We’re so often told that “no one would ever lie about something so terrible,” such as being the victim of a horrible tragedy. The fact of the matter is that this is exactly the sort of thing people will lie about, precisely because no one would want to question them.
Below you’ll find a list of some of the greatest (meaning worst) hoaxes of all time. We use the term “hoax” broadly to include frauds, con-men, liars, and faked events.
1. The Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax
In 2006, Crystal Mangum claimed she was raped while working as a stripper at a party thrown by the Duke men’s lacrosse team. Her story repeatedly changed as to how many players raped her, but Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong pressured her into selecting three random players in an apparent attempt to advance his political aspirations.
Three players were eventually charged, including one who wasn’t even at the party at the time the rape allegedly occurred.
The men were eventually cleared, but not before campus activists – including racial and gender studies professors – accused them of being rapists and protested outside their home, forcing them to move out.
The team’s season was also cancelled and their head coach was fired.
A few years later, Mangum was convicted on a second-degree murder charge for the 2011 stabbing death of her boyfriend.
2. Anna Anderson
Anderson was the most famous of many women who falsely claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. Anderson claimed in 1922 she had actually survived when the rest of the Russian royal family was murdered.
Two years earlier, she had been institutionalized in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt.
Her claim gained media attention, but she was unable to prove she was a member of the royal family. In reality, Anastasia had died along with the rest of her family.
3. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Article
In 1980, Cooke’s Washington Post article about a nine-year-old heroin addict rocked the world and won her a Pulitzer Prize a year later. The Post stood by Cooke’s article when questions arose, but ultimately she returned the prize after confessing that the story was fake.
Prior to that, then-Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry organized a search for the young heroin addict. He later lied, claiming the boy was receiving treatment and later pronounced dead. Except, the boy never existed.
In addition, Cooke also lied about her academic credentials, claiming she had a master’s degree from the University of Toledo, when she only had a bachelor’s degree from the school.
4. Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect
Kitty Genovese was a real woman who was really murdered outside her apartment in 1964, but thanks to “flawed” reporting from The New York Times, her death sparked a fake psychology term known as “The Bystander Effect.”
You were probably taught this in high school and in college. The effect suggests that people who witness a crime but know there are other witnesses are less likely to report the crime, thinking someone else probably already did.
That theory was based on a claim from a New York Times reporter who said 38 people witnessed the attack but didn’t call the police because they assumed someone else already had. That original reporting was questioned nearly 40 years later.
5. War of the Worlds
The hoax here is actually not the 1938 Orson Welles radio play in which he claimed aliens were invading New Jersey. The actual hoax is the decades-long claim that this radio play created a mass panic.
For starters, Welles announced at the beginning of the broadcast that it was not real, though admittedly some listeners might have missed that.
Though the popular account is that the radio play caused a mass panic, according to a radio rating service of the era, just 2% of respondents asked what they were listening to the night of Welles’ broadcast answered “War of the Worlds.”
In other words, there were relatively few listeners and even fewer who may have been “panicked” by the broadcast.
6. The Hitler Diaries
In 1983, the West German news magazine Stern paid the equivalent of $3.7 million for sixty volumes of journals allegedly written by Adolf Hitler.
In reality, the books were forged by petty criminal Konrad Kujau.
The Sunday Times had purchased serialization rights to the tomes after Stern’s purchase and asked historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to authenticate them.
After initially saying they were legitimate, Trevor-Roper backtracked. Upon further examination, the diaries were quickly proven to be fakes.
7. Piltdown Man
In 1912, a man named Charles Dawson claimed he had discovered a skull that was the “missing link” between men and apes.
The skull was referred to as the Piltdown Man and was accepted science for 41 years before the hoax was finally uncovered. Another 63 years would pass before Dawson would be determined to be the perpetrator.
Originally, the skull was deemed to be that of a human ancestor 500,000 years old.
In reality, the skull contained the lower jaw of a 500-year-old orangutan, chimpanzee fossil teeth, and the skull of a human from the medieval age. The whole contraption was stained to make it appear older than it actually was.
8. Loch Ness Monster Photo
One of the most famous photos of all time, purportedly showing evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, is, of course, a fake.
The photo was supposedly taken by British doctor Robert Wilson in April 1934 but was actually staged by a group of men who had enlisted Wilson to help them pull off the hoax.
The “monster” is actually a toy submarine with a wood putty head, dropped in a shallow part of the lake by the conspirators.
One of the men involved in the hoax, Marmaduke Wetherell, apparently wanted to get back at London’s Daily Mail for previously discrediting him for trying to promote other fake Loch Ness monster photos. He orchestrated the creation of the famous photo – which ran in the paper – to get his revenge.
9. Satanic Daycare Panic
For nearly a decade, starting in the early 1980s, some children made fantastic claims of sexual abuse at the hands of Satan-worshipping daycare workers.
People went to jail. Some were only released a few years ago.
The saga was extended by child psychologists, who pushed children to make more and more outrageous claims in order to avoid getting in trouble.
At trials across the country, prosecutors ignored claims by children of being fed to sharks or shot into outer space, instead insisting claims of plausible acts were true while the implausible claims were manifestations of trauma.
The most famous of the trials was the McMartin preschool trial that lasted 7 years and cost some $15 million.
10. Alicia Esteve “Tania” Head
Tania Head claimed she worked for Merrill Lynch in the World Trade Center’s south tower on September 11, 2001. She said her husband worked in the north tower and was killed. She told a fantastic story about working on the floor hit by the second plane and being carried to safety by 9/11 hero Welles Crowther.
In reality, Head was a Spanish citizen who was in Spain on 9/11, never worked for Merrill Lynch, and was not married to the man she claimed, who was an actual person who died during the terrorist attacks.
Still, Head became famous and took control of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network and met with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, and then-New York Gov. George Pataki.