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BIG LIST: World's greatest hoaxes

Friday 3 June 2011, 05:39AM


Surgical precision: In 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, said he noticed something moving in the waters of Lock Ness and took a picture of it. The resulting image showed the slender neck of a serpent rising out of the Loch. The photo came to be known simply as “The Surgeon’s photo”, and for decades it was considered to be the best evidence of the monster.

It wasn’t until 1994, when Christian Spurling, before his death at the age of 90, confessed his involvement in a plot, which included Colonel Wilson and big game hunter “Duke” Wetherell, to create the famous photo.

Apparently Wetherell’s motive was revenge. He had been humiliated years earlier when the supposed monster’s footprints he found turned out to be nothing but dried hippo footprints.

It’s in the name: Idaho – it’s perhaps the only state to be named as the result of a hoax. When a name was being selected for new territory, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested “Idaho”, which he claimed was a Native American term meaning “gem of the mountains”.

It was later revealed that Willing had made up the name himself, and the original Idaho territory was re-named Colorado because of it. Eventually the controversy was forgotten, and modern-day Idaho was given the made-up name when Idaho Territory was formally created in 1863.

We are not alone: On May 5 1995, Ray Santilli, a London-based film producer, presented for the first time his alleged “alien autopsy” footage to media representatives and UFO researchers. The body, it was suggested, was that of an alien taken from the supposed Roswell UFO crash site in 1947.

The debate on whether the autopsied body is a very realistic mannequin, a girl with a genetic disorder, or a real alien is still going on. Pathologists have also questioned the techniques used in the supposed autopsy.

The best evidence against the film comes from one of the background details. On one wall of the autopsy room, there is a type of warning sign that was not produced until 1967, two decades after the supposed autopsy.

The missing link: The so-called Piltdown Man was hypothesised from parts of a skull and jaw bone found in 1912 in a gravel pit at Piltdown in the English county of Sussex.

Experts of the day claimed the fragments were the fossilised remains of a hitherto unknown form of early man, touted as an evolutionary missing link between ape and man.

In 1953, 41 years later, the Piltdown Man was finally exposed as a composite forgery: it consisted of bits of a human skull of medieval age, the 500-year-old lower jaw of a Sarawak orangutan and fossilised chimpanzee teeth. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown.

A holy legend: Legend has it that John Anglicus, a ninth century Englishman, travelled to Rome, became a Cardinal, and when Pope Leo IV died in 853 AD, was unanimously elected pope. As Pope John VIII, he ruled for two years, until 855 AD.

However, while riding one day from St Peter’s to the Lateran, he had to stop by the side of the road and, to the astonishment of everyone, gave birth to a child. It turned out that Pope John VIII was really a woman. In other words, Pope John was really Pope Joan.

According to legend, upon discovering the Pope’s true gender, the people of Rome tied her feet together and dragged her behind a horse while stoning her, until she died. Another legend has it that she was sent to a faraway convent to repent her sins and that the child she bore grew up to become the Bishop of Ostia.

It is still not known whether the story of Pope Joan is true.

Checkmate: The “Turk” purported to be a chess-playing automaton constructed and unveiled in 1769 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. He first exhibited the “Turk” at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1770, and later took it on a tour of Europe for several years during the 1780s. The Turk defeated prominent world-figures, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The cabinet behind which the Turk “sat” had doors that opened to reveal internal clockwork mechanisms, and when activated the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent.

However, some 50 years later it was revealed that the cabinet was a cleverly constructed illusion that allowed a chess master to hide inside and operate the mannequin. Consequently, it won most games. The Turk was destroyed by fire in 1854.

Righteous acquisition: In 1994 a press release began circulating around the Internet claiming that Microsoft had bought the Catholic Church.

The release quoted Bill Gates saying that he considered religion to be a growth market and that, “The combined resources of Microsoft and the Catholic Church will allow us to make religion easier and more fun for a broader range of people.”

Under the terms of the deal, Microsoft would acquire exclusive electronic rights to the Bible and would make the sacraments available online. Microsoft had to issue a formal denial of the release on December 16, 1994.

This was the first hoax to reach a mass audience using the Internet. Its authors remain unknown.

Alien invasion: The War of the Worlds, a radio adaptation by Orson Welles of HG Wells’ classic novel, was performed by Mercury Theatre on the Air as a Halloween special on October 30, 1938.

The live broadcast was so realistic that it frightened many listeners into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.

It has been called the “single greatest media hoax of all time”, even though it was not intended to be one.



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