The worst thing about the many hoaxes played upon New Englanders throughout history? How many people fell for them.
Though many hoaxes worked because of their victims’ greed, some were so preposterous it’s hard to understand how anyone could fall for them. One hoax in 1673 was aimed at inflaming religious disputes. Other hoaxes didn’t start off as hoaxes at all.
Here, then, are seven hoaxes that caused plenty of red faces throughout New England history.
The 1773 Old Librarians’ Almanac Hoax
The 1773 Old Librarians Almanack included Enoch Sneed’s recipe for cockroach poison and warnings against letting women near the books. It had a preposterous cure for rattlesnake bites and advocated the gallows for book thieves.
Librarian Jared Bean supposedly published the book in New Haven, Conn., following the traditional format of Poor Richard’s almanac. But rather than advice for farmers, Bean’s almanac contained advice for librarians about burning books, protecting books and setting rules for who should be allowed to take out books.
“Be suspicious of Women,” the almanac advised. “They are given to the Reading of frivolous Romances, and at all events, their presence in a Library adds little.”
One quick read through the Old Librarians Almanack and you might think: This is too good to be true. And you’d be right. The almanac was a work of satirical fiction written in 1910 by librarian and author Edmund Lester Pearson who was born in Newburyport, Mass., served on the library board of trustees there and later lived in New York.
The Outlook magazine, The Nation, The New York Times and the New York Sun praised the rediscovered gem. The Bulletin of Pharmacy even reprinted the snake bite remedy as historical fact. Pearson and his publisher, John Cotton Dana of Woodstock, Vt., disingenuously insisted they didn’t intend the librarians’ almanac as a hoax. R-i-i-i-ght.
To read more about the Old Librarians Almanack hoax, click here.
New England Gold Hoax of 1898
In December of 1897, the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company announced its plans to the world, along with offices in New York, Boston and London. Newspapers quickly spread the news that the company was accepting investors. Soon, it would harvest tons of gold from the sea.
A disillusioned Baptist minister, Prescott Jernegan relentlessly pursued investors among his former schoolmates and acquaintances. The money poured in, mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The company set up shop and started operations in Lubec, Maine, mostly because of its remote location. There they leased a grist mill, constructed a series of underwater “accumulators” to harvest the gold and employed more than 100 men.
To entice investors, Jernegan would take them to the end of a pier and show them his special zinc-lined bucket. The investors would pour mercury into the bucket, and Jernegan would lower it into the ocean. He would then activate a battery that he said would produce the current to allow the mechanism to extract gold from the ocean water.
In actuality, Jernegan’s childhood friend Charles Fisher, a skilled diver, waited underwater. He would follow a line to the bucket and replace the investors’ mercury with mercury infused with gold.
By summer of 1898, the company had taken in nearly $1 million. Even counting the costs of the operation, Jernegan and Fisher were ahead by several hundred thousand dollars.
But when a co-conspirator ratted out Jernegan and Fisher, the jig was up. Fisher disappeared, but the authorities caught up with Jernegan. A good lawyer kept him out of prison, and he spent the rest of his life teaching school in the American West and in the Philippines.
The Secret of the Astor Fortune
Not all hoaxes start off as hoaxes. In 1892, a Chicago lawyer named Franklin Head published a fanciful story in 1892 about the true origin of John Jacob Astor’s fortune. He did it just for fun.
According to the story, the pirate William Kidd buried treasure on land in Deer Isle, Maine, owned by Frederick Law Olmsted’s ancestors. (The landscape architect actually did own land in Deer Isle, and spent one summer there at the end of his life.)
According to the story, a trapper stole the treasure chest and, not knowing its actual value, sold it to Astor. William Kidd’s stolen treasure therefore became the basis for the Astor fortune.
In Head’s account, generations later the Olmsteds discovered the theft and sued Astor for compensation. That included back rent on all the Astor Manhattan real estate, which the family could not have purchased without the stolen treasure.
References to Olmsted ancestors Cotton Mather Olmsted and Oliver Cromwell Olmsted suggested the book was a fraud. Nevertheless, Liberty Magazine published the story as true, and it would be told and reprinted many times over the years.
The story surfaced again in 1926 when a California historian presented it as true, and it made its way into newspapers around the world. Not to be outdone, newspapers in the state of Maine even postulated that the state might entitled to recover the treasure, since it would be illegal to sell stolen goods.
The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872
Two con men came up with a simple ruse: They acquired some industrial grade diamonds and began showing them around as evidence that they had discovered a major diamond mine. As word spread, investors jumped aboard.
Typical of any Ponzi scheme, they took their first investors’ money, about $20,000 worth, and used it to buy more diamonds – scraps from the diamond cutting rooms of Antwerp.
