When you tell your sister you got called into work because you can’t stand the thought of going to dinner with her husband, that falls into the “little white lie” category. Your fib isn’t hurting anyone. In fact, it is sparing your sister’s feelings.
Then there are big lies, the kind that are believed by hundreds or thousands of people. There have been many cases of misinformation, fake news, cover-ups, hoaxes, and outright lies throughout history that, when they came to light, were embarrassing, scandalous, and even dangerous.
Beware of Gift-Giving Greeks
Since the classical era, the story of how the Greeks defeated the Trojans by gifting them a giant wooden horse statue with Greek soldiers hidden inside, waiting to attack Troy from within. From this tale we get the cautionary phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and the term “Trojan horse” to mean a surprise attack from within … like the malicious computer virus of the same name.
The story of the Greeks and the Trojan Horse is a classic example of trickery at its best. The Trojan War, which started as a lover’s triangle with two men vying for the hand of the lovely Helen, ended with humiliating defeat when the naive Trojans accepted the gift horse – another saying that originated from this story – and unknowingly brought the enemy into their walled city. It wasn’t a standard military tactic, but as they say, “All’s fair in love and war.”
The Last Surviving Romanov … Or Not
In July 1918, the entire Romanov family, the last ruling family of the Russian Empire, was executed. Their deaths were seen as necessary during the Russian Revolution as it eliminated the monarchy and made room for the establishment of the Bolshevik government. Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children were killed by firing squad and their bodies were buried in a shallow grave in the forest. That was the end of the Romanov family … or was it?
Three years later, a young woman named Anna Anderson was admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt. There, she told an amazing story. She claimed to be Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of Nicholas II. She stated that she survived the shooting that killed her family and had been in hiding ever since. Several of the crown heads of Europe believed her story and welcomed her as a princess. When the grave of the Romanov family was finally found and a DNA analysis was done, the world learned that Anna Anderson was an imposter.
Another Russian Anna … Another Imposter Story
Anna Sorokin, who used the name Anna Delvey, showed up on New York City’s social scene claiming to be a wealthy German heiress. She impressed people with her knowledge of fine art and fashion and appeared to be well-connected. She lived a lavish lifestyle in the poshest hotels in New York, dined at expensive restaurants, and traveled to exotic locations. She lived the true heiress life. There was just one problem.
Anna Delvey racked up a substantial amount of debt, skipped out on paying her hotel bills, and bilked individuals and businesses out of thousands of dollars. She was not the heiress she claimed to be and was, in fact, the daughter of a working-class Russian family. She was a schemer, con artist, imposter, fraudster, and thief who was arrested in 2017 on multiple counts of grand larceny. The one-time poster child for affluence served time in jail.
The Titanic Wasn’t Called “Unsinkable” Until After It Sank
Stories of the sinking of the luxury liner, the RMS Titanic, often include references to how the ship’s builders and owner believed the 70,000-ton steel vessel to be “unsinkable” up until its maiden voyage when it struck an iceberg and sank into the icy North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. The idea that the White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic, considered the luxury liner to be impervious to the hazards of ocean travel made them look cocky and arrogant.
In reality, the word “unsinkable” was not used to describe the Titanic until after it was resting on the ocean floor. Neither the White Star Line nor Harland and Wollf, the ship’s builders, claimed the luxury liner was unsinkable. After the Titanic struck the iceberg and sent out distress calls to over vessels in the area, P.A.S. Franklin, the vice president of the White Star Line’s New York office, was asked to comment on reports that the Titanic was experiencing trouble. He said, “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable.” He did not know when he uttered those words that the liner had already sunk.
When Greed Infiltrated America’s Favorite Pastime
Sports fans love their games in part because the outcome remains undecided until the contest is over. We enjoy rooting for our favorite teams and cheering them onto victory. But what if the outcome was already predetermined? It would undercut the integrity of the sport. What a let-down that would be for the fans. That betrayal was at the heart of the 1919 White Sox scandal, a dark moment in baseball history became known as the Black Sox scandal.
Ahead of the 1919 World Series, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and seven other White Sox players were approached by gamblers to intentionally lose to the Cincinnati Reds. The players, who were dissatisfied with their low wages, accepted the bribe, and were paid the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s money. An investigation ensued and the players were punished with a lifetime ban from professional baseball by Commissioner Landis who was determined to maintain the sport’s integrity for the sake of the fans.
The Elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Invasion of Iraq
In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice spoke often to the American people about how Iraq, under President Saddam Hussein, was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, they claimed, was a threat to global security and was violating the United Nations’ rules. How did they come to this belief? They all insisted that U.S. intelligence in the region was reporting the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
President Bush rallied the American public with the insistence that the U.S. should find Iraq’s cache of weapons of mass destruction and secure them before Hussein could unleash them on the world. This was the primary justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Hussein was overthrown but no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. The U.S. government maintains that they received faulty intelligence, however there are plenty of others who believe that the government lied to the public and used the fear of global weapons as an excuse to meddle in the affairs of another country. There is a lie in here somewhere, but just who lied to who?
Charles Ponzi, the Man Behind the Schemes
A Ponzi scheme, as we know, is a form of investment fraud in which the perpetrator uses money collected from new investors to pay existing investors to perpetuate the lie that their investment is paying off. The name for this type of racket immortalizes Charles Ponzi, an Italian con artist, fraudster, and thief, who developed a pyramid scheme in 1919, bilking his investors out of millions of dollars.
Charles Ponzi’s scheme involved buying and selling international reply coupons. He conned his investors into trusting him with their life savings by promising them huge returns and virtually no risk. In reality, there were no huge returns. He paid his initial investors with the money he brought in from new investors until the entire pyramid crashed and burned. All that remained was Ponzi’s name which is forever linked to investment swindles.
Bernie Madoff, Taking a Page from the Charles Ponzi Playbook
By lying to thousands of investors, financier Bernie Madoff bilked his clients out of billions of dollars over the span of several decades in the late 1900s and early 2000s. Taking a page from Charles Ponzi’s infamous playbook, Madoff’s investment firm falsely claimed to deliver high and risk-free returns on investments. Instead of actually investing the money his clients gave him in legitimate avenues of investment, Madoff used the money to pay fake returns to earlier investors.
Bernie Madoff’s lies and his elaborate Ponzi scheme imploded in December 2008 when a global financial crisis led his investors to request withdrawal of their money. Madoff was unable to meet the requests. An investigation revealed that he owed his investors roughly $65 billion, making this con the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff was convicted of multiple counts of fraud and sentenced to 150 years in prison. He died in 2021.
“Paul Is Dead”: A Fab Lookalike
The Beatles were such a cultural influence that it is no wonder the members of the British band was the target of conspiracy theories and conjecture. One of the most persistent falsehoods about the Fab Four centers around one of its members, Paul McCartney. As the story goes, Paul McCartney died in a car accident in 1966. The other members of the band, along with their manager, wanted to spare their fans the heartache of his death … and keep their gravy train steaming ahead. So, they found a lookalike and passed him off as McCartney.
Many of their fans and people within the music industry embraced the belief that McCartney was dead. They pointed to obscure details in the art and images on the Beatles’ album covers as subtle shoutouts to their fallen mate. The problem was, the reports of Paul McCartney’s death had been greatly exaggerated. The musician did an interview with Life magazine to squash the rumors and even mocked the conspiracy theory by titling his 1993 album, “Paul Is Live.”
Long Live the King
On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock-n-Roll, died of an apparent drug overdose in his Graceland Mansion in Memphis. Was Elvis just another addicted celebrity or is there more to the story of his death, as many people believe? Rumors have persisted that Elvis faked his own death and has gone into hiding, perhaps in the government’s witness protection program. Conspiracy theorists have evidence to back up their claims.
First, the name on Elvis’s tombstone is spelled incorrectly. Then there are reports that his life insurance policy went unclaimed and that the handwriting on his death certificate matches Elvis’s. But the theory goes much deeper to state that Elvis, who long had an interest in law enforcement, was secretly working for the U.S. government as an undercover informant ratting out drug trafficking in the entertainment industry. But when he became a target of organized crime gangs, he faked his death.
The Music Industry’s Biggest Fakers
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the German duo of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, collectively known as Milli Vanilli, shot to stardoms with their debut album, All or Nothing, and hit song, “Girl, You Know It’s True.” The pair were even awarded a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990. Fans wondered why the German singers with their limited English and thick accents sounded so different in interviews than they did on their album. They soon got their answer.
