Chapter 17. Hoaxes

1725: Lying Stones

Professor Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine University of Würzburg, etcetera etcetera discovered over two thousand rare fossils carved in limestone and supposedly buried on Mount Eibelstadt for Beringer to find by his colleagues J. Ignatz Roderick, Professor of Geography and Mathematics, and Johann Georg von Eckhart, privy counselor and university librarian. Notably, these fake fossils included spiders sitting on their webs, a medium sized pea pod, night crawlers, frogs, birds with beak, eyes, and feathers, snails coming out of their shells, slugs, salamanders with external lungs, mating insects with finely detailed legs, wings, and antennae, a bee pollinating a flower, moon and stars, a sun with a smiling face, star-shaped comets with tails, and inscriptions of the name of God in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. Roderick and Eckhart simply paid the minions whom Beringer hired to do his digging to produce these specimens. Beringer took it all in as the marvelous work of God and published a treatise in Latin about them.

1796: Metallic tractors (Placebo effect)

Elisha Perkins patented his metallic “tractors” for the extraction of “the noxious electrical fluid” that, he said, “lay at the root of suffering.” Perkins passed the points of three-inch tapered metallic rods over the part of the body in pain for about twenty minutes and claimed a great many cures— inflammation, rheumatism, and pain in the head. Could it have been his rods were made of an exotic magical metal alloy? Perkins didn’t admit it, but they were made of steel and brass. John Haygarth compared the efficacy of Perkins tractors with similar wooden rods and found the wooden rods worked just as well, showing “what powerful influence upon diseases is produced by mere imagination.”

1822: Fiji mermaid

P.T. Barnum presented the mummified torso of a juvenile monkey sewn onto the body of a fish calling it a Fiji mermaid. Barnum provided a false story about how the animal had been caught in South America, but actually a certain Captain Edes had bought it from Japanese sailors twenty years before. Barnum leased the mermaid from the Captain’s son for $12.50 per week.

1874: Etheric generator

John Ernst Worrell Keely claimed he could initiate vibrations with his will power, and later, with a violin and tuning forks, to extract boundless “interatomic ether” from water and air. Vibrations freed an unknown force to disintegrate water producing a vapor “more powerful than steam” but substantially more economical, and powering Keely’s etheric generator. He raised millions of dollars ostensibly to patent and manufacture his “hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine” while keeping its means of operation entirely secret. Keely demonstrated a “vaporic gun” powered by a cartridge of “vaporic force.” Lieutenant Zalinksi and others observed one could produce even stronger forces with compressed air. Keely managed to postpone revealing his secrets and reconciling with investors and legal plaintiffs until he died, after which all his demonstrations were shown to have been powered by compressed air.

1903: The Protocols

The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion were purported to be protocols of learned elders of Zion; however, it was a paranoid, racist, and antisemitic deception presented as proof that Jews were conspiring to control the world’s economies, destroy civilization, and enslave Gentiles. A certain Serge Nilus plagiarized the text from several sources, including a chapter from a novel by Hermann Goedsche, Biarritz, and a political satire by Maurice Joly, “Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu,” which was itself plagiarized, in part, from a novel by Eugène Sue, Les Mystères du Peuple. The Protocols were translated, published internationally, and presented as genuine by antisemites including Nazis, even after they were exposed as fraudulent.

1912: Piltdown Man

Charles Dawson gave palaeontologists in Britain what they wanted. They theorized that humans evolved brains before they walked upright— that big brains drove the need to free our hands for making tools. French and German palaeontologists, however, continued to find bones of early hominids with modern jaws and primitive braincases, gradually debunking the British theory until no one else could take the British seriously. Today Charles Dawson is known to have been a serial hoaxer and many who supported his finds are candidate collaborators, including Arthur Conan Doyle whose spiritual beliefs might have led him to humiliate palaeontologists.

1995: Alien autopsy

Ray Santilli admitted that the body they dissected was not an alien from Roswell but sculpted by John Humphreys using a cast for the head containing sheep brains in raspberry jam and other parts fabricated with chicken entrails and knuckle joints from a local butcher, and he admitted that he hired a homeless man to play the part of the original cameraman, but he insisted his film was a “restoration” of film that he had seen in 1992 and not a hoax. Fox television, however, without revealing it was a hoax, made a killing out of it.