Crack open any history book, and you’ll read tales about the world’s most honorable men and women. But being trustworthy and valiant is only one way to make a name for yourself. There are also those notorious liars who rose almost as high as their truth-telling counterparts. But of course, each one had their bubble burst eventually. And that part of the story is gratifying – especially once you know what they did wrong.
20. George Washington never hacked that cherry tree
Most Americans will know the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a six-year-old, the future president received a hatchet as a gift – and he took the blade to his dad’s cherry tree.
When his father confronted him, the young Washington apparently admitted, “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet. And, with that, his father’s anger dissipated. His son’s honesty was worth more than that tree, he said.
Now, you can see why such a lesson would catch on: honesty is the best policy, you know. Funnily enough, though, Washington never said he couldn’t tell a lie.
He didn’t even take a hatchet to a cherry tree. Instead, one of his first biographers – Mason Locke Weems – invented the tale. He added it to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington, which came out in 1806 – six years after the original.
19. Marmaduke Wetherell swore he tracked Nessie
Marmaduke Wetherell starred in and directed British and South African silent films. But when that well dried up, he got a new gig.
In 1933 the Daily Mail hired him to helm a monumental – and arguably impossible – job. It hired the one-time screen star to find the Loch Ness Monster!
Shockingly, Wetherell did find some strange footprints on the shores of Loch Ness. But zoologists who investigated his claims determined that they were actually the footprints of a hippopotamus!
Some say Wetherell became a bit desperate after struggling to find Nessie and ended up making the markings himself. The Englishman was a big-game hunter on the side, and he just so happened to have a hippo-foot ashtray as a trophy from one such jaunt…
18. A history changing fossil of a fake dinosaur
Experts apparently uncovered the fossil remains of a prehistoric, feathered creature, and it made the pages of National Geographic in 1999. It described the so-called Archaeoraptor liaoningensis as having the “arms of a primitive bird and the tail of a dinosaur.”
For that reason, the discovery was huge: it linked dinosaurs to modern-day birds.
Within a few months, though, the revolutionary news had been proven untrue. The creature had apparently been created by a Chinese farmer who’d found the fossil bits in 1997.
History.com notes that he used an adhesive to put the pieces together and later sold it to a fossil dealer. The latter then shipped the faux relic to a U.S. museum for $80,000. Obviously, that ended up being a bad investment for the institution.
17. A giant lie in Cardiff, New York
In 1869 workers tapped into something shocking as they tilled the earth while digging on a farm in Cardiff, New York. They found the 10-foot-fall petrified frame of a man!
Some scientists thought it could be the body of someone who walked the earth in ancient times. Others wondered if it was a religious relic built by Jesuit priests. The crowds who rushed to see the Cardiff Giant in person must have come up with their own theories for his backstory, too.
No one could have guessed the truth behind the Cardiff Giant, though. It turned out that a Binghamton-based businessman called George Hull had Chicago sculptors piece together the massive statue.
Then, the entrepreneur ordered it to be buried on an acquaintance’s farm. The reason for his strange project? According to History.com, he’d had an argument with a minister who believed that giants once roamed the earth. To poke fun at those with similar beliefs, Hull had the massive man built, buried and uncovered by unexpecting workers. Eventually, though, the people who sculpted him came clean about the whole thing.
16. Not the missing link
After Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859’s On the Origin of Species, other experts raced to pinpoint the ancestors of modern-day humans – the missing links in our evolvement.
And an archeologist named Charles Dawson found what he thought could be the answer to the puzzle: the skull and jaw of a man in Piltdown, England.
At first, experts believed that the so-called Piltdown man was part of humans’ evolutionary timeline. But as archeologists unearthed more pieces of the puzzle, they realized that the once-revolutionary discovery didn’t seem to fit.
Then, upon further inspection, it emerged that the skull and jaw had come from an orangutan which had been stained and manipulated to look old. In other words, the person who planted it knew what they were doing – and it took years for the sham to be revealed.
