Show Mobile Navigation
History |

10 Obvious Lies That Changed The World

by Nate Yungman
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It should be no surprise that someone in history has been caught in a lie. Most people lie everyday: “I’ll be there in five.” “I read the terms and conditions.” “You do look good in those jeans.” Any of those sound familiar?

But when you tell a little white lie, you don’t expect it to alter the course of human history. However, that’s exactly what happened in the following ten cases.

10 Magic Tricks Kept Algeria A French Colony

Photo credit: EsoterX

In 1856, Algeria was on the verge of rebellion. The local holy men, referred to as marabouts, had convinced the locals that they had magical powers. Obviously, the Algerian public was willing to hear out anything a sorcerer said. The French were already wary of the influence these men held. When the marabouts announced that Algeria should rebel against its colonizers, France was furious. To quell any talks of armed resurrection, the French had to convince the populace that the marabouts were fraudsters. Napoleon III dispatched France’s greatest magician and the father of modern magic, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, to Algeria to pose as a more powerful sorcerer.

Robert-Houdin’s tricks were very basic, like pulling a cannonball out of a hat, but the Algerians were still amazed. With electromagnets, he turned a light box heavy at the flick of a switch. The marabouts looked like fools when they failed to lift the box. Robert-Houdin turned off the magnet and picked it up no problem. Robert-Houdin also sent small electrical jolts to the handles as he told them that he was sapping their strength from them. When an angry local challenged him to a duel, Robert-Houdin accepted. The next morning, he “caught” the bullet in his teeth. This trick proved he was the best wizard in the country, and the marabouts were discredited.[1] Algeria would not achieve independence for more than a century.

9 An Iconic Rock Band Formed By Posing As Another Band

Photo credit: Craig ONeal

In 1968, the British band the Zombies had a huge top ten hit in the United States with “Time of the Season.” To capitalize on their success, the Zombies toured the US under the guidance of Delta Promotions. The concerts were so lucrative that for a period in 1968, Delta had two bands touring as the Zombies. The problem was that neither of these bands were the real Zombies. The original British Zombies had already broken up and had no idea the song was big in the US. No one told them about Delta or the way they lied.

To get money off a nonexistent band, Delta, led by Bill Kehoe, gave two groups the rights to all of the Zombies’ songs. One of them was stationed in Michigan, and the other was in Texas. The lie was so ridiculous that for the Texas band, the record label only hired four members to masquerade as a rock quintet. To keep the illusion up, Delta told their fans that the organist was in jail. Another reason Bill Kehoe gave for the missing member was that the lead singer Colin Blunstone, who is still alive, was killed. Ultimately, Chris White, afraid that these fake Zombies would ruin the reputation of his real band, brought the band back from the dead to release a few more singles.

The real musical legacy of this scheme is what became of the Texas Zombies.[2] Two of the musicians hired to pretend to be the Zombies were Frank Beard and Dusty Hill. With the skills and friendship they gained as fake Zombies, they formed the other famous band that starts with a “Z”: ZZ Top.

8 A Fraudulent Letter Made Jesus White

Despite being born in the Middle East, almost every painting and general depiction of Jesus looks less like Chaim Topol and more like Ted Neeley. The reason you picture the Lamb of God with a face as a white as snow is one letter written centuries after Jesus had died.

The modern descriptions of Jesus are modeled on a letter allegedly written by Publius Lentulus, the governor of Jerusalem who served before Pontius Pilate. It was printed in “The Introduction to the works of St. Anselm” during the 15th century. The letter describes Jesus as “a man in stature . . . having hair of the hue of unripe hazelnut, almost down to his ears . . . with a face without wrinkle or any blemish, which a moderate color makes beautiful.”[3] This version of Jesus served as the model for Renaissance artists’ paintings, which then became the template for Western depictions.

The letter, however, has so many stupid mistakes that it’s amazing anybody believed it. First, it does not appear in any of St. Anselm’s writings. Second, there is no such position as the governor of Jerusalem. Thirdly, Publius Lentulus did not exist. Fourthly, it uses language not yet invented at the time it was supposedly written. Despite the glaring errors, this portrayal of Jesus has become the standard model we all know.

7 The Exorcist Was Funded By A Television Prank

Photo credit: Flashbak

Even more than four decades after its release, The Exorcist is still the one of the most influential horror movies and books of all time. The movie is so disturbing that it has forever changed the way people look at pea soup. For something so synonymous with fear and dread, the origin of the story is not scary but silly.

