Five of the greatest hoaxes of our time

Over the past few months we’ve been shocked to learn that Belle Gibson, who claimed to have cured herself from cancer with a healthy-eating plan, never had cancer at all, and allegedly profited from the deception. But this is not the first time the public has been swindled, and it surely won’t be the last.

Here is a selection of hoaxes that had a lot of people going at some point. Were you one of them?

The Masked Marauders

In 1969, Rolling Stone published a review of the first album by a new band called the Masked Marauders, which featured Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, concluding, “It can truly be said that this album is more than a way of life; it is life”.

According to the review, the album featured an extended jam between Paul MacCartney and… himself, playing both the piano and the bass guitar. It also spoke of Bob Dylan’s “deep bass voice”.

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Music lovers completely missed the joke, believing the album to be real and not the editor’s dig at the “supergroups” trend he disliked. Fans were so desperate to get their hands on the album that Greil Marcus recruited an obscure group from San Francisco to record one, which Warner Bros agreed to distribute.

The album sold 100,000 copies.

Included with the album was the Rolling Stones review plus a note in the liner that read, “In a world of sham, the Masked Marauders, bless their hearts, are the genuine article.”

Naked came the stranger

Still in 1969, Penelope Ashe, a bored Long Island housewife, wrote a trashy novel called Naked Came the Stranger that became an instant hit. The book was promoted – in person – at bookstores and on TV. But all was not as it seemed.

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The “author” of the bodice-ripper was in fact a man named Mike McGrady, a Newsday columnist disgusted with the lurid state of the modern bestseller. Rather than complain to a small audience who would listen, the writer decided to expose the issue by writing a book that had absolutely no value to society.

McGrady asked 24 colleagues to each write a chapter of the book, placing heavy emphasis on sex. He then collected the smutty tale and edited it carefully to make sure there was not a scrap of literary merit left.

An independent publisher released the first edition of Naked Came the Stranger, with the part of authoress played by McGrady’s sister-in-law.

While the journalist’s ploy worked, it also backfired. The book spent 13 weeks on theTimes’s bestseller list and sold 100,000 copies, despite the hoax being revealed early on and some very average reviews. By 2012, nearly 400,000 copies had been sold.

Ern Malley poetry

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In a similar vein, a series of poems published in the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins by an unknown poet named Ernest “Ern” Malley were highly praised by Max Harris, editor and passionate champion of modernist poetry.

In what turned out to be Australia’s most celebrated literary hoax, it transpired the poems were in fact written by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, a couple of creatives who lamented “the loss of meaning and craftsmanship” in poetry, and dashed off the verses to show that even meaningless codswallop could get taken seriously by the avante garde.

As if the publisher of Angry Penguins wasn’t humiliated enough, he was successfully prosecuted for publishing “indecent matter”  under the South Australian Police Act.

It is said the prank undermined the cause of literary modernism and experimentation in Australian literature.; ironically the poems  of Ern Malley endure as popular literary works in their own right, and have continued to inspire generations of artists, writers and imitators.

Killer drop-bears

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We Aussies love a joke and the best jokes are those that build on a known truth. The known truth in this case is that Australia has many dangerous creatures. The joke part is that they resemble angry koalas and leap onto their prey from the trees.

Even the Australian Museum catalogues drop bears in its official list of fauna, classifying them as Thylarctos plummetus. The satirical listing says drop bears are the size of a very large dog, have coarse orange fur with dark mottling, have powerful forearms for climbing and attacking prey, and bite using broad powerful premolars rather than canines.

It may seem like a harmless bit of fun, but apparently a recent arrival of US soldiers admitted they were half-expecting to see killer koala-like creatures falling from trees when they docked in Brisbane.

Until recently, another legendary (but totally made up) creature, the hoop snake, had its own listing in Wikipedia complete with pictures and plenty of “scientific” background. The distinguishing feature of a hoop snake is that it can grasp its tail in its jaws and roll after its prey like a wheel.

Grow-your-own spaghetti

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On April 1, 1957, the BBC news program Panorama presented a segment about a Swiss town’s spaghetti crop, which was particularly fruitful that year thanks to warmer spring weather and the eradication of the spaghetti weevil.

“For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti,” anchor Richard Dimbleby said.

The next day the BBC was flooded with hundreds of phone calls from people eager to grow their own noodles (remember, spaghetti was a rare treat for British diners in those days). Keeping the ruse going, the BBC instructed anyone interested in a pasta-bearing tree to “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

These are just a few examples of great hoaxes that had us all going. Which other famous swindles do you remember?