15. Sidney Poitier’s secret son
Sidney Poitier had four daughters with Juanita Hardy and two more girls with his second spouse Joanna Shimkus. But a man named David Hamilton claimed to be the Academy Award-winning actor’s long-lost son.
He had no trouble telling the highest-ranking members of New York City’s social scene about his strained family relationship, either. According to People magazine, he also showed up at Melanie Griffith’s house and chatted with actor Gary Sinise until 4:00 a.m. about the situation with Poitier.
Eventually, though, the high-crust people on NYC’s social scene figured out Hampton. It was the dean of Columbia Journalism School and Newsweek editor Osborn Elliot who realized that the man parading around town was not related to Poitier.
And authorities made sure that Hampton repaid everyone for the free gifts and lodging he received for touting his fake father’s famous name.
14. John Brinkley swore he could fix impotence with…
In the 1920s and ’30s, Dr. John Brinkley had men lining up to see him for a surgical fix to their impotence.
Yet how did it work? Well, he’d create a small incision and then insert a goat’s testicular gland inside of the patient. It made sense – at least, based on what the general population knew about the barnyard animals. They seemed to try and reproduce as often as possible, after all.
But Dr. Brinkley faced plenty of opposition from the medical community, and it wasn’t because they were jealous of a fellow physician’s wild success.
For one thing, the surgeon didn’t actually have a medical degree. And inserting a goat’s testicular gland into a man’s skin did nothing to reverse his impotence. So, if any of the patients enjoyed any success, it had nothing to do with the treatment they received from Dr. Brinkley.
13. The Fox Sisters’ ability to talk to the dead
It all started in 1848 when Katie and Maggie Fox were young girls growing up in Hydesville, New York. According to legend, they woke up to terrifying rapping noises on the walls of their home, and their parents couldn’t pinpoint the source.
It continued until the girls decided to respond to the noises – and, it seemed, the supposed spirit behind them could understand and reply with its once-terrifying knocks. This kick-started the kids’ career in communicating with the dead. According to Atlas Obscura, within a few years they had eight million followers who believed in their one-of-a-kind skill.
But things went sour when elder sister Leah became the girls’ manager. She seemingly skimmed cash from their earnings – leaving both Maggie and Kate tired of reading people while still strapped for cash.
So, in 1888 Maggie took the stage at a scheduled performance and admitted that the whole thing had been faked – all the way back to their childhood days in New York. The women had learned to crack their joints to mimic the sound of ghostly knocks, she said. With that, people lost their faith in spiritualism until after World War I, when speaking with the dead had a resurgence.
12. Rosie Ruiz’s Boston Marathon run
How would you look after running the Boston Marathon? Chances are, you probably wouldn’t resemble 1980’s winner of the race: Rosie Ruiz.
The then-26-year-old crossed the finish line in the near-record time of just over two-and-a-half hours. But officials noticed that the young runner had barely broken a sweat by the time she crossed the finish line. Suspicious, perhaps, but they let her stand atop the podium anyway.
Soon enough, though, the truth came out. Onlookers came forward to claim that they saw Ruiz sneak onto the marathon course in the race’s final mile.
The fellow runners didn’t remember seeing her for the first 25 miles, either. And then, another shocking revelation emerged. Ruiz had snuck onto the Subway while running the New York Marathon, which gave her a low enough race time to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Needless to say, officials revoked her medal. And we imagine that sideline security became a bit tighter after she was able to steal the glory from the actual winner.
11. The band that wasn’t real
You’d think things were looking pretty good for a British band called the Zombies in 1968. They’d just had a massive hit in the United States called “Time of the Season.”
And the group were set to go on an American tour planned by a company called Delta Promotions. That all sounds well and fine, but there was a catch…
The Zombies had actually broken up long before the song hit the U.S. charts, and the members had no clue they were a success in America!
So, Delta sent a fake version of the band touring across the country. It gets worse, though. They actually had two versions of the Zombies – none of whom were real – trekking the country and performing. Eventually, people caught onto the ruse when the band that performed had fewer members than the Zombies they knew. There is a silver lining to this story, mind you. Two of the fake Zombies decided to start making music together in a band they formed and called ZZ Top.