The investors, eager to know exactly what they had found, sent the diamonds to Charles Lewis Tiffany for appraisal. He valued them at an astounding $150,000.
With this new information, the investors, who now included Tiffany himself, pressured the men to sell their mine. The two crooks went to a remote spot in Colorado and salted the area with more cheap diamonds, and then brought the investors to the spot. The investors watched with delight as they pulled diamond after diamond from the ground.
In the end, the investors paid $450,000 for the rights to the mine. By the time a government geologist made a survey and gave them the truth, the con men had long gone.
Though the investors recovered some of their money via the courts, the incident remained an embarrassment for Charles Lewis Tiffany. It was not damaging to his store, however, which remained a symbol of luxury. Read more about Tiffany, a son of Connecticut, here.
The Moon Hoax of 1835
On August 25, 1835, Springfield, Mass., native Benjamin Day began a series of articles in his New York Sun describing life on the moon. Richard Locke, a short, pock-marked editor at the Sun cooked up the idea. To give his stories the whiff of authenticity he claimed they were gleaned from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
In his articles, Locke described the living conditions on the moon as seen through an enormous telescope constructed in South Africa. Sir John Herschel and Dr. Andrew Grant were the scientists who made the observations about life on the moon. Wildlife of all manner populated the moon, which contained lakes and fields. And all of it was overseen by a species of winged man-bat. The scientific inquiry came to an untimely halt when the great telescope the men used caused a fire in their observatory.
The story dragged on for six days, complete with illustrations, and Day’s news hawkers had quite an edge. While competitors were flogging slow news from the dog days of August, the Sun was selling an illustrated look at the moon. Other newspapers began reprinting the story, and it made its way across the country.
Several weeks after publication, the great moon hoax was exposed. But the Sun stuck to its story, never apologizing and never correcting the hoax. The newspaper retained a considerable edge in circulation as its loyal readers returned for more fantastic news. Read more about Benjamin Day and the New York Sun here.
The Roger Williams Portrait Hoax of 1844
In 1844, Daniel Jones published an article about Roger Williams in a Welsh-language journal, and along with it he published a print he said was a likeness of Williams. Thus a legend was born: While in England in 1644 Roger Williams had had a portrait painted of himself. Following the turmoil of the English Revolution, the portrait had made its way to America, along with other belongings of the Duke of York, and been auctioned in New York.
Daniel Jones bought the painting, or so he believed, and offered to give it, along with $500, to any group that would also put up $500 to create a memorial to Roger Williams.
Jones, an enthusiastic admirer of Roger Williams, probably didn’t want to deceive people. Though his claims about the portrait were invariably questioned, it made it into a number of books about Roger Williams.
Rhode Island historian Sidney Rider had his doubts. He undertook an inquiry to examine the facts. Could the portrait be real?
Eventually, Rider and others concluded the painting was a hoax. The portrait undoubtedly celebrated Williams’ life; it showed him seated with the Rhode Island charter and had his books in the background. But a number of problems with the painting – including misspelling in one of the titles of his books – led them to conclude the painting was not authentic.
The painting was perhaps, some conjectured, a poor portrait of Benjamin Franklin that had been augmented with the background designed to make it look like a painting of Roger Williams. To read more, click here.
The Mysterious Death of the Rev. Josiah Baxter
In 1673, disturbing news reached London about the ruthless murder of the Rev. Josiah Baxter in Boston.
Baxter was an Anglican minister who had gotten caught up in a public debate with a group of Baptists over their interpretations of the Bible. Baxter had gotten the better of the argument, but his opponents would not let the dispute end there.
Four men followed Baxter to his home. They tied up his wife and children and tortured Baxter in revenge. They literally stripped the skin from his scalp and body until he died.
Benjamin Baxter was so appalled by the murder that he published a pamphlet about the crime to keep his brother’s memory alive in London and warn about the treacherous nature of Baptists.
Publication of the pamphlet triggered a shock wave in England, which was at the time going through wrenching debates over religious tolerance.
Parliament had stymied proposals to give dissenters greater freedom despite considerable support. The broadside against the Baptists reinforced the notion that these Baptists were a threat to civil society.
Two Bostonians arrived in London then, and told the mayor that not only had the murder not occurred, no one had been murdered in Boston. What’s more, the Rev. Josiah Baxter didn’t exist.
Samuel Parker, bishop of Oxford, admitted he published the pamphlet, but couldn’t produce Benjamin Baxter. He denied he had anything to do with any hoaxes, but only conceded he had accepted the story as true too quickly.
This story last updated in 2023.