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In their attempts to understand more about our world, a lot of good people made a lot of honest mistakes. Other "mistakes" weren't so honest, but were the result of unchecked greed for money and fame. Here are just a few.

Most Recent Additions

Sea serpent prints Jun-14-2014
Tailed toad May-07-2014
Faked dragon Aug-02-2013
 
Sea serpent

Year: 1696
Con artist: Cornelius Meyer
Originally published in: Nuovi ritrovamenti Divisi in Due Parti
Now appears in: "Investigation of a Claim of a Late-Surviving Pterosaur and Exposure of a Taxidemic Hoax: The Case of Cornelius Meyer's Dragon" by Phil Senter and Pondanesa D. Wilkins in Palaeontologia Electronica
By the late 17th century, residents around Rome had long suffered flooding from local rivers. Rather than blaming floodplain topography, though, they tended to blame serpentine monsters believed to slither around the watery depths. A Dutch engineer named Cornelius Meyer knew how to solve the actual problem of flooding by building levees, but the workers he depended on were skittish. Legends told of a dragon living in the region. It has supposedly been killed years earlier, but new rumors claimed it was once again alive, and no one wanted to run into it at the work site. To get his workers moving, Meyer rather miraculously "recovered" the dead dragon, and later described it in his book, Nuovi ritrovamenti Divisi in Due Parti. Meyer may have cut some ethical corners, but the reliably dead dragon allowed the work to proceed. He probably could not have imagined how his dragon engraving would be appropriated as evidence centuries later. Around the turn of the 21st century, biblical literalists argued that Meyer's engraving really showed a pterosaur, specifically Scaphognathus crassirostris. Its presence in a 17th-century engraving "proved" that pterosaurs did not, as the science community claimed, go extinct tens of millions of years before humans evolved, but in fact lived through the Renaissance. Unfortunately for the pterosaur-seeing creationists, the engraving they cited was, although a hoax, meticulously detailed. It was so detailed that a reexamination published in 2013 did more than demonstrate that Meyer's dragon bore no resemblance to Scaphognathus crassirostris. By comparing the engraving to living and fossil species, the 2013 study authors figured out what Meyer probably cobbled together to make his monster. Senter and Wilkins concluded, "The skull of Meyer's dragon is that of a dog. The mandible is that of a second, smaller dog. The ribs are those of a large fish. The thoracic vertebrae probably are those of a beaver. The 'hind limbs' are the forelimbs of a juvenile bear. The wings, tail, beak, and cranial horn are fake." Dragon "skin" conveniently hid the junctures of the different parts.

 
Paluxy footprints

Year: 1939
Originally appeared in: "Thunder in his Footsteps" by Roland T. Bird in Natural History
Now appears in: "History of Science: Fossil Proboscidians and Myths of Giant Men" by James L. Hayward in Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences (Also discussed in Quest for the African Dinosaurs by Louis Jacobs)
The worst thing about this hoax is how many people still fall for it. In the 1930s, American Museum paleontologist Roland T. Bird paid a visit to the Paluxy River limestone beds near Glen Rose, Texas, to see a spectacular dinosaur trackway. Bird's visit came during the Depression, and some locals decided to sell tracks from the region in hopes of making some much needed cash. They quickly figured out it would be easier to carve footprints than dig up the real things, and that it would be more interesting to carve giant human footprints than dinosaur tracks. A fraud is a glowing success when it tells people what they want to believe, and many biblical literalists embraced this so-called evidence that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. Truth is, we missed each other by about 65 million years.

 
Sea serpent

Year: 1845
Con artist: "Dr." Albert Koch
Originally published in: Hydrarchos
Now appears in: Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis
This illustration accompanied Albert Koch's description of a "gigantic fossil reptile" 114 feet long. In truth, Koch pieced together the bones of five fossil whales, then showed the specimen in the U.S. and in England. The hoax was exposed on both sides of the Atlantic.
Larger image available

