MSN has an article on the Top 25 Internet Hoaxes. It appears they swiped most of it from Snopes.com, which has turned into a true cultural force for debunking Internet scams and the promoting the “In-boxer Rebellion.” I remember an era when it seems I was the only person reading Snopes; now everybody checks with it the moment a new “Virus Alert” pops up in their in-boxes or a claim that another freckle-faced little girl has gone missing in Ordinary, OH. The MSN list of course includes the classic of all Internet con-jobs, “The 419/Nigerian Money-Laundering Scam,” which has bloomed into an interesting Internet hobby and online culture called “scambaiting,” where recipients of these scam letters respond with hoaxes of their own in order to waste the scammers’ time and make them look idiotic. You can see some of the results of this odd Internet social war at this site. It makes entertaining reading, but it’s not something I would waste time actually doing, and advise you don’t either. I’m glad someone is taking it to the con-men, but I’ll just stick the scammers’ letters in the spam folder and move on with my life, thanks.
The list only contains Internet hoaxes, so MSN should consider posting a list of some of the major “real world” hoaxes, some of which have altered history. I’m not speaking about Clifford Irving, the “Surgeon's Photo” of the Loch Ness Monster, the Cottingley Fairies, Uri Geller, the Amityville Horror, the Priory of Sion, or Sylvia Browne. Hoaxes all, indeed, some of them hurtful and damaging... But if you measure a hoax’s impact on history, two emerge at the top of the heap: The Donation of Constantine and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
No one knows who really wrote the two documents, but they had worldwide effects. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—likely a creation of the Imperial Russian secret police, the Okhrana—entailed a fictional Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It fueled anti-Semitism across Europe… and we know the tragic results of that. The Donation of Constantine appears to have been forged by someone in the early medieval Catholic Church, probably in the eighth century C.E., to cement the Church’s claim of legitimacy over the Eastern Orthodox Church and temporal power over all of Western Europe. The document claims that Emperor Constantine I granted the Pope authority over the entire Western Roman Empire. Now that’s a mighty big hoax. Imagine if I produced a document whereby George Washington ceded all new land acquired beyond the Thirteen Colonies to the sole dominion of the descendants of the Harvey Family, thus making me heir to absolute control of thirty-seven of the fifty states. (Although I really only want Montana, if that’s okay with you. Nice national parks.) The only actual difference between the two hoaxes is that nobody would believe me, while the Church managed to carry the claim and tried to enforce it for centuries.
Although it didn’t have a large impact on history, for sheer hoax audacity, I nominate William Henry Ireland. Clifford Irving had the moxie to forge a Howard Hughes autobiography, but young Bill Henry, at age eighteen in 1777, forged a “new” play by William Shakespeare. Think about that: a teenager decided to make a fake play he claimed was written by the greatest author in the English language, in the author's own handwriting, and then fooled the experts of the day into believing it was legitimate. Clifford Irving, eat your heart out. Ireland eventually got exposed when the play, titled Vortigern and Rowena and based on mythic English history, was produced in Drury Lane. But the manager and star actor of the theater, John Philip Kemble, suspected during rehearsals that something wasn't right. The show played one night to hisses and boos, and immediately expert opinion swung against Ireland and the whole façade came tumblin’ down.
But he was so close. I doff my cap to you, Mr. Ireland. That’s genius. And it didn’t incite a genocide or any religious wars. I wonder if anybody has considered a revival of Vortigern and Rowena, just for historical curiosity. I would go see it.