From the 7/24/00 issue of USN&WR|
Hoaxes of the agesPrimitive daze | Military mix-ups |
Crooked books | Alienated |
Nix these pix | Beastly tales |
Gotcha! History is full of
and assorted deranged
souls who've created what
seemed like a mystery of his
tory . . . but turned out to be
nothing but a goof.
1. But could he shoot hoops?
The Bible says giants once walked the Earth, and in 1869, workmen
said they dug one upa 10-foot-tall, 3,000-pound stone
body buried on a farm near Cardiff, N.Y. The
farmer and his brother-in-law, cigar maker
George Hull, made a fortune, charging 50 cents to see the
Cardiff Giant. A Yale paleontologist called the gypsum giant a
"decided humbug of recent origin," pointing out fresh tool
marks and smooth surfaces. And, of course, flesh doesn't
fossilize. Hull soon fessed up to planting the statue. But people
kept paying to see the goliathand still do at
the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "Part of the
appeal is wondering if you would be fooled by it," says Gilbert Vincent, museum president.
2. Sketchy skull. "Darwin Theory Is Proved True" read a 1912
New York Times headline after amateur paleontologist Charles
Dawson unearthed skull fragments in Piltdown, England. Combining a
thrust-out jaw and a large braincase, the fragments were thought
to prove that men and apes had a common ancestorthe missing
link. Subsequent fossil finds pointed to a different evolutionary
pattern. Still some scientists believed in Piltdown until 1953, when new
dating methods showed that critical fragments were from different
periods and had been chemically aged to match up. Dawson is
the most likely suspect in the longest-running known hoax
3. Stone Agers in T-shirts. In August
1972, National Geographic devoted a
cover story to "Stone Age Cavemen of Mindanao"a tiny band
in the Philippine rain forest, apparently isolated for centuries.
The Tasaday reportedly wore only orchid leaves, used primitive
tools, and subsisted on forest foragings. The Marcos regime
later cut off access; when Marcos fell in 1986, a curious Swiss anthropologist hiked
into the mountains and found the Tasaday wearing T-shirts and
jeans, living in huts, and growing crops. Many anthropologists
quickly labeled the affair a hoax, pinning the blame on the eccentric
head of the Philippine agency for minority protection. "Claims that
they were Stone Age survivors in orchid-leaf clothing are absurd,"
says Gerald Berreman of the University of California-Berkeley,
who has studied the controversy. National Geographic argues that
changes could have been caused by acculturation. "I don't think anyone really knows the
answer because of that time lag," says spokeswoman Barbara Moffet.
4. Holy rocks. How did Hebrew-inscribed rocks wind up in a prehistoric mound in Ohio? And do
the Newark Holy Stones, found in 1860, prove that nonnative peoples visited the Americas before
Columbus? Hebrew spelling errors swiftly exposed the rocks as fakes, though some still believe
they're real. Bradley Lepper of the Ohio Historical Society thinks
the culprit was a Newark Episcopal minister who hoped the stones would prove that Adam
and Eve were mother and father to all racesa good argument
against slavery. Years later, a prankster planted two more stonesbut the Hebrew letters
just spelled his name.
5. Operation Mincemeat. Mix one dead body, a sprinkling of
misinformation, and a large pinch of British intelligence. Toss results
in salt water and you get "Operation Mincemeat." Led by Lt. Cmdr.
Ewen Montagu, a team of British officers procured the body of a
pneumonia victim and planted false documents suggesting the
Allied invasion of Italy would come from Greece and Sardinia
rather than Sicily. Dressed in a Royal Marines uniform and
chained to a briefcase full of fake personal papers, the corpse was
released from a submarine off the Spanish coast. Fishermen picked
it up; German agents in Spain forwarded the plans to their commanders, who left Sicily's
southern coast nearly defense-lessallowing the Allies to land almost
unopposed on July 10, 1943.
6. Dressed to shoot. As an 18th-century woman, Deborah
Sampson couldn't travel alone and couldn't stand the husband-to-be Mom had picked out for
her. What she could do, it turned out, was fool the Army of the
American Revolution into thinking she was a man, satisfying her
need for adventure. Sampson bound her breasts, deepened her
voice, took the name Robert Shurtlieff, and joined the Army in
May 1782. Through several battles with the British and a
couple of injuries, Sampson kept up her charade. Wounded in the
thigh, she dug the bullet out herself to avoid a doctor's scruti
ny. It wasn't until April 1783 that a physician treating her for
fever discovered her secret; she was honorably discharged
in October 1783. Two years later, she married Benjamin Gan
nett, a farmer. They had three children.
