6 of the Greatest Hoaxes of All Time

Photo Credit: LOC

Aside from being a fun word to say, hoaxes – good hoaxes – are something that captures the imagination and the awe of everyone who comes into contact with the tale.

These 6 definitely live up to the hype.

#6. The (Well-Behaved) Monsters on the Moon

Photo Credit: NASA

In the early 19th century, newspapers would routinely make up stories they believed would sell more papers, but the series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilization on the moon really took it to the next level.

The articles claimed that British astronomer John Herschel had used his powerful new telescope and spotted plants, unicorns, bipedal beavers, and winged humans living on that big ball of cheese, and that’s not all – he saw them collecting fruit, marveled at their temples made of sapphire. Oh, they also apparently never argued about anything.

Even though the article was debunked immediately, it didn’t go away. It turned out that the public wanted to believe in a magical moon society, and the paper that published the stories didn’t waste any time cashing in with pamphlets and selling the rights for a dramatic staging.

The author admitted (5 years later) that he made the whole thing up, intending satire, but you just can’t keep a good story about moon beavers down.

#5. The Birth of the Bathtub

On December 20th, 1917, readers opened The New York Evening Mail to an article detailing the forgotten anniversary of the arrival of the bathtub in the United States.

The 1800-word essay told of the tub’s struggle to be accepted until Millard Fillmore installed one in the White House, and how the long road to popularity had been all but forgotten by the modern mind.

The author, H.L. Mencken, later admitted that he’d made the whole thing up hoping to distract readers from WWI with a little harmless fun and said “it never occurred to me it would be taken seriously.”

He must have been surprised, then, to watch the story snowball.

Within a few years it had been referenced in “learned journals” and even cited on the Congressional floor. The tall tale even resurfaces from time to time today – in 2008, the story was featured in a Kia ad.

#4. The Supergroup


A 1969 issue of Rolling Stone reviewed the first album by the Masked Marauders, a supergroup featuring Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. Due to legal issues, the stars’ names wouldn’t appear on the album cover, but that didn’t stop the reviewer from raving about Dylan’s “deep bass voice” and a bass guitar and piano jam covered entirely by Paul McCartney.

“It can truly be said that this album is more than a way of life; it is life.”

Readers did not pick up on the intended joke, and fans were desperate to get their hands on the nonexistent album. Instead of revealing the hoax, the author hired an obscure band to record a spoof album that then scored a distribution deal with Warner Bros.

It sold 100,000 copies, and buyers were let in on the joke after they’d forked over their cash.

#3. The Secret Pasta Gardens

On April 1 (yep), 1957, BBC news program Panorama ran a story about the robust spaghetti crop in a Swiss town, booming thanks to a warm spring and the disappearance of the “spaghetti weevil.”

“For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti.”

For some reason, this didn’t sound fake to some people, and the BBC was flooded with requests for advice on the best way to grow their own noodles.

The answer? To “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

#2. The Elusive Tree-Dwelling Octopus


According to the official website (!!), the tree octopus is native to Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. It spends most of its time swinging through the rainforest munching frogs (and the occasional rodent), and trying to avoid being hunted to extinction by the Sasquatch.

The last bit signaled the joke to the majority of people, but with links back to dozens of external sites featuring short stories about the tree octopus, a baby tree octopus hatching, and recipes (if you’re into that sort of thing), some legitimately buy into it.

A 2006 study of savvy middle schoolers showed that all of them fell for the hoax and, upon being informed the animal doesn’t actually exist, were unable to spot the clues on the website.

The creator of this hoax also maintains a site promoting the Bureau of Sasquatch Affairs and one that claims that Belgium doesn’t actually exist, and his sneakily well-crafted websites are a good reminder that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, even if it seems well-sourced.

#1. A Terrible Sensation

In 1969, bored housewife Penelope Ashe decided to write a super trashy erotic novel titled Naked Came the Stranger. Despite her being new to the game the book sold around 20,000 copies out of the gate (many more after the hoax was revealed) and spent 13 weeks on the Times’ bestseller list. By today, it has sold  closer to 400,000 copies.

Except Penelope Ashe wasn’t real – the titular novel was written by 24 Newsday reporters at the request of columnist Mike McGrady, who wanted to expose how a truly terrible book could find its way to the bestseller list. Each person contributed chapters with “an unremitting emphasis on sex” and warned them that “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”

The chapters included trysts in tollbooths, progressive rabbits, and even a cameo by Shetland ponies with all of the prose edited to make it worse. Nevertheless, Naked Came the Stranger was a hit, proving McGrady’s point (but likely not making him happy).

When he exposed the truth about the novel’s publication, sales grew even more, though it was always the first 20,000 that bothered McGrady the most.

“What has always worried me are the 20,000 people who bought it before the hoax was exposed.”

People have way too much time on their hands!