 
Sea serpent footprints

Year: 1937
Con artist: Tony Sarg
Now appears in: The Nantucket Sea-Serpent Hoax (1937) in Public Domain Review
In the summer of 1937, Nantucket newspapers began to carry stories of giant footprints, perhaps left by a sea serpent, on a local beach. The area had a long history of sea serpent sightings, and maybe some of the more excitable local minds pondered the possibility that a fabled monster had finally come ashore. W. Reid Blair, director of the New York Zoological Society and recipient of the serpent's alleged footprint photos, dashed their hopes. A marine mammal, he explained, would have moved mostly on its belly, leaving an indentation on the beach rather than distinct prints. But within days, there was a big monster on the beach. Local puppeteer Tony Sarg was behind the footprint hoax, and he followed up with a giant balloon of a sea monster. His sea monster enjoyed weeks of popularity in Nantucket before slithering off to New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As hoaxes go, this one was short-lived and fairly benign.

 
Composite fossil

Year: 1997
Con artist: Unidentified Chinese fossil collector (who might not have known he was defrauding anyone)
Originally published in: National Geographic Magazine, November, 1999 issue
For more information: National Geographic Magazine, October, 2000 issue (Photo by O. Louis Mazzatenta), Nature Magazine, February 17, 2000 issue, Unearthing the Dragon by Norell and Ellison
In 1997, a Chinese farmer found an exquisite birdlike fossil with faint feather impressions. A couple yards away, he found a lizard-like fossil tail. He took these and other finds home, glued the pieces together, then sold the result to a local dealer. To the farmer, it looked like a nice, complete fossil, which would bring him a little more money than shattered pieces. To less-than-careful eyes, the composite looked like a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Over the next two years, the composite fossil made its way into the hands of a loose association of amateur dinosaur enthusiasts, professional paleontologists and National Geographic editors. With unprecedented achievement in lousy communication, various members of this group purchased the fossil for $80,000, insured it for $1.6 million, proudly announced the new species Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, then eventually wished they'd never seen the little fossil. Added to the embarrassment was the near certainty that it had been illegally smuggled out of China, a fact which — to its credit — National Geographic insisted be remedied before it agreed to publish the find. (The fossil was eventually repatriated.) The original plan was to describe the fossil in a peer-reviewed publication — a contingency that National Geographic gambled on — but after the paper was rejected by both Nature and Science, National Geographic didn't have time to pull the article. The magazine ignored its policy of awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed paper and announced the find. Just a few months later, Xu Xing, a collaborator in the research announced the bad news, and confirmed what a few others had quietly suspected: The fossil was a composite. In fact, it was a composite of 88 pieces. Finger pointing ensued. Creationists loved it. But as paleontologist Mark Norell has pointed out, the fossil never passed peer review, and the scientists involved revealed the forgery.

 
Mermaid

Year: 1842
Con artist: P.T. Barnum
Originally published in: New York Herald
Now appears in: Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis (Also discussed in The Feejee Mermaid by Jan Bondeson)
P.T. Barnum's skillful manipulation convinced thousands to see his "Feejee Mermaid." It was displayed for "positively one week only!" at a concert hall on Broadway. Years later, Barnum recounted with amusement how he had lured the crowds to see an "ugly, dried-up, black-looking specimen about three feet long . . . that looked like it had died in great agony."
A generation earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, the mermaid enjoyed similar notoriety. An American captain named Samuel Barrett Eades purchased the mermaid in 1822, paying for the prize by selling the ship he was supposed to sail. The ship's real owner, Stephen Ellery, was hardly amused. Ellery hired William Clift, a talented anatomist and zoologist, to examine the specimen. Clift found the mermaid was a skillful forgery incorporating the head on an orangutan, the teeth of a baboon, artificial eyes, and likely the tail of a salmon. Eades didn't welcome this news, and later hired his own "experts" to assure him the mermaid was genuine. After entertaining crowds of Londoners, the mermaid fell into obscurity for two decades before Barnum bought it.

 
Striped tamandua

Year: 1763
Con artist: Correspondent of Buffon
Originally published in: Histoire Naturelle
Now appears in: "Sloth Bones and Anteater Tongues" by Helen Cowie in Atlantic Studies
Like his predecessors, Buffon often relied on the kindness of amateur naturalists. Nature lovers living overseas would sometimes send him descriptions and even specimens of new plants and animals that he could describe in his books. But not all correspondents were honorable, and a clever con artist could even fool a skilled naturalist. Buffon described the "striped tamandua" in Histoire Naturelle and the hoax wasn't unveiled until after his death. He had really been sent a coati, a raccoon relative. The fabricator had removed the animal's teeth and given it stripes.
Larger image available

 
Snakes

Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy and The Floating Egg by Roger Osborne
For many years, the ground in the village of Whitby, England was strewn with baffling objects vaguely resembling coiled snakes. Local legend explained that years earlier, the area was crawling with snakes which St. Hilda (Abbess of the Whitby Abbey) beheaded and turned to stone. This coat of arms of the town of Whitby recalls that legend. In less benign tributes to the legend, locals "found" the original snake heads and reattached them to the snakes, then (not surprisingly) sold them. In fact, the heads were skillfully carved from stone. And the snakes? They are really fossil ammonites that went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs.

 
Ammonite with snake head

Now appears in: Fossils: Evidence of Vanished Worlds by Yvette Gayrard-Valy
This is an example of a snake turned to stone, better known as a snake stone. It appears to be a small snake curled neatly around its tail. Whoever "reattached" the head to this creature was very skillful; the spot where the carved snake head was attached to the ammonite really can't be detected. That this skillful forgery has been preserved to the present day suggests that it was highly valued.

 
Book plate

Now appears in: "Ammonites, Legends, and Politics: The Snakestones of Hilda of Whitby" by Alfred Kracher in European Journal of Science and Theology
In 1926, Edmund New designed this bookplate for St. Hilda's College, Oxford. The bookplate featured the saint holding an ammonite while standing on a snake, the origin of snake stone legends now clearly understood. In his article, Kracher argues that perhaps a clear intent to deceive with carved heads attached to ammonites didn't actually arise before the late 18th century, around the time when Walter Scott's poem Marmion popularized the legend of St. Hilda for a new generation, and the snake stones became gimmicks for tourists. Before then, ammonites, even without heads attached, might have been prized by locals for their association with the saint. The Irish story of Patrick — another saint credited with eradicating snake — might have actually been a metaphorical story of how Patrick displaced pagan druids, many of whom might have sported snake tattoos.

 
Fake fossils

Year: 1726
Con artists: J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart
Originally published in: Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
Now appears in: The Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould
In the early 18th century, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer, a professor and physician from Würzburg, published a book documenting "fossil" finds from a nearby mountain. His finds included everything from spiders on their webs to lizards with their skins intact. Legend has it that Beringer was the object of a joke by his students, but he was actually defrauded by two of his colleagues. When Roderick and Eckhart learned that Beringer intended to publish his finds, they nervously warned him that the fossils were fake, but by then Beringer was a man with a purpose. Although Beringer mistakenly assumed the fossils were natural, not carved, he refused to speculate any further, instead publishing his finds for others to analyze. Based on today's understanding of fossils, Beringer's mistake seems remarkably stupid. In his time, however, the process of fossilization was poorly — if at all — understood. Whether fossils were organic in nature or the results of the same forces that made rocks themselves was not yet known.

 
Preserved lizards

Year: 1726
Con artists: J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart
Originally published in: Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
Now appears at: AMS Historica (http://amshistorica.unibo.it/3)
In his "fossil" book, Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer illustrated the specimens he found — carvings left for him by hoaxers. This plate portion shows lizards and/or amphibians with soft tissue preserved. The specimen at the top peers at the reader with winsome eyes turned to stone. The specimen below that bears little resemblance to anything in the animal kingdom. It apparently sports a canine head on one end of its body and a human- or monkey-like head on the other. The simian face grins, as if amused by the prank played on the hapless Beringer.

 
Preserved vertebrates and shells

Year: 1726
Con artists: J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart
Originally published in: Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
Now appears at: AMS Historica (http://amshistorica.unibo.it/3)
This plate from Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer's book includes more illustrations of fossils that could not exist, but in the middle of all the perfectly preserved eyes and innocent smiles, some so-called fossils look plausible: shells. Under the right conditions, shells can fossilize readily. But draped over them is another fantastical creature. These carvings, with their representations of things that could and could not fossilize underscores the difficulty common in Beringer's day of understanding not just how fossils formed but what they even were.

