Fake news: 8 of the most notorious photograph hoaxes, from fairies to UFOs
A picture tells a thousand words, so they say. But it doesn’t always follow that those words speak the truth. Charlotte Hodgman explores the stories behind some of the most remarkable hoax photographs that have been taken since the advent of the technology in the 19th century
The Cottingley Fairies, 1917
When cousins Elsie Wright (above) and Frances Griffiths produced photos of themselves seemingly interacting with sprites, gnomes and fairies, they achieved overnight notoriety and sparked widespread debate.
The validity of the photographs divided opinion for more than 60 years, until Elsie finally confessed to the Cottingley Fairy hoax, in 1983: the fairies were, in fact, drawings secured in the ground and to branches with hatpins.
Grow your own... giant vegetables, 1911
In what is surely every gardener’s dream, two men struggle to squeeze a giant root vegetable through a cellar door.
Despite their jaw-dropping size, these giant veggies were actually the work of photographer Alfred Stanley Johnson, who was known for adding oversized produce to staged photographs to create ‘tall-tale’ postcards that promoted Wisconsin’s agricultural abundance.
Spirit photography, c1862–75
In the wake of the American Civil War, ‘spirit photographer’ William H Mumler claimed he could reunite grieving sitters – on camera at least – with their deceased loved ones one last time. It’s unclear exactly how Mumler achieved such ghostly effects but, despite scepticism and accusations of fraud, there were many willing to pay to have their likeness taken with their dearly departed.
- Read more | The rise of spiritualism after WW1
The ‘Drowned Man’, 1840
In 1840, a bitter feud was playing out between Hippolyte Bayard and Louis Daguerre for the title of ‘the father of photography’. When Daguerre revealed his daguerreotype – the first practical photographic process – ahead of Bayard, the latter responded with the photo below, depicting himself as a drowned man.
Written on the reverse of the photo was a note stating that “the unhappy man [Bayard] threw himself into the water in despair” in response to the lack of recognition received for his role in the invention of photography. In fact, Bayard was alive and well, and now holds the title of creator of the first hoax photograph.
The Loch Ness Monster, 1934
Since the first account by Saint Columba in AD 565 of a monster lurking beneath the waters of Loch Ness, the hunt has been underway to find ‘Nessie’. Several images have emerged over the years allegedly ‘proving’ the monster’s existence, including this one, taken by doctor Robert Kenneth Wilson in 1934 and published in the Daily Mail that same year.
Decades later, Wilson’s ‘monster’ was found to have been created by grafting a plastic wood neck to a toy submarine.
- Read more | The quest for the Loch Ness Monster
Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party, 1912
No, your eyes do not deceive you. Below is a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt crossing a river on a giant moose. It wasn’t, however, taken from life. The image was created by photography firm Underwood and Underwood as Roosevelt was campaigning as a presidential candidate for the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party).
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The image was published in the New York Tribune on 8 September 1912 alongside photographs of two other candidates: incumbent William Howard Taft was depicted astride an elephant, while Woodrow Wilson was pictured on the back of a donkey.
Colin Evans the sham showman, 1938
Welsh medium Colin Evans, shown seemingly levitating in the air, drew in huge crowds with his claims that he could be lifted from his chair by the ‘power of the spirits’.
In truth, however, he was little more than a fraud. As the audience sat in the pitch dark around him, Evans would jump into the air, simultaneously pressing a button on the end of a cord (seen here in his left hand) that would trigger a flash photograph. The resulting image gave the impression of levitation, although his blurred feet, their movement captured on film as he jumped, would eventually give him away.
- Read more | How to carry off a great hoax
Close encounter, 1976
When Swiss national Billy Meier claimed he had proof that he had been in contact with aliens from the Pleiades star cluster since the age of five, few believed him.
Determined to prove his story, Meier produced photographs purporting to show UFOs hovering over the Swiss countryside. Meier went on to found a UFO religion, but his photos have been widely dismissed as fakes.
- On the podcast | Dr David Clarke explains how the idea of extra-terrestrials developed into an enduring modern myth
This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
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