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10 Fantastically Elaborate Hoaxes Perpetrated Just For The Hell Of It

by Ward Hazell
fact checked by Jamie Frater

A hoax is usually defined as a humorous deception. While people may set out to deceive for all sorts of reasons – money, pride, guilt, being just a few, the hoaxer’s motives are purer. They will spend days, sometimes years, perpetuating the hoax for their own private amusement.

Some hoaxers go to enormous trouble, time and money to really sell their hoax to their unsuspecting target. Unfortunately, when, inevitably perhaps, the joke is rumbled, the targets do not always appreciate the amount of effort that was put in.

Here are 10 hoaxes that were perpetrated, just for the fun of it.

See Also: 10 Viral Photos That Were Proven To Be Hoaxes

10 Martin Marty and Franz Bibfeldt

Franz Bibfeldt was, supposedly, a German theologian who had written extensively about the Year Zero, that in-between year when the old BC calendar ended, and the new AD calendar began. Bibfeldt’s 1927 PhD thesis has been cited extensively in a number of academic periodicals.

Which is strange, since he never wrote a PhD thesis.

In fact, Bibfeldt never wrote anything. He began life as a footnote in a college essay. Robert Clausen, with a deadline looming, invented Bibfeldt and quoted him in his essay, relying on the fact that his tutor wouldn’t check. His roommate, Martin Marty, thought the made-up name was funny, and the two began to cite him everywhere. They wrote about him in the college magazine, and placed orders for his books at the university bookshop (the request always came back as out of stock), and made loan requests at the library. (Same).

Since his first appearance, Franz Bibfeldt has been embraced by theologians with a sense of humor all around the world, although most enthusiastically in the Divinity School at The University of Chicago, where, coincidentally, Martin Marty taught for 35 years.

9 The Dreadnought Hoax

Virginia Woolf is not particularly remembered for her practical jokes. However, in 1910, she, along with several literary friends, dressed in exotic clothes, blacked their faces and blagged their way onto a famous British battleship.

The friends, all part of the Bloomsbury group of modernist writers, posed as the Abyssinian royal family, with Woolf’s brother playing the part of the Abyssinian emperor. To get into the role, the friends all learned a little Swahili. Unfortunately, Swahili was not the official, nor the unofficial, language of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia.

But points for trying.

The welcome committee seemed not to notice that these were white people in make-up, and gave the them the VIP tour of the battleship. They also failed to notice that the beard of one of the party wasn’t quite attached to his face, which was lucky. Luckier still, the beard fell off altogether just after they disembarked.
When the story broke, the Royal Navy were embarrassed and threatened to sue. In the end, they decided to let the matter quietly drop. Which was probably wise. After all, the ‘Abyssinian’s’ disguise was rather thin. And, while the group did take the trouble to learn Swahili, no one bothered to check how to spell Abyssinia when they wrote the memo telling the navy they were coming.

That should have tipped them off right there.

8 The Banana Skin Hoax

The 1960s was an era of peace, love and experimentation. In particular, experimentation with drugs. LSD was the drug of the moment, but, despite what legend would have us believe, it was not always readily available. Nor was it cheap.

A rumor began to spread that bananas had the same chemical ingredients as LSD, and so, with the right treatment, could be turned from humble fruit to fabulous hallucinogenic. Strangely, the rumor was given credence by the song Mellow Yellow, by Donovan, which was released at the same time. The lyrics, which Donovan claimed were about a yellow vibrator, accidentally and coincidentally could be interpreted as referring to the special properties of the ‘electrical banana’, which, Donovan said, ‘Is bound to be the very next phase’.

And it was.

While it is true that bananas did contain some of the ingredients of LSD, principally serotonin, the amounts were far to small to produce any effect on the smoker. The origin of the hoax is thought to have been the 1967 issue of a counterculture magazine called Berkeley Barb, where the Recipe of the Week explained how to prepare the banana skins. (Apparently, you only used the white underside of the banana skin, not the whole thing).

Within a few months, the story was accepted as fact, and stories about the properties of bananas were reported in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Another recipe for cooking the drug appeared in The Anarchist Handbook of 1970, showing that, despite the fact that smokers never got high, the rumor just would not quit.

In fact, the story still resurfaces regularly, despite the fact that it has been thoroughly debunked. No one seems to have gained from the hoax, except, perhaps, banana growers.

7 The Maggie Murphy Potato Hoax

Some hoaxes require elaborate planning. Others, not so much. Joseph B Swan preferred to go with the easy option. Swan was a farmer from Colorado, who, apparently, had a taste for practical jokes. And potatoes.

With the aid of the local newspaper, he persuaded the potato growing community that he had managed to grow 26,000 pounds of potatoes in a single year on one acre of land, with his special variety, called the Maggie Murphy.

Which is a lot of spuds.

Not only that, he said, but he managed to grow a giant potato, so large it weighed in at over 86 pounds.

The potato growing community is, it seems, skeptical by nature, and they wanted proof. Swan, and his reporter friend, decided to provide it, and a photograph of swan hefting an enormous potato over his shoulder went the 1895 equivalent of ‘viral’.

The photograph was reproduced all over the country, but some experts soon declared it to be faked. They were right. The ‘potato’ was, in fact, a piece of wood, specially carved for the purpose. This didn’t stop enthusiastic potato growers inundating Swan with letters begging for some of his special potato seed.

In the end, Swan got fed up with the whole joke, and informed the disappointed potato enthusiasts that the magnificent potato had been stolen, and he was going out of the spud business.

6 The Erotic Novel Hoax

There has always been an argument about what is, and what is not, good literature. When a book contains a lot of sex, the lines can be even more blurred
In an experiment to prove that even reputable publishing houses will publish any old rubbish as long as it contains steamy sex scenes, a group of 24 journalists from Newsday, led by columnist Mike McGrady, jointly wrote ‘Naked Came the Stranger’.

They deliberately wrote the novel badly, with wooden characters, rubbish dialogue and a ridiculous plot. But with lots and lots of gratuitous sex.

Not only was the novel picked up by a publisher, it was reviewed in reputable newspapers, including The New York Times, who failed to spot that it was a spoof. The book even became a best seller.

At which point, the purpose of the joke seemed to go awry a little.

McGrady and his colleagues revealed that the book was a hoax, which only further increased sales. The group ‘outed’ themselves on The David Frost’ show, following which the book spent 13 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List.

A film of the same name, which had nothing to do with their book, but which piggy-backed off its notoriety, also followed.

The moral of the story seems to be, perhaps, that trying to define what ‘literature’ is, is an impossible task. Alternatively, it might just mean that people like mucky books.

Who can tell?

5 The Plainfield Teacher’s College Football Team

1941 was a good year for the Plainfield Teacher’s College Football Team.

Morris Newburger and his friends took an interest in college football, and would study the results, which were printed in the back of the New York newspapers.
One day, presumably when he had nothing much to do, Newburger took to wondering how the scores were gathered, and whether some of the more unlikely sounding colleges were actually real.

Which got him wondering further. What if someone sent in an imaginary score? Would the newspaper print it?

There was only one way to find out, so he called all the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and every other New York paper he could think of. And he told them that Plainfield Teachers College had beaten Winona, 27-3.

That Sunday, the result was printed on the back page of the Herald Tribune. And all 11 other New York papers.

He didn’t stop there.

The following week Plainfield Teachers College won again, and Newburger and his friends phoned all the New York papers, and the papers in Philadelphia. Now the college was playing in 2 states.

Interest in the team grew, and Newburger had a phone line installed, especially for the college football team. They began writing press releases, acquired a nickname, and new school colors (mauve and purple. Ouch).

Then they invented their star player, Johnny Chung. Half Hawaiian, half Chinese, Chung was 6 foot 3 and weighed 212 pounds. They even gave details of his half time snack.

And they composed a song, largely ripped off from Cole Porter’s hit ‘You’re The Top’.

The friends hoped that Plainfield would finish the season undefeated, and they may have succeeded, except that Time magazine received a tip off about the hoax, and they published the story of how the newspapers had been duped

Newburger sent out one final press release to the New York and Philadelphia papers, saying ‘Due to flunkings in the midterm examinations, Plainfield Teachers has been forced to call off its last two scheduled games.’

No one printed it

4 The Chess Playing Automaton

The Mechanical Turk was, supposedly, a forerunner of Deep Blue, the chess playing supercomputer. The Turk, however, was built in the 18th Century and, if authentic, it was almost 2 centuries ahead of its time.

Of course, The Mechanical Turk was anything but authentic.