10. Frank Abagnale lied his way into a Pan Am cockpit
There are con men, and then there’s Frank Abagnale. His career of deceit began at just 16 years old when he successfully posed as a Pan Am pilot as a way to get free flights.
When it became clear he didn’t know how to fly planes, Abagnale changed course and began working as a doctor in Georgia. Of course, he had no credentials to serve in this position, either.
Abagnale went on to work as a lawyer in New Orleans, although this job wasn’t a complete sham – he had actually passed the state’s bar exam. Still, his forgeries did get him into trouble with the law, and he spent years in French, Swedish and American prisons.
Eventually, though, he found a way out. Abagnale promised federal authorities that he’d help them pinpoint check forgers. Nowadays, the man has reportedly made himself a millionaire by helping businesses avoid fraudsters like his former self.
9. Cassie Chadwick claimed Carnegie lineage
While most kids her age were concerned with graduating from school, Elizabeth Bigley – also known as Cassie Chadwick – was already involved in crime. She didn’t stop as an adult, either.
The con artist moved to Cleveland, married two men and started a faux fortune-telling business. She served time for forgery after that, but Chadwick wasn’t satisfied. In fact, her biggest con to date was still around the corner...
Chadwick came out of jail with a new story: she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie – the steel magnate with a net worth of $75 billion in today’s money. And that wasn’t all: Chadwick claimed that he’d passed on the money so she’d keep quiet about her lineage.
Her husband believed the tale, and lenders did, too. Soon enough, she was raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars based on her relationship to one of the world’s richest men. But according to Time, everything came crashing down in 1904 when one businessman called in the $200,000 Chadwick had borrowed. It then came to light that all of her loans were forgeries, and she went to jail and died there three years later.
8. Tobacco companies promised the best from their product
Lung disease. Cancer.
Heart problems. Birth defects. We all know the dangers that come with smoking. And it turned out that tobacco company executives knew how dangerous their products were, too. Yet they repeatedly told the world that their cigarettes weren’t so bad.
The CEO of R.J. Reynolds testified in front of Congress in 1994 that the company’s products didn’t “do anything to hook smokers or to keep them hooked.”
RJR Nabisco’s CEO James W. Johnston added, “Cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea or Twinkies.” Clearly, this wasn’t true. And since then we’ve learned that tobacco firms had been artificially manipulating the nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them more addictive.
7. James K. Polk started a war on purpose
President James K. Polk is often remembered as one of the biggest liars to ever sit in the Oval Office.
And he earned that less-than-stellar reputation after igniting the Mexican-American War. Now, sometimes world leaders feel the need to start conflict for valiant reasons – but that wasn’t the case with this Commander-in-Chief.
It all started when Polk attempted to buy New Mexico and California from Mexico for $30 million. That deal would also include observance of the Rio Grande River as the border between the states and their southern neighbor.
When Mexico turned down the offer, Polk sent troops to the river’s mouth – a move that Mexico saw as an act of aggression. So, it sent in soldiers to protect the territory, and, with that, the U.S. President told Congress that Mexican forces had invaded the country. They granted him a declaration of war on that piece of news, but, the truth was that he’d started it all himself. And, of course, we know what happened, since California and New Mexico are part of the United States today.
6. A Beatle died, and no one ever knew
Some believe that the Fab Four weren’t made up of the members you know so well. No, conspiracy theorists believe that frontman Paul McCartney actually died in 1966.
They say a look-alike stepped in, but his bandmates left clues to tell us all the truth. Just look at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band if you want proof. The fictional group they created was a way to reveal that they had a new lead singer, and his real name was Billy Shears.
There’s more evidence than that, though. They say the original album cover for Yesterday and Today had the Beatles posing amid raw meat – a supposed clue that McCartney had suffered a terrible accident.
And the iconic Abbey Road art features the singer-songwriter without shoes to depict that he was dead. After all, you’d need shoes while crossing a London street if you were alive, right? Ultimately, though, this theory is just that: the fact that Paul McCartney is still alive somewhat negates it.
