Hoaxers count on everyone else being a bunch of credulous fools, ready to accept as true whatever nonsense is set before them—especially if it confirms preexisting prejudices. The internet age is rife with hoaxes, but throughout history human beings have been just as naive as we are now, permitting schemers to lighten our wallets or, worse, rob us of our good judgment.
When British amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson presented his Piltdown Man “discovery” in 1912, many within the British scientific establishment believed the skull fragments, jawbone and teeth—purportedly found in a gravel pit in the East Sussex village of Piltdown—were the fossilized remains of a “missing link” between apes and Homo sapiens. In actuality, Piltdown Man was a forgery: The skull fragments were human; the jawbone came from an orangutan and the teeth from a chimpanzee. The forger—some think Dawson, others Arthur Conan Doyle—stained the composite with iron to make the whole thing seem prehistoric.
At least Piltdown Man looked real to some expert eyes. The same cannot be said for the Cardiff Giant, a crudely wrought, 10-foot gypsum figure exhibited in Syracuse, New York, in 1869. Scientists universally declared it to be bogus, but the exhibitors, claiming they had found a petrified specimen of an ancient race of giants, the Nephilim referred to in Genesis 6:4, made a box office killing, prompting prominent showman P.T. Barnum to offer to buy it. When Barnum was refused, he had a plaster copy made, displaying it in New York City as the “real” Cardiff Giant.
Though often credited with the line, P.T. Barnum did not say “A sucker is born every minute.” That zinger belongs to David Hannum, a member of the syndicate that exhibited the original Cardiff Giant; Hannum was disparaging those gullible enough to believe that Barnum’s copy—a fake of a fake—was the real thing. But Barnum may as well have said it. He made a fortune off a public eager to be bamboozled, displaying “curiosities” that, besides the Cardiff Giant, included an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth, whom Barnum claimed was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s mammy more than a century before, and the Feejee Mermaid, a creature advertised as half mammal and half fish but that was actually the upper body of a monkey stitched by a taxidermist to a fish’s tail.
More curious than these curiosities was Barnum’s opposition to fraud he deemed harmful. He inveighed against spiritualist mediums and exposed the tricks of their trade—humbug the veteran showman knew intimately. In this, Barnum resembles a later American flimflammer, Frank Abagnale—the master check forger who ultimately made his living teaching banks how to guard against the fakery he had once practiced.
Make people believe you are who you say you are and you can become that person, at least for a while. That’s the unsettling truth behind the extraordinary career of imposter Frank W. Abagnale Jr. Celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and the 2011 Broadway musical based on it, Abagnale’s exploits began with check forging at age 16. Soon he was a master of disguise, assuming such roles as pilot, doctor and lawyer. For each identity, Abagnale dressed the part, learned the lingo (even passing the Louisiana bar exam) and counterfeited documents—e.g., a Harvard Law School transcript.
The makers of The Blair Witch Project likewise exploited the credulity people demonstrate when presented with “documentation.” The horror flick was released as shaky, handheld footage shot by three student filmmakers who mysteriously disappeared in the Maryland woods. Lending truthiness to the tale was the made-for-TV documentary Curse of the Blair Witch and a promotional website chock-full of gritty on-the-scene photos, interviews with police, even faked clips from local news affiliates. Spirited debate over the legend’s veracity fueled interest, helping the shoestring-budget picture gross nearly $250 million worldwide.
Belief that The Blair Witch Project told a true story was widespread enough that the rumor-debunking website Snopes.com posted an entry explicating the filmmakers’ fakery—which extended even to inventing the legends of witchcraft and grisly mass murder that Blair Witch’s hapless characters were supposedly investigating when they disappeared.
Some people no doubt remain convinced that the film depicts real events. After all, the persistence of belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a sorry constant in human affairs—one on which, for example, creationist ideology and Holocaust-denial are built. The refusal to accept facts, coupled with the urge to look for conspiracies where none exist, helps explain the continuing influence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most successful hoaxes ever perpetrated. First published in Russia in 1903, Protocols purports to document a plan for world conquest conceived by a group of Jewish leaders (the “elders” of the title). Protocols has been irrefutably demonstrated to be a mash-up of texts lifted from 19th-century anti-Semitic novels, but it remains in print and is available in online editions, continuing to stoke anti-Jewish fervor in the Middle East, the United States and elsewhere.
Thoroughly debunked, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has nonetheless, over time, had some prominent champions. In the 1920s American automobile manufacturer and vocal anti-Semite Henry Ford printed and distributed half a million copies. More recently, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi endorsed the authenticity of Protocols. And it was Adolf Hitler’s favorite fairy tale. The Nazi Party used Protocols extensively in its anti-Jewish propaganda blitz, and the book’s purported revelations of a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world dominion provided a rationale for the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”—i.e., the Holocaust. For a twisted mind like Hitler’s, widely promulgated evidence that the Protocols was a forgery offered the “best proof that [it is] authentic,” as he wrote in his autobiography, Mein Kampf.
