Category: Frauds, Scams, Hoaxes

A Bogus Bequest



Being pope in the eighth and ninth centuries was no picnic. His Holiness was often at the mercy of grasping Roman aristocrats or murderous mobs, such as the rabble who in 799 tried to blind Leo II and tear out his tongue. The Lombard’s loomed as a constant threat from the north. And as far as the Byzantine emperor and the Frankish king were concerned, the Vicar of Christ was just another bishop of a vassal state to be controlled and manipulated. These were Dark Ages indeed.

Out of this chaotic era emerged a remarkable forged document, known as the Donation of Constantine, designed to prop up the papacy and bestow upon it unprecedented power and supremacy. It was supposedly written in the fourth century by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, as a solemn legal bequest to Pope Sylvester I and his successors. The Donation was divided into two parts. In the first part, entitled “Confessio,” Constantine, or rather the guy impersonating him on paper, recounted how he was instructed in the Christian faith by Pope Sylvester, and how he was miraculously cured of leprosy at his baptism (a legend widely believed when the forgery was produced sometime between 750 and 850). The “emperor” also made a full profession of faith in the “Confessio.”

The second part of the forgery, called “Donatio,” Constantine supposedly made the pope all-powerful, setting him above all other bishops and churches throughout the world and giving Sylvester “all the perogatives of our supreme imperial position and the glory of our authority.” That included the right to wear the imperial crown, “which we have transferred from our own head.” The pope turned down that particular honor, according to the Donation, but he did allow the emperor to hold the bridle of his horse and perform “the office of groom for him.” Finally, “to correspond to our own empire and so that the supreme pontifical authority may not be dishonored” by a temporal ruler in Rome. “Constantine” supposedly gave the pope and his successors not only that city, “but all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and the Western regions.” (In 330, Constantine had moved the imperial capital east from Rome to the city that bore his name, Constantinople, now Istanbul, thus giving the Donation a touch of historic credibility.)

Historians are uncertain who authored the fake document. Because of its obvious benefits to the papacy, many believe it originated in Rome. Others, however, think the Donation may have been produced by the Franks – an attempt to buttress the papacy, then under protection of King Pepin and his successor Charlemagne, against the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and his claims to the papal states. Whatever the case, Constantine’s “donation” was for centuries believed to be genuine. And though the popes did not enjoy any immediate benefits from the forgery – they were still murdered, maimed, and deposed with alarming regularity – it did serve as part of the foundation upon which later medieval popes reigned with imperial power and grandeur.

The fraud was finally exposed in 1440 by Lorenzo Valla in his Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine. Valla showed with devastating precision just how preposterous the Donation really was, citing its historical anachronisms and other glaring errors. Valla also noted that the temporal claims derived from the document had made the popes not leaders of the faithful, but oppressors of Christians – “so far from giving food and bread to eh household of God . . . they devoured us as food . . . the Pope himself makes ware on peaceable people, and sows discord among states and princes.”

Valla’s lesson was apparently lost on Pope Clement VII, who less than a century later had Raphael decorate his staterooms with frescos glorifying the Donation of Constantine and the supremacy of Rome. During the same reign, the city was sacked by Emperor Charles V. And no wards put in a dead emperor’s mouth could save it.


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The creation of the penny press during the 1830s completely changed the character of the news business. The old six-cent papers had confined themselves to business and political news, but the penny papers discovered that there was a huge market for local news: stories about neighborhood crimes, police reports, social gossip, and human-interest items. As a result, within a few decades almost every major paper had a reporter specifically assigned to local coverage. Such reporters were referred to, logically enough, as the “locals.” The local had to be able to amuse and entertain readers even on days hen not much had occurred. This called for the skills of a humorist, and indeed many of America’s best-known comedic writers got their start as locals. They spiced up slow news days with humor, satire, tall tales, and hoaxes. Three locals working on western papers proved to be particularly adept at their jobs. They were Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Charles Browne (aka Artemus Ward), and William Wright (aka Dan De Quille).

The Paulding County Hyena

On February 6, 1858, readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were shocked to learn that a hyena had broken loose form its cage in a circus and was terrorizing the residents of Paulding County. According to the report a band of men had set forth to recapture the predator, but with little luck. Following the trail of the enraged beast, the pursuers first discovered that it had disinterred a number of bodies from a local cemetery. Then, when they caught up to it and surrounded it, the hyena leapt on one of their number, killing the man instantly. Finally, it bounded off into the woods, killing another man along the way. Readers of the Plain Dealer anxiously waited to hear more about this vicious beast, but three days later, in a follow-up story, the paper apologetically noted that “a few errors” had occurred in the original article. No men had in fact been killed by the hyena. The paper admitted with embarrassment that the hyena had actually never escaped its cage. It was quite certain of this because it had learned that there was no hyena at all. “He is not there now, never was there, and, it is firmly believed, never will be again,” the author of the article stated with conviction. But the author boasted that there was one fact from the article that he was quite certain of: There was definitely a place named Paulding County! The reporting was the work of Artemus Ward.

The Empire City Massacre

In 1863 San Francisco newspapers were spearheading a campaign to convince investors to shift their money from mining ventures into utilities. According to a story that appeared in the Territorial Enterprise on October 28, 1863, this advice resulted in tragedy for at least one man. After losing all his money because the utility had fraudulently cooked its books, the man went insane and slaughtered his entire family (except for two young girls who miraculously survived). He then rode into town “bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the blood was still dripping,” cut his throat, and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted, and readers everywhere were horrified by the gruesome news. No ne thought that it might be false. After all, who would make up something like that? Mark Twain, in fact. He wanted to get the San Francisco newspapers to print a story critical of the utility companies, so he made up the most sensational story he could think of to ensure that they would run it. He succeeded in this goal, but readers failed to see the humor in his hoax. Luckily for Twain his editor forgave him for the controversy that ensued and allowed him to keep his job.