In 1961, the novel’s eventual author, William Peter Blatty, was only a toiling writer unsure what he wanted to do it for a living.[4] One assignment he was working on was an article called “I was an Arab Prince.” The premise was this hilarious bit where Blatty would crash Hollywood parties and dress up as a Saudi royal named “Prince Xeer.” Xeer would tell crazy stories about his life in the Middle East. In hindsight, this isn’t that funny, but it killed at the time.

His schtick was so well-received that Groucho Marx invited Blatty to come on his hit show You Bet Your Life dressed as the Saudi prince. Blatty won the show and its $5,000 prize. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he said, “It’s gonna finance me to finish the next book.”

The next day, Blatty quit his job as publicity director at the University of Southern California to become a full-time writer. That career would give us such classics as A Shot in the Dark, Ninth Configuration, and his most prized possession, The Exorcist.

6 A Fake Nazi Scientist Brought Down Juan Peron

In 1949, one of Argentina’s most beloved presidents, Juan Peron, wanted his country to become the next nuclear power. To accomplish this, he hired Dr. Ronald W. Richter. Richter seemed like the best choice. He claimed to have been a high-ranking Nazi scientist and one of the world’s foremost experts in nuclear energy. In reality, he was just an Austrian who had only worked for six months as an explosions technician.

Despite that less-than-impressive resume, Richter kept up the charade for a year. Peron, wondering where his money was going, asked Richter if he had any breakthroughs. Richter boasted that he had not only solved fission, but he had accomplished the impossible: harnessed fusion. Even though this would have been a major scientific breakthrough, Richter asked Peron to keep the details secret. Instead, Peron bragged to the world in March 1951.

The scientific community was more than skeptical. To prove he wasn’t lying, Richter had a display of his fusion explosion. Really, all he did was set off a fake explosion of TNT. This didn’t convince anybody. Actual Nazi scientists, like Werner Heisenberg, then came forward and said they had never heard of Richter, which triggered an investigation. It was revealed that Richter hadn’t achieved anything. All he really did was cost Argentina millions.[5] The military arrested Richter. After Richter blatantly lied to the people and cost the country a lot of money over a fake nuke program, the military ultimately overthrew Peron.

5 Country Music Was Built On An Empire Of Fake Goat Testicle Surgeries

Photo credit: Wikimedia

John Brinkley is probably the most influential doctor in music since Dre. His career started in the 1920s as one of the greatest quacks in medical history. After watching two particularly excitable goats, Brinkley came up with the idea that goat testicles could be grafted into the scrotums of sterile men to improve fertility. From his small practice in Kansas, Brinkley advertised his pseudoscientific treatment on radio station KFKB in 1923.

After that, Brinkley’s surgeries were in high demand. Some of the most prominent Americans of the time, including Woodrow Wilson, Huey Long, and Rudolph Valentino, were said to have gone under Brinkley’s knife. Finding Brinkley’s practice unscientific, the American Medical Association tried to shut him down. The FCC revoked his broadcast license, so he moved his operations to Mexico.

To advertise from Mexico into the United States, Brinkley built the most powerful tower in the world. On the new radio channel, XER, he hawked his surgeries for hours at a time. These speeches are now considered the forerunners of the modern infomercial. In between advertisements for goat implants, he played entertainment. Brinkley was the first person to broadcast country music across the nation.[6] His station has the distinction of being the first one to play soon-to-be country legends the Carter Family.

Brinkley’s station is credited with popularizing the genre outside of its regional limits. Moving country out of Appalachia to Texas created the country western sound that would dominate the genre from there on. When he died decades later, his seat at the radio station was replaced by Wolfman Jack, who spread rock and roll like Brinkley before him.

4 Michelangelo Started Off As An Art Forger

Photo credit: Daniele da Volterra

In 1492, Michelangelo was only a struggling young artist. To make ends meet, he traveled around Italy looking for new patrons. People kept ignoring Michelangelo’s genius to buy old classical statues instead. Michelangelo hatched a plan: If people wanted to buy ancient Roman sculptures, he would just forge ancient Roman sculptures.

One of these forgeries was Sleeping Cupid. To pass it off as a newly discovered antiquity, he sculpted it, buried it in dirt, and roughed it up. Initially, the muddied-up sculpture successfully conned the man who bought it, Cardinal Riario. Michelangelo could have gotten away with it, but he was a better artist than forger. When returning to Cardinal Riario’s house, he accidentally let it slip that he was the sculptor.

