Top five… hoaxes of all time

Cons, swindles and hoodwinks – we take a look at some of the hoaxes that made the history books...

Top five… hoaxes of all time (public domain)


A chess-playing machine with the uncanny ability to beat almost everyone it plays? Surely such things didn’t exist until the 20th century? Well, yes, but those who saw the Turk in the 18th century would beg to differ. They saw a mechanical man, seated in front of a cabinet, who could play a blinding game of chess, and it looked like real artificial intelligence. Inside the cabinet was a complex clockwork mechanism and, unbeknown to audiences, a gifted chess player, hidden from view.


The Turk was a sensation for 50 years – after its debut in Vienna, 1770, it went on a tour of Europe. Napoleon was fascinated by the Turk, and played it three times in 1809. In his first game, the Emperor was defeated in just 19 moves.



In 1983, German newspaper Stern published an explosive exclusive: Hitler’s diaries. But this was one story that blew up for all the wrong reasons. Within two weeks, the journals were exposed as sophisticated forgeries. It seems that, desperate to prevent a leak and protect their £2.5 million investment, Stern officials had refused to let any German World War II experts inspect the 60 handwritten volumes before they went to press. But soon historical inaccuracies were spotted, and the series was exposed as the creation of antiques dealer and painter Konrad Kujau.



In 1917, as two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, played with a camera in Cottingley, near Bradford, they shot a series of garden photos with fairies in them. Elsie’s mother was the first to believe in the snaps’ authenticity – but she wasn’t the last. Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a famous believer in the Cottingley photos and, in 1922, he wrote a book on the subject: The Coming of the Fairies.

The images were declared genuine by experts and the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ fast became recognisable the world over. In the eighties, the cousins confessed to their trickery, but they still claimed one photo was real.



In April 1896, the Louvre museum, Paris, had just made its latest acquisition: a golden, Greco-Scythian crown. The Louvre snapped up the tiara for 200,000 francs, believing it to have been a Greek gift to the Scythian King Saitaphernes, and to date from the third century BC. In fact, it was just one year old. A close inspection found traces of modern tools and soldering. The Louvre still owns the crown (but don’t expect to see it on display).



An important hoax of the Middle Ages, The Donation of Constanine supposedly records the gift of vast amounts of land from the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, to Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century AD.


The false document – which actually dates from the eighth century AD – tells the story of the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity, and how the Pope cured him of leprosy, as well as the gift. The Donation had great influence on the politics and religion of medieval Europe, until it was proved a forgery in the 15th century.