Some of History's Most Notorious Hoaxes
A model of the Loch Ness Monster. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon." While professional historians may take umbrage at L’empereur’s statement, history is littered with hoaxes — some amusing but others malicious with lasting consequences on history. Here are seven (unranked) famous and infamous historical hoaxes.
The Donation of Constantine
History’s oldest known hoax, the so-called Donation of Constantine is a document which details how Pope Sylvester I converted the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity after miraculously curing him of leprosy. In gratitude and in recognition of the importance of Rome as the place of the martyrdom of apostles Peter and Paul, the Emperor granted primacy of the bishop of Rome (the Pope) over all the other sees of the Church. The emperor also granted the pope extra-legal, territorial, and administrative rights, vastly increasing the pope’s power. It also allowed the pope to appoint, the ruler of the Western Roman Empire as well as granting to the pope direct control of numerous territories. The document was a complete fraud.
The Donation of Constantine was believed to be true for centuries and figured into the schism between the east and western churches as well as struggles between the papacy and rulers in Western Europe. However, the document was probably created in the 8th century by a papal cleric. Around the year 1000, its authenticity began to be doubted. The document was fully disproved by the Catholic Priest Lorenzo Valla who showed in 1440 that the language used in the document could not have been created during the time of Constantine in the 4th century.
Sir Francis Drake (c 1540-1596) was one of England’s most famous privateers and explorers who was most famous for his attacks against the Spanish. In 1577, after raiding Spanish ports in the Western Hemisphere, he went on to lead history’s second voyage of circumnavigation around the globe. As part of this expedition, he explored the west coast of California. According to Drake’s memoirs, he erected a brass plate in northern California memorializing his visit and claiming the region for England.
In 1936, a brass marker was discovered which seemed to be Drake’s famous plate. Word got to the press quickly about the new significant historical discovery. There were immediate skeptics as to the authenticity of the plate, but other experts confirmed its authenticity. Textbooks featured Drake’s Plate. However, in 1977 scientists conducted neutron activation analysis finding the artifact to be manufactured in the late 19th century. Eventually, it was revealed that a group of California history enthusiasts manufactured the plate as a practical joke that grew completely out of control.
Kensington Rune Stone
It is known that the Norse were the first Europeans to arrive in North America in the 12th century, but they were unable to establish a colony in what they called Vinland (Newfoundland). The idea of further Viking explorations of the Americas is a tantalizing historical what-if in history.
In 1898, a Minnesota farmer, Olaf Ohman, found a 200 pound stone near the town of Kensington. Covered in Norse runes, it told how eight Goths and 22 Norwegians were exploring the interior of North America in 1362. It was a striking historical discovery. However, it was discredited in 1910 by experts who analyzed the writing. However, even today some Viking enthusiasts hold that the Kensington Rune Stone is a legitimate artifact.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Antisemitism has existed for centuries, so it is no surprise that anti-Jewish groups or persons publish pieces of fake propaganda to support their biases. The most destructive antisemitic publication is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion which portrayed Jews as conspiring to take over the world. It is unknown who wrote the piece but it was first published in 1903 in serial form in the Russian newspaper, Znamya. Its 24 chapters detail how Jews were attempting to control the economy, the media, and promote religious wars. It was quickly taken up by antisemites as proof of a Jewish conspiracy. The Protocols were proven as false, being plagiarized from a 1921 French satirical work which did not even mention Jews. This did not stop the Nazis from using it as propaganda starting in the 1930s. Today, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are disseminated on the internet and feed the flames of antisemitism despite it being a fake book.
The Holy Foreskin
Holy relics were of great importance during the Middle Ages. Artifacts of items touched by Jesus Christ or one of the saints were venerated by Christians throughout Europe. Imagine how important a relic would be if it was an actual part of Jesus’s body.
Enter the “Holy Prepuce” or “Holy Foreskin.
This relic was purported to be the foreskin of Jesus after his circumcision and would be because according to Christian belief he ascended to heaven, the only physical part of him left on earth.
The Holy Foreskin first appeared circa 800 AD when Emperor Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo III. Charlemagne claimed an angel gave it to him. Soon another 21 foreskins emerged at various locales throughout Europe each claiming to be the legitimate foreskin of Jesus Christ. In the 16th century, Pope Clement VII declared the foreskin that had been held by the monks at Charroux to be the legitimate one since it reportedly dripped blood. These days, the Holy Foreskin has been quietly dropped from liturgical discussion.
The legend of the Loch Ness monster is one of history’s favorite mysteries. The Scottish lake that reportedly harbors the cryptid beast has been the source of many a childhood fantasy. The contemporary legend of the monster began in 1933 when a couple reported seeing an enormous beast in the water. This was soon taken up by the media.
One of the most convincing proofs of the Loch Ness monster’s existence was a photograph supposedly taken by physician Colonel Robert Wilson known as the “Surgeon’s Photo.” The photograph, however, only came under scrutiny in 1984 when experts determined it was a bird or otter of only a couple of feet of length. As it turns out, in 1994, Christian Spurling revealed that the monster seen in the photo was a toy submarine that was conspired by Marmaduke Wetherell and himself who had been embarrassed by the Daily Mail when he submitted Loch Ness monster footprints to the publication which were discredited. Wetherell used Wilson as a respectable frontman for his hoax to get revenge on the newspaper.
In 1912 amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed that he had discovered the so-called “missing link” between apes and humans. He claimed that in a Pleistocene-era gravel bed near Piltdown in Sussex, England he found a hominid skull. He further presented teeth and primitive tools. At the time, scholars hypothesized that the so-called “Piltdown Man” was a 500,000-year-old ancestor of modern humans. It was given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni after the discoverer.
However, in 1953 scientific evidence, especially new dating technology, conclusively proved that the Piltdown Man was an utter and elaborate fraud. The bones had been soaked in chemical solutions to make them appear old. Microscopes revealed file marks on the teeth in order to give them the appearance of age. Dawson, who had had other frauds to his credit was the likely culprit. The Piltdown Man stunted scientific development in the area of evolutionary studies for decades.