Here Are the 10 Greatest Hoaxes of All Time

There really is a sucker born every minute.

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The year 2014 featured one of the banner scientific hoaxes of recent history, the delightful triple-breasted lady. Tampa, Florida’s Alisha Jasmine Hessler thrilled the breast lovers among us with tales (and accompanying photos) of her enhanced silhouette. According to Hessler, 21, who renamed herself Jasmine Tridevil, she searched far and wide and finally found a plastic surgeon willing to add a third breast to her already ample duet. The truth came to light when, in order to recover a stolen bag from the airport, Hessler was forced to declare the contents, which included a three-breasted prosthesis. The website Smoking Gun blew the whole scam wide open, and we were left to carry on in our now less magical world. Unicorns and tridevils aren't what they seem.

But hers was not the first, and will surely not be the last hoax perpetrated on the believing American public. Even those who believe only in the miracles of science are apt to fall for the occasional scientific-sounding hoax. And when the will to believe is strong enough, and there's money to be made, no amount of debunking bogus claims shakes the willing suckers among us. Here are 10 of the greatest hoaxes of all time.

1. Piltdown Man

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The search for the Missing Link has gone on ever since Charles Darwin articulated the process of evolution. If man evolved from ape, then where is the link between the two? In 1912, it was announced that at last the Missing Link was found. It was named Eoanthropus dawsoniby Charles Dawson, the amateur geologist who dug up the skull in Piltdown, England. The great minds of the time all agreed that the skull was authentic, and proof of the link between man and monkey. It wasn’t until 40 years later, in 1953, that fluorine testing revealed otherwise. The skull was modern (probably less than 50,000 years old), not ancient, and it was actually constructed from the jaw of an orangutan, a human cranium and filed-down chimp teeth. Interestingly, some believe the actual perpetrator of the hoax was not Charles Dawson, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It seems Doyle was a member of Dawson’s archeological society, and a frequent visitor to Piltdown. The plot thickens….

2. Crop Circles

In the 1970s, mysterious crop circles began appearing overnight in wheat fields all over England—elaborate designs, perfectly circular, intricate and beautiful. Observers were convinced they were too intricate, too perfect, to have been made by human means, and that they were signs of alien beings trying to communicate with us. The circles remained mysterious, catnip to UFO believers and supernatural enthusiasts. Finally, in 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, a couple of pranksters, admitted to creating the crop circles using simple ropes, hats and wire as their only tools.

3. Clever Hans

In the early 1900s, in Germany, a man named Wilhelm von Osten, a math teacher, phrenologist, and bit of a mystic, owned a horse named Hans, who was apparently quite the genius. In free performances countrywide, Hans could answer math questions, spell words, understand German, and perform other dazzling stunts that convinced people Hans was an animal prodigy. Ask Clever Hans what 2+9 equals and Hans would tap his hoof 11 times, to the wonder of his audience. Further, Hans could answer the questions in spoken or written format. But in 1907, a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst, after extensive study, showed that Hans was not actually answering questions, but was responding to the body language of his audience. The horse observed that as he tapped his hoof to answer 2+9, the audience was noticeably tense until he reached 11, at which point people relaxed, tipping off the perceptive horse to stop tapping. Von Osten never accepted the fact that his horse couldn't really count, and he continued to show off Hans until von Osten died in 1909.

4. Alien Autopsy

In the 1990s, Ray Santilli revealed black-and-white film footage that shocked the world. Purported to be an actual autopsy of an alien being recovered from a 1947 crash of a flying saucer near Roswell, New Mexico, the footage was supposedly taken by a military cameraman (who wished to remain anonymous, according to Santilli). The authentic-looking footage sparked a debate that continues today, despite the fact that it was admitted to be fake. In 1995, Fox TV broadcast the footage in a TV special it repeated twice, each time to huge ratings. In 2006, however, Santilli admitted the footage was not real, but was a “restoration” of footage he claimed to have seen in 1992. The original footage, he said, degraded and was unusable, forcing him to recreate it. It was actually the director of the TV special who first suspected the footage was fake, but Fox prevented him from discussing it publicly for fear of hurting ratings. The alien in the “restored” film was apparently a cast, the skull containing sheep brains, raspberry preserve and chicken guts.

