Lisa Thompson shares her favourite hoaxes throughout history (and how to avoid fake news)

Published on: 16 January 2020 Author: Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson, author of The Boy Who Fooled The World, shares her favourite fakery – and how we can try to stop being fooled by these stories that do the rounds.

In my latest middle-grade novel, The Boy Who Fooled The World, 12-year-old Cole becomes an overnight modern art sensation. Cole’s painting, "Catch", has sold for £100,000 at an auction in a top London gallery. His family have been struggling financially and now they have more money than they could ever imagine. However, Cole’s painting isn’t exactly all that it seems: he has fooled the world. When his secret is exposed, everything comes crashing down around him.

While researching the novel, I had great fun reading about some fascinating hoaxes throughout history. Some were funny, some a bit gruesome, but all were incredibly clever...

5 fascinating hoaxes

1. Spaghetti trees

I’m not a big fan of April Fool’s Day and I’ve never really understood the desire to make other people feel silly, but this must be one of the best April Fool deceptions ever. In 1957, the BBC TV news show Panorama orchestrated a pretty spectacular hoax on their viewers.

During the programme, they transmitted a three-minute film of a family in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from their "spaghetti trees".

Eight million viewers saw the black-and-white footage and many of them were fooled. The next day, hundreds of people rang the BBC, asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees.

2. The Fiji mermaid

In 1842, the showman P T Barnum exhibited the "Fiji mermaid" in his American Museum in New York. He advertised the creature using drawings of beautiful mermaids with long, flowing hair, but this mermaid was anything but.

It was, in fact, made from the head and body of a small monkey, sewn onto the tail of a fish, believed to have been made by a Japanese fisherman. In Barnum’s autobiography, he described it exactly as it looked:'an ugly, dried-up, black-looking, and diminutive specimen... its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.'

3. Han van Meegeren

Han van Meegeren was a classically trained Dutch artist living in the 1930s. His work was criticised for being unoriginal, so as a way of getting revenge on his critics, he decided to create a "new" work by the artist Johannes Vermeer.

Van Meegeren used genuine pigments and a canvas from the 17th century and added Bakelite which, when baked in the oven, made the paint dry very hard and crack, giving it the impression that the picture was hundreds of years old.

He fooled everybody and, over the next few years, he created six more "Vermeers", as well as paintings by other Dutch masters.

Van Meegeren was eventually arrested for treason shortly after World War Two, when it came to light that he had sold a painting to a Nazi leader. His only defence was to admit that the artwork had been forged. The story was big news at the time and Van Meegeren became known as the world’s greatest art forger of the 20th century.

4. Pierre Brassau – the monkey artist

In 1964, four paintings by a previously unknown French artist, Pierre Brassau, were exhibited in Sweden. The praise for the paintings from art critics and journalists was pretty unanimous. One critic said: 'Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.'

Just one found the work disagreeable, saying 'Only an ape could have done this.' They were correct. Pierre Brassau was, in fact, a four-year-old West African chimpanzee called Peter from a zoo in Sweden. The hoax had been thought up by a journalist to put art critics to the test. Could these "experts" tell the difference between modern art and paintings by a monkey?

5. The Cottingley Fairies

Probably my favourite hoax of all was instigated by children. Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffiths (9) lived in Cottingley, Bradford, in the early part of the 20th century.

The two girls often played by a stream at Elsie’s house, telling their parents they went there to see the fairies. To prove it, Elsie borrowed her father’s camera and after the photograph was developed, it appeared to show Frances smiling at the lens while four fairies danced in front of her.

The girls went on to produce four more "fairy" photographs that caused a great deal of interest from the public, scientists, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was convinced that the photographs were evidence of psychic phenomena.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Elsie and Frances finally admitted that the fairies were in fact, cardboard cut-outs – something that the scientific investigations failed to spot. However, the story doesn’t end quite there because Frances still maintained that the fifth and final photo was completely genuine… So maybe it wasn’t entirely a hoax after all?

How to check for "fake news"

These are all relatively harmless hoaxes, but we now live in a time where "fake news" is mentioned on an almost daily basis. So how do we avoid ourselves and our children being taken in by modern-day myths?

The main thing to do is to ask questions. Is the story being reported elsewhere? Is it on a reputable news website like BBC News or Sky News? If not, then why? Have you heard of the person or organisation who has published it?

If the post is on social media and you are unsure, then don’t share, like/dislike or comment – this only makes the fake news spread further. Does it make you angry, sad or shocked? If so, check twice. If it’s fake, then causing a reaction like this is intentional, with the hope that you’re too angry/upset to check any further.

If you want clarification, you can always head to the UK independent fact-checking site, Full Fact. They are an impartial charity aiming to give everyone the chance to see the facts and make up their own minds.

Remember, when it comes to hoaxes – if something sounds unbelievable, then it probably is.

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