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You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Eight

The Tiara of Saitaphernes, 1896

Perhaps appropriately, on April 1, 1896 the Louvre announced that it had acquired a massive golden tiara, a gift dating to the 3rd century BCE from the Greek colony of Olbia to the Scythian king, Saitaphernes. According to a Russian art dealer, Schapschelle Hochmann, it had been found at Olbia, near Odessa. At the time Greek and Scythian artefacts from the Ukraine and Russia were highly sought after and the inscription on the crown seemed to match on that had already been published in an academic journal. This seemed a coup for the Parisian museum.

However, a little bit of digging may have put them on warning. The tiara, purportedly discovered by some Crimean peasants, was put on display in Vienna in 1895 by Hochmann in an exhibition of newly recovered antiquities. The tiara was certainly a stunner, some 7 inches tall, made with a pound of solid gold, with a pointed dome, decorated with scenes of Scythian life and from the Iliad. Perhaps surprisingly, both the Imperial Court Museum in Vienna and the British Museum passed on the opportunity to buy it, but the Louvre stumped up 200,000 francs to secure it.

Almost immediately, doubts were expressed as to its provenance. A Professor Furtwängler was particularly trenchant in his condemnation of its authenticity, his criticisms, the Louvre retorted, “dictated by spite” given his nationality. For six years a battle royal raged as to its authenticity, the Louvre adamant that they had not been duped. Eventually, Henri Rochefort, editor of the Parisian newspaper, L’Intransigeant, persuaded the Louvre that the only way the matter would be resolved once and for all was to perform a thorough investigation.

The tiara was in remarkably good condition, perhaps this should have been a warning sign in itself, and there were signs that modern tools had been used in its manufacture. There was evidence of soldering, although this was discreetly hidden, an inscription raised in relief, and some very curious indentations. Allegedly caused by falling masonry they had been highly selective in the areas that they had damaged, missing completely the elaborately carved reliefs, only denting the smooth surfaces. The conclusion was that the dents had been made by using the ends of a common ball pane hammer.

Worse still, a letter was published in Le Matin in 1903 from a Russian jeweller, Lifschitz, who stated that he saw a friend, Israel Rouchomovski, make the tiara in Odessa. Brought over to Paris Rouchomovski confessed that he had made the crown for Hochmann but had no idea what the art dealer had intended to do with it. To help him in his work, Hochmann had given him some books on Greco-Scythian artefacts to study. He had made the tiara in three parts, hence the soldering. Still unconvinced, the Louvre provided him with some gold and asked him to do his best. Rouchomovski’s expertise finally convinced the museum’s authorities that they had bought a dud.

The Louvre still own the tiara but they do not display it. The British Museum, perhaps revelling in their rival’s discomfort, have a copy which they openly display. As for Rouchomovski, he became a famous artist in his own right, winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon of Decorative Arts and living in Paris until his death in 1934.

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You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Seven

The Calaveras skull, 1866

While the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution were rumbling around the world, creationists were not going to give up with a fight. Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of California and a Professor of Geology at Harvard, had promulgated the view in 1865 that humans co-existed with mastodons and mammoths. The following year what seemed proof positive that man was older than had been originally thought fell into his hands.

On February 25, 1866 a miner working at a mine near the Angels Camp in Calaveras County discovered a human skull in gold-bearing alluvial gravels at a depth of 130 feet that were later buried by millions of years’ worth of volcanic deposits. There were also artefacts found. The skull was sent to Whitney in late June and when he examined it, even though it looked remarkably like that of a Native American, he considered it to be proof positive that it was part of the remains of “the oldest known human being”. When Whitney delivered a paper describing the skull, it caused a sensation, the San Francisco Alta commenting that “it is scarcely necessary to say that the announcement and remarks of Professor Whitney made a profound sensation”.       

