The Most Epic Hoaxes Ever to Fool the Unsuspecting Masses
These days, most of us are well aware that you can’t believe everything you see on TV or read on the internet. But throughout history, plenty of elaborate hoaxes have managed to fool people the world over. Here you’ll find a collection of some of the most successful hoaxes, pranks and April Fools’ Day jokes of all time. From the hilarious to the bizarre, these unbelievable antics are proof that people are a lot more gullible than most of us would like to believe.
The Not-So-Accurate Origins of April Fools’ Day
Back in 1983, university professor and historian Joseph Boskin was being interviewed by an insistent reporter named Fred Bayles. Though Boskin kept explaining that nobody really knows for sure how April Fools’ Day first came about, Bayles kept asking for a definitive answer.
So Boskin finally fed him an elaborate tale about Constantine allowing the court jester of Rome to rule the empire for a day each year on April 1st. Though Boskin attempted to make the story so outlandish that the reporter would catch on, it didn’t seem to work. Bayles believed the tale and published it via The Associated Press before catching on to the horrible truth.
The Curious Case of Edward Mordake
If you’re a fan of American Horror Story: Freak Show, then you may be familiar with a character named Edward Mordake. As it turns out, Mordake first began as a hoax back in the late 19th century.
Legend had it that he suffered from a rare deformity — a face on the back of his head that constantly tormented him with its whispers. Unable to take it anymore, he committed suicide at the age of 23. Though he turned out to be the invention of 1895 sci-fi writer Charles Hildreth, the story fooled so many people that Mordake even appeared in a medical journal in 1896.
The Derbyshire Fairy
In 2007, Dan Baines, a magician’s illusion designer (red flag, anyone?) posted a photo that he claimed showed the remains of an actual fairy. He insisted the creature had “been examined by anthropologists and forensic experts who can confirm the body is genuine.”
Apparently no one found it peculiar that April Fools’ Day was right around the corner because his site got over 20,000 hits in one day. Some people claimed they’d seen exactly the same thing, while others warned him to rebury the body or face the consequences. Baines later broke the truth to the duped public and sold the “fairy” on eBay for £280.
The Notorious Balloon Boy Incident
In 2009, a couple named Richard and Mayumi Heene were all over the news after they claimed their 6-year-old son had disappeared. The couple said that the boy had floated away in a large weather balloon on their property, but was nowhere to be found when the balloon was discovered miles away.
A huge hunt for the boy ensued as rescuers and emergency responders appeared on the scene. Eventually, the boy was found in the family’s attic and explained that his dad had told him to hide there. As it turned out, the whole thing was a random publicity ploy. Both parents ended up doing jail time over it.
The Giant Camel Spider Scare
Though there are plenty of reasons to be sympathetic to soldiers serving overseas, something truly bizarre appeared online in 2004. A photo began circulating via email that appeared to show two soldiers in Iraq holding a giant, prehistoric spider.
As it turned out, the critter in the photo was a giant camel spider that was held super close to the camera’s lens, making it appear way bigger than it really was. In reality, such creatures are only an average of 6 inches long and don’t actually eat flesh, as the internet rumors claimed. Though they can bite if provoked, the creepy spiders are relatively harmless.
Happy Bathtub Day
In late December of 1917, fun-loving writer H. L. Mencken of the New York Evening Mail decided to treat his readers to a little trickery. He wrote a piece that might be seen in The Onion today, throughout which he lamented the loss of the public’s observance of December 20.
This was the anniversary, he claimed, of the debut of the bathtub in America. Assuming everyone would get the joke, he was startled when the public completely believed the article’s premise. Though Mencken did his best to try to set the record straight, his bathtub holiday went on to be cited in “learned journals” and even on the floor of Congress.
The $50,000 Bigfoot Scam
There have been plenty of Bigfoot hoaxes in history, but perhaps none quite so brazen as the one pulled off by two Georgia men in 2008. The pair not only claimed that they had discovered the body of Bigfoot while out hiking, but they also held an elaborate press conference to discuss their find.
Due to the fact that respected news outlets such as CNN showed up to cover the news, the rumor quickly spread as fact among the public. It wasn’t until after the men had sold Bigfoot’s frozen body for $50,000 that it was discovered to be no more than a frozen costume.