Milli Vanilli was invited to sing during an MTV performance that was aired live. During their song, an audio glitch occurred. People watching the live performance heard Pilatus’s voice skip and repeat the same lyric over and over. The duo had been caught lip-synching to a prerecorded tape. Upon further investigation, though, it was proven that the singing voices on the tape and, indeed, on their hit album, didn’t even belong to Morvan and Pilatus. They had been pretending to be singers by using studio performers.
That Time Walter Ulbricht Promised to Not Build a Wall
In the early 1960s, things weren’t going well for East Germany as more than 1.65 million people left the country and headed to West Germany. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had a solution – built a wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing the country. He tapped Walter Ulbricht to oversee the project. Ulbricht made large purchases of barbed wire, concrete, and metal fencing, although he tried to keep these items under wraps.
In June 1961, Ulbricht was publicly questioned about these purchases. He deliberately lied to his people and firmly stated, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” How do we know that he lied? Well, two months later, on August 13, 1961, construction on the Berlin Wall began. When it was finished, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of Cold War oppression until it was torn down in 1989.
An Archaeological Hoax
Since the discovery of fossilized remains of early humans, scientists have been trying to complete man’s ancient family tree by finding the so-called “missing link” – the version of hominid that provides the link between modern man and his ape ancestors. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, announced that he found this long-sought-after specimen in the bogs of England. Did Dawson make the discovery of a lifetime? Nope!
Dawson’s discovery, known as Piltdown Man, was, at first, hailed as an important clue to support the idea of gradual human evolution. But by the 1950s, researchers took a closer look at Piltdown Man and came to a mind-blowing realization. The fossilized bones belonged to more than one individual. Moreover, some of the bones had been painted to give them an aged appearance. In 1953, the Piltdown Man was declared to be a hoax crafted by cleverly combining bones from a modern ape with those of an older human to fool the scientific community.
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear on the News
The very definition of fake news was the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that aired on the evening of October 30, 1938. The brainchild of Orson Welles, the broadcast was part of “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” series, but Welles put a believable twist on it that sparked panic and mass hysteria among many of its listeners.
Presented as a series of news bulletins and radio reports, the broadcast had folks convinced that Martians had invaded Earth. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast showed the power of radio, but also the responsibility of the media to guard against spreading misinformation and falsehoods, even for entertainment purposes.
Fairies Aren’t Read, Sherlock!
British author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the literary character, Sherlock Holmes, failed to see the clues and fell for a hoax perpetrated by two young cousins and a camera. In 1917, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin, Frances Griffith, took a series of photographs of fairies frolicking in their garden in northern England.
The photos were widely circulated and caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was convinced that the girls had photographic evidence to prove the existence of fairies. Fast forward to 1983 when Elsie and Frances were senior citizens. That’s when they finally admitted that they faked the photos by copying images from a book, adding wings, and making cardboard cut-outs of fairies.
More Mythical Creatures and Fake News Reports
In 2012, Animal Planet aired “Mermaids: The Body Found.” The show, presented like a factual documentary, claimed to prove the existence of mermaids, and even stated that the body of a deceased mermaid had been recovered. The program generated significant attention and led some viewers to believe the information presented to be facts. “Mermaids: The Body Found,” however, was not a documentary. It was a “mockumentary.”
But utilizing the typical format of a documentary, the producers of “Mermaids: The Body Found” convinced many people that these mythical creatures were, in fact, real. The show featured interviews with actors claiming to be scientists and researchers and blended fantasy with facts. The mockumentary was controversial in that it did not include disclaimers, therefore it looked like a fake news broadcast.
Here’s Another Whale of a Fish Story
P.T. Barnum was the greatest showman of the 1800s and built his empire, fortune, and reputation on exploiting weird oddities. He understood his audience … folks who were eager to see proof of the strange, macabre, and unbelievable. So, he gave the people what they wanted, even if what they wanted didn’t exist in nature.
In 1942, P.T. Barnum began hyping his latest acquisition … the body of a mermaid that, he claimed, had been caught by a fisherman off the coast of Fiji. Only Barnum spelled Fiji wrong. He unveiled his “Feejee” mermaid to much fanfare and the specimen became one of the showman’s most popular attractions. The Feejee mermaid – the head and torso of a dead monkey with a fish tail sewn on it – fooled many of his audience members.
Debunking the Hitler Diaries Hoax
Nearly four decades after Adolf Hitler died in his secret bunker as World War II drew to a close, a journalist in German made a shocking claim. He announced that he had discovered a series of handwritten journals belonging to Hitler himself. Germany’s Stern magazine ran news of the amazing find in their April 25, 1983, issue and World War II scholars from around the world eagerly awaited the contents of the diaries.
Things were not as they seemed. Not long after their “discovery,” the Hitler Diaries were debunked as a hoax and a forgery. The hoaxer, Konrad Kujau, an experienced forger, stood trial for the ruse and was sentenced to prison. In the aftermath, several gullible newspaper editors were fired for participating in the spread of the fake diaries.
Holy Luna, Batman! There Are Bats on the Moon?
A collection of articles that ran in 1835 in The Sun, a New York City newspaper, readers were told that colonies of bats made their homes on the Moon. The articles credited the discovery to noted scientist and astronomer, Sir John Herschel of England. Since Herschel had name-value, the articles were believed by many readers.
In reality, Herschel never made such a discovery. The story was invented by Sun reporter Richard Locke who wanted to boost the newspaper’s readership. The fake news articles worked. The Sun’s circulation skyrocketed. As for Sir John Herschel, he was at first amused by the story, but grew annoyed when he spent the rest of his life answering questions from people who believed the lie.
“I Did Not Have Relations with that Woman”
Perjury is the fancy name for a lie told when someone is under oath and has sworn to tell the truth. A textbook example of perjury happened in 1998 then then-President Bill Clinton emphatically stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Only he did … and he lied about it to his wife, the American people, and Congress.
Bill Clinton may have lied, but DNA doesn’t. The woman in question, 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky, produced one of her dresses which had been stained with semen. A DNA analysis proved that the semen belonged to Clinton. Moreover, it proved that he lied about his ongoing affair with the young woman.
How to Outwit the Nazis … A Short Story by Alan Turing
During World War II, the Nazis had their famous Enigma Machine that coded the messages that were used to execute U-boat attacks against Allied forces. When the Allies couldn’t crack the code, they called on super-smart British mathematician, Alan Turing, to take a crack at it. Turing used his massive brain power to unlock the secrets of Enigma. Now, the Allies could intercept the Nazis coded messages … but they decided to turn the tables on their enemy.
The Allied intelligence group, Ultra, a top-secret program, used the Enigma code to launch a disinformation campaign against the Nazis. They fed the Nazis false intelligence reports that left the Nazis running in circles. It was enough for the Allies to turn the tide of the war.
A Hero’s Downfall: The Lance Armstrong Doping Scandal
For many sports fans, Lance Armstrong was the epitome of a hero. A cancer survivor, Armstrong was a dedicated and talented athlete who won the grueling Tour de France several times. And the best part was that he did it the clean way. In fact, he was the poster child for anti-doping. But things were not as they seemed.
Armstrong denied using performance enhancing drugs for years, but in 2013, the famed cyclist was finally forced to confess his involvement in doping. His fans were crushed, not only because he cheated, but because he lied about it for so long. As a result, Armstrong was stripped of all of his achievements from mid-1998 on … including his impressive seven Tour de France victories. His lasting legacy is now forever entangled with the issue of performance enhancing drugs.
Art Forgery … Like Plagiarism but with Paint
With some masterpieces by famous artists selling for millions of dollars, it is easy to see why some painters may look at art forgery as a get-rich-quick racket. Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter born in 1889, was one of the most brilliant art forgers of the 1900s. He was able to duplicate the works of some of the greatest artists in history … and he did so with such an attention to detail that he successfully tricked the top art critics, collectors, and experts.
His undoing came when he sold a fake Vermeer painting to Nazi Hermann Goring. Goring stashed the painting with other stolen Nazi art in a salt mine where it was found by the Monuments Men, a team of Allied art experts. The forgery was traced back to van Meegeren who was arrested and sentenced to one year in jail.
Another Art Scandal Pitting Husband Against Wife
In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of paintings featuring children with over-emphasized eyes became trendy among art lovers. The so-called “Big Eye” paintings were initially credited to artist Walter Keane. A charismatic and outgoing man, Keane had a knack for selling the paintings and promoting this new style of art. He reveled in the attention he was getting as an acclaimed artist.
Walter Keane, however, was not the creative artist behind the “Big Eye” paintings. His introverted wife, Margaret Keane, painted them. The egotistical and chauvinistic Walter convinced his oppressed wife to let him take the credit. She eventually left him and took him to court to prove she was the real artist. The judge asked both of them to paint a “Big Eye” painting in the courtroom. Margaret happily obliged, but Walter couldn’t do it, thus exposing his years of lies.
“Strong to the Finish ‘Cuz I Eat my Spinach”
Popeye the Sailor got his extraordinary strength by downing a can of spinach. E. C. Segar’s popular comic character understood the nutritional power of spinach and helped to encourage generations of kids to choke down helpings of spinach and to reap the benefits of this superfood. It was all for naught. Spinach only earned its status as a superfood because of a typo that went unnoticed for more than half a century.
Erich von Wolf, a German scientist, identified the iron content of several types of vegetables in 1870. He found that spinach contains 3.5 mg of iron … a good amount but not overly impressive. When he published his report, von Wolf misplaced the decimal point. It looked like spinach contained a whopping 35 mg of iron! The error was finally detected in 1937, long after Popeye convinced kids that spinach would turn them into muscle men.
Ancient Egyptians Could Have Used Some Spinach
The workers who constructed the Great Pyramid in Egypt nearly 4,500 years ago could have used some spinach to give them the strength they needed to complete their monumental task. The common belief is that the pyramids of Egypt were built using slave labor. That’s because historian Herodotus made reference to that in some of his writings.
Archaeological evidence tells us a different story. Researchers have located the site of a worker village near Giza. There, they have unearthed evidence that the workers were fed the best cuts of meat, provided with jars of bread and flasks of wine, and had comfortable accommodations. There are even written accounts detailing how much each worker was paid.
One Faulty Research Study Caused Widespread Disinformation
A British physician and researcher named Andrew Wakefield published the findings of his research in a 1998 article in Lancet, a well-respected medical journal. He concluded from his research that the MMR childhood vaccine was linked to autism. The public wholeheartedly accepted Wakefield’s conclusions as fact. Parents refused to vaccinate their children, causing a resurgence in measles.
A closer look at Wakefield’s research shows us that his work is fraught with errors and questionable methodology. For starters, he only studied a small number of cases. But he also claimed to have identified the compound that caused autism … and he offered test kits for sale to identify it. When no other scientist could replicate Wakefield’s findings, an investigation was launched that resulted in the doctor losing his medical license. But the misinformation is still circulating.
Don’t Trust the Science
Long before Wakefield’s report was published and people debated the ethics of the Covid vaccine, there was a deadly incident in which parents put their trust in vaccines and learned that they were lied to. In 1955, shortly after Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was proven effective, the U.S. government contracted with several labs around the country to mass produce the polio vaccine. One of them was Cutter Laboratories.
The polio vaccine was supposed to contain the inactive virus, however the vaccines produced by Cutter Labs contained the live virus. More than 120,000 kids were injected with the live polio virus. Five of them died, 113 were paralyzed, and more than 40,000 developed a milder form of polio. After the Cutter Incident, parents so distrusted vaccines that the government recruited Elvis Presley to help. He got his polio vaccine on live TV.
Big Tobacco’s Big Lie
Big tobacco companies were well aware of the health risks and addictive nature of cigarettes for several decades, yet they continued to deny it. Time and again, the cigarette industry squashed health reports that linked cigarette smoking with heart disease and cancer and downplayed the risks of smoking. The tobacco industry was a powerful lobbying group with the ability to bury the facts.
It has been proven, however, that smoking causes major health concerns and can be as addictive as illegal drugs. The four biggest tobacco producers were forced to shell out more than $206 billion as recently as 1998. The funds are designed to offset the medical expenses for the diseases caused by smoking.
Another Huge Industry Cover-Up … Asbestos
A century ago, asbestos was hailed as a wonder material that could be used in a varied of applications, from factories to homes. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, asbestos workers were falling ill with lung diseases. Rather than make the health dangers of asbestos known to the public, the asbestos industry went to great lengths to cover up the deadly aspects of their product.
The asbestos industry funded independent health studies so they could control the narrative and downplay the findings. They infiltrated the justice system to try to pass laws that would prevent asbestos workers from suing their employers. And they bribed doctors to shift causes of death on asbestos workers’ death certificates.