Random Ephemera

7 Literary Hoaxes That Fooled The Public

When a story is published, it takes on an appearance of seriousness and respectability. After all, for a writer to get published and reach a wide readership, he or she must be good, and also be presenting his or her material honestly, right? The writer has already jumped through hoops to get noticed by agents, editors and other gatekeeping professionals who are charged with keeping impostors from spreading dishonest crap. 

However, there are scam artists and pranksters from all walks of life, and some of them are writers. Literary history is peppered with many examples of hoaxes. Almost from the moment that people put quill to paper, there have been individuals who've chosen to dupe their readers. These hoaxes have taken on many different forms over the years, but here are seven especially interesting ones.

7. The Shakespeare Forgeries

In the 18th century an intense appreciation for Shakespeare's work appeared as literacy rates grew. Almost anything associated with the Bard was sought out by passionate collectors. A bookseller named Samuel Ireland had devoted much of his life to pursuing Shakespeare-related relics, when his 18-year-old son began to bring home various letters and artifacts he claimed Shakespeare had written. One of those dubious finds was a previously unknown drama titled Vortigern, which the elder Ireland promptly arranged to be performed.

Despite doubts by the theater owner, the show went on, but there was a problem; the actors involved weren't convinced the play was Shakespeare's work, and gave such hammy performances that the audience realized it was probably fake. Vortigern was never performed again, and Ireland's son eventually confessed to faking it, although his dad chose to believe the forgeries were real until the day he died.

6. Edgar Allen Poe Was a Huge Hoaxer.

While today he's known as a sullen and tormented doom-and-gloom writer of the macabre, Edgar Allen Poe must've had some sort of sense of humor. Or maybe he just reveled in being a hoax-creating liar, who knows. Hot Topic's favorite 19th-century writer is credited with spinning six hoaxes during his career, ranging from "scientific discoveries" claiming base metals could be turned into gold, or that hypnosis could stave off death, to adventurous tales of men taking balloon trips to the moon. In any case, all six of his tall tales were initially presented as being nonfiction, making Poe a prolific hoaxer extraordinaire.

5. I, Libertine

In 1956 Ballantine Books had a best-seller on its hands with I, Libertine, written by Frederick R. Ewing. It was the tale of court life in 18th-century London, but there was a catch; its supposed author didn't really exist. The book was a weird hoax created by a radio deejay named Jean Shepherd who worked the graveyard shift. Shepherd split people into two groups — "day people," who were mundane and governed by rules, and "night people," who were creative and free. I, Libertine began as a joke in which Shepherd's listeners (the night people) would go into bookstores and ask for a nonexistent book by that title. This was intended to shake the day people's faith in the lists of books they kept. After numerous frustrated bookstore owners contacted publishers looking for the fictitious book, Ballantine became interested, and traced the prank back to Shepherd.

The publisher decided that it could exploit the hoax, and contracted with a science fiction writer to actually write I, Libertine. The book's strange origin was revealed a month before its release, and the publicity helped drive sales.

4. The Autobiography of Howard Hughes.

After eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes retreated from the public eye in the late '50s, an enormous amount of interest and speculation grew about what was going on with his life. Publishers relished the idea of releasing a tell-all, but neither Hughes nor anyone close to him was interested in talking. Then in 1971, a writer named Clifford Irving told his publisher Hughes had contacted him so that the record could be set straight about his life. The reclusive billionaire wanted Irving to ghostwrite his autobiography, and the writer produced letters from Hughes to prove his story. McGraw-Hill eagerly paid almost $1 million for rights to the autobiography, and a few months later Irving turned in his manuscript. The problem? Irving's story was bullshit, his letters were forgeries and Hughes was still very much alive, breaking his silence to deny the validity of the story. The fake autobiography was eventually published in 1999 anyway, but as a curiosity, not as a serious chronicle of Howard Hughes's life.

3. The Amityville Horror

In 1977 a book titled The Amityville Horror: A True Story was published, and became a runaway best-seller. The tale of a family driven from their home by incredibly terrifying demonic activity grabbed America by the throat and didn't let go, eventually spawning a series of movies and entrenching itself in national folklore. However, almost nothing in the "true story" is true. The house in question was the site of a horrific murder — six members of the DeFeo family were killed by their druggie son Butch in 1974, and a year later a new family moved in — the Lutzes. That family claimed they were driven out by demonic phenomena ripped straight out of a horror film, and eventually the Lutzes collaborated with a writer named Jay Anson, and the book was set in motion.

Lots of people still believe that the house was possessed, but researchers have found hundreds of factual discrepancies that discredit almost all the phenomena that the Lutzes claim to have experienced. The truth was probably revealed when Butch DeFeo's lawyer admitted that he and the Lutzes fabricated the story while working their way through a bunch of bottles of wine. More embellishments by Anson and the movie took the story even further from the truth, and a demonically possessed hoax was born. Other residents have lived in the house for decades, and none of them have ever claimed to have experienced paranormal activity.

2. A Million Little Pieces.

In 2003 A Million Little Pieces was published, met with good reviews, and the harrowing tale of addiction and recovery sold well. In 2005 the book was picked as an Oprah's Book Club selection and rocketed into best-seller status. The book was marketed as a memoir, but soon cracks in its factual record began to appear and widen. The Smoking Gun spent six weeks investigating the author, James Frey. The website's resulting story, "A Million Little Lies," revealed that huge chunks of the account weren't true, and the resulting controversy resulted in Random House's offering refunds to anyone who'd bought a copy and felt deceived by Frey.

1. J.T. LeRoy Who Are You?

Perhaps the oddest recent hoax concerns Jeremy "Terminator" LeRoy, who in the early '90s was thought to be a teenage boy, and who steadily attracted attention in the literary world throughout that decade. LeRoy had a tragic and sympathetic back story. He was a transgendered, substance-abusing teen who'd been forced into prostitution by his mother. He'd found an escape through his writing, and reached out to other, more accomplished writers, who usually responded positively. In 1999, LeRoy's first novel, Sarah, was published, and found critical success. Others followed, and LeRoy seemed poised for a kind of literary stardom, embraced by critics and celebrities alike. But eventually, doubts about LeRoy began to surface.

During rare public appearances, the writer would show up wearing odd disguises, and something seemed off. There were rumors that perhaps not everything was as it seemed, and then in August of 2005, John Nova Lomax, a Houston Press writer at the time, called into question whether any of LeRoy's autobiographically sourced material was on the up and up. Lomax discovered several inaccuracies in LeRoy's stories, and follow-ups from the writer's representatives seemed to dodge questions about the truth of J.T.'s experiences. Lomax's article was the first to publicly question the validity of the J.T. LeRoy story, but eventually other journalists followed, revealing LeRoy to be a character created by a San Franciscan woman named Laura Albert. The hoax quickly unraveled from there, and the "public appearance" J.T. LeRoy was exposed as the half sister of Albert's ex-husband, making the story even weirder.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.