Guardian Unlimited has a list of Top 10 Literary Hoaxes, which prompted me to double their efforts, as I find the choices somewhat lacking. So here’s my own top-20 list, rated in descending order, with notoriety, how successful the hoax was (and for how long), and lasting cultural influence in view. I also throw in a couple of personal favorites, like Coleman-Norton’s hoax. One of the most successful literary forgeries, of course, has been recently debunked by one of our bibliobloggers.
But before this, a word about motives. In Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman describes four motives for forging literary documents in the ancient world: profit, malice, admiration, or to support one’s views (see pp 30-31). The hoaxes on my list also owe to one of four motives. Five of them are pranks (which may owe to malice); six involve the hoaxer seeking attention or fame; five support ideologies; and four were done for profit. Forging out of admiration has obviously faded from the human scene.
1. The Donation of Constantine, in the fourth century. Fabricated in the eighth century by the papacy. Debunked by Lorenzo Valla in 1440. The most famous forgery in European history, describing Constantine being cured by Pope Sylvester I, and then rewarding him by giving the papacy power over temporal rulers. Valla was a pioneer of certain debunking techniques, involving the study of word usage variations.
2. The Secret Gospel of Mark, cited by Clement of Alexandria in the second century. Fabricated by Morton Smith in the 1950s and placed in the Mar Saba library in 1958. Disbelieved by Quentin Quesnell in 1973. Debunked by Stephen Carlson in 2005. Smith’s prank fooled many scholars and called forth intriguing theories about early Christians who used an unorthodox version of Mark’s gospel. Carlson finally spotted the hilarious confessions Smith planted in “Clement’s” letter.
3. Fragments of Ancient Poetry, by Ossian the Bard in the third century. Fabricated by James Macpherson in the 1760s. Disbelieved by Samuel Johnson in 1775. Debunked at the end of the 19th century. As with Secret Mark, some scholars were too smart to be hoodwinked, but it took almost a century and a half to put to the ghost to rest.
4. Letters of Historical Figures — Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Cleopatra, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Joan of Arc, Cicero, Dante, etc. All fabricated by Vrain Denis-Lucas between 1854-1868. Debunked in 1869. Relatively short-lived, but one of the most embarrassing hoaxes ever: all these letters were written in French, yet not only did people buy into them — they bought them, and Denis-Lucas ended up making hundreds of thousands of francs off the fools.
5. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by “Jewish elders”. Written by Hermann Goedsche in the 1860s, and redacted by Matvei Golovinski in the 1890s. First printed in 1897. Debunked by Lucien Wolf in 1920. But these anti-semitic legends of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (and using the blood of Christian children for passover) continued to find adherents, mostly because the hoax played on prejudice more than gullibility per se.
6. Parthenopaeus, by Sophocles in the 5th century BCE. Fabricated by Dionysius the Renegade in the 4th century BCE. (Dionysius confessed.) One of the most amusing hoaxes, whereby Dionysius set out to fool his rival Heraclides and succeeded with a vengeance. Heraclides insisted that Sophocles wrote the play even when told it was a fake. Only when Dionysius pointed out the nasty insult embedded in an acrostic (“Heraclides is ignorant of letters”) did his rival realize he’d been had in the worst way.
7. The Hitler Diaries, published in 1983. Fabricated by Konrad Kujau. Debunked soon after extracts were published in magazines like Time. One of the most notorious hoaxes, especially for having fooled an expert like Hugh Trevor-Roper. Stern magazine paid about ten million marks for the diaries.
8. Vortigern and Rowena, by Shakespeare in the 16th century. Fabricated by William Ireland in 1790s, along with Shakespeare’s love letters to Anne Hathaway, a letter to Elizabeth I, and early manuscripts of other plays. Debunked soon after by Edmond Malone. But that didn’t prevent it from being performed in 1796 to a packed house. Ireland had done all the forgeries to please his father.
9. Pedigree of the Merovingian dynasty, recorded by Godfrey de Boullion in the 11th century. Fabricated by Pierre Plantard in the 1960s, along with other forged manuscripts relating to the “Priory of Sion”, all of which were placed in the Paris National Library between 1965-1967. Discredited in the 1980s. Thoroughly debunked in a 1996 BBC documentary. This hoax has had lasting influence in the conspiracy theory promoted in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which in turn was used as a basis for the blockbuster novel, The DaVinci Code.