5. The Turk

In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled the amazing “Schachturke," or Chess Turk, to the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Chess Turk was an automaton, a robot that could play chess and perform amazing chess tricks like the Knight’s Tour (in which the knight is moved around to occupy every square on the chessboard exactly one time). For the next 84 years, until it was destroyed in a fire, the Turk toured Europe and the Americas, where the robot defeated all challengers, including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. It turned out, however, that the Turk might have been amazing, but, like the Wizard of Oz, he needed the man behind the curtain. The automaton was secretly controlled within by a succession of chess masters who provided the human brains behind the none-too-bright Turk. Still, the machine was impressive enough on its own merits that it continued to tour even after the hoax was revealed in the 1820s.

6. The War of the Worlds

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, a news broadcast went out over the radio that shook the nation. Alien spacecrafts from Mars had landed in New Jersey, and Martian invaders were on the move, attacking humans as the U.S. Army fought back. The broadcast was not real, of course, and in fact it was identified at the beginning as a radio play of the famous H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. Unfortunately, it was so realistic that people who tuned in after the beginning believed it was really happening. Mass panic and frenzy ensued, and many across the nation were convinced the end was near. The next day, the New York Times front page headline screamed, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid From Mars.'" You just can’t buy publicity like that. The long and storied career of Orson Welles, who was the mastermind behind the broadcast, was born.

7. The Fiji Mermaid

In 1822, Samuel Barrett Edes bought a mermaid from some Japanese sailors for the exorbitant sum of $6000. The mummified remains were of a creature half-human, half-fish, with animal hair covering the human half and fish scales on the bottom. Edes brought the creature back to England where it was exhibited, passed on to his son, and later sold to Moses Kimball in 1842. Kimball, sensing a way to cash in, brought his mermaid to New York, where he showed it to P.T. Barnum. Barnum knew a moneymaker when he saw one. He rented the mermaid for $12.50 a week to exhibit to the public. Through an elaborate scheme he devised to deceive the press and the public, Barnum eventually got the Fiji mermaid exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History. Though thought to be lost in a fire, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology claims to hold the original specimen. It was long ago shown to be a fake, not a mermaid at all, but a baby monkey sewn to a fish.

8. The Stone Age Tasaday Tribe

In 1971, a Stone Age tribe was “discovered” in the Philippines by Manuel Elizade, Jr. Known as the Tasaday, the tribe was small, isolated and completely ignorant of modern society. Still using Stone Age tools, they were hunter-gatherers unfamiliar with agriculture. The news caused a sensation in the press and scientific community. Unfortunately it was a lie. In 1986, closer investigations, made possible by the end of the Marcos dictatorship, showed that the Tasaday were not quite what they seemed. They traded with nearby farmers, wore blue jeans and T-shirts and even spoke a local dialect. It seems the tribe agreed to the hoax in return for cigarettes and free clothes.

9. The Cardiff Giant

In 1869, a giant was discovered on a farm. Uncovered while digging for a well, the 10-foot petrified giant seemed to verify passages in Genesis that talked of giants walking the Earth. The discovery was a sensation, and crowds flocked to see the petrified man. It turned out that the Cardiff Giant was a fake. The brainchild of a Binghamton, New York tobacco dealer and atheist named George Hull, the Cardiff giant was born from a conversation he overheard between evangelical ministers about giants roaming the Earth. He commissioned a remarkably realistic statue made out of a gypsum stone that had blue veins running through it that looked similar to human veins. He had the statue buried on his cousin’s farm and had it “discovered” six months later. P.T. Barnum sought to purchase the giant, but was outbid by a banker named David Hannum. Though attributed to Barnum, it was actually Hannum who, in reference to the crowds showing up to see the giant, coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

10. Beavers on the Moon

In 1835, the New York Sun newspaper published a series of articles about the discoveries of astronomer John Herschel, who with the aid of a new and powerful telescope was able to study the moon more closely than ever before. Herschel, it was reported, observed an entire idyllic moon civilization including people with wings, unicorns, plants, and, curiously, beavers. The outrageousness of the story spoke for itself, and the paper’s rivals declared it a hoax almost immediately. However, some things never die, especially, lunar beavers. The story was reprinted in papers all over the world and a play was even staged based on the series. Sensing an opportunity for extra cash, the New York Sun created a separate pamphlet to sell, as well as lithographic prints of the moon civilization. It took five years for the hoax to finally be put to rest, when the author of the article, Richard Adams Locke, finally fessed up. He claimed he was merely satirizing religion’s encroachment on the domain of science.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.