Hoaxlore

Nick Yapp. Hoaxes and their Victims. Robson Books, 1992.

Time-Life. Hoaxes and Deceptions. Time Life Books, 1991.

Both these books cover much of the same ground. The Time-Life book is presented typical style with lavish colour pictures and attractive layouts and short accounts of a couple of hundred hoaxes. The Yapp book covers rather fewer separate incidents, but attempts to look at them in greater depth. As its title indicates it also looks at what makes the victims of hoaxes so susceptible.

It is generally assumed by investigators in the fields of the paranormal and elsewhere, that anyone committing a hoax must profit from it. How often have we read comments such as "a hoax must be ruled out as the witness had nothing to gain from one". Stuff and nonsense! They got the investigator's attention for one thing, didn't they? The overwhelming truth that emerges from these books is that, apart from the obvious con artists, few of then hoaxers had 'anything to gain' from their activities.

Indeed, a great many had much to lose. The famous 'Captain of Kopenik', a petty crook and unemployed cobbler, gained a jail sentence for his famous hoax, when he impersonated a German officer and took over the town hall of a Berlin suburb, 'arresting' the mayor and treasurer for alleged embezzlement. Like a whole string of fraudulent princes, socialites, diplomats and Red Indian chiefs, the Captain's real motive was to show just how easy it is to fool, not only the stiff-necked Prussian authorities of Wilhelmite Germany, but also the average mug punter, newspaper editor, and, dare I say it, ufologist.

For a long time I've been unimpressed by people who describe dubious UFO events, and suchlike, after they have crumbled to nothing after being promoted as the greatest breakthrough of the decade, as being 'an elaborate hoax'. These books reveal that, although there are indeed elaborate hoaxes, it's usually the simple ones that are most devastating. This of course is why there is so much talk about government 'disinformation' flying about in the UFO world at the moment. If you have been made to look a fool, it's rather more comforting to thing that you could only have been taken in by a team of high powered scientists and intelligence agents, with the resources of an entire government behind them. How galling to think it might have been done by a gang of kids from down the block!

The 'elaborate' MJI2 hoax is perfectly capable of being rigged up by anyone with access to an old typewriter and a camera. Once a hoax like this starts, any irrelevant piece of information can be introduced to verify it. Other people with axes to grind will start adding their twopennyworth to it and after that they develop a life of their own, as once the format is established other people join in. The fact that their style of hoaxing differs from the original is simply offered as evidence of the complexity and number of people who must be involved in the elaborate plot.

You want to send letters to ufologists from around the world? No real problem - try this form letter, offered free to other hoaxers: "Dear Postmaster. Recently my collection of 20,000 postmarks from around the world was destroyed in a fire. I am now trying to rebuild it. I would be most grateful if you would put the enclosed letter into the post from your office, ensuring that it receives a nice clear postmark. I enclose an International Reply Coupon" and include an envelope, with suitably sensational content, addressed to the big-name ufologist you wish to fool with your 'elaborate' international hoax. You too can be a disinformation agent!

The Time-Life book Hoaxes and Deceptions contains a dark warning to those ufologists and others who believe in the value of evidence revealed by mysterious sources to them exclusively in the fate of the eighteenth century professor Johann Beringer of the University of Wurzburg, in Franconia. Beringer collected fossils, and, anxious to swell his collection, set some local lads to dig for specimens in the surrounding countryside. Almost at once they discovered some marvellous stones. These fossils bore the shapes small animals, plants and insects, but other showed stars, comets, and most amazingly, actual words in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin [right]. Convinced that these represented the names of God, Beringer began writing a book about his remarkable finds. He declared that the fossils were 'pranks of nature', lusus natura, produced by God at the time of the creation.

Two of Beringer's colleagues at Wiirzburg began spreading the rumour that his finds. were fakes, and attempted to trap Beringer by planting their own carved stones where they knew he would find them and accept them as genuine. The two tricksters, Roderick and von Eckhart then announced their deception. In a response which sounds remarkably like the reaction of some cerealogists to 'Doug and Dave's' revelation of their crop circle hoaxing, Beringer stormed: "their trap proves nothing, there have always been counterfeiters and money spoilers in the world". He then gave over a chapter in his book to denouncing them. "Their clever efforts might have succeeded, had not my vigilance discovered the deceit and throttled it at birth". So much for Wurzburg's proto-CSICOP!

Suddenly something brought the fossil hunter to his senses - possibly finding a stone with his own name on it. Humiliated, his work worthless, Beringer uncovered the culprits: the same Roderick and von Eckhart who had tried to call a halt to the farce when they realised it was going too far.

The hoaxers were disgraced and lost their university privileges. They certainly had 'nothing to gain' from their tricks, except, like so many later hoaxers in the UFO field and elsewhere, the quiet satisfaction of seeing an arrogant and obsessed researcher being deflated.

I recommend both or either of these books as a timely reminder of how easy (and just how much fun) hoaxing can be, but still await the definitive work on the psychology of both hoaxers and their victims. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 44, October 1992.


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