When a London tabloid recently admitted it was duped into publishing bogus pictures of Princess Di supposedly cavorting in her undies with a paramour, the humiliated editors called it one of the greatest deceptions of our time.
It was barely a hiccup in the hurricane of hoaxes that have blown across human history. For centuries the Vatican laid claim to much of Europe because of a preposterously forged papal document known as the Donation of Constantine.
In 1915 renowned scientists declared the so-called Piltdown Man irrefutable evidence of the missing link between man and ape, even though it turned out to be a clumsy concoction made from the skull of an Australian aborigine and the jawbone of an orangutan.
Hitler never wrote his diaries.
Howard Hughes never wrote his autobiography.
Half the Dali prints on Earth simply . . . aren’t.
Today, we provide a sampling of some of history’s terrific tricks. Or you can call them hoaxes.
Kadafi, Dead to Rights
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once cooked a terrorist’s goose, with a little bit of catsup.
In 1984, Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi wanted to assassinate his exiled enemy, former Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Bakkush. Bakkush was living in Egypt. So Kadafi ordered his ambassador to Malta to hire four intermediaries, who would then find four killers, who in turn would travel to Egypt and whack Bakkush.
Mubarak, however, got word of the plot and immediately set out to foil it. He got Egyptian undercover police to pose as assassins for hire, and when the offer was made, the four intermediaries were sent to prison. Bakkush was whisked away to a secret location, where an elaborate death scene was staged. Bakkush lay on the floor, his mouth agape like a flounder, catsup oozing from ersatz bullet holes. Photos of the deceased prime minister were then sent to the Libyan ambassador, as requested, along with a letter requesting payment.
Within days, Libya’s official radio was crowing triumphantly that the “stray dog” Bakkush had been executed by a death squad devoted to obliterating enemies of Kadafi’s revolution.
Celebration, though, soon turned to humiliation when Mubarak announced that Bakkush was alive and well. He proved it several hours later at a news conference. A grinning Bakkush was flanked by two Egyptian officials holding up the staged photos.
No Shot, Sherlock
If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been half as rational as his fictitious detective, Sherlock Holmes, he might not have fallen for the clever deception perpetrated by two little girls. Instead, Doyle--an ardent believer in the occult, particularly in his declining years--wrote several breathless magazine articles gushing over the discovery that real “faeries” had been photographed in an English village called Cottingley Glen. The series of pictures, taken in 1917 by 15-year-old Elsie Wright and her 9-year-old cousin Frances Wright, showed the girls posing with an assortment of winged sprites and gnomes who danced and pranced and tootled on flutes and such.
Doyle, who made enduring celebrities of the young ladies, was enthralled by the pixie shots and speculated at length on how certain people could tune in to “a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations.”
The “faeries” became a national fascination, especially after several photography experts, including ones from the Kodak company, carefully examined the pictures and declared them free of superimposition, retouching or other photographic tricks. It was all so much simpler than that. After denying their ruse for decades, the girls, by then old women, finally admitted in 1982 that they had simply posed with paper cutouts suspended by hatpins.
A Naked Lie
It started as an anthropologist’s dream. The Philippine minister of culture, Manuel Elizalde Jr., announced to the world in 1972 that a tribe of Stone Age people had been discovered in the jungle, never exposed to civilization.
The Tasaday, as they were called, did not hunt or farm. They had no method for keeping time, no woven cloth, no metal, no art and no domesticated animals or weapons. Indeed, their language did not even have a word for war. Wearing only loincloths made of orchid leaves, the Tasaday were said to live in caves, subsisting only on grubs, small animals and berries.
Elizalde’s news excited scientists and journalists alike, and a special helipad was built in the rain forest to ferry them in and out. The cavemen performed beautifully, grunting in their primitive language and becoming in the process nearly naked media darlings.
National Geographic devoted a cover story to the Tasaday, and NBC television offered Elizalde $50,000 to produce a documentary on them. Then, almost as suddenly as they appeared to the outside world, the ancient people were gone. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1974 and made the Tasaday’s region a government preserve.
It was not until 1986, when the Marcos regime was ousted, that a Swiss journalist traveled to the Philippines to revisit the mysterious people. He was stunned to find the erstwhile cave dwellers living in villages, dressed in colored T-shirts and shorts and sleeping on beds.
They told him that they had been instructed by Elizalde to pretend to be savages, with an invented language and lifestyle. When people were coming to visit, members of the group were warned in advance to assume their primitive identities.
To this day some scientists can’t believe it was a hoax. It was. It was all a ploy to allow Marcos to declare the Tasaday region a government preserve, seize its natural resources and exploit them. He did.
Some hoaxes are so successful they become enduring popular misconceptions. One of the more persistent misconceptions resulting from a hoax is the entire notion of subliminal advertising.
In the 1950s an amateur New York psychologist named James Vicary (rhymes with trickery) claimed to have conducted experiments with theatergoers proving that if you flashed a one-frame message such as “eat popcorn” every few minutes during the showing of a movie, popcorn sales would skyrocket. The message could not be read, he said, but it would subliminally imprint itself on the viewer’s brain.
This bothered people. It seemed a little unnervingly Big Brotherish, that people’s behavior could be secretly conditioned and manipulated. And so the FCC investigated, but could not duplicate the results. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. tried a similar experiment, subliminally urging people to phone the station; not one person phoned.
It turns out Vicary never published his findings in any scholarly journal and when asked to repeat his experiment in a theater setting, his equipment repeatedly malfunctioned, or the results came out negative.
That is because they were bogus. In 1962, Vicary finally admitted he had not done the research at all.
The fact is, subliminal advertising does not work, though unscrupulous merchants continue to try it from time to time.
The Weirdest Thing You Ever Sawed
A retired carpenter known only as Lozier proved with a monumental hoax in 1824 that people can be almost unfathomably gullible. Lozier convinced folks in Manhattan that the island was in danger of snapping in half like a bread stick and sinking because of overbuilding on the lower end. If the situation were left unremedied, he warned, the results would be catastrophic.
Incredibly, Lozier convinced the city’s honchos that the island had to be sawed in half and the lower end, known as the Battery, dragged out past Ellis Island, turned around and reattached at the heavy end.
In a time of amazing industrial and scientific advances, few apparently doubted the feasibility of such an audacious undertaking. Hundreds of laborers were commissioned, some taking underwater breathing tests in preparation for steering the detached portion of Manhattan. Carpenters and blacksmiths adjourned to their shops to create the necessary tools, which included 100-foot saws and gigantic anchors to prevent the separated island from slipping out to sea.
To feed the workers, Lozier ordered 500 cattle, 500 hogs and 3,000 chickens assembled at the construction site, while barracks were hastily built to house the laborers. It was reportedly a scene of bedlam, with hundreds of animals clucking and rooting over the din of construction.
After several weeks of preparation, the big day arrived when Manhattan would be dismembered and reattached. Hundreds came out to watch the spectacle, with musicians and a parade.
Several hours passed, however, with no sign of Lozier. A note from him was found, explaining that a sudden illness had forced him to leave town. Left to ponder their foolishness, the crowd turned irate and formed a posse to hunt down the deceptive carpenter. Lozier, though, was long gone. He apparently gained nothing from the venture, except a marvelous sense of accomplishment.