Tag: Hoax

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 901: Yapping With The Dead – The Fabulous Fraud Of The Fox Sisters

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The perpetual gullibility of the human race provides an unending cavalcade of hilarity. We believe – sometimes because we want to, sometimes because the hoaxsters and peddlers of smarm know how to take advantage of our weak moments. For the born-again skeptics, no phenomenon travels in this world without an accompanying explanation stuffed into its baggage. Most folks believe there might be something to the unseen – that’s where the scammers step in.

When Kate and Margaret Fox discovered at a young age (12 and 15 respectively) that with tremendous ease they could convince their family and community that they could communicate with the deceased, it must have been a revelation. The world is ripe and ready for free-form plucking once you convince it that your fingertips hold a quiver of magic. The Fox sisters learned this when they were young enough to be gobsmacked by their success, yet old enough to work it into a career.

Or maybe it’s all true. Maybe they did possess the gift of gab with the dearly departed. After all, the spiritualism movement that ensued in their wake included a number of intellectual heavyweights and revered luminaries. Though when push comes to push-overs, I think I’ll side with the skeptics on this one.

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Kate and Margaret lived in an allegedly haunted house in a place called Hydesville in northwestern New York. In 1848, when the girls were the ages I mentioned above, strange noises began oozing through the floorboards. The girls began communicating with this mysterious spirit: Kate would snap her fingers and the ghost would repeat the sequence. The spirit would tap out the girls’ ages. Eventually, a system developed by which the ethereal stranger could answer yes-no questions through its otherworldly tapping. Read more…

Day 822: Pitying The Fools

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My wife hates April Fools’ Day.

She has a legitimate reason, stemming from the scar-worthy childhood trauma of watching one of her friends get April-Fooled into a lengthy scavenger hunt for a brand new puppy by his parents, only to discover the final prize was nothing but a prank. Were she not the empathetic soul I know her to be, I might assume this to be an elaborate act of transference on her memory’s part, that this may have happened to her; thankfully my in-laws aren’t quite so cruel.

I have always maintained an appreciation for a meticulously blueprinted ruse, provided the only perpetrated harm is the gloppy egg of embarrassment upon the face of one’s target. Every few years some news outlet or public pulpit successfully melds a crafty sense of humor with their automatic public earpiece and delivers a delicious morsel of weirdness to justify April Fools’ Day’s presence on our calendars.

A quality media prank is a rickety bridge above the chasm of banality and/or outright stupidity. One needs to find the threshold of credulity and glide one’s words upon it without causing a rupture in believability. We see this every so often when an article from The Onion or The Daily Currant makes its way as gospel into people’s Facebook feeds. When executed poorly, it’s a bad joke. When done right, it’s art.

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That Swiss lady plucking fresh pasta from her spaghetti tree was the talk of the British water coolers on the morning of April 2, 1957, after the BBC had run a story about the popular agricultural phenomenon the night before. The show was Panorama, a current-affairs, 60 Minutes-style show that’s still on the air today, and the gag was delivered without punchline. The segment focussed on a family in Ticino, northern Switzerland, as they reaped the bounty of a hearty winter spaghetti harvest, having defeated the nasty spaghetti weevil. Read more…

Day 816: Gettin’ High Off Last Week’s Munchies

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If there is one constant in human nature – and I hope there’s more than one, or I’ll never again be able to employ this opening – it’s that people love to get high. Some get their highs from adrenaline, others from religious fulfillment, and still others simply from exhuming the joyous moments from the depths of every waking moment. For the rest of us, we have other options.

I’m not one to judge another person’s form of escapism, unless that escapism somehow infringes upon my life. If your intake of bath salts instills a desire to consume my flesh as though it were made from Doritos, we have a problem. If your eleventh Jaeger-bomb has convinced you that you’re just fine to drive home despite the fact that your keys feel “fuzzy” in your fingertips, that ain’t right. But if you can get high while posing a danger only to yourself, simply because you feel the need for a swizzled splash of tweaked consciousness, I say go for it.

Even if that splash comes from a polyethylene bag of human poop.

Hey, we’ve all been there. Well, maybe not there, but we’ve all… actually no, most of us have never been anywhere near there. I might have to rethink my lack of judginess on this one. If jenkem is your thing, you really might need to re-evaluate your life.