Solar Armor

As anyone who has ever been to Nevada during the summer knows, its deserts can become scorchingly hot. In 1874 the Territorial Enterprise reported the “sad fate” of an inventor who had departed on foot from Virginia City toward Death Valley, determined to beat the desert’s heat. He had clothed himself from head to foot in “solar armor”: a sponge suit saturated with a “frigorific mixture” that cooled the wearer of the suit as it evaporated. The frigorific mixture was replenished through sacks located under the arms. Unfortunately, the inventor’s solar armor worked too well, and he was found a day after frozen stiff in the middle of the desert, a foot-long icicle hanging from his nose. Newspapers throughout the world reprinted the bizarre story but the Daily Telegraph of London had a reaction typical of the general response. It dryly noted that “we would require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.” The story was the fanciful work of Dan De Quille, Mark Twain’s colleague at the Territorial Enterprise.

The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley

Dan De Quille published an article in the Territorial Enterprise on October 26, 1867, describing some unusual stones that could be found in the Pahranagat Valley of southern Nevada. When placed nearby each other, he claimed, the stones would move to come together. As he put it, “These curious pebbles appear to be formed of loadstone or magnetic iron ore. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows.” The article, which was written in a semi-scientific style, seemed quite believable to its readers. It was so believable that as the years went by De Quille began to receive numerous inquiries about the stones from people all over the world. A German scientist wrote to De Quille and refused to believe him when informed that the stones were not real. Instead the scientist accused De Quille of trying to conceal the secret of the stones. A showman then offered De Quille “ten grand” if he would go on tour with his rocks. Eventually De Quille began referring inquiries to Mark Twain, who, he assured correspondents, “has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of various sizes.” The matter got so out of hand that De Quille was forced to publish a retraction. “We solemnly affirm that we never saw or heard of any such diabolical cobbles as the traveling stones of Pahranagat,” he declared in print on November 11, 1879, twelve years after the publication of the original article. But it was to no avail. Letters seeking more information about the miraculous stones still kept pouring in.


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Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) described himself as the “Prince of Humbug,” an epithet he more than earned during his long and illustrious career. Barnum is best remembered today for the circus that still bears his name (and for the animal crackers named after him), but before his circus career he was form any years an internationally famous museum showman. His early career was marked by a variety of outrageous publicity stunts and hoaxes, which he used to attract attention to his bizarre exhibits. His promotional techniques often tested the boundaries of what the emerging middle class was willing to accept, but he was somehow able to convince audiences that he was selling them entertainment, not fraud. People viewed him as a kind of lovable, con artist. The phrase There’s a sucker born every minute will forever be attributed to him, even thug he was not the man who originally said it.

Joice Heth

Joice Heth was a frail, elderly black woman whom a young Barnum put on display in 1835, advertising that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of General George Washington. Heth was the first exhibit that Barnum ever promoted, and in doing so displayed all the marketing skills that he would later become famous for. She immediately drew huge crowds of people eager both to witness her grate age and to hear her stories about raising Washington (who had been dead for over thirty-five years). When the public’s interest in her started to wane, Barnum rekindled its curiosity by spreading a rumor that Joice Heth was not a person at all, but was actually a mechanical robot cleverly designed to look like an old lady. This claim played off the popularity of another exhibit touring America at that time, the Great Chess Automaton. Barnum continued to display her until she died on February 19, 1836. But even in death Barnum found a way to exploit her. He allowed a public autopsy to be performed on her body in order to verify her age. Unfortunately for Barnum the doctor who performed the autopsy declared that she could not have been older than eighty.

The Feejee Mermaid

In August 1842 a traveling English naturalist named “Dr. J. Griffin” arrived in New York City. He had with him a spectacular curiosity – a mermaid supposedly caught near the island of Feejee. The body of the mermaid was put on display in Barnum’s museum, and enormous crowds turned out to see it. Barnum hyped the exhibit by running advertisements in the major newspapers that showed a beautiful naked figure. The actual exhibit, however, was not alluring. It was a small, taxidermically preserved creature with the withered upper body of a monkey and the dried tail of a fish. One critic described it as the “incarnation of ugliness.” The genius of the exhibit was that there was absolutely nothing new about the mermaid. Before it arrived in New York City, it had previously been displayed in Boston for months by another museum without attracting any comment. But when Barnum applied his marketing magic to it the mermaid became an overnight sensation. “Dr. J. Griffin” was part of the deception. He was actually Levi Lyman, one of Barnum’s cronies.

The Feejee Mermaid was lost when Barnum’s museum burned down during the 1860s. A similar mermaid, which some claim to be the original specimen but which is probably not, is owned by Harvard University and is located in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The Free Grand Buffalo Hunt

New York City papers advertised that a free buffalo hunt would occur on August 31, 1843. The ads declared that dangerous wild buffaloes had been captured in New Mexico and transported in for the show. They were being kept behind thick double-rail fencing in an enclosure in Hoboken. Twenty-four thousand New Yorkers, enticed by the allure both of wild beasts and a free show, paid six cents each to take the ferry across the river to Hoboken, where they were met by a herd of malnourished, feeble, very tame buffaloes, hardly the dangerous beasts they had been promised. Barnum, who had secretly engineered the entire “free” show, laughed all the way to the bank, since he had cut a deal with the ferry operators to pocket half their net revenue for the day.


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