Hoaxes have probably been around since humankind developed speech and began storytelling, but the word 'hoax' itself only came about in the late 18th century. It was derived from the word 'hocus' which meant 'to cheat'.
Generally speaking, while many urban legends and practical jokes are often referred to as hoaxes, the term is more correctly applied to instances where the perpetrator has made a conscious decision to carry out a deception that may make money for the hoaxer or cause harm to the victim. Here are five examples of famous hoaxes that fooled thousands.
On April Fools' Day 1957, the BBC broadcasted a three-minute hoax report which showed a family in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from a tree, even going to the trouble of filming footage at a Swiss hotel. Richard Dimbleby, a respected broadcaster, provided the voice-over, adding credence to the report. Whilst this may seem laughable now, spaghetti was not well known in the UK at the time, so many people were taken in and contacted the BBC for advice on cultivating their own spaghetti trees.
Reportedly, callers were laughingly told to "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best." Some viewers complained to the BBC for airing such a misleading hoax report as part of a factual program, and even decades later it is acknowledged that this broadcast was quite possibly the biggest hoax that was ever pulled off by a reputable news establishment.
In 1912, amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson discovered part of a human-like skull near the village of Piltdown in Sussex, England. He claimed that this skull proved the missing link between ape and man, and went on to work with Arthur Smith Woodward, an expert in geology at the Natural History Museum, later discovering teeth, more skull fragments, a jawbone, and primitive tools said to be 500,000 years old.
All this was believed for some time, until new technology in 1949 proved that the remains were only 50,000 years old and therefore could not be the missing link between humans and apes. Not only was the date a problem, but some of the remains were found to come from an orangutan whose teeth had been deliberately filed down to resemble a human's, and had been artificially stained to appear more realistic.
The perpetrator of the hoax was never discovered, but accusations ranged far and wide, and suspects included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle lived near Piltdown and was even a member of the same archaeological group as Charles Dawson. However, with no real evidence to suspect him of carrying out the hoax, the most likely choice remains the original finder, Charles Dawson.
Perhaps better classified as a harmless joke played on gullible people and children than a hoax, treacle mines have nevertheless become a part of British folklore. Treacle (which has a similar consistency to molasses) has been said to be plentiful in underground mines across England and can be extracted just like coal.
It has been suggested that the first instance of this joke was in 1853, when thousands of British Army soldiers were camped out in Surrey, and many of the barrels in their storehouses contained treacle. When the site was dismantled for the soldiers to go to fight in the Crimean War, the story goes that they buried the barrels to avoid having to take them away. The villagers who discovered them were dubbed 'treacle miners', and the term has popped up in many other places ever since.
In Devon, there are still some remains of mines that used to produce micaceous haematite, a substance that appears to glisten with a black residue that looks like treacle. As a result, the term 'treacle mines' caught on there, too, and to this day, children are often fooled into believing that treacle really can be dug out of the ground.
In 1917, cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, aged 16 and 9, were living in Cottingley, near Bradford when they took five photographs on Elsie's father's Midg quarter-plate camera. The images appear to show fairies in a garden. Whilst Elsie's father was skeptical, her mother believed they were genuine and took the images to a meeting of the local Theosophical Society,
Here, they came to the attention of one of the leading members, Edward Gardner, who sent them to photography expert Harold Snelling. Snelling concluded that there was no evidence of fakery whatsoever, and could see no traces of studio work with card or paper models. Even the photographic company Kodak examined the prints and could find no signs that the pictures had been faked.
For many years, the photos were widely believed to be genuine evidence that fairies really exist. Finally, in the 1980s, Elsie and Frances admitted that they had faked the photographs using cardboard cutouts of fairy images they had copied from a book. Even so, both women maintained that they had really seen fairies and that although the first four images were fake, the fifth and final photograph was real.
On June 25, 1899, a fake newspaper story was published by four reporters in Denver, Colorado, claiming that several American businesses had put bids on a contract to knock down the Great Wall of China and build a road in its place. As this was at the time of imperialism during the late 19th century, the tale did not seem beyond the realm of possibility and few people thought to question it; Britain had just extended the Hong Kong colony and had sent a fleet into the Gulf of Chihli, forcing the Chinese to lease Weihaiwei, and Germany and France had also seized or leased ports from China.
The story had been concocted as a bit of fun as there was no other major news that week, but while the Denver papers dropped it after a few days, the idea refused to die. Shortly afterward, another U.S. newspaper picked up the story and included more details that were not even mentioned in the original hoax report, including 'quotes' from a Chinese government official commenting on the upcoming destruction of the wall. The story gradually spread to other newspapers across America and even as far as Europe. It wasn't until 10 years later that one of the hoax reporters confessed the truth.