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I’m just going to lay this out there. Jenkem is an inhalant drug, created solely from the stench of fermented human waste. I don’t know the backstory of the first person to have discovered this – though I would certainly tune in for the TV movie based on his or her journey – but for a period in the mid 1990’s, jenkem was all the rage among street children in Zambia. You see, parents? Take away your kids’ Playstations and they’ll have nothing to do but run around in the street and huff doody.

The human waste is scraped from pipes or scooped up from the fringes of the sewer ponds into old cans or containers. The mere fact that these pipes and sewer ponds are so easily accessible to passers-by already bumps Zambia way down near the bottom of my travel bucket-list, alongside North Korea, any place currently at war, and Regina, Saskatchewan. Read more…

Day 758: Who Buried Paul?

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It was a cold November night in 1966 – or maybe it was January of ‘67, depending on whose account you choose to believe – when a car crash fatality forever changed the course of popular music.

Or did it?

Okay, there’s no real mystery here. The reality is that there was no car crash, or if there was, the bass player and co-creative force of the greatest band in the history of recorded music was most certainly not decapitated. But there was a time when legitimate news outlets needed to point this out to an apprehensive world. And not only was there no fatal wreck, but that band didn’t surgically alter a look-alike to carry on in the artist’s place, fooling throngs of adulating fans for the ensuing 40+ years.

It was a hoax. Perhaps the most entertaining hoax our media has seen outside of a work of fiction, because the so-called evidence supporting it as truth had been seeping into the public’s eyes and ears all this time and no one had noticed. Photos and music that had not only become fully integrated with popular culture, but had come to define the very zeitgeist of the era. Album covers that were iconic upon arrival, songs that hundreds of millions could sing by heart.

And even once the dust of speculation had been billowed away by a cool gust of truth, that evidence remains as a perpetual quirk.

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On September 17, 1969, the above article appeared in the student newspaper at Drake University in Iowa. It speculates that Paul McCartney was indeed dead, that the Beatles had cleverly sprinkled clues throughout their music and album packaging, and states that these concerns were spreading rampantly around the campus gossip vine. Three and a half weeks later, Detroit radio DJ Russ Gibb was discussing the rumor over an hour’s worth of airtime, his listeners calling in to pick apart the clues. This continued at various American stations for another couple of weeks before Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles and their Apple Records label, issued a statement that insisted that the Paul McCartney in the band today was the same guy who’d been in the band three years earlier. Read more…

Day 750: The Celebrity Strangeness Quiz

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While in the next room my wife is no doubt running the trumpeters through a quick rehearsal of the jazzed-up fanfare that will herald the massive party she is throwing in my honor, I’m going to flex my consonants and stretch my vowels for the final 250-day sprint to the finish line. I’m right on course with this project, having achieved my goals of graduating from University and acquiring a paid gig spewing words onto a screen. All that’s left is an upgrade to my day job, perhaps the shedding of a few pounds and having Scarlett Johansson sing me an acoustic cover of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album while I feast on bacon and hummus.

But then I don’t know the details of the party next door. Maybe that’ll come off my list today.

For an insatiable snarfer of inconsequential trivia, this project has been a god-send of forgettable (though momentarily nod-worthy) factoids and tiddly-bits. It’s been a treat finding so many wonky folds of space-time that have overlapped with my daily topics and rewarded me for having scooped up all this pop-cultural flotsam. Today I’m going to treat my readers to some of the great weirdness upon the Hollywood petri dish. Today’s quiz is a glob of some of the weirdest facts I could find about A-list stars. The answers are, as always, linked at the end of each question.

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  1. One year after serving as an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, this actor took the Morehouse College board of trustees hostage (including Martin Luther King Sr.), refusing to release them until the school agreed to reform its curriculum and policies. He won, but was then convicted of unlawful confinement and kicked out of school for two years. Answer.
  2. At the age of 22, this star became a New York City Firefighter, a job he held for five years before quitting to pursue acting. During the hazy aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when headlines were breezing by in a blur of carnage and horror, this guy re-enlisted with his old firehouse and spent several 12-hour shifts sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center, looking for survivors. Answer. Read more…

Day 705: Legends Of Urbania

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The beauty of the Internet Age is how information – or more entertainingly, misinformation – oozes like honey-sludge, coating the globe in a glossy sheen of non-truths and insidious punks. Mischievous urban legends have been inspiring tizzies for as long as there have been folks around to lend their ears, but email and social media are like kerosene-swamped kindling, spreading the flames of tall tales from send-click to send-click in triple-time.