Billed as a machine that could beat the strongest chess player, the Turk was created by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, and was unveiled at the royal court in Vienna in 1770, for the amusement of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. It continued to be exhibited occasionally for almost 100 years before it was destroyed in a fire. Napoleon is said to have played (and lost) against it. Ditto Benjamin Franklin and a Russian Czar.

In fact, the Turk won most of his games. Possibly because the player was put off by the strangeness of their opponent.

In fact, the Mechanical Turk was a complete illusion. A human chess player hid in a specially built space behind the ostentatious machinery. The interior of the machine was constructed to so that the audience believed that they were looking all the way through it, while in fact, the back of the machine had a secret compartment. The long robes of the automaton Turk concealed the door. A master chess player would simply hide inside the machine, and play against their opponent, who was usually so unnerved that he lost quickly.

Which is just as well because the cavity in which the hidden player sat was small and very uncomfortable.

3 The Dictionary Hoax

Lexicographers and logologists are not renowned for their abilities as pranksters. Rupert Hughes was obviously an exception. He compiled the Music-Lovers Encyclopedia, which was published a number of times between 1905 and 1956.

The final entry in the encyclopedia was ZZXJOANW, which, he said, was pronounced ‘Shaw’ and was defined as a Maori word meaning ‘Drum’ or ‘Fife’.

Which was odd.

The entry remained in the encyclopedia for 70 years before anyone realized quite how odd. The Maori language has 14 letters, which does not include either Z or X. Maori words also always end in a vowel.

Whatever ever else the word might mean, it was extremely unlikely that it was a Maori word meaning drum.

The compiler of a musical encyclopedia would probably also have been aware that Maoris do not use drums in their traditional music.

There have been lots of theories about the entry (the discovery of which came too late for anyone to question the author), but it is entirely possible that they merely wanted to send kisses to someone named Joan Shaw.

Which, if true, is kind of nice.

2 The Science Fair Hoax

Most Science Fair projects are a bit boring. A baking soda volcano, or invisible ink, powering your alarm clock with a potato (great excuse for being late for class), or growing crystals are the usual sorts of things you will find in a school science fair.

In 1997, however, Nathan Zohner decided to think bigger. His Science Fair Project was, he said, an investigation into that dangerous chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide, or DHMO.

He gave 50 of his fellow students a copy of a report entitled “Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer”, in which he accurately listed the dangers of DHMO. If ingested it could cause excessive urination, bloating, sweating or even death. It is also known to be a major component of Acid Rain, and was so strong it could even cause metal corrosion.

Based on this information, Zohner’s classmates voted to ban DHMO.

Or water, as it is also called.

It turned out, Nathan Zohner’s Science Fair Project was not called “Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer”, it was called, “How Gullible Are We?”, and was an investigation into the lack of critical thinking in our responses to what we perceive to be scientific fact.

He took first prize.

1 Johann Beringer’s Lying Stones

Dr Johann Berringer was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Würzburg in Germany in 1725, and was known to be just a little bit pompous. Which is perhaps why his colleagues decided to prank him.

Berringer had a particular interest in ‘lapides figurati’, stones which had formed naturally into recognizable images. His colleagues ‘planted’ a large number of stones. A very large number. In all, over 2000 stones were ‘discovered’ in 6 months, to Berringer’s great delight, and to the particular amusement of 2 of his colleagues

The joke soured, somewhat, when Berringer decided to write a book about his finds. His collection included stones in the shape of insects, small animals, astronomical features, and even a Hebrew text which spelled out the name ‘Jehovah’, which you might think would have tipped him off.

It didn’t.

He published Lithographiae Wirceburgensis in 1726, in which he wrote “The figures expressed on these stones, especially those of insects, are so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor. For there is scarcely one in which the dimensions of the figure are not commonly commensurate to the length and breadth of the tablet.”

Still didn’t twig.

In short, Johann Berringer was well and truly had. His colleagues, realizing that the joke had gone too far, tried to dissuade him from publishing, without acknowledging what they had done. They pointed out that some of the stones bore what looked uncannily like chisel-marks, but Berringer asserted that any chisel must have been wielded by God himself.

His colleague’s apparent skepticism, mixed with Berringer’s own pomposity, was a fatal combination and he published, only to become a laughing stock.

When he finally realized what had happened, Berringer sued his 2 colleagues, and the resulting scandal ruined the careers of all 3 of them

About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer and travel writer, currently also studying for a PhD in English Literature

fact checked by Jamie Frater