 
Piltdown

Year: 1911
Originally appeared in: Several hundred publications
Now appears in: Human Origins: The Search for Our Beginnings by Herbert Thomas (Also discussed in Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey, and discussed in detail in The Piltdown Forgery by J.S. Weiner)
Perhaps the best known case of scientific fraud, the Piltdown Man was believed to be the earliest-known human from Western Europe. In fact, it was the jaw of an ape (with filed teeth) paired with a human skull. Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson collected a skull fragment in 1911, and claimed that workmen digging in the gravel pit where the fragment was found had given him another piece years earlier. More excavations turned up more material. Skeptics who suspected that the skull and jaw came from two different animals were flummoxed at the 1915 find of a second individual (Piltdown II) two miles away. Many (planted) animal fossils from the area corroborated Piltdown Man. The Piltdown forgery was far from amateurish; the perpetrator(s) understood human and ape anatomy, fossils of "contemporary" fauna, and even the gravel beds where the fossils were collected. It wasn't until 1953 that three scientists (Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Kenneth Oakley and Joseph Weiner) uncovered the hoax. Even now, the perpetrator is unknown. Suspects include English anatomist Sir Arthur Keith and British Museum employee Martin Hinton. Some speculation has even fingered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, although most suspicion has settled on Charles Dawson. Exposure of the Piltdown fraud helped pave the way for acceptance of genuine hominid fossils, such as Raymond Dart's Australopithecus africanus, whose implications (evolution of bipedalism before big brains) had been "disproved" by Piltdown.

 
Cricket bat

Year: 1914
Originally appeared in: Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London
Now appears in: Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey
Of the evidence supposedly corroborating Piltdown Man, the most ridiculous had to be what Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward described as a "bone implement." What looked like a bone implement to them looked — to more discerning eyes — like a cricket bat. So outlandish was this piece of evidence that some historians have speculated this was an attempt to expose the entire hoax. If so, it didn't work. Dawson and Woodward published a paper about it.

 
Striped tamandua

Year: 1911
Con artist: Wilhelm Rappe
Now appears in: "A Chimpanzee Skull in the Devil's Cave" by Oliver Hochadel in Endeavour
Shortly before Piltdown humiliated British scientists, a similar hoax embarrassed German scientists. Near the small towns of Steinau and Schlüchtern, locals had been exploring a cave known as Devil's Cave, or Teufelshöhle, since 1905. Overseeing the excavations — with an eye toward putting the region on the tourist map — was Albert Lüders, and he presided over an association devoted to exploring the cave. But one member of the association, an apothecary named Wilhelm Rappe, apparently liked a good joke, especially if Lüders was the butt of it. Rappe's brother had been to Cameroon and reportedly shot a bunch of chimpanzees. Rappe fished a chimpanzee skull out of his brother's collection, darkened it with chemical treatments and fire to make it look really old, and planted it in the cave when the workmen weren't paying close attention. In fact, they were paying even less attention than Rappe guessed because the skull he planted got tossed into a rubble heap after it lost its mandible and someone severed its nose with a spade. Those mishaps only strengthened the hoax by making the chimpanzee skull harder to identify. Scientists, some illustrious, were called in to consult. Verdicts varied. The one most taken in by the hoax was probably the anthropologist Hermann Klaatsch, who initially guessed that "the creature belongs to the group of fossils that link the race of the Neanderthals with the current apes." Klaatsch later backed off this assessment, identifying it as a fossil ape and arguing that it served as evidence of apes in Europe in recent geologic time. Meanwhile Lüders, wanting to sustain enthusiasm, published this big newspaper article in June 1911. It was about that time that Rappe realized the joke had gone too far, especially since Friedrich Heiderich — an anatomist who identified the skull pretty accurately from the start — was getting clobbered by Lüders's public relations campaign. Rappe confessed to the hoax but tried to keep his identity a secret. It didn't stay secret for long, and the cave-excavation association and Klaatsch both wanted to sue. Klaatsch actually emerged from the affair relatively unscathed; his arguments that human races evolved from different ape species did more long-term damage to his reputation.
Larger image available