Not everyone was convinced that the skull was all that it seemed. Doubts as to its authenticity surfaced almost immediately, culminating in a story printed in 1869 in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin that local minister had told the correspondent that “miners freely told him that they purposely got up the whole affair as a joke on Prof. Whitney”. Camps full of gold miners were notorious for their propensity to play practical jokes on each other and their roguish sense of humour, not for nothing did Mark Twain set his notorious Jumping Frog shaggy dog tale in Calaveras County, and some miners may have considered a gullible Whitney, anxious to find proof positive of his theories, as fair game. It may just be a coincidence that calaveras is Spanish for skull.

Shortly after Whitney announced the skull’s discovery, Bret Harte, who is buried in my local churchyard, wrote a poem entitled To The Pliocene Skull. It opened, “Speak, O man less recent”/ fragmentary fossil!/ primal pioneer of Pliocene formation,/ hid in lowest drifts below the earliest stratum/ of volcanic tufa!”. When the skull eventually answers entreaties to speak, it tells us, “my name is Bowers, and my crust was busted/ falling down a shaft in Calaveras county,/ But I’d take it kindly if you’d send the pieces/ home to old Missouri!”. In 1879 Thomas Wilson, a scientist from Harvard, ran the first ever fluorine analysis on human bone on the skull. His conclusion was that it was of recent origin.

Whitney, though, maintained that the skull was genuine.

In 1899 William Holmes, a Smithsonian archaeologist, decided to dig deeper and conducted a field trip to the site. He looked at the fossils of animals and plants found at the site, many of which were of species long extinct and were of great geological age. The human skull and artefacts, though, matched those of the indigenous Native American peoples. Holmes concluded, “to suppose that man could have remained unchanged physically; to suppose that he could have remained unchanged mentally, socially, industrially, and aesthetically for a million years, roughly speaking…is to suppose a miracle”. He concluded that the skull had been placed in the mineshaft as a practical joke.

There matters should have remained, especially as radiocarbon testing conducted in 1992 dated the skull as no older than 1,000 years. Over the last 100 years, though, those seeking to discredit man’s evolution have seized on the skull and Whitney’s attestation as proof of their theories. A good hoax will never die, it seems.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Six

Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveller, 1950

Occasionally, I allow myself the luxury of fantasising about being a time traveller. I find it interesting to speculate what life would really be like at some time in the past or, indeed, in the future. This was the premise behind the successful TV drama, Dr Who, which has been going long enough to suggest that others are fascinated by this fantasy. Of course, I realise that it is the stuff of science fiction and there are little or no grounds to think that it could ever be achieved, but you never know. Take the curious case of Rudolph Fentz.

Around 11.15pm in the middle of June 1950, a strange figure appeared in the centre of New York’s Times Square. He cut quite a dash, wearing a tall silk hat, a tight coat and waistcoat. But it was his thick mutton-chop sideburns and his expression of bewilderment, as if he had never seen buildings so tall or such density of traffic or traffic lights. He seemed frightened by the experience and ran into the middle of the road, straight in front of one of the Big Apple’s famous yellow taxis and was killed outright.

When the police examined his body, they found in his pocket a stock of business cards identifying him as Rudolph Fentz with an address on Fifth Avenue. More astonishingly, Fentz was carrying in his pocket a copper token redeemable for a beer worth five cents at a bar no one had heard of, round $70 in old bank notes, an invoice for the ”feeding and stabling of one horse” at a stable on Lexington Avenue that was unknown, a letter dated June 1876 from Philadelphia, and a medal for coming third in a three-legged race. None of these artefacts showed any evidence of ageing. It was all a mystery. Just who was Fentz and where had he come from?

Captain Hubert Rihm from NYPD’s Missing Persons Department began to make enquiries. Fentz’s fingerprints were not on record and he was not known at the address on his business card. Rihm did get a breakthrough, finding the name, Rudolph Fentz Jr, in a phone book. He rang the number, only to find out that he had died around 1945, but that his wife was still alive.

What Fentz Jr’s widow had to reveal, though, was truly astonishing. Her father-in-law, Rudolph Fentz Sr, had disappeared without trace in 1876, leaving his house for an evening constitutional and never returning. Rihm checked the description of Fentz and the clothing he wore at the time of his disappearance and they tallied. The case was closed, marked as unsolved.

For paranormalists, though, the astonishing disappearance and reappearance of Fentz after seventy years, fresh as a daisy without any apparent ageing, was proof positive that man could time travel. What might have appeared to be an astonishing news story didn’t appear in any of the papers at the time and only gained currency when the Journal of Borderlands Science published an account in its May/June 1972 edition. The story then took off, cited in several articles, books and on the internet as factual, including, in 2000, in the Spanish magazine, Más Allá. This prompted Chris Auckleck, a bit of a spoilsport, to dig further.

What Auckleck discovered was that, surprise, surprise, there was no basis for believing that the Fentz had any basis in fact. He discovered a short story by the science fiction writer, Jack Finney, he of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Time and Again fame, published in Collier’s magazine on September 15, 1951. The story, narrated by a police officer, Captain Rihm, tells of a 19th century man, named Fentz, making an unexpected appearance in Times Square.

Fentz’s time travelling was little more than a literary hoax, a clever one nonetheless, seized upon by those desperate for evidence that substantiated their theories. Time travel is just a pleasant fantasy, it would seem.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone     


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Five

The death of Alan Abel, 1980

We’ve come across serial hoaxer, Alan Abel, before when looking at the vexed question of whether animals should wear clothing and the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). I always thought it was appropriate that he made his home in Southbury in Connecticut, the accepted abbreviation for the state being Conn.

One of the many concerns about slipping off this mortal coil is how the world will remember you. How will your obituary read? Would it be kind or a hatchet job? Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1816, overheard some people discussing a newspaper article reporting that the poet had hung himself. Introducing himself to the group, they were most concerned to ensure that they had not hurt his feelings by talking about him in that way. In an early example of never the twain shall meet, a reporter, upon hearing that Mark Twain’s cousin was dying, mistook him for the eminent writer, prompting Twain’s riposte that “the report of my death was an exaggeration”.     

On January 2, 1980 both the New York Times and the New York Daily News carried an announcement that, at the age of 50, Alan Abel had passed away following a heart attack at the ski resort of Sundance in Utah, where he was investigating a potential location for a film. The Times was particularly kind in its obituary, drawing attention to the fact that he specialised in satire and lampoons, making a point in his work “of challenging the obvious and uttering the outrageous”.  

Flattering as these sentiments were, there was one teeny little problem; Abel was still alive, a fact that was self-evident when he held a press conference the next day. He told the assembled newshounds that the news of his demise was a hoax designed to attract publicity and to publicise the fact that he was a serial hoaxer. He had a team of twelve to help him pull it off, some to send the story off to the media – these were the days before fake news could be distributed widely at the click of a button – and some to confirm its veracity.

The editor of the Times was so furious that he had been duped that he vowed that Abel’s name would never grace the pages of his organ ever again. When a reporter from the paper rang him, Abel asked “what can I do for you?”. “Drop dead”, was the response.  But Abel provided copy that was too good to miss and even they had to run a story in 1985 about him inducing members of the audience at a talk show to stage a mass faint.        

Abel’s original intention was to stage his seeming resurrection at a memorial service held in honour – now that would have been spectacular. However, for all of us meticulous planning, Abel had overlooked one thing. As soon as the obituary was published, his bank froze his assets and he could not access the monies he had set aside to fund the memorial. To make matters worse, his credit card company, Diner’s, cancelled his card and when he rang up to get it reinstated, he was called an imposter. Abel had to come clean sooner than he had wanted.

When Abel did eventually die at the grand old age of 94 in September 2018 at his home in Conn following complications from cancer and heart failure, the news had to be confirmed by the Regional Hospice and Palliative Care who had tended to him in his last days and Carpino Funeral Home before everyone was relaxed enough to believe that the serial hoaxer had really gone to meet his maker.

That’s the problem with being a successful hoaxer.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone