Sleight of Minds

In Leap Years, April Fool’s
Comes a Full Hoax Earlier

Who doesn’t know the expression, don’t fool yourself? And yet, we love to do just that. We go to great lengths pretending we don’t know what we should, and we don’t feel how it hurts. Aches, longings and desire, jealousy, hatred and grief, we’re all great at deceiving our own hearts into believing things can’t be that bad. Yet, they’re usually much worse.
We brag about how far we’ve got, how good we are, how much better is our god. Such gullibility makes the work of hoaxers not just easy, but necessary. So thank your phony stars for another April Fool’s Day, for it may provide respite and restore sanity.
You may fear if it ignites a conspiracy, a collective craze, the hysteric crowd. But those would have happened with or without pranksters. After all, paranoid buffs may believe they’ve uncovered the truth; everybody else is sure there’s no way of knowing it.
It may also look as if we’re a full day ahead of schedule, but in any but a Leap Year, today would be April 1. Which was once celebrated in January, and December, and March 32nd., which even in the 14th century was no longer possible.
So, either way, it’s a day of ambiguity and humor, even when at first you may feel like dismembering anyone who dares to punk you.

For some reason, the 20th century was plagued by all sorts of political conspiracy theories that arose from one too many behind-close-doors machinations. Many believe they’re are surely behind (excuse us if we can’t help it) the beginning of WWI, the pseudo survival of Hitler from the final ally attack in Berlim and a few other odd occurrences.
Before going forward, let’s assume that the tale of Kaspar Hauser was also an elaborated conspiracy concocted inside the walls of Germany’s House of Baden, in the 1800s. And that the Man with the Iron Mask was another one, this time perpetrated by the French Crown a century earlier. These are but two examples of how far some believe old dynasties would go to keep their hold on power.
But what about the greatest suspicion of all, that the works of William Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and a protege of Elizabeth I’s powerful Lord Treasurer, William Cecil? If this tale would be proven truth, there would be few if any dead bodies littering its shady history, unlike the two previous examples. But just a hint of possibility will be forever entangled with facts.

It didn’t take long to America to become a fertile ground to obscure theories, usually based on a deep distrust of power, which used to be more concentrated in a central government than it is today. But the past 50 years, three of the most traumatic, meaningful and powerful events that took place in this country, managed to generate each their own absolutely psychotic matching counterpart.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy, for example, has become the template to all such conspiracies that followed it. And it shares with at least two other major, life-changing events, these now classic, easily recognizable elements: an influential, although puzzlingly little understood, cast of characters; a time of global turmoil, and just the right combination of political uncertainty.
In this context, who killed Kennedy became irrelevant. Then there’s the enduring, and outrageously deranged, belief that we didn’t actually land on the moon, known as the Apollo Hoax. Enough said about that one. And, if you really want to feel what’s like living in hell, try to speak with one of the conspiracy groups who believe that September 11 was an inside job. Good luck getting a word in.
So, to be sure, none of these can be considered hoaxes, and we’ll go on a limb here, explaining why: with many a pervasive conspiracy, people who got hurt the first time around, tend to be hit again and again, by the conflicting theories. And unlike any serious scientific investigation, emotion not forensics usually leads the way. The result is always traumatic and often, disastrous.

The greatest rock band was also at the core of the greatest hoax in popular music: the Paul McCartney is dead and has been replaced by a lookalike rumor. As the group was slowly disintegrating, it became big enough to sustain its lore, until way after the murder of his partner, John Lennon, also source of some disquieting suspicions. McCartney, of course, may survive us all.
In its anonymity and apparently lack of ulterior motive, the Paul Is Dead hoax (extensive details of which are to the left of this post) predated some Internet hoaxes that periodically plague our computers. Except that it lacked what today is becoming a troubling area: the fluid confluence of individual freedom, blissful ignorance about risks, and iron-fist approach exercised by government and corporations to squash it, when it’s perceived as a threat.
Since the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s shut down its Internet hoax site, which used to be a thoroughly comprehensive source of er, clarification about those not-necessarily benign pranks (spiders under the toilet seat anyone?), others have since popped up, about pranks, malware and urban myths, mostly not on any official capacity. That’s the case of the Museum of Hoaxes, which lists its fair share as a courtesy to the public.
A recent browsing session revealed some interesting cases, old and new, and a list of their 100 most notorious examples. Among recent ones, is the Birdman Video, purportedly about some ‘scientist’ who’d invented a contraption that helped him to fly. And had the images to ‘prove’ it. Before anyone sue him, though, he came clean on Dutch TV. It was all CGI, as it turned out.
But we should expect more from this talented Mr. Ripley, er, Floris Kaayk; in 2006, he’d also created an elaborated documentary about a fake disease called Metalosis Maligna, that supposedly caused medical implants to grow and overtake the body.
The MOH’s 100 best spans a few centuries and mostly stories the media around the world came up with during this time of the year. From a Spaguetti Harvest to the Left-Hander Whopper, from the body of Nessie, a perennial favorite, to the Big Ben going digital, from the PETA’s sleeping fish tournament to giving Viagra to hamsters. As any list, though, it left out some notable examples.
When Orson Welles radio-dramatized the reading of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in 1938, driving hundreds of Americans to panic, he was perpetrating an amazing feat of public sleight of hand. There was also the famous Autopsy of an Alien video, the grainy footage of Big Foot, all the way back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s fairy photographs, with many in between.
Although tiresome, often done with hidden purposes and always dangerous, as it may costs lives, year after year since pretty much Christ times, we’re told that this is it, and rapture is around the corner. The day after comes and goes and so it seems to the public’s memory too, for it comes back again and again.
But one of the most striking pseudo-mysteries in recent years was the newly uncovered footage of opening night of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, in 1928, in LA. The crisply restored B&W scenes show, among the crowd jockeying to get in, a woman walking and talking… on a cellphone? Since such ‘time traveling’ is technically impossible, and impractical too for lack of a better term, it must be a hoax. Or is it?

