10 of the Most Famous Photo Hoaxes Through History

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In the modern age, it’s both incredibly easy to fake photographs (everyone and their mother is a Photoshop expert these days) and relatively difficult to actually pass them off as legitimate for any length of time (no one can hide on the Internet). But it wasn’t always that way. We recently discovered the awesome website Museum of Hoaxes, and we’ve been indulging in the history of fake photographs, from the first faked photo in the 1830s to much more recent attempts. Click through to check out a few of the most famous photo hoaxes in history, and let us know if we missed your favorite (or if you’re a true believer) in the comments.

The first fake photograph

In the 1830s, various inventors raced to perfect the photographic process — you may recognize the name of the clear victor, a Mr. Louis Daguerre. Hippolyte Bayard, however, did not earn the same kind of fame for his own photo process, and decided to express his feelings with this picture, which purportedly shows his suicide. On the back of the photo, Bayard wrote:

The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.

Though it’s as simple as a posed photograph and a misleading “caption,” this folks is the first-ever faked photograph.

William Mumler’s spirit photos

William Mumler has the rather watery distinction of being the first name in spirit photos. In 1861, a self-portrait came out with a shadowy woman in the background — Mumler assumed it was a mistake, but his friends took interest, claiming it looked like his dead cousin, and soon spiritualists were declaring it the first-ever photo of a ghost. Obviously, Mumler snapped up this opportunity to make a living being the world’s first spirit photographer. The above photo, his most famous, is of Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, circa 1871. Supposedly, when she arrived at his studio, she used the name “Mrs. Lindall,” but still found her true husband’s arms encircling her.

Lincoln as martyr

Speaking of Lincoln, the man has inspired more than one famous photo hoax on his own. Not only was at least one “official” portrait of the President created by sewing his head onto John Calhoun’s body, but there were a slew of supposed photographs of his dead body that turned out to be fakes. After his assassination in 1865, no pictures were permitted of Lincoln’s body or casket, so “artists” stepped in. The above picture is one of the most widely circulated (and believed), but the only known true photo of Lincoln’s casket can be found here.

The Cottingley Fairies

But of course. In 1920, a series of photos, supposedly taken by two young girls while playing in the garden, proved that fairies existed. Or at least, several experts declared the photographs real, and die-hard spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle was on board. It wasn’t until the late 1970s (!) that the photographs were soundly debunked.

Baby Adolf

In 1933, this rather terrifying photo of baby Hitler circulated through newspapers in England and America. Of course, it wasn’t really Hitler, and it wasn’t really an evil-looking baby. It was a doctored photo of a very cute 2-year-old named John May Warren, whose mother was very surprised to come across a picture of her son captioned as Adolf Hitler in 1938. The identity of the original hoaxer is still unknown.

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

One of the most famous paranormal photos of all time, this shot was snapped by Captain Provand and Indre Shira, two photographers from Country Life magazine who were photographing the staircase of Raynham Hall in Norfolk in 1936. According to the photographers, they were setting up when they saw a ghostly figure descending the stairs, so of course they tried for a photo. The Brown Lady was part of Raynham Hall lore as far back as 1835, but this photograph marks the last sighting. Maybe she was just looking for a little notoriety, and now she’s retired.

The Surgeon’s Photo

Of the many fake photos of the Loch Ness monster, this is one of the first and by far the most famous. Taken in 1934 by British surgeon Colonel Robert Wilson, for many years it was considered the best proof that Nessie was indeed swimming in the murky waters. As it turned out, the monster in the photo was a toy submarine with a little sea-monster head — though even the admission of the plot has been called into question as a possible hoax. Meta hoaxing!

Billy Meier is probably the most famous (and prolific) UFO hoaxer of all time. He’s created some 1000 supposed photographs of UFOs, plus film footage and sound recordings, to prove the existence of aliens (with whom he claims to have personal contact). We’re not sure if the fact that it’s his photo up there on Mulder’s wall helps or hurts his case.

Snowball

Oh, early 2000s internet. This photo was widely circulated as showing “Snowball,” a monster cat owned by Rodger Degagne in Canada. The picture, an early viral success, gained such notoriety that it was featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Good Morning America, among other shows, newspapers and magazines. However, in 2001, the real owner, Cordell Hauglie, came forward, explaining that he had made the image of the cat on his computer and sent it to a few friends as a joke, not thinking it would ever get out into the world. Apparently, a side effect of this photo is that Hauglie is an internet cat world phenomenon, and is sometimes asked to attend cat shows as a “celebrity guest.”

The Accidental Tourist

This photo, which (in rather bad taste) began circulating a few days after 9/11, was purportedly developed from a camera found in the debris of the World Trade Center. Though many people believed it, it was debunked relatively quickly, and spawned a short-lived trend of inserting the “tourist” into other historical photographs.