Historical Hoaxes

April Fool's Day: Hoaxes from throughout history you won't believe people fell for

There’s nothing quite like a good hoax. First there’s the intrigue that comes with the original story, then the twist when all misdirection is revealed, followed by the task of figuring out just how these tricksters even got away with it in the first place.

Hoaxes can be used for good, for ill, or to great effect as elaborate pranks. We’ve got examples of all of these in our picks of hoaxes from throughout history that people actually fell for.

1) The WWII “Ghost Army” made up of inflatable tanks

When you need a squad of the best soldiers, you might think of scouring the land for the toughest of the tough. Big guys with square jaws and rocket launchers. Guys who look like Rambo.

However, between 1944 and 1945 The United States Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops ran over twenty successful missions. This unit was dubbed the “Ghost Army,” and was made up of at least 1,100 men, recruited from arts schools, ad agencies, or anywhere else that creative thinkers could be found plying their trade.

Ghost Army Insignia
The Ghost Army Insignia (1944). Image source: Wikimedia

Now we’re not saying that these weren’t capable guys, but it’s not the usual fare that comes to mind when you think “elite unit.” Of course, that didn’t stop The 23rd from being an effective tool. Using inflatable tanks, rubber aeroplanes and elaborate costumes, The 23rd’s job was to confuse and misdirect the enemy - make them think that the Allies numbers were greater than they actually were, or set up faux units full of the aforementioned fake vehicles to send enemy resources off on a wild goose chase.

tank wwii GIF
Image source: Giphy

Other tricks included using speakers to pipe out pre-recorded audio of troops and vehicles moving around, having actors dressed as Generals discussing fake plans just a little too loudly in areas with known German spies, or (our personal favourite) dispatch a few canvas-covered trucks - sometimes as few as two - to drive in looping convoys to make it seem like entire infantry units were being transported.

Shockingly, this was all only recently declassified in 1996! All in all, it’s estimated The 23rd’s efforts helped to save tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives.  Tell that to the naysayers next time they question your Art Degree.

2) The chess playing robot that defeated Napoleon

Back in the 18th century, you might have had the chance to play chess against “The Turk,” a robot that boasted Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great and Napoleon amongst its defeated opponents.

A 1980s Turk reconstruction
A 1980s Turk reconstruction. Image source: Wikimedia

The Turk was first unveiled to the world in 1770 by Hungarian engineer and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, and by 1783 it was touring Europe, all while racking up quite the winning streak. Before a match, von Kempelen would open the machine’s cabinet to expose the inner workings and show that there was no person hiding inside. During a match, the automaton would even move its eyes and tap it’s hand on the table if an opponent took too long to make a move. It’s even purported that when Napoleon faced The Turk, the Emperor of the France attempted several illegal moves to trick the machine, and after the third illegal move The Turk knocked all the pieces off the board in frustration.

A copper engraving of the Turk
A copper engraving of the Turk. Image source: Wikimedia

Of course, this collection of cogs wasn’t actually the world’s greatest chess player. There was 100% an expert chess player hiding inside, who simply moved so they were obstructed from view once the cabinet was opened. Using magnets and leavers from inside the machine, the hidden chess player was easily able to move their pieces around the board.

3) Selling government bonds and land for a country that doesn’t exist

Come to beautiful Poyais! With its burgeoning business district, fertile land and rivers of gold, who could resist this Central American utopia?! If it seems too good to be true...well, you know the rest. In fact, Poyais wasn’t just missing the delightful features mentioned above: Poyais didn’t exist. At all.

The "port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais"
Supposedly the "port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais". Image source: Wikimedia

Gregor MacGregor (not a made-up name) was the man behind Poyais, and in the early 1820s he could be found giving newspaper interviews on Poyais, publishing leaflets on the country and arranging for Poyais-centric ballads to be sung in the streets of London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. He even made military uniforms, money and a flag

This was all a means to an end. MacGregor sold land and traded in “Poyaian” bonds worth billions in today’s money. Seven ships worth of settlers even made their way to this new promised land.

Poyaian Banknote
A fake "Poyaian" banknote. Image source: Wikimedia

Now MacGregor had been granted 8,000,000 acres of land in what would become the present-day eastern coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, but it wasn’t a country (it was part of the historical Mosquito Coast) and certainly wasn’t fit for settling. This was dense, uninhabitable jungle. So, as you might have guessed, not everyone from those seven ships made it back - and when the survivors did get back to society, MacGregor got off scot-free. The would-be settlers blamed the exhibition leaders for their experience and MacGregor was acquitted of any wrongdoing. So the lesson here appears to be that if you’re going to lie, lie big...like, a country bigger than Wales big.

4) French painter Pierre Brassau isn’t a real artist, or even human

An unknown French artist, Pierre Brassau, burst onto the scene in 1964 with four paintings. These works of art were exhibited in Sweden, and nearly everyone agreed that Brassau had the stuff. Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper even went as far as to write that “Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

Only one critic was, well, critical of Brassau’s work and now famously said “only an ape could have done this.” Well as it turns out, our unknown party-popper was in fact right on the money. Pierre Brassau was actually just “Peter,” a four-year-old West African chimpanzee from a Swedish zoo. The whole thing has been set up by journalist Ake Axelsson, who was fed up of seeing critics fawn over certain pieces of art. So he had arranged for Peter to be furnished with some painting supplies, a fancy new name, and the opportunity to have his art displayed.

Pierre Brassau
Pictured: Artist Pierre Brassau. Image source: Wikimedia

We’re not sure if Axelsson felt he proved his point or not, because a private collector did purchase one of Peter the chimpanzee’s paintings for $90 (that’s $742 approx. in today’s money).

5) A water powered generator that only the inventor understood 

A generator that runs on water? And we’re not talking about a dam or tidal power or anything like that? An actual engine-like device that just uses water?

Well, as none of us are filling up our cars from the garden hose, you know this never came to pass. Many thought it would though, thanks to inventor John Keeley and the amazing machine he built in Philadelphia, in 1872. Why with just a gallon of water, Keely claimed his machine could get a steamship from New York to Liverpool.

Keely and his machine
Keely and his machine. Image source: Wikimedia

Buy throwing about terms, such as "vaporic" or "etheric" force, and "vibratory sympathy," Keely managed to do just enough to get funding for his machine. He’d even pour water into it and show it bending metal bars as proof of its power. Unfortunately for Keely’s investors, it turns out that this groundbreaking device was actually powered by a regular generator, which lived in Keely’s basement and was attached to his device with belts and pulleys that were hidden behind a false wall. Fake it till you make it we guess.

6) Harvest pasta from Swiss Spaghetti Trees

BBC’s Panorama, a British institution and a bastion of journalistic integrity, featured a very special segment on April 1st 1957. Viewers were treated to footage of a particularly bountiful spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. Strands of wild spaghetti can be seen hanging from trees, while the freshly picked crop is carefully placed into baskets before being laid out to dry in the warm, alpine sun. All the while, a voiceover helpfully explains the scene:

Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you I’m sure will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley

There’s not much more we can say about this honestly, not when Panorama Editor Michael Peacock can gleefully describe it himself firsthand in the video below.


Of course, there was some confusion amongst viewers. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC, enquiring as to how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query the BBC is said to have helpfully replied "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

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There were so many stories like this to choose from, which goes to show that history was just full of people constantly making stuff up or bluffing their way through life. It’s a wonder anything ever actually got done.

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