Fun Facts: Hoaxes and Deceptions
"No man is happy without a delusion of some kind. Delusions are as necessary to our happiness as realities."
—Christian Nevell Bovee
When the Spanish conquistadors first reached Peru, centre of the Inca
empire, the Peruvian Indians felt the Spanish horses to be ferocious and deadly
monsters, there being no horses native to the Americas. Through an
interpreter, they asked the Spanish cavalrymen what these animals ate.
In response, the Spaniards, pointing to the gold jewellery and ornaments
of the Peruvians, said, "They eat those things of yellow metal. They are
hungry now but do not wish to be seen eating. Leave the food in front of
them and go away." The Indians gathered some gold objects for the horses.
After they had left, the Spanish pocketed the gold, and then, calling back
the Indians, told them that the horses were still hungry and needed more food.
On April Fools' Day, 1957, the BBC television documentary show
Panorama broadcast a documentary about the "spaghetti
orchards" of Switzerland. Over pictures of Swiss spaghetti trees,
the spaghetti plantations of Switzerland and Italy, the spaghetti
weevil, and the reason for spaghetti being of such uniform lengths
were discussed. Many viewers, oblivious to the date, believed
that what they were watching was genuine.
In 1113, Adelaide, who at the time was regent of Sicily, married King
Baldwin of Jerusalem. This marriage was very advantageous to Baldwin,
who was able to use Adelaide's dowry to pay off the crusader knights of
the city for its defense. Four years later, by which time all of Adelaide's
money had been spent, Baldwin became sick. He then announced that he
blamed his sickness on the fact that his marriage was bigamous. Unknown
to Adelaide, Baldwin's wife Arda had been in Jerusalem the last four years,
and Baldwin had placed her in a nunnery just before marrying Adelaide.
Baldwin was granted an annulment and Adelaide went back to Sicily impoverished.
An article was published in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917, written by H. L. Mencken, describing the curious history of the bathtub. According to the article, the first bathtub appeared in America seventy-five years ago. Americans, however, were slow to accept this innovation. Physicians asserted that bathtubs were dangerous to the public health, and cities passed ordinances to restrict their use. It was not until 1850, when President Millard Fillmore installed a tub in the White House, that public sentiment swung in favour of the battub and soon tubs were widely used. Mencken's history was entirely untrue, and he expected that readers would catch on. However, the opposite happened. Mencken's history was widely accepted as true, and was cited by scholarly histories of public hygiene. In 1926, Fairfax Downey even wrote a serious history of the bathtub that drew largely on the false story. Mencken concluded from this turn of events that "the American public will swallow anything".
On April 1, 1996, a full-page advertisement appeared in several
newspapers, including the New York Times, announcing that
Taco Bell had purchased the Liberty Bell, and that the bell would from now
on be known as the "Taco Liberty Bell". In the advertisement, Taco Bell
said that it hoped that this move will prompt other corporations to take
similar action to help reduce the national debt. Many people, apparently
not noticing the date, took it seriously, calling the home of the Liberty
Bell in Philadelphia to complain. The White House played along, with
spokesperson Mike McCurry saying that the government planned to sell the
Lincoln Memorial to Ford, which would rename it to the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial.
On April 1, 1979, Capital Radio in London broadcast a story saying
that Britain's time was out-of-sync with other countries due to switching
to and from British Summer Time. It was announced that, because Britain
was around 48 hours ahead of the rest of the world, the Government had
decided to cancel April 5 and April 12 of that year. Capital Radio received
hundreds of anxious calls from listeners who apparently hadn't noticed
that it was April Fools' Day.
On the eve of April Fools' Day of 1919, well-known hoaxer Horace Cole,
in Venice on his honeymoon, persuaded a gondolier to take him to the
mainland, where he purchased a load of horse manure. When it was dark, he
returned to Venice and deposited it in small lumps in the Piazza San Marco.
In the morning, Venetians were puzzled as to how horses could have crossed
the canals, paraded around the piazza, and then left.
