Archive for the ‘Hoaxes’ Category

The Real Last American Pirate

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Now the truth can be told.

The students in this course created a hoax called the Last American Pirate — the story of one student’s (her name is Jane Browning) attempt to find out as much as possible about a man named Edward Owens who was, supposedly, a pirate in Virginia in the late nineteenth century.

The hoax launched during the first week of December and between then and now more than 1,200 unique visitors came to the hoax website. Almost 200 visited Jane Browning’s YouTube channel. A few bloggers — most notably one at USAToday — picked up the story. The Wikipedia entry on our pirate was edited by several people not in the class — mostly to fix issues with the Wikipedia syntax.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the class in its Friday, December 19, 2008 edition [premium access only, alas].

If you are at all outraged or offended by this hoax, please go to the hoax website where you can read the class mea culpa. You can also download a copy of the syllabus for the course from this website or from the hoax website if you want to know more about the class.

Research Paper on Hoaxes

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I found this online and thought it was interesting- it’s actually more about virus hoaxes, but it still definitely applies to what we’re talking about. It was presented at the 7th Virus Bulletin International Conference in 1997- looks at a number of reasons hoaxes fool people.

Cottingley Fairy Pictures

Monday, October 6th, 2008

We talked about this in class today- The full page on the hoax can be found at the Museum of Hoaxes page.

The First Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 10-year-old Frances Griffiths in the garden with the fairies.

The second Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 16-year-old Elsie Wright in the garden with a gnome.

The second Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 16-year-old Elsie Wright in the garden with a gnome.

The third Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Frances with a leaping fairy.

The third Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Frances with a leaping fairy.

The fourth Cottingley Fairy Picture. Elsie with a fairy.

The fourth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie with a fairy.

The fifth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie and Frances insisted later (in 1981) that this was the only photo they had not faked.

The fifth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie and Frances insisted later (in 1981) that this was the only photo they had not faked.

There are further descriptions of the photographs on the link above. Enjoy!


The Case of the Missing Memoirs

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Because we’ll be reading the history of the “Hitler Diaries” for next week, I thought I would tell you a story I know well of a missing autobiography/memoir that I tried to track down once upon a time.

When I was an MA student back in the 1980s I wrote my thesis on the diplomatic mission of an American named Ambrose Dudley Mann to Hungary in 1848. When the Civil War began, Mann (a Virginian) chose the Confederacy and became a Confederate diplomat in Europe. After the war he was an “irreconcilable” who refused to return to the United States, lived out his life in Paris, and died there. His obituary in various American newspapers said he was preparing his memoirs for publication at the time of his death. I couldn’t find his memoirs in print [See Google Books for works by him], so at first I assumed they didn’t exist.

Then I found an obituary for his son, who was a judge in Chicago. His son’s obituary said that just prior to Judge Mann’s death, he had been to Paris, where he had helped his father complete the editing of the memoirs, the manuscripts of which he had brought back with him to Chicago.

Ah ha! They do exist. But where?

Using the tricks of the geneaologist, I looked up Judge Mann’s will in the Cook County (Chicago) Courthouse. The will said that all of Judge Mann’s worldly effects had been bequeathed to his wife Minerva Meyers Mann. I then asked for a copy of her will, only to find out that her will had been destroyed in a fire at the Courthouse annex where it was stored.

A dead end.

That was in 1988 that I ran into the dead end. Since that time, the Internet has appeared and I’ve tried various tricks to see if I can unearth the missing memoirs. I’ve posted to geneaological society websites, I’ve written to people who count old Ambrose in their family trees. About once a year I do a Google search on him just in case someone has come up with something.

I’m just positive that the missing memoirs are sitting in a trunk in someone’s attic somewhere just waiting for me (or you) to find them. Whoever does find them will have an instant book contract, if only because any book about the Civil War finds a contract.

My experiences with this particular document helps me sympathize with those trying to authenticate the Hitler Diaries. Given all the chaos at the end of the war in Europe, it’s quite possible that a set of diaries, even Hitler’s, were lost, only to be found at some later date.

Swiss Spaghetti Harvest

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Hello. I hope you all enjoyed your day off. Here is the actual video of the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest we heard about in class…

Butter Churns and Plagiarism

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I think it’s good we’re talking about plagiarism in class tomorrow- but I’ll have to admit I’m half dreading the conversations sure to come up in it.

I am a journalist- a profession much maligned by the general public at large for inaccuracy, immorality, and yes, plagiarism, among many other misdeeds. I pride myself in the fact that in my professional journalistic life, I keep my ethics high, but despair at the many out there who don’t feel as strongly or are not as careful as I usually am.

See- I know how easy it can be sometimes. I’ve seen people do it and I worry about it in my own notes. You do background research on a topic- take notes sometimes with exact quotes from sources- then use it as reference when you’re writing the story. I do my best to always set these exact quotes apart and never to use them in my own writing- but I can see how it can happen.

Back as a young overachieving perfectionist child in fourth grade- I did a science project on different butter churns and which one worked better. I’m not exactly certain what drew me to this subject except for my fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder from an early age. While writing up the background information paper, I copied portions from a book describing pasteurization, knowing it was wrong, but not knowing how else to phrase the information. My mother caught me at it- apparently she figured out that I didn’t really know what all those long words meant- and gave me a stern lecture that’s stayed with me since.

However, it’s not so easy to tell plagiarism most of the time. As we grow older, our obvious vocabulary or writing deficiencies aren’t as obvious- and our editors and bosses are less likely to notice our errors. It’s hard- unless the piece is obviously not in the writer’s style, or the reader googles each and every sentence- sometimes it can be impossible to tell.

I know. I have myself missed plagiarism in a writer’s work not so long ago. It was a simple error on her part- a mess-up with notes and mental exhaustion- that I just missed completely. It got published and caught- she was derided as a liar and a bad reporter who could not be trusted. The entire publication fell under suspicion and a witch hunt began- many of my other writers were accused of plagiarizing in cases that they had not- some readers called for the firing of the writer and every editor who missed the mistake. The worst part is how this ended up really affecting the writer- her credibility was shot for good- she is not put in any position of authority even now- not because of a lack of trust from her bosses, but because of the knowledge that the readers can not and would not trust her or give her a chance to regain that trust in such a position.

To this day, I feel so guilty- like I let her down completely. I wish with my whole heart I had checked a little closer- saved her from all the grief that’s befallen her. I do my best to keep my journalistic ethics clean from any spot or need for reproach to avoid her fate.

It makes me wonder- how do I, who work to keep my ethics in my profession so high, justify the fact that by participating in this class, I will be creating a hoax designed to fool the people around me? What higher purpose is being served here? Is in fact, there any at all?

I don’t know yet- I just don’t know.



Here’s a fascinating article on plagiarism from Slate, coincidentally published on my 14th birthday. It actually analyzes why plagiarists do what they do, how society doesn’t have any prescribed punishments for plagiarism, and why many writers live in fear of accidental plagiarism.

Hoaxes that can get you fired…

Friday, September 5th, 2008

One of the issues we’ll have to wrestle with this semester is where is the line between funny and not funny, between an excellent joke and an unethical or immoral act, between something that won’t get us into trouble and something that will. By way of cautionary tales, here are two examples of hoaxes that could get you in trouble:

The most recent Bigfoot Hoax.

Congressional Candidate Fakes Wildnerness Survival

In the Bigfoot example, the problem is that one of the hoaxer was a sheriff’s deputy and so, as an officer of the court, needed to be above suspicions of being a lier. We’ll see if his bosses can take a joke or not. In the case of Gary Dodds, the problem was that the search and rescue effort mounted to find him after he disappeared in a snow squall cost close to $20,000, so he effectively defrauded the state of New Hampshire (and so went to jail). Oops.

And for those of you who are die hard Bigfoot fans (you know you are), a neighbor of mine in Manassas recently made an incredibly campy movie starring a Bigfoot with a bad attitude who disrupts some college students’ plans for a weekend of beer and other things in a mountain cabin. If you want to watch a movie that is an example of what can be done with a $30,000 budget (he actually sold it to a distributor for a profit…no kidding), then check out Holler Creek Canyon. It’s bad, but if you’re a Bigfoot fan, how can you pass it up? Just don’t buy a copy. You’d be sorry. [Trailer]

Motives of Hoaxes

Friday, September 5th, 2008

This week in class, while discussing different hoaxes, I noticed something. It seems simple really, but every hoax has a meaning behind it, however small. People put effort into making them work for a reason.

So far I’ve concocted a small list of the motives I’ve seen- I’m sure there are thousands of more examples than I’m mentioning, but hey, it’s late.

1. Financial- P. T. Barnum. ‘Nuff said.

2. Political- There’s a lot of these- for example, the miscegenation hoax in the 1800s circulated a pamphlet proposing procreation between the races, supposedly written by a Republican abolitionist. It was later discovered that a couple of Democratic newsmen had written the “inflammatory” pamphlet to insert the issue into the presidential election and stir up the working-class public against the Republicans. The Democrats lost the election anyways. Also, the Chesterfield Cigarettes Leper rumor was possibly started by anti-smoking advocates trying to discourage people from lighting up.

3. Educational/experimental- For example, the Casablanca Hoax wherein the hoaxer sent copies of movie classic Casablanca out to over 200 movie agents with just the title and author’s name changed. The results were…interesting, to say the least.

4. For the Fun of it. Roswell- what other reason could there be for it? So many included in here.

See y’all in class!

Rachael Dickson

YouTube Hoaxes

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Here are links to the YouTube Hoaxes I mentioned in class yesterday:

Little Loca

Lonely Girl — and a Wired magazine story on Lonely Girl.

As with every hoax we’ve discussed so far, why do you think these two worked so well?

Other People’s Hoax Ideas

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Word about our course is wandering around the history blogosphere and has resulted in some suggestions for further study from other historians:

Five Hoaxes that Fooled the World

Six More Hoaxes that Fooled the World

Some of these are in our other readings, but not all…