and how not to be fooled yourself
You'd think that, after 300 years, people would catch on. A "kick me" sign pinned to someone's back dates to the 1700s. Pennies glued to the pavement are just as old. Faked photos have been around nearly as long as photography itself (a 19th-century invention). Concocted creatures - ever hear of a "jackalope"? - are old, old news as well.Skip to next paragraph
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But that doesn't mean people don't fall for such things today. And while pranks such as "kick me" signs and superglued coins are exposed in a moment, faked photos and other hoaxes can last longer. A host of hoaxes - deceptions publicly parading as truths - circulate on the Internet every day. Some hoaxes last for weeks, months, even decades.
So, to arm you for April Fool's Day, here are a few well-known hoaxes from the past and present.
In 1917, 15-year-old Elsie Wright and her cousin, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths, gushed to their parents that they'd been out playing with fairies. Naturally, the grownups didn't believe them - until they saw pictures. The photos appeared to show the girls in a garden in Cottingley, Yorkshire, with tiny winged creatures prancing about.
After a local photographic expert pronounced the images real, word spread. Many people began to believe in fairies. The photos even duped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries!
Sixty years later, the cousins confessed: They had cut out the fairy figures from a children's book and attached them to garden plants with hatpins. It began as a prank and got out of hand.
Earlier, in the late 1800s, faked photos had been used to try to convince people that a phantom city existed in Alaska and that "brain waves" could produce the image of a cat on film. By the early 1900s, "freak postcards" showed corn as big as trees, barn-size cabbages, and whopper grass-hoppers. The photos were cut out and pasted together to create the effect.
Then along came "Snowball, the Monster Cat." In early 2000, a startling image began circulating on the Internet. It showed a bearded man holding a cat as big as a large dog. It seemed outlandish, but it looked so real. A story began circulating with the photo: Snowball's mother (a normal-size cat) had been abandoned near a nuclear lab. Somehow, nuclear radiation had resulted in the enormous Snowball. Many believed it - or scoffed that it was a normal-size cat with a very small man. When the photo appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the cat was let out of the bag.
In May 2001, Washington resident Cordell Hauglie announced that "Snowball" was his daughter's cat, Jumper, who weighed a mere 21 pounds. He had created the fake image in 20 minutes using photo manipulation software. He'd e-mailed the image to friends as a joke. Somehow, the joke ... snowballed.
Today, Mr. Hauglie is still mystified and amused. Even after the image was exposed as a fake, people wanted to come by to see "the giant cat." He created the photo "never thinking for a moment that adults would assume such a cat really existed!" he says via e-mail.
The most convincing hoaxes, however, are often the ones created by the experts themselves. On April 1, 1957, the BBC's prestigious "Panorama" TV show reported on the "spaghetti harvest" in Switzerland. Viewers saw Richard Dimbleby, the show's anchor, walking among trees dripping with noodles as a rural family plucked pasta and put it in baskets.
"The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry," Dimbleday told viewers. "For the Swiss ... it tends to be more of a family affair." Viewers eager to grow spaghetti were reportedly told by the BBC to "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best." (To be fair, spaghetti was an exotic dish in Britain in the 1950s.) To see the broadcast, go to www.bbc.co.uk and search for "Swiss spaghetti harvest."
Alex Boese, who has tracked hoaxes for several years on MuseumOfHoaxes.com, says this is his favorite. It meets his top criteria for a "good" hoax: "That it's not mean, and that it makes people laugh."
Today, many companies send out phony press releases or publish fake ads on April Fool's Day. They want to show customers that they can be lighthearted and, of course, they want the publicity.
On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell took out full-page ads in five major newspapers announcing that they were buying the Liberty Bell and renaming it. It would now be known as the "Taco Liberty Bell."
"A lot of people were angry," says Mr. Boese. "You just think of all the sports stadiums being named after companies these days - but now the Liberty Bell?" Taco Bell kept a straight corporate face until noon and then revealed that it was a joke.