Fairies, rabbit births and an ‘ancient’ tiara: what are the greatest historical hoaxes?

From the 'Rabbit Woman of Godalming' to a fake treasure that fooled the Louvre and Adolf Hitler's diaries, BBC History Revealed rounds up the some of the most successful cons, swindles and hoodwinks that have made the history books

Frances Griffiths poses with the fairies

The Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, as two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, played with a camera in Cottingley, near Bradford, they shot a series of garden photos with fairies in them. Elsie’s mother was the first to believe in the snaps’ authenticity – but she wasn’t the last. The images were declared genuine by experts and the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ fast became recognisable the world over.

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It wasn’t until the 1980s that the cousins confessed to their trickery – the fairies were actually drawings by Elsie, secured in the ground with hatpins – but they still claimed one photo was real.

The Berners Street Hoax

One of the most ambitious hoaxes of all time kicked off at 5am on 27 November 1810, when a chimney sweep arrived at 54 Berners Street, London. The resident, Mrs Tottenham, hadn’t called for one.

For the rest of the day, the house was bombarded by a stream of merchants, tradesmen and dignitaries. There were bakers, butchers, brewers, mongers, wig makers, upholsterers, gardeners, chefs and cobblers.

Deliveries flooded in of food, furniture, pianos and a pipe organ. Then came the doctors, apothecaries, lawyers and a line of London’s elite – including the governor of the Bank of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor. The police only stopped the mayhem by closing the street.

Behind it all was Theodore Hook, who had bet a friend he could make any house the most talked about spot in London. He sat in a house opposite number 54 and watched the carnage unfold.

The Tiara of Saitaferne

The Tiara Of Saitaferne
Tiara Of Saitaferne was exhibited again in the 1950s for what it was – a fake (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In April 1896, the Louvre museum, Paris, had just made its latest acquisition: a golden, Greco-Scythian crown. The Louvre snapped up the tiara for 200,000 francs, believing it to have been a Greek gift to the Scythian King Saitaphernes, and that it dated from the third century BC.

In fact, it was just one year old. A close inspection found traces of modern tools and soldering. The Louvre still owns the crown (but don’t expect to see it on display).

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

In 1726, a young woman from the Surrey town of Godalming caused a medical sensation, baffling physicians with her unusual condition. Mary Toft convinced a number of doctors that, after seeing a large rabbit while pregnant, she had given birth – over a period of time – to a litter of the creatures. John Howard, a local surgeon and midwife, attended some of the so-called bunny births and believed her story.

He informed a number of eminent medics, including the surgeon to King George I’s royal household Nathaniel St Andre, who went on to examine some of the animal parts that Toft had claimed to have given birth to. He concluded that Toft’s case was genuine. But a second royal surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, was decidedly sceptical, leading to Toft being intensely questioned in London.

Finally, after threats of a “very painful experiment”, Toft confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. She had faked the births by stuffing the animal parts inside herself, although what motivated her to do so is unclear. She was imprisoned, but soon released to live out the rest of her days in Godalming, known as the ‘Rabbit Woman’. Satirists and pamphleteers had a field day, and St Andre’s career never fully recovered from the abject humiliation.

Finally, after threats of a “very painful experiment”, Toft confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. She had faked the births by stuffing the animal parts inside herself, although what motivated her to do so is unclear. She was imprisoned, but soon released to live out the rest of her days in Godalming, known as the ‘Rabbit Woman’. Satirists and pamphleteers had a field day, and St Andre’s career never fully recovered from the abject humiliation.

Turning lead into gold

Alchemy – the pseudo-science of turning ordinary metals into gold – attracted its fair share of charlatans. One notably outrageous scheme came from an alchemist for Duke Cosimo I of Florence, Italy. In 1555, the trickster secretly created an unrecognisable substance out of gold, which he called ‘usufur powder’, and distributed it to local apothecaries. He then announced to the Duke that he could make gold out of some basic items, including the mysterious usufur.

The ingredients were brought to him and the experiment was a success. Amazed, the Duke coughed up some 20,000 ducats for the recipe, before the canny con man hightailed it to France, leaving no usufur behind.

The (fabricated) Donation of Constantine

Fresco of the Donation of Constantine
Roman emperor Constantine I the Great donated city of Rome to Pope Sylvester (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

An important hoax of the Middle Ages, The Donation of Constanine is a document that supposedly records the gift of vast amounts of land from the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, to Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century AD. The false text – which actually dates from the eighth century AD – tells the story of the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity, and how the Pope cured him of leprosy, as well as the gift. The Donation had great influence on the politics and religion of medieval Europe, until it was proved a forgery in the 15th century.

Hitler’s diaries

In 1983, German newspaper Stern published an explosive exclusive: Hitler’s diaries. But this was one story that blew up for all the wrong reasons. Within two weeks, the journals were exposed as sophisticated forgeries. It seems that, desperate to prevent a leak and protect their £2.5 million investment, Stern officials had refused to let any German World War II experts inspect the 60 handwritten volumes before they went to press. But soon historical inaccuracies were spotted, and the series was exposed as the creation of antiques dealer and painter Konrad Kujau.

The Piltdown Man

One of the greatest hoaxes in the history of science, the mystery behind the Piltdown Man is still unsolved. When the remains of Eoanthropus dawsoni were discovered in East Sussex in 1912, it was thought the evolutionary link between humans and apes had been found.

It wasn’t till 1953 that the bones were truly identified as an amalgamation. An orangutan jaw had been patched onto a human skull.

Napoleon’s premature demise

A man walks into a Dover pub declaring “Napoleon is dead!” It may sound like the start of a bad joke but, in fact, it’s a swindle. News of the Emperor’s demise flew through 1814 Britain, as it meant war with France was over. In truth, Napoleon wasn’t dead at all. But as the promise of peace grew, the stock market boomed. As a result, three people made a killing on very-recent investments. They were subsequently found guilty of fraud.

A chess supercomputer… in the 18th-century

A chess-playing machine with the uncanny ability to beat almost everyone it plays? Surely such things didn’t exist until the 20th century? Well, yes, but those who saw The Turk in the 18th century would beg to differ. They saw a mechanical man, seated in front of a cabinet, who could play a blinding game of chess, and it looked like real artificial intelligence.

Inside the cabinet was a complex clockwork mechanism and, unbeknown to audiences, a gifted chess player, hidden from view. The Turk was a sensation for 50 years – after its debut in Vienna, 1770, it went on a tour of Europe.

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This content first appeared in BBC History Revealed