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
Orson Welles narrating a play on the radio. Battlefield Earth

12. The Inadvertent Hoax That Sowed Widespread Panic

The Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network hosted The Mercury Theatre on the Air during the 1930s. 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.

H.G. Wells’ original War of the World described a Martian invasion of Victorian Britain, in which the aliens swiftly crush humans 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 in The Garden State.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Orson Welles defending himself to journalists after the War of the Worlds panic. Corbis

11. The Martian Invasion of the US East Coast

Alarm turned into panic for many, when the Martians demonstrated their hostile intent by falling upon the good people of New Jersey with a ferocious and seemingly unstoppable attack. Soon, an actor who sounded like President Franklin Roosevelt was telling 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 broadcast was frequently interrupted to clarify that it was just a play, but many listeners had not lingered by their radios long enough to hear such clarifications. Soon as they heard that Earth was under attack by aliens who were slaughtering all and sundry, 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. Next day, Orson Welles woke up to discover that he was the most talked about 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.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Soviet geneticist and agronomist, the President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Lysenko measure the growth of wheat in a collective farm field near Odesa in Ukraine. Hulton Deutsch

10. The Nineteenth-Century Quackery Revived by Twentieth-Century Communists

In the early nineteenth century, a French biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquired during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. For example, if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. It became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It turned out Lamarck was wrong, and traits are passed on through genes that are hard-coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation. The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care about what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps.

By the late nineteenth century, Lamarck’s theories had been debunked, and only a small circle of quacks paid them any mind. However, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the twentieth century in the Soviet Union, where one such quack gave it a new lease on life. In the 1930s, a Soviet quack named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and weeds could be transformed into grain crops. There was absolutely no objective evidence to support Lysenko’s fantastic claims. However, fortunately for him, and unfortunately for Soviet science, the USSR in the 1930s was the perfect place to get away with making fantastic claims about advances and progress.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Lysenko giving a speech, with Stalin and other Soviet bigwigs in the background. Distributed Republic

9. Lamarckian Inheritance Suddenly Morphs From Laughable to Sinister

The revival of Lamarckian Inheritance in the supposedly progressive Soviet Union was laughably ludicrous. However, in a sinister turn of events, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist USSR, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin, if you knew what was good for you. In a nutshell, criticism of Lamarckian Inheritance was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.

In that environment, Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were playing with fire. Critics were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. Russia and the Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Crop circles in Wiltshire. Wiltshire Times

8. Space Aliens Are Trying to Communicate With Us Through Intricate Crop Designs

Crops in a wheat field in Wiltshire, England, were mysteriously flattened in a circular pattern in 1976. 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 of the explanations that gained the greatest currency was that the circles were created by space aliens, as a means of communicating with mankind in a mysterious yet-to-be-deciphered code.

That line of reasoning of aliens being behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that only 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 in its vicinity. It was not long before theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. Ninja Journal

7. The Silly Prank Behind It All

The Wiltshire crop circles became magnets for New Age mystical tourism, which cracked up Doug Bower, an English prankster, and his pal Dave Chorley. One night in 1976 the duo had been drinking, when they 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, when they finally revealed the mystery to journalists, it had been incredibly easy.

As Bower and Chorley demonstrated to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in just minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line. “Cereologist “Patrick Delgado – 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 the ever-growing prank.

The First ‘Confidence Man’ And Other Historic Cheats
Charles Dawson, the discoverer of Piltdown Man. Daily Express

6. The Hoax That Retarded Ancient Archaeology For Decades

Charles Dawson was an amateur English archaeologist who, in 1912, made a sensational announcement: he had discovered human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. He was digging in a Pleistocene gravel bed, and unearthed fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. It was viewed as the “missing link” between ape and man, thus proving 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.

At the time, 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 era’s prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism led the British scientists into confirmation bias, causing them to interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices.

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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