The Blair Witch Project
While “found footage” movies aren’t such a novelty today, this wasn’t the case when The Blair Witch Project first premiered in 1999. The movie appears to be a documentary made by a group of film students who set out to find the truth behind a creepy local legend in the nearby woods.
Over the course of the “documentary,” they came face to face with the evil forces they’d set out to capture on film. In a stroke of marketing genius, the film’s creators positioned it as a non-fiction piece that had been assembled with footage found after the students’ disappearance. Watching it with no idea it wasn’t real was a seriously spooky experience.
The Missing Link Misses the Mark
Ever since Charles Darwin popularized the theory that humans and apes shared a common ancestor, scientists have been looking for the “missing link.” In 1912, a man named Charles Dawson claimed he’d found a skull that appeared to have been formed in mid-evolutionary transition between apes and humans.
Because Dawson said he had found the skull in a pit in Piltdown, England, it eventually became known as the Piltdown Man. It wasn’t until 1953 that researchers discovered the skull was actually a collage of a human skull, an orangutan jaw and chimp teeth — none of which were anywhere near old enough to be what they collectively claimed.
A Novel Approach
In 1969, a Newsday columnist named Mike McGrady decided to make a point about how questionable some of the books that made the bestseller lists of his day had become. He and his friends from Newsday each wrote a smutty chapter for their own book, with an emphasis on the idea that the result should be truly terrible.
They then titled it Naked Came the Stranger and had McGrady’s sister-in-law play the part of Penelope Ashe, its housewife “author.” To their dismay, the book sold 20,000 copies before the hoax was ever exposed. Even after McGrady revealed the book’s origins, it continued to sell.
The DIY Spaghetti Tree
On April 1, 1957, the BBC program Panorama played one of the most epic April Fools’ jokes of all time on an unsuspecting public. Apparently, the process of how spaghetti was made was a bit murky for a lot of the program’s listeners back then. So the radio show did a segment all about a Swiss town that was renowned for its spaghetti trees.
British listeners, who had no idea it was a ruse, flooded the station with calls asking how to produce their own spaghetti crops. The program instructed the would-be spaghetti farmers to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”
The Automated Chess Player
These days, all you have to do is download a chess app if you want to face off against a computer. But around 1770, when this “chess-playing robot” came out, such an idea was the stuff of sci-fi legend. “The Turk” first appeared in the court of Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria-Hungary, and went on to tour Europe and even America for nearly a century.
It managed to beat Ben Franklin in a chess match, and not even Edgar Allen Poe could figure out exactly how it really worked. In reality, a chess master was cleverly hidden inside. He would control the robot’s moves while keeping track of the opponent’s moves on his own interior board.
The HMS Dreadnought
Virginia Woolf and poet William Horace de Vere Cole were once part of an elite group of artists and thinkers known as the Bloomsbury Group. In 1910, Woolf and Cole got together with a few fellow geniuses and played an epic prank on the British Royal Navy.
The crew dressed up as a group of royal “Abyssinians” and requested a tour of the famous warship, the HMS Dreadnought. Throughout the tour, they’d speak to each other in gibberish and excitedly exclaim “Bunga, bunga!” Though their costumes were so bad that one guy’s mustache started coming off at one point, they completed the tour with the crew being none the wiser.
The Taco Liberty Bell
In 1996, Taco Bell played one of the most famous pranks in American history. It took out full-page ads in newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune to announce its plans to buy the Liberty Bell. Such a purchase, the fast-food chain claimed, would undoubtedly help America catch up on its national debt.
The articles further stated that in honor of the purchase, the bell would henceforth be named the “Taco Liberty Bell.” Thousands of outraged Americans put in calls to the Taco Bell headquarters and the National Park Service before finding out the whole thing was a brilliant joke and marketing scheme.
The Great Moon Myth
On August 25, 1835, a writer named Richard Adams Locke began publishing what was meant to be a satirical social commentary in the New York City paper The Sun. Throughout a series of essays, he detailed how an astrologer named John Herschel had discovered a civilization on the moon.
As the essays explained, the moon was populated by unicorns, beaver-like creatures and winged humans who lived in total harmony and built beautiful temples. The story was so popular amid the unsuspecting public that it was reprinted in papers around the world. While some recognized the moon civilization as a joke, others believed that somewhere across that starry expanse, there were moon beavers looking down on us all.
Don’t Drink and Type
In 1994, a writer named John Dvorak got Americans all riled up when he ran an article in the magazine PC Computing. Throughout the piece, he described Bill 040194, which was supposedly up for consideration in Congress. The contact person was listed as a Lirpa Sloof, which no one took the time to realize was “April Fools'” spelled backward (check out the bill’s number, too).
Dvorak claimed the bill would prevent drunk people from operating computers. Because hey, being drunk on the information highway is dangerously close to drunk driving, right? So many angry phone calls poured in as a result that Senator Edward Kennedy’s office had to release an official statement explaining that the whole thing had been a joke.
Clever Hans’ Clever Ruse
Around the turn of the 20th century, one of the greatest hoaxes of all time was pulled off by a horse. It all began when a German math teacher named Wilhelm von Osten claimed he had trained a horse named Hans to perform basic math.
The horse would display his skills before audiences by tapping out the numerical answers to various math problems with his hoof. The world was stunned and began calling the horse “Clever Hans.” In 1907, however, a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst figured out Hans’ real ruse. It turned out he was picking up facial cues so subtle that his master didn’t even realize he was making them each time Hans arrived at the correct answer.
The Cardiff Giant
On October 16 of 1869, a large stone man was discovered by a group of well diggers in Cardiff, New York. It came to be known as the “Cardiff Giant.” Some argued it was a petrified man, while others insisted it was an ancient statue. As it turned out, the truth was even crazier.
It all began when an atheist named George Hull got into an argument with a Methodist reverend over the Genesis 6:4 claim that giants once walked the earth. Hull decided to mock Biblical literalists by paying an artist today’s equivalent of $50,000 to carve the giant. He then arranged for the diggers to discover the find, which was eventually discredited by researchers.
The Masked Marauders
Back in 1969, Rolling Stone editor Greil Marcus became so fed up with the supergroup trend of the day that he released a satirical article designed to mock it. In it, he announced an upcoming record by The Masked Marauders, a band formed by Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
He made sure to make the article ridiculous enough that people would get the joke, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Realizing the public had bought the story, Marcus hired an obscure band to record the spoof album and sold 100,000 copies before it became clear the whole thing was an elaborate joke.
The Loch Ness Monster
Though legends of the Loch Ness Monster go back centuries, most of us have probably seen the 1934 photo that claimed to prove its existence. Taken by a man named Robert Wilson, the photo soon convinced people around the world that the monster was, in fact, real.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Christian Spurling confessed that the whole thing had been a hoax set up by himself, Wilson, his father-in-law Marmaduke Wetherell and another man. Wetherell had been exposed in 1933 for attempting to reveal the monster’s “footprints” by using a dried hippo’s foot. It turned out the “monster” was just a toy submarine with a serpent’s head attached.
The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
An online hoaxer named Lyle Zapato loves creating fake but elaborate websites detailing the existence of mythical creatures. One of his sites details the plight of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, an octopus that hangs out in the trees of Washington State.
As the details reveal, the Tree Octopus is in real danger due to the rampant prey drive of the dreaded Sasquatch. Though this should be enough to broadcast the site’s satirical nature, one study found that every student among a group of web-savvy middle-school kids fell for it hook, line and sinker. Unfortunately, the odds that they’re alone are slim to none.
The Great Faint
If you happened to be watching The Phil Donahue Show on January 21, 1985, then you may remember a bizarre phenomenon play out on national television. Seven audience members suddenly fainted during the course of the taping. Donahue got concerned and sent everybody home. The baffled producers theorized that the studio lights had become too hot.
As it turned out, however, the mass fainting was the work of a prankster named Alan Abel, who had paid the fainters for their performance. He later explained that he was establishing a group called FAINT (Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic TV) in order to protest a decline in the quality of daytime talk shows.
