When evaluating client reports or evidence, but how can you spot a fake?
The world-wide appetite for paranormal stories has many TV viewers brainwashed and the field is a magnet for hoaxes. Some hoaxes are simply light-hearted fun but others have more serious consequences such as contaminating genuine research, wasting public money and destroying careers.
The Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 and 1920, young English cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith produced a series of photographs depicting themselves interacting with fairies. In modern times it is hard to imagine how anyone could be fooled by these obvious fakes, but in the early 20th Century they were convincing enough to attract a huge following and dupe such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was not until 1981 that Wright and Griffith admitted the hoax, although they continued to claim that they had indeed seen fairies and that one of the photos was genuine.
The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, workers digging a well in Cardiff, New York, uncovered what appeared to be the petrified remains of a giant 3-metre (10-foot) man. Archaeologists declared the body to be fake but the public reaction was more accepting, especially among those who considered it evidence in support of biblical history. The body became a business asset as crowds paid for a glimpse. Showman P.T. Barnum tried to acquire the body but eventually made his own replica, causing additional controversy over which was the genuine giant.
In December 1869, tobacconist George Hull confessed to the hoax. The body was sculpted from concrete and buried a year prior to the well-digging.
Uri Geller’s Spoon-Bending
During the 1970s Uri Geller enjoyed huge success with his mentalism acts, based largely on his alleged ability to bend spoons with his mind. Geller staunchly defended his claim to supernatural powers until hard evidence finally caught up with him. A 1982 book by James Randi exposed Geller’s tricks, and Geller was caught numerous times on camera manipulating stage props (e.g. pre-bending spoons). He has since earned a reputation for frivolous litigation after a series of failed lawsuits—mostly against people who publish unflattering material about him.
Despite never officially “outing” himself, Geller has tacitly confessed to the hoax. In 2007 he expressed the following change of heart: “I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer.
The Hundredth Monkey
The “hundredth monkey effect” was initially popularized by two books: Rhythms of Vision (1975) by Lawrence Blair and Lifetide (1979) by Lyall Watson. Both authors relate the same story:
In the 1960s, scientists were studying a group of Japanese Macaque monkeys learning a new skill (washing sweet potatoes). At first the monkeys learned slowly by copying each other, but then something unexpected happened. When a certain number of monkeys had learned how to wash sweet potatoes, other populations of monkey located on different islands began to spontaneously acquire the same skill.
This phenomenon spawned a wave of theories, including Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, that suggest a mysterious connection of consciousness between living beings. The New Age movement embraced the research and it became the cornerstone of many inspirational works including The Hundredth Monkey (1984) by Ken Keyes, Jr.
Unfortunately, the hundredth monkey effect never happened. According to the original research papers, the monkeys learned at a normal rate by imitating each other. The spontaneous learning scenario was entirely fictional, added later.
The hundredth monkey effect is the “quiet achiever” of paranormal hoaxes. It has never achieves the mainstream notoriety of other hoaxes but it scores highly for the way it has entrenched itself in the psyche of millions, has been used as supporting evidence for thousands of other paranormal claims, and continues to be widely cited as fact—even by some academics.
The Fox Sisters
Although not well known today, the Fox Sisters are responsible for one of the most influential hoaxes of all time. Even now, more than 150 years since the original events, the effects can still be seen in the spiritual beliefs of millions of people.
In 1848, two New York sisters named Kate and Margaret Fox claimed they could communicate with a spirit in their home by means of audible tapping or “rapping”. Joined by older sister Leah, the sisters toured the United States and built support for the Spiritualist movement. By 1853 Spiritualism claimed over two million followers worldwide, largely buoyed by the success of the Fox Sisters. The idea that humans might be able to communicate with spirits become a part of western culture which continues to this day. “Rappings” have long since gone out of fashion but the basic belief in communication by cryptic signals remains popular.
Margaret Fox explained how rappings worked in a signed confession published in New York World, October 21, 1888:
“My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done.”
The Fox Sisters later fell out with each other. Leah married a respected businessman while Margaret and Kate developed severe drinking problems. All three sisters died within five years; Margaret and Kate as ostracized paupers.
In a classic example of True Believer Syndrome, the confessions did not deter followers who remained convinced that the Fox Sisters’ powers were genuine.
Accidental Time traveler
One night in 1950, a strange figure appeared in the middle of a traffic-clogged intersection in New York City’s famous Times Square. He wore a high silk hat, a tight coat and vest, and boasted an admirable set of thick mutton-chop sideburns.
Witnesses said the man looked startled, gawking at his surroundings as if he’d never seen a car or traffic lights before. He bolted for the curb, directly in the path of a yellow cab, which killed him instantly.
When the police searched the mystery man’s pockets, they found 19th century currency, a bill for the “feeding and stabling of one horse,” and a business card for Rudolph Fentz on Fifth Ave. Tracking down the address, they found an old woman, who confirmed that Rudolph Fentz was in fact her father-in-law, a man who had mysteriously disappeared in 1876
Such is the story of Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveler. For decades, paranormalists across Europe have pointed to Fentz’s miraculous appearance — a 19th-century man in 20th-century Times Square — as proof of the existence of time travel.
But the true origin of the Fentz legend was a short story published in Collier’s magazine in 1951 by science-fiction writer Jack Finney. The tale was republished in a paranormal journal two years later without attribution to Finney and presented as fact. From there, the case of the accidental time traveler took on a life of its own.
P.T. Barnum may or may not have uttered the infamous phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he certainly lived it. Barnum was perhaps the best-known Victorian-era huckster to enthrall the public with outrageous specimens of odder-than-life humans and mythical creatures.
One of Barnum’s earliest sensations was the so-called “Feejee Mermaid,” purported to be the preserved remains of a real-life mermaid captured in the Bay of Bengal. In 1842, Barnum displayed the creature in his American Museum on Broadway in New York City, where it drew crowds of onlookers [source: Ringling Bros.].
The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University got its hands on a specimen called the Java Mermaid in 1897; it’s thought to be the “Feejee Mermaid” [source: Early].
The museum staff tracked down the true origin of the shriveled, 16-inch (40-centimeter) creature, which is not simply a monkey head stitched to a fish body, as many had speculated. It turned out to be a souvenir handicraft made by Southeast Asian fishermen and sold to tourists as a little mermaid. The body parts are a mix of paper-mâché and fish bones and fins but no monkey skulls
While it is unclear how many alternative and complementary medicines are genuinely helpful, it is known that many of them are not. From snake oil to psychic surgery, medical fraud continues to be a major concern. We have not included such hoaxes in this list because there are too many and it is very difficult identifying the original “hoaxers”.
Loch Ness Monster
The most famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster was debunked in 1993, 60 years after it was taken. The “sea monster” was actually “some plastic and a clockwork, tinplate, [and] toy submarine,” concocted by Christian Spurling. At age 93, Spurling admitted he’d crafted the Faux Nessie at the behest of his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, who’d faked it for revenge: