Explore 6 of history’s most infamous scams and hoaxes

Long before April 1 became a day of harmless pranks, these frauds famously rocked economies, prompted mass panic, and fooled millions.

By Ronan O’Connell
Published 31 Mar 2023, 14:33 BST
Tourists take photos of the statue of “Laocoön and His Sons” in Vatican City, Italy. Some believe the Renaissance-era sculpture is a fake carved by Michelangelo—one example of many historical hoaxes.
Photograph by Agencja Fotograficzna Caro, Alamy Stock Photo

While April 1 is now associated with harmless pranks, major hoaxes linked to ghosts, emperors, catastrophes, and holy private parts have jolted the world in centuries past. Dating back some 800 years, these frauds were so convincing they altered economies, bolstered religious faith, or prompted mass panic. Not surprisingly, most were aimed at financial gain.

Keen-eyed tourists can trace the stories of some of these giant swindles through Asia, Europe, and the United States. If you know where to look, you’ll find them carved in marble, captured on film, embedded in cityscapes, and preserved in museums.

The letter of doom

Tourists tread streets once associated with doom in Spain’s UNESCO-listed historic city of Toledo. In 1184, a letter that foretold the apocalypse traversed Europe. Supposedly written by astrologers from Toledo, it warned that 1186 would see the world end in a maelstrom of earthquakes, storms, and pestilence.

Panic ensued. “People in many regions of the then known world [began] fasting, praying, and undertaking religious processions in order to avert disaster,” says Jonathan Green, author of Printing and Prophecy.

Over the following centuries, adaptations of the Toledo letter circulated widely, creating fresh alarm. To delve into this tale of Armageddon, tourists can scale Egypt’s spectacular Mount Sinai, where a hermit supposedly penned one of these updated versions.

Snapshots of the afterlife 

A bearded man stares at the camera as a ghostly, veiled lady looms over his shoulder. This is one of the dozens of eerie images by American photographer William H. Mumler collected by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.

This albumen silver print, circa 1862-1875, by William H. Mumler, shows a seated Mrs. Conant, with a ghostly figure of a man behind her. Mumler manipulated images like these to fool people into believing he could capture the spirits of departed loved ones.
Photograph by William Mumler, Sepia Times, Universal Images Group, Getty Images
In this albumen silver print, also circa 1862-1875, Mumler photographed a bearded man with a female “spirit” in the background.
Photograph by William Mumler, Sepia Times, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, Mumler became renowned on America’s East Coast for his apparent ability to capture spirits lurking alongside humans in images. Clients paid handsomely for these photos, believing they depicted late loved ones. To fool them, Mumler used stock photos that resembled their deceased relatives, says Louis Kaplan, professor of photography history at the University of Toronto.

“Mumler practiced his double-dealing craft in the 1860s, during the heyday of spiritualism, which held that communication with the dead was possible,” Kaplan says. “Those [clients] in mourning and grieving the losses of loved ones engaged in a type of wishful thinking when they encountered Mumler’s photographs, which offered them solace and a way to reconnect with their dearly departed.”

Inside the Vatican’s Pio Clementino Museum, visitors can see sea snakes attack a petrified priest and two boys. This horrifying artwork, named “Laocoön and His Sons,” was sculpted in marble. By whom, exactly, isn’t clear. The museum’s website states it was found in Rome in 1506 and identified as the Laocoön statue described by first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder as a “masterpiece of the sculptors of Rhodes.”

But it may not be a 2,000-year-old Greek masterpiece. Rather, it could be a Renaissance forgery by revered Italian artist Michelangelo, says Lynn Catterson, art history lecturer at Columbia University. Since she first made this assertion in 2004, several art scholars have questioned her theory, but none have disproven it, Catterson says.

She points to strong similarities between Laocoön and a sketch by Michelangelo made five years before the sculpture was unearthed. Catterson believes he may have secretly sculpted this piece and intended for it to be discovered.

“Antiquities were in demand, commanding very high prices because they were, at the time, scarce,” she says. “The Renaissance genius sculptors such as Michelangelo, and before him, Donatello, were not stupid, and so supply met demand. Brilliant, convincing fakes require brilliant sculptors.”

Sacred foreskins

The small French city of Chartres lures tourists with its commanding, 12th-century Gothic cathedral. Yet for many years, visitors flocked not to admire its intricate stonework and stained-glass windows, but to see Jesus’ foreskin.

It was one of more than 20 churches in medieval Europe that claimed to possess a sliver from Jesus’ circumcision, says James White, assistant lecturer in history at the University of Alberta. These relics “couldn’t all have possibly been real, regardless of one’s faith,” White says. “However, after the relic had been acquired by a particular church, subsequent generations of bishops, nuns, monks, and believers thought that it possessed power. Churches and the towns they were in could also get wealthy based on their relics. They were sort of the tourist stops of their day.”

Now, no version of the holy foreskin exists, White says. Many were destroyed during the French Revolution. The final relic disappeared in 1983 from Calcata, near Rome, where it had been exhibited during the Feast of the Circumcision, held every January 1.

Bartholomew Lane, in London’s financial district, is where travellers can visit the Bank of England Museum. But the short thoroughfare was once home to the London Stock Exchange—the scene of an 1814 hoax as audacious as it was profitable. In February of that year, British Lord Thomas Cochrane and accomplice Captain de Berenger sparked bedlam on England’s financial markets.

Their scam began when de Berenger donned a military costume and told people in Dover, England, he’d arrived from Paris. He said Emperor Napoleon had just been killed, and France was about to be defeated by the Allies, a group of European nations including Great Britain.

The good news spread swiftly. When London’s stock exchange opened the next day, trading boomed. In anticipation of this, Cochrane had stockpiled government bonds, which he immediately sold at a great margin.

Soon, however, Napoleon was proven to be alive, and the financial fraud was exposed. Cochrane was tried, and he attempted, unsuccessfully, to shift blame to de Berenger. He was found guilty and then fled England, leaving a brazen stain on Bartholomew Lane.

(This remote island is where Napolean died.)

Real artefacts, fake finds

Many travellers who enjoy the verdant forests, dramatic waterfalls, and serene Shinto shrines of Japan’s Miyagi prefecture may not know it was the epicentre of a recent, bold scientific hoax. Beginning in the 1970s, amateur archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura planted genuine ancient artefacts across Miyagi at what he claimed were almost 200 Paleolithic sites up to 500,000 years old.

This rewrote the history of Japan, which until then was believed to be inhabited for only 30,000 years. In fact, many of the artefacts were actually from Japan’s Jomon era (13,000-300 B.C).

Shinichi’s amazing “finds” were widely celebrated. They even earned him the nickname “God’s hands.” But this faux deity crashed to earth in 2000 when Japanese media caught him burying stoneware, collected from a different location, at a Miyagi excavation site.

Shinichi’s scam went undetected for so long because having sites in Japan this ancient was plausible, says archaeologist Mark Hudson of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology.

“[There was a] lack of a specific archaeological reason why such finds were improbable,” says Hudson, who authored a study on this fraud. “Perhaps the best hoaxes are like that? If it's something too unusual, then people are suspicious. If they start with the premise that, ‘Well, this might be true,’ then acceptance is easier.”

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.


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