Three other cases deserve a brief mention: the Denver journalists who concocted an 1899 story about China’s plans to demolish the Great Wall; Willian Ed Smith’s fictious Georgia Tech 1927 student George P. Burdell; and Clifford Irving‘s fake 1970s Howard Hugues autobiography (more daring than Gerd Heidemann’s fabricated 1983 Hitler Diaries, for being about a then still living public, albeit reserved, figure).
Before coming up with his own forgery, Irving, by the way, had written in 1969 the biography of Elmir de Hory, a world-known art forger who became the focus of a Welles 1974 docudrama, and his last film, F for Fake. Going deep into the psyche and motivations of de Hory, who died a successful and wealthy man, wound up revealing a surprising kinship between the gifted filmmaker and the disgraced writer.
In case you want to keep track of pranks this April Fool’s Day and many more to come, there’s a site for that. Good luck.
But, in New York, arguably the dean of hoaxers is Alan Abel, who perhaps may have gotten his first break as a full time prankster to a wider audience, when the New York times published his obituary, in Jan. 2, 1980. In reality, he was pretty much alive and would still go on to play countless, increasingly elaborated hoaxes throughout the city.
He managed to pull many stunts, beginning with SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which aimed at playing with people’s sense of morality back in 1959, advocating clothing all animals, including bovines and horses that could be seen in highways of America. With the help of then relatively unknown actor Buck Henry, he got as far as fooling respected journalist Walter Cronkite, who naturally hated him for that.
His performance-like reality staging left irate many other newspaper editors and TV producers in its wake. Using an array of friends and even himself, as loose-canon Jim Rogers, he invested against the ‘indecency’ of public breastfeeding and its supposedly potential to drive babies into homosexuality. As he was embraced by a right-wing extremist fringe, he proved that there was an effective, thought-provoking method to his apparent mad strategy.
Way before comedian Andy Kaufman staged his still-unfocused pranks, and a troupe such as the Yes Men has earned respect with its humorous brand of straight-faced agitprop, Abel was already stirring the melting pot for laughs and political reflection.
On Phil Donahue, he got a group of pranksters to faint on cue and on camera, which prompted taping of the show to be halted on the suspicion of a possible gas leak. Some time after, he again managed to create a nationwide media stir by ‘introducing’ a man who was willing to sell his organs to pay bills, sadly anticipating what would actually happen in real life just a few years later.

But perhaps his seminal creation, one that still speaks to the psyche of America, circa 2012, with its contrasting reality of increasing poverty and ever higher aspirations for personal wealth and material comfort, was his lottery stunt, staged in 1990. For that, all it took for him was to jump into an already set bandwagon of national expectation around the then record $35 million Lotto drawing.
He rented a room and threw a party, along with a group of his accomplices, at a high end hotel in Midtown Manhattan. To make sure public attention was grabbed, they also threw dollar bills out of the window, just for good measure. When the press showed up, he told them he was the attorney for the single-ticket ‘winner,’ which was about to arrive.
By then, live cameras and frantic reporters were already in a feverish pitch. Which only went a bit higher when along “Charlie Taylor” made her sumptuous entrance, a pretty 30-old manicurist, ‘single,’ as one tabloid stamped on its cover the following day. She was, in reality, hired actress Lee Cirillo, who enjoyed her 15 minutes just enough to make the evening news across the country.
And there you go, April foolers and our never-too-gullible readers, a very primer about swindlers, satirists, impostors and tricksters. We’re sure that both this list and the lifelong efforts of these very earnest and very twisted souls are bound to be topped by tomorrow or in another year or so. As anyone else, we’ll be willing to fall once again to some of their traps. We actually can’t wait.
Not that we wish anyone to get hurt, but at some point, everyone needs to feel the sting, the prick of the electrical discharge, the numbness of our behinds being kicked. And that, in a nutshell, friends, is the greatest hoax: the one we expect but know not when it will strike us. It was Hitchcock who said that the thrill is in the wait, whether we know or not how it all ends. Well, we can’t wait. Happy trails to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.