On the morning of April 1, 1976, on BBC Radio 2, astronomer Patrick Moore announced a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. Moore stated that at 9:47 a.m., Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter, and at that very moment their gravitational alignment would counteract and so lessen Earth's gravitational pull. Moore told his listeners that if they were to jump in the air at this exact moment, they would experience a strange floating sensation. At 9:48 a.m., the phone lines of BBC 2 were flooded with stories from people who claimed to experience this sensation.
For over 25 years, between around 1950 and 1977, Tom Keating produced
over 2,000 imitations of works of art of famous artists, including Constable,
Rembrandt, Degas, Gainsborough, Goya, Renoir, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh.
He never forged for financial gain and always left some clue in his pictures
to show that they were fake, such as writing "this is a fake" in white paint
on the canvas before working, or painting a detail in the wrong style, or
using incorrect paper for the artist's timeframe.
Acronyms (abbreviations pronounced as words, as opposed to initialisms, abbreviations pronounced as individual letters) were quite rare before the 20th century; the word "acronym" itself only dates from 1943. All stories about the origin of words (including "tip", "posh", "golf", and various four-letter words) that claim that a word is derived from an
acronym several centuries old are false.
In April 1844 the New York Sun carried a detailed
account of the first transatlantic balloon flight. The article detailed how eight men set out from Penstruthal in North Wales, and about three days later
landed on Sullivan's Island, in South Carolina.
The account, however, was a complete fabrication, written by novelist
Edgar Allen Poe.
In 1935 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an
exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh's works, at which American artist
Hugh Troy played an interesting practical joke. He moulded a piece
of beef and placed it in a velvet-lined box, which was labelled:
"This is the ear which Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress,
a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." The ear was the star exhibit
until the authorities found out.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States between
1933 and 1945, noticed that most people whom he greeted at the many
functions he attended paid little attention to the brief pleasantries
that were exchanged. He once put his theory to the test at a party in
the White house. As he shook hands with each guest, he muttered, "I
murdered my grandmother this morning." Only one person seemed to notice:
a Wall Street banker, who responded, "She certainly had it coming!".
In the 1860s, Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States,
gave a cigar to philanthropist Horace Norton, founder of Norton College.
Norton did not smoke the cigar but kept it as a memento of the meeting.
On his death the cigar passed to his son, who didn't smoke it either,
and then to his grandson, Winstead. In 1932, Winstead attended a Norton
College reunion in Chicago. Delivering a speech, he lit Grant's cigar.
The cigar, as it turned out, was an exploding cigar and exploded in
In the book Predictions for the Year 1708, a
soothsayer going by the name of Isaac Bickerstaff made the prediction
that John Partridge, a cobbler turned astrologer who was the editor of
a rival almanac, Merlinus Liberatus, would die on March 29
around 11:00 pm of a raging fever. On March 30, Bickerstaff published a
pamphlet claiming that the prediction had come true, Partridge having died
within four hours of the predicted time, and that on his deathbed he had
even confessed that he was a charlatan. Partridge was still alive, however,
and protested that the report was entirely false, even advertising that
fact in newspapers. Bickerstaff, together with other writers, continued to
insist that Partridge was in fact dead and that the man claiming to be
Partridge was an imposter. Partridge lived another seven years, most of
which were spent struggling to prove his existence and discover who Bickerstaff
was. He never did discover that Bickerstaff was Jonathan Swift, who was
better known for Gulliver's Travels.
It is that that in the 18th century the American general Israel Putnam
once invited a certain British general (whose name was not recorded)
to a curious test of nerves. Both were to
sit on barrels of gunpowder, and the fuses lit. The winner would be the last
to run away. The British general accepted Putnam's challenge. However, as
the fuses burned, he became increasingly fidgety while Putnam remained calm,
smoking his pipe. At the last moment the British general fled. Putnam remained
seated, for he knew that both barrels were filled with onions.
In Dawks's News-Letter for April 2, 1698, it was noted
that "yesterday being the 1 April several persons were sent to the Tower
of London to watch the annual lion-washing ceremony." The ceremony was a
hoax, but for many years afterwards this fictitious event continued to
attract the gullible. In 1856, many people bought tickets to attend the
ceremony on April 1, evidently being unaware that the lions were moved to
the London Zoo 21 years previously.