In an irony of history, Hitler himself was the posthumous victim of a literary hoax. That happened in 1983, when the German magazine Stern published excerpts from what its editors claimed were the Führer’s diaries. Stern paid $6 million for the rights to the diaries—a set of 60-plus handwritten notebooks—to journalist Gerd Heidemann, who had obtained them from Konrad Kujau, a Stuttgart dealer in Nazi memorabilia. Kujau, it turned out, was also a forger.
Literary forgery—fabricating a work and attributing it to someone else with the intent to deceive—is an illicit enterprise. For foisting the fake Hitler diaries on the editors of the German magazine Stern, forger Konrad Kujau and middleman Gerd Heidemann did prison time. But what about creating a fictitious authorial identity?
The practice of authors using pseudonyms has a venerable history. British writer Mary Anne Evans achieved fame in the 19th century for novels published under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name, she claimed, so her work would be taken seriously. No one today would accuse Evans of perpetrating a hoax, but when it was discovered that contemporary American writer Laura Albert had gone a step further and invented a literary persona, a young man called JT LeRoy, accusations of deceit rained down upon her. Albert didn’t just conjure LeRoy; she paid an associate to impersonate him and even signed a contract in LeRoy’s name for a film adaptation of “his” novel Sarah (2000). Disclosure of the ruse brought a lawsuit from the film production company, charging fraud. When Albert lost, the Authors Guild declared the verdict would have a chilling effect on authorial freedom.
Laura Albert wrote fiction, so her authorial deception involving the literary persona JT LeRoy wasn’t equal to the one committed by James Frey, who cast made-up events as factually true in his 2003 “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. For this transgression, Oprah Winfrey famously chastised Frey on national TV. Albert did, however, create a detailed biography for the nonexistent young man she later described as her avatar. Supposedly, Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was a gender-bending, HIV-positive former child prostitute. Albert permitted sympathetic celebrities to befriend JT. And she deputized her partner’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, to play him—outfitted in a blond wig and sunglasses—in interviews and at public gatherings. People were hoodwinked, certainly. But was the JT LeRoy affair really a hoax, or, as Times writer Gregory Cowles described it, a “creepy kind of performance piece”?
Sometimes hoaxes involving human identity are less conceptual and more anthropological. That’s the case with the discovery, in 1971, of the Tasaday—a tribe of extremely primitive people living deep in the rain forest on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Though the controversy over the Tasaday’s authenticity has died down, there appears to be no sure way of knowing whether the tribe was genuine.
No one knows who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though it was likely compiled at the direction of the Russian secret police. But the original political intent seems clear: to shore up Tsar Nicholas II’s regime by linking his opponents with a Jewish-led plot. After the Russian Revolution, the anti-communist White Guard also employed the Protocols, this time to discredit the Bolsheviks by associating their leaders with a dastardly Jewish conspiracy.
Detecting a motive for the Tasaday hoax—if it was a hoax—is more difficult. Ostensibly a minuscule tribe of “Stone Age” gatherers who had lived in complete isolation for untold generations, the Tasaday may have been concocted by their purported discoverer, Manuel Elizalde, to deflect attention from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s human rights abuses. Elizalde, the government minister charged with protecting the country’s ethnic minorities, certainly pulled off a PR coup: He invited anthropologists from around the world to visit the Tasaday, whose peaceful ways were celebrated in a National Geographic feature, countless media stories and a best-selling book, The Gentle Tasaday (1975), by AP journalist John Nance. Until his death, in 2010, Nance maintained the Tasaday were real.
There were doubts about Piltdown Man’s authenticity from the moment its discovery was announced, in 1912, but not until 1953 did advances in dating techniques allow scientists to prove definitively that this supposed human ancestor was a fake.
By contrast, another possible hoax concerning primal humankind may never be fully explained. When the Tasaday were discovered, in 1971, they seemed to enjoy an idyllic society uncontaminated by civilization. These cave dwellers, dressed scantily in leaves, had no words for “bad” or “war”—and the worldwide media ate the story up. Then, in 1974, the Marcos government blocked access to the tribe. When anthropologists returned following Marcos’s fall, in 1986, they found the Tasaday’s caves abandoned. Some members of the purported tribe—now wearing T-shirts—said the whole thing had been a masquerade designed by Manuel Elizalde. But the strange tale doesn’t end there: The claim of a hoax may itself have been a hoax, abetted by bribes from logging companies wanting access to the Tasaday’s protected lands. And the Tasaday—who did, in fact, speak a unique language—may have been a genuinely isolated group whose primitivism the publicity-hungry Elizalde had tweaked for the cameras.