I was drawing a blank for ideas for this month. Then I looked at the calendar. April? April! What better than a selection of literary hoaxes in honor of April Fool’s Day? So with a guffaw or two, here goes.
In 1903, a document called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia, outlining a plot by the Jewish people to take over the world. Throughout the subsequent decades, the document was used to justify violence against Jews, even after it was discovered to be a hoax in 1921. Henry Ford famously referred to the document in his anti-Semitic newspaper in the 1920s.
Part of the popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code came from the possibility that much of the novel was based on truth. At the beginning of the novel, Brown lays out a number of “facts” upon which the book is based. Many sources, however, contend that some of Brown’s facts are actually based on a hoax. The Priory of Sion, the secret society in Brown’s book, was actually invented in the 1950’s, the debunkers say, by Pierre Plantard. Plantard created false documents that connected him to the supposed illustrious secret society and then planted those documents in the French national library. The authors of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail used the documents as part of the research for their book; Dan Brown based his research for The Da Vinci Code on Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
After Davy Crockett died in 1836, a supposed posthumous autobiography was published, entitled “Col. Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, Written by Himself.” Turns out it was actually written by playwright and novelist Richard Penn Smith, who wrote it in under 24 hours.
In 2008, “Margaret B. Jones” published a book called Love and Consequences, a supposed memoir of her life as a poor, half-Native American foster child in LA. The New York Times exposed that Margaret B. Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, a wealthy white woman who grew up with her biological family. “I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to the people who people don’t listen to,” she said. Publisher Riverhead pulled all of her books the week after publication.
In 1970, author Clifford Irving proposed an autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes to McGraw-Hill, saying that he was in contact with Hughes. Irving proceeded to forge letters and fake interviews, thinking that Hughes would not speak up. Finally, in 1972, before the book was published, Hughes denounced Irving, who was found guilty of fraud.
In 1983, the German magazine Stern bought and published a story on what they claimed were Hitler’s diaries. Not wanting the story to leak, Stern did not have World War II experts examine the documents, though they made it past two historians. The diaries were exposed as fake shortly after going public and both the editor who procured them and the forger spent 42 months in prison.
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