Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: List of hoaxes

What it’s about: It’s about a Nigerian prince, and the one weird trick that makes doctors hate him and can earn you $5,300 a month working from home! Yes, as far back as the time they took the word “gullible” out of the dictionary, there have been suckers, and people willing to prey on them by making up stories. Some hoaxes are played out for personal gain, some for amusement, and some wind up being believed by accident.

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Strangest fact: One of our 50 states is named for a hoax. A hundred fifty years ago, when Congress was organizing unincorporated territory in the West, prospector-turned-lobbyist George M. Willing suggested “Idaho,” a Shoshoni word meaning either “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the mountains.” Congress went with Colorado Territory instead, but the name gained some traction, with settlers founding Idaho Springs in what’s now the state of Colorado, and Idaho County in Eastern Washington Territory. When parts of Washington, Colorado, and Dakota territories were combined to form the 43rd state, it was given the name Idaho, although there is no such Shoshoni word, and Willing eventually admitted he made the word up.

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Biggest controversy: Since every hoax on the list was a controversy in its day, we’ll instead look at one of history’s biggest controversy-causers. P.T. Barnum is famous for relentlessly self-promoting his circus and other ventures, and had no qualms about perpetuating hoaxes to attract a crowd. The Fiji mermaid was a taxidermied hybrid of a monkey and a fish, passed off as a mummified mermaid. Barnum at one point owned a slave, 79-year-old Joice Heth, whom he tried to pass off as the 161-year-old former nursemaid to George Washington. (Barnum owned Heth and put on minstrel shows, but his views matured over time and by the 1850s he was an outspoken abolitionist.)

Barnum even doubled down on someone else’s hoax—when a New Yorker named George Hull produced the Cardiff Giant, a supposed petrified man, 10 feet tall, Barnum offered $50,000 for the specimen. When David Hannum, who had bought the giant from Hull, refused to sell, Barnum created his own giant, and passed it off as the original. When people were fooled by Barnum’s copy, Hannum was quoted as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” a quote which has since been misattributed to Barnum, although that’s not a hoax, but a misnomer.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Paul is not dead. There are actually several Beatles-related hoaxes on the list, chief among them the one that was (allegedly) put into motion by the band itself. In 1967, after a dispute with the rest of the band during a recording session, Paul McCartney drove off in anger and got into a car accident. Theories circulated that he had been killed, and by 1969 theories began to appear that McCartney had been replaced by a lookalike named William Campbell, and that the surviving Beatles had left clues in their songs and album artwork. Several of those can be heard in Beatles songs: John supposedly says “I buried Paul” as “Strawberry Fields Forever” is fading out; play some chatter at the end of “I’m So Tired” backwards and John says something that sounds like “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him, miss him”; and “Revolution 9”’s repeated “number nine” backwards sounds remarkably like “turn me on, dead man.” The photo booklet that came with the original pressing of Magical Mystery Tour is also supposedly loaded with clues—McCartney with a black flower in his lapel when the other Beatles have red; Paul in front of a sign reading “I You Was.” The band’s outfits on the cover of Abbey Road are also supposed to represent a funeral; John is dressed as a preacher, Ringo the undertaker, George the gravedigger, and Paul, in a suit but barefoot, the corpse. McCartney himself has never acknowledged the rumors without including a sly wink, leaving Beatles fans to trade theories for nearly 50 years.

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But other bands propagated Beatles-related hoaxes. A single appeared in 1967 by a band called the Moles, which was promoted with broad hints that the group was secretly the Fab Four under another name (it was in fact Simon Dupree And The Big Sound, most notable because its members later formed the prog-rock group Gentle Giant). A 1969 issue of Rolling Stone mentioned a bootleg album by The Masked Marauders, supposedly a supergroup included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger. The magazine got such a big response that a Marauders album was released, with songs like “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” and “Cow Pie,” alongside covers like “Duke Of Earl,” and “Season Of The Witch.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Modern-day hoaxes are less fun. Most of the recent hoaxes on the list are along the lines of fabricated news articles written by the likes of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, or the Bush administration’s use of forged documents to support the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed yellowcake uranium. More colorful is the balloon boy hoax, in which Richard and Mayumi Heene claimed that a helium balloon they had launched was carrying their 6-year-old son, Falcon. The media reported the story unquestioningly, until the balloon came down, sans child, who had been hiding in the family’s attic the whole time.

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We’re also unhappy to learn the list omits the story of J.T. Leroy, who wrote about his experiences as a teenage male prostitute for New York Press and Nerve, published four novels, and wrote the original (mostly unused) screenplay for Elephant before it was revealed that he was the fictional persona of Laura Albert, and that another woman, Savannah Knoop, had been making public appearances as Leroy on Albert’s behalf.

Also noteworthy: Stories have persisted since the 13th century of a female pope. Pope Joan was supposedly a well-educated woman who, while disguised as a man, rose through the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, being named Cardinal, and then Pope. She’s undone, however, when she gives birth, exposing her ruse. While the earliest mention of Joan, Chronica Universalis Mettensis, makes the medically improbable claim that “while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child,” another popular account, Chronicon Pontificum Et Imperatorum, merely says she goes into labor while in procession across Rome. After being revealed as a woman, she’s either killed immediately, or defrocked and dies soon after, depending on the version of the story. Naturally, the scandalized Vatican removes any mention of a female pope from their records, which is why the story can’t be authenticated. But really, it can’t be authenticated because it’s made up.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Not all of P.T. Barnum’s stunts were hoaxes. When the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed, many New Yorker’s were worried the bridge would collapse, so Barnum marched a herd of circus elephants across the roadway to prove its strength, providing sterling publicity for the bridge’s safety, and of course for Barnum’s circus. While many people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge, Steve Brodie supposedly jumped from the bridge and lived in 1886. While there isn’t rock-solid proof for or against, it’s widely believed that a dummy made the 14-story drop and Brodie merely waited below to swim to shore. Regardless, the stunt made Brodie famous in his time, while the Brooklyn Bridge has remained one of America’s most recognizable landmarks, whose Wikipedia tells more about one of the 19th century’s greatest construction projects.

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Further down the wormhole: The least memorable name on the list, although far from the least memorable story, is Document 12-571-3570, a supposed NASA document affirming that two space shuttle astronauts had sex in space. The document was originally posted in 1989 to a Usenet newsgroup (ask your parents), claiming that a male and female astronaut tested 10 sex positions during mission STS-75, aided by “the use of a belt and an inflatable tunnel.” Only problem is, STS-75 wasn’t flown until 1996, and had an all-male crew. To date, NASA doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any astronaut-on-astronaut action, but that doesn’t stop Wikipedia from having a lot to say about sex in space. We’ll have plenty of jokes about “reentry” ready for next week.