5. The Russian princess who never was
You probably know the story of Russia’s one-time royal family helmed by Czar Nicholas II. The emperor, his wife and their five children were brutally murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries in July 1918.
Yet two years after the slayings, a woman emerged and said she was Anastasia – the youngest of the Romanov clan and heir to the throne.
The woman – named Anna Anderson – told the world that two men had carried her body out of the basement where the rest of her family had been slain. They then brought her to Romania, where she could heal and live safely.
Her tale had plenty of public support, but bona fide Romanov family members didn’t believe the woman. And it would take decades for science to catch up to her. A posthumous DNA test done in the 1990s revealed that she was in no way related to the ill-fated Russian royal family.
4. The original Ponzi scheme
There’s a reason why we call major investment frauds “Ponzi schemes” today – it’s all thanks to a man named Charles Ponzi! He ran the first such scam in 1920 and, if you’re at all familiar with this kind of crime, then you’ll know exactly how it worked.
The original schemer told potential investors that he could make huge, fast returns on international postal reply coupons, thanks to the ever-changing value of currency. When pressed for more information on how the plan worked, he simply wouldn’t share. Ponzi apparently had to keep that from his investors.
Initial investors in Ponzi’s program saw the returns that he had promised, which inspired more people to put their money in. But as they joined up, this latter group didn’t see the same payback.
That’s because their cash had actually gone to pay off the plan’s first round of buy-ins – no money was coming in from the coupons, as Ponzi had promised. He went to jail for fraud in 1920, and he was so notorious that his name has now come to describe the same type of schemes. Unfortunately, they are still deployed by fraudsters today – Bernie Madoff, anyone?
3. The fakest show on Earth
History remembers P.T. Barnum as the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus… and for being a pretty good liar.
It was, after all, a hoax that brought him to national prominence. It all started in the 1830s, when he claimed to have found George Washington’s former nursemaid – an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. Soon enough, he had her on tour across the country, and people lined up to see the lady who had cared for the nation’s first president.
Eventually, the traveling Heth show lost its luster, and Barnum came up with a new angle. According to the Lost Museum Archive, he wrote an anonymous letter to the newspaper claiming that the nursemaid wasn’t actually a person at all.
Instead, she was a machine comprised of whale bone and covered in old leather. The exhibit proved a success, but it was a double-edged sword for the future ringleader. His critics constantly brought up the Heth hoax to discredit him over the subsequent years.
2. The World Series without a real winner
The Chicago White Sox made it to the 1919 World Series, but half of the team had zero desire to win the contest. That’s because a gambling syndicate had promised them money in order to throw the game – and beat the odds – in favor of their opponents: the Cincinnati Reds.
Of course, it’s hard to subtly lose a baseball game, so the crowds and commentators quickly began to pinpoint failed plays that should have been easy gains for the Sox.
After the series, rumors of a rigged play died down, and nothing happened – that is, until a grand jury decided to look into allegations that gamblers had started to toy with baseball as a whole. Eventually, White Sox players came before the judging body to admit they had, indeed, thrown the series for cash.
None faced convictions, as evidence of their confessions mysteriously disappeared. But there were consequences. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eight Sox who partook in the deal were banned from playing baseball ever again.
1. The ultimate lie: Watergate
Watergate surely goes down as one of history’s most notorious lies. Though what happened exactly?
Well, President Richard Nixon of the Republican Party sought a second term in 1972. And the Committee for the Re-Election of the President came up with a surreptitious way to best the competition. They wanted to spy on the Democratic National Committee, which culminated with a break-in at the Watergate building, which was the latter’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.
As soon as the break-in came to light, the media delved into the story and found just how far the scandal had gone – we’re talking hush money and wiretaps. President Nixon swore up and down that he had no knowledge of the plan against his opposition.
He even took to TV to assure the nation with a now-famous declaration, saying, “I am not a crook.” Eventually, though, the White House cover-up crumbled, and people realized that the Commander-in-Chief did, indeed, know about the plan. And, before Congress could impeach him, he resigned from office with a reputation forever marred by the scandal.