Those who have been burned by generous Nigerian princes or some such costly buffoonery are no doubt tuned in to the deceptive nature of online ‘info’. But I am still baffled on a regular basis how many people are unaware of snopes.com or the Museum of Hoaxes, two sites that are invaluable for cramming that valuable hiccup of pause between reading and believing.

Below I’ve included a half-dozen urban legends, often relayed in hushed tones around a high school cafeteria table or an office email circle. You probably know them, and if you’ve done your homework you probably know how much fiction has been shoveled atop any grain of actual fact that might be contained therein. But in case you haven’t tried to debunk ‘em, now’s your chance to learn the truth.

Which is taken from the internet, so… well surely you can trust me, right?

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McDonald’s Operates A Shadow Company To Fool Us

McDonald’s is an easy target. We know it’s bad for us, but eventually the tales of unsaturated fats and unfathomable calories get a little stale, which is why the company has had to deny using eyeballs in their burgers and chicken feathers in their shakes. The phrase “100% Pure Beef” has been slapped on McDonald’s containers since they were made out of crunchy McStyrofoam. So if we know faulty advertising is an easy crime for the FDA to snag, what if the phrase wasn’t bogus but simply misleading? What if they simply purchased their filler-infused beef from a company called “100% Pure Beef”? Read more…

Day 683: A Sucker Born, And So On…

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Greetings, fellow passengers aboard this swirling turntable among the stars, as we swivel along at a brisk and oft-terrifying 45rpm, propelling our lives up the charts of human history for a brief fireworks splash before plopping back into obscurity, into the 49-cent discount bin of faded immortality. It’s time to get real, my adoring thous-manauts. These kilographs can’t always dance among the platinum sunshine and giggling gardenias of topics like murder hotels and tax-funded mass graves.

I need to get serious about an affliction that could strike any of us at any time and without warning, provided we are gainfully employed in the string section of a major philharmonic orchestra.

Yes, I’m talking today about Cello Scrotum.

Known in the music business as 'Yo-Yo-M-AAAUUUGGHHH!!!'

Known in the music business as ‘Yo-Yo-M-AAAUUUGGHHH!!!’

Perhaps you’re more familiar with Surfer’s Ear, Golfer’s Elbow, Jogger’s Nipple or Nintendo Thumb. Apart from the surfing condition, these are repetitive-strain injuries that can afflict those who delve obsessively into their preferred pursuit. Much like Jogger’s Nipple, Cello Scrotum is a form of contact dermatitis that, according to a 1974 article in the British Medical Journal, can afflict the non-detachable tote-bags of males who devote their lives to the glorious timbre of the cello. Read more…

Day 670: Tricking And Treating And Singing And Eating

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In a few hours I will be visited by a myriad of Captain Jack Sparrows and Spidermen, Walking Dead-types and three-and-a-half-foot Jedi. Some kids will get the good chocolate, while others will get the crap made with compound chocolate (damn you, Oh Henry!). The pathetic kids over 15 with dollar-store devil horns and an Insane Clown Posse shirt will get an icy glare and maybe a box of raisins. I should really pick up some raisins.

And I’ll probably think back to my own days of trick-or-treating. The two years I dressed up as Yoda, complete with a full-on latex mask. The year I went as Michael Dukakis (along with my friend, who dressed up as George H.W. Bush). My one outing as Beldar Conehead, ten years after the character had left TV and four years before they made that movie. It was fun, it was cold, and it sated my sweet tooth – often to the point of nausea – for at least a week.

It seems only logical then, rather than to prattle on about the Gaelic Samhain roots of Halloween, to poke instead around the archeological bones of the portion of the holiday that brought me mirth as a child. Today I loathe dressing up in costume for Halloween parties. But I still enjoy noshing on the goodies left over once the lights go out and the kids stop a-knockin’.

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When Halloween began, the only acceptable costumes were clowns, floozies, and Batman.

Back in the late medieval days, when every day without the plague was a day worth celebrating, poor folks used to wander from door to door, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food on All Souls Day, November 2. This tradition, called ‘souling’, started in Ireland and Britain, but was clearly happening in spots all around Europe. In Scotland, where they really know how to party, the act of ‘guising’ was recorded as early as 1895. This involved children in disguise carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips, walking around town and receiving cakes, fruit and money. Read more…