3 Historical Hoaxes That Fooled the Masses, Scientists, or the Media


Scam artists have long tricked people into scams that are too good to be true. And it’s not just fallen princes sending emails to help them recover their lost fortune with a short-term loan. The scientific and academic world has also seen scammers.

In medicine, false remedies promised to end suffering and restore a person to good health. In archaeology, planted relics have misled the public about ancient life on Earth. And in aviation, long and impressive flights were completely made. Below are three scientific hoaxes from history that have scammed people with big money.

1. The Cardiff Giant

Year: 1869
Location: Cardiff, NY
Pranksters: George Hull (mastermind) and Stub Newell (accomplice)
Money won: Over $56,000 (about $1.17 million in today’s money)

In the fall of 1869, two farmers were helping when they agreed to dig a well on a neighbor’s property in downtown New York. Several feet below, their shovels hit something hard. With careful movements, they began to dig up a skeleton that spanned 10 feet in length. It appeared to be the remains of a petrified giant.

News from the giant broadcast. Scientists and thrill seekers flocked to Cardiff to see for themselves. When they arrived, nearby resident George Hull charged a viewing fee of 50 cents. But there was much more hidden behind the scenes of this show.

Hull came up with the idea a year earlier during a trip to Iowa, where he hotly debated a Methodist revivalist who claimed the Bible was written literally, including the mention in Genesis (6:4 ) giants that once roamed the planet. In response, Hull purchased a block of gypsum and shipped the stone to Chicago where he commissioned two sculptors to create a realistic 10-foot giant. He then conspired with his cousin, Stub Newell, to bury the statue on his property.

Many people who saw the statue believed it was indeed a petrified giant. Some skeptics argued that the giant was just a stone. Others thought it was a statue, but a true ancient relic. Regardless of their point of view, they all paid money to see it.

Hull spent around $3,000 to produce, transport and bury the giant. He won over $20,000 in admission fees (including 25% to Newell for his troubles). And then he sold the giant to investors for around $36,000. Investors put the statue on display in Syracuse, where a paleontologist helped put an end to the hoax by pointing out the chisel marks. Sculptors soon admitted into the Chicago Daily Tribune they had been hired by Hull.

Hull became known as a hoax and his reputation preceded him when he attempted to plant another giant a few years later in Colorado. The Cardiff Giant, however, remains legendary. It has been exhibited since the 1940s at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. And people still pay to see it.

2. The energizer

Years: 1917–1924
Location: United States
Prankster: Albert Abrams
Money earned: When he died in 1924, Abrams’ estate was worth more than $2 million (about $34 million today)

Although it sounded too good to be true, it took years for people to become suspicious of Albert Abrams’ invention. During the World War One, Abrams came with the Dynomizer, a machine he claimed could diagnose any disease using just a few drops of a person’s blood. (Today you might call it a predecessor of Elizabeth Holmes’ technology company Theranos.) Cancer, syphilis or diabetes — the Dynomizer detected everything.

In just a few years, Abrams attracted thousands of aspiring doctors who paid $200 (about $5,000 today) for training. They then paid a monthly rental cost of $200 to have their own machine, which they were instructed never to open. Consumers bought into the idea, and Abrams responded with a subsequent product intended to cure diseases diagnosed by the Dynomizer. The Oscilloclast is believed to send out electrical impulses that flow at the same “vibration rate” as the afflicting disease and thus provide a cure.

When people realized the Dynomizer couldn’t diagnose and the Oscilloclast couldn’t cure, a group of scientists began to investigate machines. In one test, they sent a Dynomizer practitioner six vials of blood. The machine failed to correctly diagnose a single vial. In another essay, another practitioner identified a host of diseases, including cancer and diabetes. The sample, however, came from a chicken.

The scam ended after the team of suspicious scientists went against Abrams’ strict order never to open the machine. They opened the Dynomizer and realized it was nothing more than a mess of wires. They published their results in the September 1924 issue of American scientist.

Abrams was spared embarrassment. He had died in January 1924, which he said predicted his machine would happen.

3. The Big Balloon Hoax

Year: 1844
Location: New York
Prankster: Edgar Allan Poe
Money earned: $50 (about $1,500 today)

It has been reported that writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe only had $4.50 savings when he moved to New York with his wife in 1844. He didn’t worry about his dollars dwindling because he had an idea for making money.

At the time, New Yorkers were in love with hot air balloons. Poe developed a sensational story in which a famous balloonist sailed across the Atlantic in just three days. At the time, 500 miles was the maximum distance a hot air balloon could travel. Poe crafted a story in which eight people were aboard the balloon when a mechanical failure caused the pilot to lose control. The balloon then drifted from England and landed three days later on an island off South Carolina.

The New York Sun paid Poe $50 for his story. After it aired, Poe happily announced that he made it all up. His prank was revenge against the newspaper for plagiarizing his work nine years earlier. In this case, an astronomer claimed to have seen winged creatures on the moon with his telescope. The descriptions sounded like creatures in one of Poe’s short stories, and he decided to avenge the hoax with one of his own.

Poe suffered no fallout from his scam. The following year, he published his famous poem, “The Raven”, and became a literary legend.

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