7. A gift that kept on giving.
Bet you never got a present like this. According to a deed known
as the Donation of Constantine, Emperor Constantine I of Rome
gave Pope Sylvester I sovereignty over a significant portion of
Western Europe, supposedly in gratitude for curing the emperor's
leprosy. But Constantine never had leprosy, and the document is
an elaborate fraud. It was crafted between A.D. 750 and 800, a
good 400 years after Constantine died. Yet the Donation became an
essential part of Middle Ages real estate policy, as sources were
rarely questioned at the time. The era was "the golden age of forgeries," says Philip Benedict, a
professor of history at Brown University. For hundreds of years,
the Vatican used the document to buttress territorial claims in land
struggles with the Holy Roman Empire. Despite a 1440 debunking by scholar Lorenzo Valla, who
exposed anachronistic terms and other boo-boos, the Donation
persisted until 1929. Under pressure from Benito Mussolini, the
Vatican finally ceded the remainder of its "gift"which had once
encompassed not only Rome but a belt across central Italy from
the Mediterranean to the Adriaticback to Italy.
8. Hate lit. A czarist civil servant
published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1905 to tell of the
"widely conceived plan" of the Jews to rule the world by controlling the media and banks. In
1921, a London Times reporter exposed the book as a ripoff of an
1864 satiric novel. That didn't dissuade Henry Ford and Adolf
Hitler. A 1999 reissue is sold by Amazon.com. The Web site disclaims the work as
"racist propaganda," but one customer review praises it as "powerful stuff."
9. Going in circles. They appeared like magic in the middle of
the nighthundreds of huge geometrical patterns in the middle of
English wheat fields. To some, the mysterious circles that first made
headlines in 1980 were proof of alien visitors. Self-styled crop-circle experts claimed the precise
shapes were the result of energy from spaceships that flattened the
wheat as they hovered. "Cereologists" devoted books to the wheat-
field wonders, and curious tourists flocked to see themuntil Sep
tember 1991, when two 60-something artists came forward to show
how they had created the circles at night with lengths of rope and flat
boards. The con that baffled the world for more than a decade had
been cooked up over a pint in a local pub.
Nix these pix
10. Fairy photos. There were fairies in the garden in pictures
taken in 1917 by two girls, 10 and 16, in Cottingley, England. Experts
determined the photos had not been tampered with. Sherlock
Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw the images as proof little people were returning to the
world and defended them in his book The Coming of the Fairies.
For decades, the cousins insisted the photos were real, although
skeptics pointed out how much the sprites looked like cutout illustrations from a 1915 children's
book, held up by wire. Not until the late '70s did the surviving
cousin admit that hatpins and storybook cutouts did the trick.
11. Kirlian curios. An aura of mystery or just electricity? Kirlian
photographers promised to capture on film their subjects' mystical auras, from which could be
divined health and emotional well-being. Since its popularization by Russian engineers
Semyon and Valentina Kirlian in 1939, New Agers and hopeful students
of the paranormal have been snookered by the technique's otherworldly coronas of light.
Controlled experiments have shown that the Kirlian photos (captured
by passing an electric current through the subject, whose "energies" are then recorded on special
photographic plates) are the result of moisture and pressure, not spiritual vitality.
12. Bouncing baby bunnies. A month after suffering a miscarriage
in 1726, Mary Toft sent for a doctor, complaining of abdominal
pains. She gave birth to a dead, skinned baby rabbit, then several
more in the days to follow. The doctor swore he could feel the crit
ters "jumping" in the womb. Nathanael St. Andre, King
George I's physician, published a pamphlet verifying the story, and
England was hooked. But when less gullible docs threatened to
perform exploratory operations, Toft confessed. She perpetrated
the hoax "to get so good a living that I should never want as long as
I lived." Charged as a "Notorious and Vile Cheat," she was thrown in
jail, where oglers mocked her. A popular purchase in early 1800s
England was a book of writings about Toft, bound in rabbit skin.
13. Horse sense. He made Mr. Ed look downright average. Clever
Hans couldn't talk, but the German horse got global attention in 1904
for his ability to count, do math problems, read, spell, and solve
problems of musical harmonyall by tapping his hoof in a code
developed by owner Wilhelm von Osten. Each letter of the alphabet
was assigned a number, and through this system, Clever Hans
convinced the world that animals could reason and think just like
humans. But scientists observed von Osten, who probably believed
his horse could really count, giving unintentional signals with his
posture that told Hans when to start and stop tapping. So it was
the human all alongnot the horse, of course.
14. Stealthy ship. The $200 million Glomar Explorer set sail in
1974 to find deep-sea minerals. But that was just a CIA cover
story. The ship's mission was to secretly salvage the wreck of a
Soviet nuclear sub 3 miles under the ocean, 750 miles off Hawaii. Eccentric billionaire Howard
Hughes helped with the hoax: A Hughes subsidiary built the Explorer, based
on designs pioneered by a Hughes vessel doing deep-sea exploration.
Reporters revealed its mission in 1975, and the CIA admitted that
the attempt had been a limited success; the sub broke in half
while being raised off the ocean floor and several nuclear warheads
were lost. Claims that the CIA had pressured journalists to keep quiet
prompted a Rolling Stone reporter to file a Freedom of Information
Act request to uncover intimidation tactics. The petition was foiled by
the agency's refusal to either confirm or deny the existence of such
documents, the first time that the dvasionnow known as the "Glomar response"was used.
By Andrew Curry, Holly J.
Morris, Art Samuels, and Maggie Shrout. Research by Anne
Bradley, Nora Keating, Amy
Kost, Lee Neville, and Sheila
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