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6 of History’s Most Infamous Supernatural Hoaxes

Vintage B&W photo of Loch Ness Monster
Marmaduke Arundel “Duke” Wetherell / Public domain

These days, many of us like to think that we’d be able to spot a fake if we saw it, whether it’s a doctored photograph or simply a tall tale. However, plenty of supernatural hoaxes from history fooled everyone—even the most skeptical of observers—when they first arrived on the scene.

Common threads are woven between many of these hoaxes: Lots of them center around the rise of the Spiritualist movement during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as around advances in technology like photography. Indeed, these common threads helped make these hoaxes so believable. Context is key, and when you’re surrounded by lots of other believers who have suddenly gained access to technology no one totally understands, it makes even the most seemingly outlandish stories believable.

Of course, just because the moments in history seen here all turned out to be hoaxes doesn’t necessarily mean that the phenomena they claimed to prove don’t actually exist; you’ll have to decide for yourself what you truly believe. But either way, these hoaxes make cracking good stories.

The Fox Sisters’ Séances

In 1848, something curious began happening at the house in Hydesville, New York, where the Fox family—parents Margaret and John and their two youngest daughters Maggie, 14, and Kate, 11—lived. A series of loud, disturbing knocks, raps, and thuds plagued the household, keeping the entire family up at night and putting everyone on edge. On March 31, though, things came to a head: Fed up with the activity and concerned about the fact that the noises seemed to follow the two girls, Margaret reached out to a neighbor for help. In the sisters’ bedroom that night, the gathered audience asked question after question, instructing whatever was causing the ruckus to count to five, then to 15, then the ages of the people in the room.

The entity responded, knocking the correct number of times with each request.

The activity continued for some time, with Maggie and Kate always at its center. They referred to the entity with which they claimed to be communicating first as “Mr. Splitfoot,” conjuring up images of the devil himself, then as Charles B. Rosna, a peddler who further séances alleged had been killed on the property and buried beneath the house. The girls began to travel with their older, married sister, Leah, holding séances in theatres for large audiences, pointed to as mediums of extraordinary skill and ability.

There was just one problem: They faked the whole thing.

Some 40 years after the “activity” first began, Maggie, then an adult, published a signed confession in the New York World, stating that she and Kate had used apples on strings and the popping and manipulation of their own joints to create the sounds. Maggie did attempt to recant the confession a year later, but the damage was done; the girls’ supposed abilities had been debunked. But there’s no doubt about it: The Fox sisters’ séances were a defining moment in history, paving the way for countless Spiritualists to do the same in the years to come.

The Spirit Photographs of William H. Mumler

William H. Mumler wasn’t actually photographer; he was a jewelry engraver. But in the early 1860s, when he was living in Boston and plying his professional trade, he derived great pleasure from photography as a hobbyist sharpening his amateur skills.

It was something of a surprise, therefore, when he developed a self-portrait he had recently taken and found that he wasn’t the image’s only subject. There, just behind his own likeness, he saw a second person—the faint outline of a girl when he was positive there hadn’t been one when he had actually taken the photograph.

Even more astonishingly, the girl appeared to be a cousin of his who had been dead for more than 10 years.

Mumler’s self-portrait is generally acknowledged as the first “spirit photograph,” and, in a world still reveling in the Fox sisters’ seances and other Spiritualist practices, Mumler’s images became a hot item. So taken was he with his own newfound abilities that he opened up a photography studio, charging $10 (about $280 in today’s money) for portraits in which the subjects would be able to see themselves alongside a spectral figure, often that of someone they loved who had long since departed this plane of existence.

But if Mumler’s so-called “abilities” sound too good to have been true, you’d be correct—they were. These days, we know that Mumler created his images with techniques like double exposure and the reuse of old photographic plates. He was even put on trial for fraud in 1869—and although he was acquitted, he stopped peddling his spirit photographs shortly thereafter.

The Philadelphia Experiment

USS Eldridge DE-173 (1944)
USS Eldridge DE-173 (1944)/Public Domain

Like most government military complexes, the U.S. military has a lot of weird skeletons in its proverbial closet. The weirdest by far, though, regards an alleged pair of experiments said to have been implemented in July and October of 1943. Both alleged experiments, which are usually grouped together as a singular noun and named for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, involved a Navy Destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Eldridge, and an aspect of what’s called unified field theory … and both invisibility and teleportation.

Coined by Albert Einstein, unified field theory is meant to describe the four fundamental forces of nature—electromagnetic interaction, strong interaction, weak interaction, and gravitational interaction—and how they interact as one system. The researchers supposedly behind the U.S.S. Eldridge experiments allegedly believed that the unified field, if it existed, would enable the bending of light around an object with the use of large electrical generators, creating a sort of cloaking device capable of hiding extremely large objects from view.

In the first experiment, therefore, the ship was alleged to have been rendered completely invisible.

In the second, it not only is said to have vanished from view but also that it was actually transported from its original location in Philadelphia to one several hundred miles away in Norfolk, Virginia.

Neither alleged experiment was wholly successful; indeed, the first is said to have gone particularly badly, with sailors and other naval yard personnel allegedly ending up fused with the vessel when it emerged from its cloaking. It’s presumed that the gruesome outcome of the two trials put the kibosh on any further experimentation of this nature—for the time being, at least.

But there’s no record of the experiments ever taking place; indeed, the U.S.S. Eldridge wasn’t commissioned until the end of August in 1943—a month after the first alleged experiment.

