Fool Me Once, Shame on You

Jon Foro on February 27, 2018
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Just like the poster says, I want to believe. We all like stories that put us at the center of the narrative, that confirm our sense of importance, that tell us we're special. Sometimes we like stories that confirm the excuses we've authored for ourselves. Sometimes we just wish the world was more interesting. We want to think that we're reincarnations of ancient queens or warriors, or that Mars in retrograde drives our self-serving behavior. And why wouldn't we? Believing is fun and easy, and "just the facts" can be so boring.

Well, get hold of yourselves, people. Like they say, if it seems too good to be true, it's probably is. And there is no shortage of hucksters waiting to prey on human gullibility for personal gain—and often at a personal cost to you, in terms of money or self-respect . It's what made fraudsters like Bernie Madoff rich (at least for a while), and how Greg Brady used a whistle and a flashlight to trick his brothers into believing they saw a UFO in their back yard. The internet, of course, is making it all worse; if you've ever received an email from an eccentric uncle titled "AGREE OR DELETE," you know what I'm talking about.

The stakes can be high and looking-glass conspiracy theories have led us into dark corners throughout our history. Despite what the song says, we will get fooled again, willingly. But for this list of hoaxes and hoaxers, let's explore a lighter side of duplicity.


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Primers on Perniciousness

A general introduction or two may be in order. Ian Tattersall—a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History—and Peter Névraumont provide a survey of "5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies." This slim volume covers 50 categories of cons, including shysters of the animal kingdom, cryptozoology (Mothman, Nessie, et al), Ponzi schemes, the Shroud of Turin, and the hollow- and the flat-earthers.

Kevin Young's Bunk—longlisted for 2017's National Book Award for Nonfictionleads readers through the world of "Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News," examining the motivations of con artists and the reasons why so many (but not you or me, of course) find their sometimes obvious nonsense so alluring.

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Art of Ambiguous Provenance

Possibly the most romanticized subcategory of fakery, a quick search reveals phony paintings as a popular topic for writers. Among the many results, The Art of Forgery and The Art of the Con both dive into the demimonde of dubious masterpieces, but the late Eric Hebborn's Drawn to Trouble provides a fascinating first-person account by a self-described "master forger," a tale made all the more unsettling after his untimely death, which followed the publication of this now out-of-print book.

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The Vintner of Our Discontent

As a philistine, the finer qualities of a bottle of wine costing more than $12.99 are completely wasted on me. There are better people out there, though, connoisseurs willing to drop (gamble?) thousands of dollars in search of a one-of-a-kind experience. And so there are others ready to help them out. The Billionaire's Vinegar charts the travels of the "world's most expensive bottle of wine," a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux which may or may not have aged in Thomas Jefferson's cellars, or possibly a Nazi bunker, or possibly neither. But why limit yourself to a single bottle? In Vino Duplicitas is the weird tale of wine-forger Rudy Kurniawan, his exquisite, expensive, extremely fake vintages. Oeno, you say? Oh, yes. 

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Counterfeiters Boost a Famous Corpse

I must have been sick the the day in they taught us about the plot hatched by a group of Chicago counterfeiters to steal Honest Abe's remains and ransom them for $200,000. Stealing Lincoln's Body recounts the ultimately unsuccessful scheme that launched The First Cadaver on a peripatetic 25-year journey to its final, concrete-encased resting place, taking detours into the rampant counterfeiting that nearly bankrupted the U.S. treasury, the scoundrelly origins of the Secret Service, and some of the stranger embalming techniques of 19th-century America.

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Marrs Attacks!

Jim Marrs' beard shows us that he didn't believe in razors, be it Occam's or anyone else's. As a prolific explainer of what could be described as underground history, his bibliography is a smorgasbord of conspiracy and paranoia, including exposés on UFOs (Alien Agenda), all-powerful secret societies (The Illuminati, The Rise of the Fourth Reich), the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy (Crossfire, "A Basis for Oliver Stone's movie, per one edition), as well as some less savory subjects. Jim Marrs, who died in August 2017, was a New York Times bestselling author.

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There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days

In a small town on Washington's Pacific coast, Marsh's Free Museum's features shrunken heads, two-headed calves, "FREE" sea shells, and its most famous denizen: "Jake the Alligator Man," a sort of mummified centaur for the crocodilian set. These days, no one could be so easily fooled by a such crude "artifact," but in 1869 we weren't so savvy. That year, a petrified 10-foot giant—with possible Biblical implications!—was unearthed in upstate New York, touching off a firestorm of publicity and dubious scientific debate. Apparently, the prospect of a scam was considered last. Scott Tribble's A Colossal Hoax tells the story for adults, while The Giant and How He Humbugged America gives those between nine and 12 a lesson in credulity.

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Finding Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Skunk Ape, Yowie, etc.

Suppose for a moment, for the sake of argument, that Bigfoot doesn't exist. I know its ridiculous, stupid even. But if you can, Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend examines the origins of Sasquatch folklore, the obsessives who chase him, the fakers who fake him, and what the fuss says about our society and shifting attitudes toward everything from the environment to the economy. For a more literal take, seek out a copy of My Quest for the Yeti by legendary Himalayan mountaineer—and yeti witness—Reinhold Messner.

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Hoaxes Within Hoaxes Within Hoaxes

Room 237 is a strange trip into the minds of overthinkers which will either fascinate or exacerbate, depending on your tolerance for these things. Taking it's title from one of the more disturbing rooms of The Shining's Overlook Hotel, this documentary film presents four conspiracy-minded "analysts" and their search for the secret meaning inside Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's classic horror novel. One argues that Kubrick was broadcasting his role in the Moon landing "hoax"; another sees commentary on Native American genocide. Whatever you think of their theories, the level of scrutiny and deconstruction given to each is both fascinating and bewildering.

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Family Portraits from Beyond the Grave

William Mumler became a sensation in 19th-century Boston for his portraits that captured not only his subjects, but also the ghostly images of their deceased relatives and loved ones—and after the Civil War, there was no shortage of either. Nor did he lack for credulous customers, all eager for the "spirit photographer" to assuage their grief with physical proof of everlasting existence. Guess what? He came through. Not for free, of course.



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