Rudolph Fentz: The Accidental Time Traveler
As the story goes, a man named Rudolph Fentz suddenly appeared in New York City’s Times Square in June of 1950. Clad in clothes from the 1800s, he appeared terrified before being struck and killed by an oncoming car. Investigators later found 19th-century money and a card with his name on it in his pockets.
To make matters more convincing, they found a woman who was the widow of Rudolph Fentz Jr. who claimed her father-in-law had mysteriously vanished in 1876. For years, the tale was regarded as true by paranormal researchers. In 2005, researchers found that it had actually been a 1951 sci-fi story that had been later republished as fact.
Nat Tate: The Greatest Artist Who Never Lived
In 1998, British novelist and former Oxford lecturer William Boyd published a biography on an obscure artist named Nat Tate. The book told of Tate’s life from 1928 to 1960, during which he produced abstract art, 99% of which he destroyed before leaping to his death from the Staten Island Ferry.
Illustrious members of the art world began to claim that they were very familiar with Tate’s work and legacy. Soon after, it was revealed that the whole thing had been an elaborate joke by Boyd and several other conspirators. Among them was David Bowie, who even did a reading of the book on the eve of April Fools’ Day.
I’m Still Here
In 2009, popular actor Joaquin Phoenix suddenly announced that he was retiring from acting in order to pursue his true calling of becoming a rapper. He even appeared on David Letterman’s show with a long beard, unkempt hair and sunglasses, and appeared to basically be out of his mind.
After Phoenix kept up the act for months, it was finally revealed that the whole thing was fake. The hoax had actually been designed to promote a mockumentary called I’m Still Here that Phoenix was making with his friend Casey Affleck.
Mary Toft’s Awkward Offspring
In one of the more bizarre hoaxes on record, 25-year-old English servant Mary Toft claimed to give birth to several litters of rabbits in 1726. Though they were mostly dead, her furry offspring began to cause quite a stir around the English countryside.
Not surprisingly, doctors and scientists from all over the country flocked to her to study her case. Finally, one German surgeon dissected one of the animals and found food in its stomach, revealing that it had not originated in the unfortunate Ms. Toft’s womb. She later admitted to faking the births to gain fame and attention.
The Hitler Diaries
In 1983, several renowned newspapers and magazines published parts of what were believed to be the diaries of Adolf Hitler. After the diaries apparently surfaced from the wreckage of a 1945 plane crash, one German magazine paid $4 million for them.
Before the diaries’ contents were published, the handwriting in them had been authenticated by experts from three countries and had even convinced famous historians. As it turned out, however, the diaries were the work of a famous conman who was only discovered because he made the mistake of using modern stationery.
The Fijian Mermaid
No list of hoaxes would be quite complete without something from P. T. Barnum. The famous Victorian circus man was known for his oddities in the 19th century, and it’s no surprise today that not all of them were as legitimate as he claimed.
In 1842, he invited the world to feast their eyes on the mummified remains of what he called the “Fijian Mermaid.” The small creature appeared to have the head of a human and the tail of a fish, a typical combination in mermaid lore. Under scrutiny, however, it was merely the top of a baby monkey attached to the tail of a fish via papier mache.
Microsoft’s Holy Roman Acquisition
In 1994, rumors began circulating online that Microsoft intended to take things to the next level by purchasing the Roman Catholic Church. The story even quoted Bill Gates as saying, “The combined resources of Microsoft and the Catholic Church will allow us to make religion easier and more fun for a broader range of people.”
While most people recognized the hoax, others weren’t so sure. Microsoft attempted to ignore the rumor but was flooded with so many calls that it finally addressed the rumor publicly. A spokeswoman issued a formal denial that Microsoft was getting into the religion business.
In 1907, a woman named “Sober Sue” began to make appearances at The Roof Garden in New York City. Sue issued a challenge which, if completed, could earn anyone $100. In order to collect the prize, however, they had to make her laugh. Sounds simple enough, right?
Everyone from audience members to professional comedians soon found out that Sober Sue was one tough nut to crack. Try as they might, no one could get Sue to even smile. It wasn’t until her run was complete that it was revealed she had been hired by The Roof Garden’s manager — who knew that her face muscles were paralyzed.