Hoaxes have been a part of human history for centuries, and some have gone down in history for their notoriety and the panic they created. From a Martian invasion to a ten-foot-tall, petrified man and Hitler's fake diaries, these hoaxes are remembered as some of the most significant and successful ever perpetrated.
The War of the Worlds: A Martian Invasion
In 1938, Orson Welles directed a radio play called The War of the Worlds, which broadcasted the story of Martians invading Earth. The show was a rendition of H.G. Wells' science fiction novel, but many listeners missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast. As a result, people panicked and believed that Earth was under attack. Some armed themselves, requested power to be shut off, and even sought treatment for shock at hospitals. Though the FCC found no wrongdoing, networks agreed to be more cautious in the future. This incident brought Welles attention, and he went on to direct Citizen Kane.
The Cardiff Giant is one of the most significant hoaxes in American history. In 1869, William Newell owned a farm in New York where a ten-foot petrified "man" was unearthed. He put up a tent to charge people to take a look, and hundreds of curious onlookers came to see it. Many believed it was an ancestor of the Onondaga people or proof of the giants mentioned in the Bible.
Despite most professionals, including Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, declaring it a fake, it was sold to a group of businessmen who sent it on tour. Showman PT Barnum offered to buy it for $50,000, but they declined to sell. When Barnum made a plaster knockoff and displayed it in a New York City museum, the hoax was eventually revealed.
The Cardiff Giant remained in the public eye and made money, showing up at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and being sold to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown in 1947.
Hitler's Fake Diaries
In 1979, Der Stern Magazine paid nearly $4 million for 60 diaries that Nazi memorabilia collector Fritz Stiefel claimed had been penned by Adolf Hitler. A couple of handwriting experts authenticated the script, and more volumes turned up through Konrad Fischer, who had procured them from an East German General planning to smuggle them out of Germany in pianos. The magazine knew they could make their money back and more from reprints.
In April 1983, Stern broke the story, and Newsweek and London's Sunday Times ran excerpts. However, historians immediately doubted the diaries' authenticity, and their content sparked skepticism as they portrayed Hitler as having little knowledge of concentration camps and wanting to establish peaceful relations with Britain. After extensive analysis, the diaries were declared fake, and Stern suffered significant embarrassment and financial loss.
Hoaxes have always been a part of human history, and these three examples are just a few of the most notable. They show how easily people can be manipulated and how influential the media can be in spreading fake news. However, they also demonstrate the importance of skepticism and critical thinking, especially in an age where misinformation and disinformation are becoming increasingly prevalent.