Fools’ Errand

The Cruelest Month & the
Wasteful Land of Hoaxers

April is here again, and that may be one of the few things you may be sure about its first day. Yes, it’s high time for jokesters of all stripes, including the miserable kind old Eliot may have alluded to in his epic. So all we can say is, be mindful out there today.
For in college dorms and at offices across the land, misguided tricksters may be tempting serious injury, and who can trust the sense of humor of digital avatars, these days. Better tread with caution, weary traveler, for no amount of solemnity may mend a catastrophic mishap.
On the other (sleight of) hand, though, we just can’t wait to see what will be the dominant hoax of the day, and, slow as we are, how long we’ll take to realize, hopefully in time, our endless gullibility. Lacking any insights to add, we’re republishing this post as little seems to change on the subject of deceiving and fooling.
May the cleverest and the most benign prevail this Wednesday, even though we doubt it. As it usually goes, someone always gets hurt, and their fall is the undue wage paid to devilish intent. In other words, we wish it were all fun and games, but the flesh is weak and we may find ourselves laughing at somebody’s expense. Damn us.

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 that 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 predisposition 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.
Throw your hands to air in gratitude for this April 1 is not nested within a Leap Year, in which case it’d all look as if we were a full day ahead of schedule. Or that, since the 14th century, this date stopped being marked in January, or December, or even March 32nd.
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 Berlin 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 should keep their hold on power per secula seculorum.
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 protégé 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 get a taste of living in hell, try to speak with one of the groups that believes that September 11 was a thoroughly 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. Even as it disintegrated, The Beatles was big enough to sustain its own lore. That it lasts till this day, decades after the real murder of John Lennon, also source of some disquieting suspicions, should surprise no one. McCartney, of course, is alive and well, thank goodness, and may survive us all. (Enjoy a brief rundown of this hoax, on the bottom left.)
In its anonymity and apparently lack of ulterior motive, the Paul Is Dead prank 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 frights (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. Lest not anyone sued 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 2015, 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 “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 today, next April, or in another year or so. As anyone else, we’ll be willing to fall once again to some of their traps. We’re actually counting on it.
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.

(*) Originally published on April 1, 2012.

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