 
Cardiff Giant

Year: 1869
Con artist: Geroge Hull
Photographed in: Cardiff, New York (some rights reserved)
Now appears in: "The Great Cardiff Giant" chapter in Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White (http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/cardiff.htm)
Before Piltdown Man, there was the Cardiff Giant, a "petrified giant" discovered during the digging of a well. The spectacular find was 10 feet, 4.5 inches tall and appeared to have weathered underground for a long time. Alternately identified as a Phoenician sculpture, an American Indian prophet and a biblical giant, it attracted fee-paying crowds, which soon enriched its so-called discoverer, Farmer Newell. But Cornell University cofounder Andrew White, who recounted the Cardiff events in his autobiography, smelled a rat. For starters, he couldn't see a good reason to dig a well where the giant turned up as "it was convenient neither to the house nor the barn; that there was already a good spring and a stream of water running conveniently to both." Farmer Newell apparently paid several thousand dollars scraped off the top of giant-viewing fees to some fellow out west even though he "had never been in condition to owe any human being such an amount of money." What stumped Dickson, though, was the weathered appearance of the limestone giant, with grooves seemingly carved by water currents over a long period. Then a friend surreptitiously brought Dickson a piece of the giant. The rock wasn't the tough limestone characteristic of the region, but gypsum soft enough to be scratched with a fingernail. And quietly observant farmers around Cardiff noticed a tall, skinny individual skulking around Farmer Newell's farm — the same man, it turned out, who had been observed transporting an enormous box to Cardiff shortly before the spectacular discovery was made.

 
Toad with tail

Century: 16th
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Now appears in: "The Oldest Herpetological Collection in the World: The Surviving Amphibian and Reptile Specimens of the Museum of Ulisse Aldrovandi" by Bauer, Ceregato and Delfino in Amphibia-Reptilia
Specimens collected by the 16th-century naturalist Aldrovandi numbered in the thousands. In the years after his death, his collection was scattered, most of the items eventually lost, or destroyed by age. But about 200 specimens still survive today in the Museo di Palazzo Poggi in Bologna. Among those hardy survivors are two toads, both of them sporting tails that were apparently added during Aldrovandi's day. Whoever enhanced these specimens was thorough enough to cover the artificial appendages with skin from the same species. Modern herpetologists know this because, despite their faked nature, the toads still preserve enough detail to be identified down to the species level. There's little indication that Aldrovandi himself attached the tails, but he admitted the toads had been faked. Despite their extraneous parts, he believed the toads were valuable parts of his collection. And if this toothy toad looks particularly menacing, that might be because its pearly whites are not from a frog but from a mammal.
Larger image available

 
Dragon from ray

Year: 1613
Scientist/artist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: De Piscibus
Now appears in: Merchants and Marvels edited by Smith and Findlen
In his posthumously published book on fish, Aldrovandi didn't carry out a hoax, but instead showed how it could be done. This illustration showed a ray cleverly modified to look like a dragon. In fact, some collectors actually prized creations like this, even when they were known to be forgeries.

 
Sea serpent from ray

Year: 1558
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historiae Animalium
Now appears in: "Foils and Fakes" by Suzanne Magnanini in Marvels & Tales Magazine
Even before Aldrovandi's book showed how rays could be manipulated into dragons or sea serpents, Gesner demonstrated the same phenomenon. The bustling port city of Venice emerged as a locus of ray-faking activity, and it was the place of manufacture of another fraud Gesner disdained: the seven-headed hydra.

 
Skvader

Years: 1874-1918
Con artists: Håkan Dahlmark, Halvar Friesendahl, Carl Erik Hammarberg and Rudolf Granberg
Now appears in: The Historical Preservation Society in Medelpad
This cross between a female hare and a wood grouse cock was allegedly shot by Dahlmark in 1874. On his birthday in 1907, Dahlmark's housekeeper asked her nephew, Friesendahl, to paint a picture of it. Before his death, Dahlmark donated the painting to the historical society. Inspired to create a "real" skvader, the society's new director, Hammarberg, contacted Granberg, a talented taxidermist, and Granberg obliged him by making a stuffed specimen. In 1918, Hammarberg wrote an article in the local newspaper about the rare skvader, which, thanks to the sale of 3,000 postcards, would soon develop a worldwide reputation. Although some visitors to the historical society's museum are disappointed to find the skvader isn't genuine, few people have taken it very seriously.

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