Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday Thirteen

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day, so here are some hoaxes (not to give anyone ideas) that have been remembered over time.

1. The Mad Gasser of Botetourt, VA (and Mattoon, IL). (As an aside, my great aunt remembered this incident, as one of the "gassing attacks" occurred in her neighbor's home). The unexplained "Mad Gasser" attacks began on December 22, 1933, in Botetourt when the home of Mrs. and Mrs. Cal Huffman, near Haymakertown, was attacked by a mysterious figure. All eight members of the Huffman family, along with Ashby Henderson, were affected by the gas.

According to reports, the gas caused the victims to become very nauseated, gave them a headache and caused the mouth and throat muscles to restrict. No one could determine what kind of gas was used or who could have sprayed it into the house. The only clue that police found at the scene was the print of a woman’s shoe beneath a window.

Attacks occurred in Cloverdale (about 10 miles away) on Christmas Eve;  December 27 in Troutville (also nearby); January 10, again in Haymakertown and in Troutville; January 16 in Bonsack; January 19 in Cloverdale; January 21 (Cloverdale), and three more on January 22 in the Carvin's Cove area over a two-mile area. On January 23, an attack occurred in the Pleasant Dale Church area (Lee's Gap). Other attacks occurred in Nace and Lithia, but after about 20 more reports were reported in nearby Roanoke County, police decided that only the original few incidents were real and the rest hysteria. Newspapers reported the the unconvincing theory that faulty chimney flues and wild imaginations had caused the entire affair. Those who were attacked and police officers involved never accepted this explanation.

Similar attacks occured in Mattoon, IL, in 1944. Hoax, mass hysteria, or real? We may never know.

2. MIT students, in 1982, decided to include themselves in a Harvard-Yale football game when a weather balloon emblazoned with the letters “MIT” emerged from the ground near the 50-yard line. A few days before the game, MIT students had snuck into Harvard Stadium and wired a vacuum motor to blow air into the balloon until it exploded.

3. Back in the late 19th century, college teams took trains to get to road games. Auburn students ran grease along the train tracks before Georgia Tech games, making it impossible for the train to stop anywhere near the station. Year after year, the poor football team ended up lugging its gear a number of miles back to the station, giving the players more of a warm-up than they bargained for and tilting the games in Auburn’s favor.

4. In 1961, University of Washington students at the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961 received altered placards that created a giant banner reading “Caltech” on live television. The math and science school, which sits just a few miles from the Rose Bowl, wasn’t even involved in the game.

5.  In 1969, "Penelope Ashe," a bored New York housewife, wrote the trashy sensation Naked Came the Stranger. The author appeared on talk shows and made the bookstore rounds. But the author was fictional, the work of Mike McGrady, a Newsday columnist. McGrady was disgusted with the lurid state of the modern bestseller and decided to expose the problem by writing a book of zero redeeming social value and even less literary merit. To his dismay, the media was fascinated with the salacious daydreams of a “demure housewife” author. By the time McGrady revealed his hoax a few months later, the novel had sold 20,000 copies, and by the end of the year it had more than 100,000 copies in print, and the novel had spent 13 weeks on the New York Times’s bestseller list. As of 2012, the book had sold nearly 400,000 copies. (Why does this remind me of E. L. James and Fifty Shades of Gray?)

6. On April 1, 1957, the BBC news program Panorama told its radio audience about a Swiss town’s spaghetti crop, brought on by a warm spring and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil. On April 2 the BBC was flooded with phone calls from people eager to grow their own spaghetti noodles, then a rare treat for British diners. The BBC instructed anyone interested in a pasta-bearing tree to “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

7. In the 1970s, strange crop circles started popping up in English wheat fields, leading to UFO and extra terrestrial theories. In 1991, however, the two pranksters came forward and revealed how they had made the circles using nothing more than rope, planks, and wire. (As an aside, I've seen crop circles occur naturally in our hay fields, caused by winds during thunderstorms.)

8. Also in the 1970s, Manuel Elizalde, Prime Minister of the Philippines, claimed he had discovered a stone age tribe called the Tasaday on the island of Mindanao. However, he would not allow scientists or journalists on the island, claiming he had made it a safe haven. After the Prime Minister was deposed about 15 years later, journalists visited the island only to find the Tasaday walking around in blue jeans and speaking a modern dialect. They explained that they had moved into caves under pressure from the minister. The Prime Minister, long gone, fled the country with millions of dollars from an account set up to help protect the Tasaday people.

9. In 1835, the New York Sun published multiple articles stating that Sir John Herschel had made incredible discoveries using new telescopic methods. According to the article, the surface of the moon was covered with lilac colored pyramids, herds of bison, and blue unicorns.

10. In 1783, the London Magazine reported that in Indonesia thre was a tree so poisonous that it killed everything within 15 miles, leaving the Earth bare and dotted with the skeletons of people and animals. The truth is, however, that although the Upas tree really exists and it really does contain a powerful toxin, it isn't quite that poisonous and the story was blown way out of proportion.

11. In the early 1990s, a short film of a supposed alien autopsy was aired on the Fox Network. Other news outlets picked up the story. Fifteen years later, the producer came forward to admit that it was fake. He still maintains, however, that it was based on real footage.

12. In the mid 1800s, George Hull, a prominant atheist, placed a fake huge giant in his cousin's backyard as a way of playing a prank on some of his Methodist acquaintances. (The giant was reference to a biblical passage about giants once roaming the Earth.) Not long after buring the fake,  Hull dug a well dug in the same spot. Upon discovery of the giant, so many people wanted to see it that several other replicas popped up around the country all claiming to be the real thing.

13. While this was not supposed to be a hoax, a radio show in 1938 caused widespread panic. The show, The War of the Worlds, voiced by Orson Welles, scared people into believing the world was really under attack by Martians, because the program was delivered in a series of fictional news bulletins. Many people panicked and thought it was true.

And here's an extra: I convinced my young brother that there was a bird called a "snipe" that he could catch one with a bag if he could sneak up on it. I had him snipe hunting for an entire afternoon. He also was convinced that Jackalopes were real during a long trip across the US wherein multiple stores sold the creation. Ah, youth.

Thursday Thirteen is played by lots of people; there is a list here if you want to read other Thursday Thirteens and/or play along. I've been playing for a while and this is my 441st time to do a list of 13 on a Thursday. 


  1. Replies
    1. we went snipe hunting onetime at church camp

  2. priceless your header makes me homesick for WVa hills

  3. Leave it to MIT to go for the technological prank.

    I stood next to one of those Upas trees last summer. I was told to shift my weight to get some distance.

    To add to your list of pranks, in the 60's a college student blew up the campus armory in Madison Wi. by filling it with manure.

  4. #5 is fascinating. I think the crop circle mystery goes further than those guys with boards and ropes.

  5. The one about The War of the Worlds is my all-time favorite, I must admit. Sadly, it could still happen today, with people being so gullible about "news" items they read online...

  6. The origins of crop circles have always interested me. I did a a documentary about the gentlemen who made them. As a 2nd grade teacher I am making a pan of brown "E"'s for my students. Can't wait until they peel back the foil and find brown letter E's in the pan :)


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