April Fool’s Day allows for celebrations of jokes, pranks, and hoaxes, and for centuries authors have embraced it. Some focus on frauds and the intriguing manner in which a mere few scheme to hoodwink many. These six works explore the history of grand scams and the evidence behind a perennial hoax debate; allow listeners to experience what others before them felt was a hoax; and, in one case, imagine that a famous hoax topic is no hoax at all.
In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen created The Turk, an automaton that could play a masterly game of chess through a bevy of gears and clockwork pieces. It was taken on tour and fascinated people for over 88 years before being lost in a fire. It played against Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin (and beat both); the mechanical possibilities of The Turk added to the imagination of those developing the Industrial Revolution and echoes to this day in computers such as Watson. Tom Standage’s The Turk: The Life and Times of The Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (o.p. but widely held) guides us through The Turk’s history, building gleeful tension as he gets closer to revealing just how the mechanical marvel worked. Quickly paced and wonderfully engaging.
When it comes to scientific fraud, it is hard to top Piltdown Man, a purported missing link humanoid. Discovered in 1912, Piltdown Man became accepted (even if early doubters raised questions) until the scam was proven in 1953. Two generations grew up thinking of the humanlike skull and apelike jaw as proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution. J.S. Weiner was part of the group that proved the fraud, and he lays out his findings in The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford Univ. 2004. ISBN 9780198607809. pap. $19.95). Weiner’s accessible, and now classic, investigation outlines the facts of the case and attempts to shine light on the forger (he makes a reasoned argument but stops short of full accusation). The book is an example of the best historical and scientific detection, with a quick pace and gripping storytelling.
Another discovery was the Cardiff Giant, a ten-foot-tall petrified man, unearthed in Cardiff, NY, in 1869. As Scott Tribble reports in A Colossal Hoax: The Giant From Cardiff That Fooled America (Rowman & Littlefield. 2010. ISBN 9780742560512. pap. $21.95), the figure was planted by George Hull, who spent over two years and thousands of dollars to create the giant with the aim of making money, gaining fame, and showing up as foolish certain religious thinking; the enthralled public lined up to pay for the privilege of viewing it. There were skeptics from the outset, but many men of science found the giant creditable. Tribble’s detailed (including photos) and well-researched account focuses on the men involved and the culture of the times.
Whether readers want to believe or are hardheaded skeptics, UFOs are grand hoax material and, as Leslie Kean explores in UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record (Three Rivers: Crown. 2011. ISBN 9780307717085. pap. $15), also worthy of serious attention. Through clear and investigative reporting, she offers readers a great deal to ponder: UFOs’ existence, U.S. policy regarding possible encounters, and how we collectively think about things we do not understand. While Kean relies on deeply fascinating and well-documented firsthand accounts, her book is not a sensationalist exposé but rather a critical and thoughtfully built case of possibility.
While not intended as a hoax, many listeners were certainly fooled by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s 1938 radio performance of The War of the Worlds. Based on H.G. Wells novel, the adaptation mixed weather reports, interviews, and, most famously, faux news bulletins to tell the eerie story of Martians landing on Earth and nearly decimating the human population though heat-ray weapons and poisoned smoke. The invasion is finally thwarted, not by human courage or military might but by an Earth-born infection, a tiny microbe to which the Martians have no immunity. The hour-long performance is fast-paced, completely involving, and both tense and reflective. An archival recording can be found ow.ly/9zgmJ.
In Molly Gloss’s novel, Wild Life (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2001. ISBN 9780618131570. pap. $13.95), the legend of Bigfoot is transformed into a lyrical and incandescent tale. In 1905, Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a single mother of five boys, supports her family by writing pulp fiction. She also keeps a diary, and it is in the diary, along with interleaved quotes, pieces from favorite writers, and her own attempts at more literary writing, that readers come to know Charlotte and her amazing journey. With diary in hand, Charlotte joins a search team looking for a little girl, only to become lost herself. On the verge of starving to death, she begins to see ghost-shadows, beasts not quite human, but not so very far from human either. How Charlotte interacts and comes to know the creatures does not represent the typical take on Bigfoot, but through luminous language and strong characterization, Gloss offers readers an unforgettable encounter.