that Elizalde had pressured them 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, after stealing millions from the foundation.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Unearthing the Cardiff Giant. Onondaga Historical Association

2. Discovering the Remains of a 10-Foot-Tall Man in New York

William C. “Stub” Newell of Cardiff, New York, had some workers digging a well behind his barn on October 16th, 1869, when they struck stone about three feet down. Clearing the soil around the obstruction revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, the workers continued digging, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man. As news of the find spread, thousands of the curious, and hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, flocked to Newell’s farm, where he charged visitors 50 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 of the more observant to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.

The Cardiff Giant was actually a statue, created by an atheist named George Hull after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. Hull bought a ten-foot block of Gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago, where he swore a stone cutter to secrecy, then commissioned him to shape the block into the likeness of a man. Chemicals were then 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.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
P. T. Barnum with some of his smaller show members. Pintrest

1. The Giant of Cardiff of Takes on a Life of Its Own

Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fraud almost as soon as they saw. 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 $60,000 in current dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for about half a million in today’s money. 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. He declared his to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s 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.

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

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

Atlantic, The, December 19th, 2017 – Trofim Lysenko: The Soviet Era’s Deadliest Scientist is Regaining Popularity in Russia

Head Stuff – William Chaloner, Master Counterfeiter

IO9 – This May Be the Longest Con in Pseudoscience

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

Listvrese – 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

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

Money Inc. – The 20 Most Notorious Con Artists of All Time

Museum of Hoaxes – Lord Gordon-Gordon

Natural History Museum – Piltdown Man

New York Herald, July 8th, 1849 – Arrest of the Confidence Man

Quartz, February 17th, 2017 – The Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917 is a Case Study in How Smart People Lose Control of the Truth

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

Smithsonian Magazine, February 1st, 2010 – When the Soviet Union Chose the Wrong Side on Genetics and Evolution

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