Riaro was mad that he had been swindled, but he was more impressed that Michelangelo could successfully replicate the works of the masters. He became Michelangelo’s new patron.[7] With this new finical backing and fresh reputation, he made two of his most famous works, Bacchus and Pieta. From there, his career only blossomed into one of history’s greats.

3 The April Fool’s Prank That Launched Spiritualism

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Spiritualism was one of the most popular belief systems in the late 1800s. Many people still believe in the main ideas, like the ability to communicate with spirits through possessions, mediums, or Ouija boards. Their faith hasn’t wavered, even though the people who got it going admitted to being frauds.

In 1848, Maggie Fox and her little sister Katy wanted to scare their mother. They would tap on the walls and tell her the house was haunted. Keeping their hands above the table, they bunched their toes and knocked on the floor. To convince her there was a ghost walking around the house, the girls tied strings to apples and then dropped them on the stairs.[8]

On March 31, Maggie and Katy upped the ante by telling their mom they were going to talk to the ghost. This was supposed to be their last trick and reveal it was all an April Fools’ prank. The mother was amazed how much the ghost knew about her and her daughters’ lives. It’s much less impressive knowing that it was really the daughters answering the questions about themselves.

The mother ran next door and asked their neighbor to come over to ask the ghost some questions. Afraid they were going to get in trouble if they admitted it was a hoax, the sisters just kept it going. Over the next weeks, more and more neighbors came to the house, each asking similar questions. Within the year, similar supposed mediums were seen across the country.

2 The Romantic Movement Was Launched By A Hoax

Photo credit: George Romney

In the 1800s, Romanticism was the new philosophy of wanting to return to past. One of the founders of the movement, James Macpherson, really looked to the past when he discovered a series of poems by the third-century poet Ossian. The poems tell of the exploits of the legendary Gaelic myth of Fingal.

Due to unusual structure of the verses, the poems became insanely popular, something that doesn’t happen that much anymore. Thomas Jefferson loved the poems so much that he learned Gaelic just to understand the originals. Napoleon found them so inspiring that he brought them along with him into battle. He was so moved by the poems that he commissioned paintings of scenes in them. That was hardly the extent of the epic’s artistic legacy. Writers as varied as Diderot, Klopstock, Goethe, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and Yeats all cite Ossian’s poems as inspiring them to write. Even composers like Felix Mendelssohn, Le Sueur, and Franz Schubert said these poems motivated them.

The poems may have jump-started the modern world, but it was all a hoax.[9] There were suspicions of poems’ origin from the beginning because of anachronisms in the text. Also, Ossian didn’t exist. Macpherson just made up the poems as he went along. If he couldn’t think of anything else, he stole lines from earlier poems. To bury his tracks, he wrote the stories in English, then translated them into Gaelic, and then back into English.

1 Johannes Gutenberg Was A Failed Con Man

Photo credit: Wikimedia

During the Middle Ages, pilgrims would flock to see religious artifacts across Europe. For the most part, the authenticity of these items was already fraudulent. Pilgrims had to travel for hundreds of miles just to see some random body part and return home knowing they would never see it again. If they wanted to preserve these precious moments, the faithful had mirrors on their heads to capture the holiness at their shrines. The image’s reflection would bounce off the mirror and land in a box. The box then contained all of the relic’s divinity.

Whether this really works depends on your faith, but two people who thought this was junk science were Johannes Gutenberg and his partner Andreas Dritzehn. Instead of being moved by the good word, they were more motivated by chance to make a good fortune. They moved to Aachen to set up shop for their get-rich-quick scheme selling mirrors because the city houses a lot of relics.

Unfortunately for Gutenberg and Dritzehn, the pope banned Aachen pilgrimages in 1439. Earlier that year, a strain of the plague broke out, and all travel to the region was prohibited. Thus, none of Gutenberg’s mirrors were sold. With no more money, Gutenberg returned to his home in Mainz.

Gutenberg had convinced his investors that his scheme was guaranteed to turn a quick profit. Now bankrupt, he had to find a way to repay his debts.[10] He went into the wine industry. He would later refashion a wine press to make the first printing press, a very important invention. There is a direct line from that failed con 500 years ago to the article you’re reading right now.

If you thought this list was as much as a crock as the entries, feel free to email any questions or comments to [email protected]. You can also follow him on Twitter @nateyungman. For more fun lists, check out some of the previous articles he has written for Listverse.

fact checked by Jamie Frater