10. The Diary of His Excellency Ching-shan, and other Chinese memoirs, found in Ching-san’s study in 1900. Actually fabricated by Edmund Backhouse around this time. Denounced as a forgery in 1963. Debunked by Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1976. Backhouse ended up donating tons of bogus manuscripts to the Bodleian library between 1913-1923, and used other forgeries to establish himself as an Asian scholar.
11. The Malley Poems, published in 1944. Fabricated by James McAuley and Harold Stewart. McAuley and Stewart confessed that “Ern Malley” never existed, and they had written nonsense simply to prove how easy it is to fool people with pastiche and randomly plagiarized lines. Interesting anecdote: the American poet John Ashbery asked his students to read a Malley poem in conjunction with one of Geoffrey Hill’s poems and decide, without knowing in advance, which was fake. Half the students thought Malley’s poem had to be the genuine one.
12. Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, by Holocaust survivor Benjamin Wilkomirski, published in 1995. Wilkomirski’s real name is Bruno Dossekker, and he’s neither a Holocaust survivor nor Jewish. Debunked by Daniel Ganzfried in 1998. Many people have excused this hoax for being emotionally honest, a lie pointing to a greater truth which can help victims of the Shoah.
13. The Education of Littletree, an autobiography of a Cherokee published in 1976. Actually written by KKK member Asa Carter. Debunked the year it was published. This book continues to inspire children and is still considered good literature by some teachers, regardless of authorship and the racist stereotypes it promotes.
14. Poems by Thomas Rowley, a 15th-century monk. Fabricated in 1769 by Thomas Chatterton. Debunked soon after, and Chatterton killed himself. He was romanticized after his suicide; many people were so moved by his poetry and didn’t care if they were forgeries.
15. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, by Alan Sokol. Published in 1996. Sokol soon confessed that what he had written was nothing more than a postmodern joke. (Sokol’s hoax differs from the others on this list in that it’s not a forgery; he submitted the hoax in his own name. But it’s a great example of an academic prank done for the sake of testing one’s colleagues.)
16. The Salamander Letter, by Martin Harris (companion of Joseph Smith) in 1830. Fabricated by Mark Hofmann in the 1980s. Debunked in 1985. Hofmann forged other anti-Mormon documents, as well as a poem by Emily Dickinson. Motivated partly by his hatred for Mormonism, he did it mostly for the money, and Mormon leaders were indeed willing to pay considerable amounts to sequester these heresies. Hofmann was a murderer too, and perhaps got his just deserts when wounded by one of his own bombs.
17. Notes and Emendations to the Text of Shakespeare’s Plays, from Shakespeare in the 16th century. Fabricated by John Payne Collier in 1852. Disbelieved by Samuel Singer and Alexander Dyce right away. Debunked by Clement Ingleby in 1861.
18. Irenaeus Fragments from the second century. Fabricated by Christopher Pfaff in 1715. Disbelieved by Scipio Maffei. Debunked by Adolf von Harnack in 1900. Pfaff used these extracts to support his views during Pietist-Lutheran controversies.
19. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, written in 1971 (never published), co-authored by Hughes and Clifford Irving. Actually written by Irving alone. In 1972 Irving confessed that he never met Hughes. But before this, many authorities who read the manuscript pronounced it genuine “beyond doubt”, and leading handwriting experts said the signatures possessed by Irving were indeed those of Howard Hughes. Experts declared: “It is beyond human capability to forge this mass of material.”
20. “An Amusing Agraphon”, about a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. Fabricated by Paul Coleman-Norton in 1950. Debunked by Bruce Metzger soon after it was published. [EDIT: see below] Known as the “denture joke”, this is one of my favorite hoaxes, in which Jesus assures people that in the afterlife God will provide teeth to the toothless, so that everyone will be able to weep and gnash their teeth.
EDIT: With regards to #20, Stephen Carlson pointed out to me that not only did Bruce Metzger deduce the hoax before it was published, he didn’t go public with it until 1971, after Coleman-Norton’s death. So I stand corrected on two accounts. Hoax debunked in 1971.