HUMANS ARE, and have long been, a credulous bunch. In 1844 Edgar Allan Poe published an article in the New York Sun about a man who had flown across the Atlantic in a balloon. Two days later the newspaper fessed up (“We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous”), but not until its offices had been besieged by people wanting to know more. In 2009 a similarly inflated story—which caused American news networks to scramble their reporters— was released by a couple from Colorado who said that their six-year-old son was in a giant balloon soaring 7,000 feet into the air. Later that day “balloon boy” was found at home, where his publicity-hungry parents had apparently hidden him.
Hoaxes can hint at the nature of the societies that fall for them. When Stern, a German magazine, published what it believed to be Hitler’s diaries in the 1980s, it was an early example of a trend that Germans call “Hitler kitsch”, using the Führer as a marketing tool. Similarly Anna Delvey, who created a false identity on Instagram in order to defraud people, exploited for dastardly ends a social-media platform used by millions. These five books cover some of history’s most notorious hoaxes, not all of which have been entirely debunked.
Selling Hitler. By Robert Harris. Pantheon; 387 pages; $18.95. Cornerstone; £10.99
Forty years ago Konrad Kujau appeared to make the find of a century: dozens of volumes of Adolf Hitler’s diaries. They were hand-written in delicate Gothic script and spanned the period from his rise to power in the 1930s almost up to his death in 1945. As well as recording Hitler’s assessment of Germany’s progress in the war, they confided such prosaic troubles as bad breath and flatulence. Thus began an audacious hoax. Stern bought the diaries (pictured). A bidding war among English publications led Rupert Murdoch to fly to Switzerland to negotiate the serialisation rights for one of his newspapers, the Sunday Times. Hugh Trevor-Roper, a British historian, initially vouched for their authenticity. On closer examination, however, the diaries turned out to be an amateurish fake. Kujau, who began his counterfeiting career by forging lunch vouchers, had stained the pages with tea to make his fabrications look old. The incident is told with biting wit by Robert Harris, a British journalist and novelist. The diaries, which will soon go on display at the German national archives, may have been deeply embarrassing for all involved. But the story also captivated the public. As Mr Murdoch put it at the time: “After all, we are in the entertainment business.”
Fake: The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. By Clifford Irving. Out of print. Download on Kindle; $2.99
After the second world war some of Europe’s most distinguished families found themselves destitute. That is how Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian aristocrat, ended up touring the galleries of America, selling works by Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Renoir. Or so he claimed. In fact de Hory (which almost certainly was not his real name) had forged the pictures. His stories of life in Paris in the 1920s, and his personal relationships with some of the artists he faked, gave him an air of authenticity that helped him to fool the art world. He hobnobbed with celebrities, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor. In the 1960s, having sold more than 1,000 fake artworks, he was found out. By then he was living in Ibiza, where Clifford Irving, a struggling novelist, was his neighbour. Irving offered to write de Hory’s story, which became “Fake: The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time”. But much of what de Hory told Irving is impossible to verify, deepening the mystery about him. Irving was clearly inspired by his subject. He went on to write a purported autobiography of Howard Hughes, claiming that he collaborated on the book with the reclusive billionaire. Hughes in fact never met Irving, but he was not so reclusive that he did not get in touch with his lawyers: Hughes sued Irving’s publisher. Irving went to prison. Today de Hory’s forgeries are sought after in their own right. He became so notorious that after his death in 1976 fake “Elmyrs” flooded the art market.
The Coming of the Fairies. By Arthur Conan Doyle. Bibliotech Press; 130 pages; $24.95. Cosimo Classics; £12.99
Modern techniques of image manipulation have turned the public into sceptics. But in the early 20th century seeing was believing. In 1917 two girls in Yorkshire, in northern England, borrowed a camera and went to play in the garden. When the pictures they took were developed, they showed the girls surrounded by small, sprite-like creatures. They became known as the Cottingley fairies, after the village in which the images were taken. After the mother of one of the girls showed the images at a meeting of the Theosophical Society, a mystical movement, word of the fairies spread. Photography experts found no sign of fakery. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and a keen spiritualist, wrote an article on the fairies using the photos as evidence of their existence, he caused a sensation. He called the images an “epoch-making event”. He later expanded on the article in a book published in 1922, “The Coming of the Fairies”. Unfortunately, the sprites never did come out of the woods. In 1983 the two friends admitted that they had faked the photos, though they continued to maintain that they really had seen fairies.
Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson. By Miles Russell. The History Press; 272 pages; $14.99
Arthur Conan Doyle appears in another of the 20th century’s murkiest hoaxes. In 1912, at a meeting of the Geological Society of London, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, presented fragments of a skull that he claimed was the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. He found them in a gravel pit in Piltdown, in southern England. The jaw was almost indistinguishable from that of a chimpanzee. Some scientists were suspicious from the beginning, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Time magazine published evidence showing that the Piltdown man was not a million-year-old human ancestor but a hacked-together chimera consisting of a medieval human skull, a 500-year-old orangutan’s jaw and fossilised teeth from a chimp. Dawson died a few years after he presented his find, and the full story remains unclear. Did he orchestrate the whole thing, or were the fragments planted for him to find? If the latter, who did it? One outlandish theory is that Conan Doyle, who played golf near where the bones were found, may have wanted to discredit the scientific community after one of his favourite psychics was debunked. Miles Russell, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University, puts this theory to bed in his book. He pins the blame squarely on Dawson, writing that he hoped the discovery would get him elected to the Royal Society.
My Friend Anna. By Rachel DeLoache Williams. Gallery Books; 288 pages; $27. Quercus Publishing; £16.99
Anna Sorokin is among the most charismatic of contemporary scammers. Ms Sorokin, who was born in Russia, created an alter ego in the form of Anna Delvey, a wealthy socialite. After moving to New York, between 2013 and 2017 she defrauded banks, hotels and people who thought they were her friends of hundreds of thousands of dollars. By convincing them that she was fabulously rich, she found it easy to get others to bankroll her lifestyle. Rachel DeLoache Williams, who worked for Vanity Fair, was one of those who fell for Ms Delvey’s tricks, at a cost of $62,000. She wrote about it in the magazine, and later in a book, “My Friend Anna”. Ms DeLoache Williams, who was already familiar with Ms Delvey from her glamorous posts on Instagram, was drawn in by her talk of family trusts and setting up charitable foundations. It was only when they went on a luxurious holiday together, and Ms Delvey scarpered, leaving Ms DeLoache Williams with the bill, that the penny dropped. Rather than succumb to bitterness, Ms DeLoache Williams reflects on the ease with which anyone can use social media to create an alternative reality. Ms Sorokin just took it further than most. She was locked up for almost four years, and has since sold the rights to her story to Netflix (though much of the money went to pay legal fees and restitution). As a condition of her release, she must no longer post on Instagram.