The primary source for the story was a series of letters from Morris K. Jessup, author of the books The Case for the UFO, UFO and the Bible, The UFO Annual, and The Expanding Case for the UFO, all published between 1955 and 1957. Jessup said he had received these letters from someone calling himself alternately Carlos Miguel Allende and Carl M. Allen. Yet, with nothing to go on but these letters and Jessup’s word that they came from where he said they did, there’s just not enough evidence to corroborate that the whole thing ever happened. These days, the Philadelphia Experiment is looked upon as one of the most enduring hoaxes of military history.

The Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, cousins Frances Griffiths, 9, and Elsie Wright, 16, began spending more and more time by the stream at the bottom of the Wright family home’s garden in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. They were always damp when they came home, but no matter how often they were told to stay dry, they kept saying that they needed to go back to the stream to see the fairies.

And, they wanted to prove it.

So, they borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera and decided to show everyone exactly what lived at the bottom of the garden. When Arthur Wright developed the photograph his daughter and niece had taken, he—and all the other naysayers—saw that Frances and Elsie hadn’t been joking: There, among the bushes, were four fairies, dancing together while Frances watched. The girls took more photographs over the course of the next few months as well, claiming to have captured the images of gnomes and other supernatural creatures, in addition to the fairies.

For his part, Elsie’s father assumed that they had mocked the photos up with paper dolls or bits of cardboard. But many others, including Elsie’s mother, Polly, believed wholeheartedly in the Cottingley fairies—and although public interest in the photographs eventually began to die down after a time, they’ve loomed large in our imagination ever since.

But, it turns out that Arthur Wright was correct: The photos were created using cut-out images of fairies taken from a children’s book and propped up with hat pins. Elsie and Frances admitted the hoax in 1983—although Frances maintained until her death that the fifth and final photograph she and Elsie had taken was genuine.

The Surgeon’s Photo

Reports of the Loch Ness Monster—the cryptid that made Scotland’s largest loch by volume famous—date back to the sixth century C.E. In The Life of St. Columba, one episode tells of St. Columba halting the attack of a mysterious water beast found in the River Ness with no more than the sign of the cross and a few choice words. It wasn’t until the 1870s that discussion of the creature picked up in earnest, though, and by the 1930s, there were photographs to go with it.

The most famous of these early photographs is undoubtedly the one known as the “surgeon’s photograph”—an image captured by Robert Kenneth Wilson in 1934 and published by the Daily Mail in April of that year. Wilson hadn’t attached his name to the photograph originally; however, since it was known to have been taken by a doctor, it earned its now-infamous nickname. It depicted a long-necked amphibious being rising out of the loch. Although the photograph wasn’t of terribly high quality, it has been pointed to for many years by those who believe in Nessie as proof of the creature’s existence.

Alas, the surgeon’s photo was never all that it appeared to be. In 1994, one of the three co-conspirators behind the photograph’s creation came forward to set the record straight: According to Christian Spurling, he and his father-in-law, actor and filmmaker Marmaduke Arundel Wetherell, slapped a faux sea serpent head onto a toy submarine, took a few photos of it, and gave the photos to their friend, Wilson, to submit to the Mail. The whole thing was nothing more than a revenge plot; Wetherell had been roundly mocked by the paper about six months prior for misidentifying a set of hippopotamus footprints he had spotted around the loch as prints left by the Loch Ness Monster.

Talk about holding a grudge.

Ghostwatch

For a look at something from more recent history, there’s Ghostwatch, the infamous program broadcast on BBC1 on Halloween night in 1992. (It’s nearly 30 years old now, so it can comfortably be considered historical, though obviously not ancient.) Framed as a live, on-air investigation of alleged haunting, the program, although fictional, was so convincing that it kicked up a panic following its broadcast, with many believing that the events it depicted—including its ominous finale—have actually occurred.

Ghostwatch split its time between the BBC’s Studio D, where broadcaster and journalist Michael Parkinson and a paranormal expert, Dr. Lin Pascoe, held down the fort, and a house in the greater London area that had allegedly been experiencing supernatural activity, where presenter Sarah Greene reported on the happenings inside. The entity, which the children of the family living in the house have nicknamed “Pipes” (originally, they thought the strange noises they were hearing at night were just the pipes banging), is gradually revealed to be the spirit of the house’s previous occupant, Raymond Tunstall, who had himself been tormented by spirit already present in the house—that of nineteenth-century baby farmer and serial killer Mother Seddons.

The investigation, however, doesn’t go quite as planned, and, well … without giving too much away, it doesn’t end well for anyone involved in the broadcast.

The story of Ghostwatch’s haunting did draw its inspiration from a real-life case—the Enfield Poltergeist, which was dramatized in the second film in The Conjuring franchise—while some of its details came from other pieces of history. (“Mother Seddons” has a lot in common with serial killer Amelia Dyer). But, in reality, the program was months in the making, shot in advance, and aired not live, but as a prerecorded Halloween special under the Screen One drama anthology umbrella. Its framing helped sell the story, though, as did the participation of Parkinson and Greene, both well-known broadcasters and television personalities. The program caused so much distress that the BBC banned it for about a decade following its original broadcast.

After spending a number of years as a difficult-to-find piece of media, Ghostwatch has had something of a resurgence lately; it’s occasionally available on horror-centric streaming service Shudder, and it’s been uploaded to the Internet Archive for preservation.

Go ahead and watch it … if you dare.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »