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10 Offbeat Travel Destinations that Feature Brilliant & Bizarre Hoaxes
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 16 September 2015.

Who doesn’t love the story of a good hoax? There’s something epic about them, especially those perpetrated on such a large scale that they become tourist attractions in their own right. This article examines a series of offbeat travel destinations that have ‘hoax’ written all over them. Some are definitely forgeries, others most probably. But the jury remains out on one or two, if only locally for the benefit of tourism likely trumps authenticity. But one thing’s for sure: their stories are as bizarre as they are entertaining.

1. The Cardiff Giant - United States

Image: via Wikipedia; ‘excavating’ the Cardiff Giant, NY.

It’s called one of the greatest hoaxes in American history, and you can still see the Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The Giant was the work of a cigar maker named George Hull. Hull’s plan was to get very rich very quickly, starting his scheme in Iowa with an order for a five-ton hunk of gypsum. He had it shipped to Chicago, where he hired a stonecutter to carve it into the shape of a 10-foot-long giant. It was then shipped to the small town of Cardiff in Central New York and buried, where it would be discovered only a year later by the landowner as he attempted to dig a well.

The discovery went 19th century viral. Some even compared the figure with the work of Michelangelo, while others claimed it had been created by a Jesuit priest to impress the local tribes. In the eyes of some, the statue dated all the way back to ancient times.

A surprisingly popular belief, however, held that the statue was the petrified remains of a person of gigantic proportions. People eventually became sceptical, though weirdly, it wasn’t until the creation of a forgery that the Cardiff Giant’s popularity began to wane. When P.T. Barnum‘s offer to buy the statue was turned down, he made his own - and after that, Hull eventually confessed that the whole thing was a scam. Today, the Cardiff Giant still occupies a place of dubious honour in the main barn of the museum.

2. The Grave of the Man Who Never Was - Spain

Image: Enrique Conde; the grave of ‘Major William Martin.’

Sometimes, a hoax is more than just a hoax. Sometimes, a hoax can change the world. A gravestone in Cementerio de la Soledad in Huelva, Spain, reads:
William Martin, born March 29, 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales.
There’s also a footnote, which reads:
Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM.
Major William Martin, however, never really existed. In 1943, Allied forces needed a way to distract Axis troops from the target of an actual invasion - Sicily. They hatched Operation Mincemeat, in which a dead body was giving false documentation, a complete back story, and the uniform of a Royal Marine. A briefcase containing the documents was handcuffed to the corpse, which was then dropped into the water off the coast of Huevla.

Soon after, ‘Major Martin’ was found and turned over to German intelligence, who analysed the information in the briefcase and duly reinforced troops in Sardinia and Corsica.

When Allied forces moved into Sicily, they found its German occupiers incredibly unprepared. Convinced that the rumours of a move into Sicily were nothing more than a diversion, and that they knew the real plan, Germany was caught completely off-guard.

Image: Ewen Montagu Team; Major William Martin’s fake identity card.

The true identity of the body used in Operation Mincemeat was only announced in 1998. It had once belonged to a drifter named Glyndwr Michael who died after eating rat poison. In death, however, he had managed to save countless Allied lives and contributed significantly to the war effort. But what of the man whose face appeared on the ID card (above)? It’s understood that he was an intelligence officer who bore a strong resemblance to Glyndwr Michael.

3. The Chucuito Temple of Fertility - Peru

Image: Joe Marx; Peru’s bizarre Fertility Temple.

Sitting in a small village near the iconic Lake Titicaca is a stone-walled enclosure dating back hundreds of years. The Inca Uyo was once the location of countless football matches but today, it’s the site of 86 incredibly phallic-looking statues that seem an odd thing for young child tour guides to be talking about.

Listen to them, and you’ll hear a story of how the squat stone statues were once at the centre of fertility rituals where priests would bless women trying to conceive by pouring corn beer over them. It was also where expectant mothers went to learn the gender of their baby…or not.

Another story, however, recounts that around 12 years ago locals decided to spice things up a bit at their boring old archaeological site. They came up with the idea of installing the decidedly blush-inducing stones after finding them in storage (where they were reportedly placed after an excavation in the 1970s), and the rest was ‘ancient’ history.

This, we know, but we’re unsure how much of a hoax the temple truly is. It’s obviously an ancient site, and experts seem to think that the statues really do date to antiquity and were quarried locally. What they can’t agree on is what their original purpose and meaning was, although similar stones in other Inca ruins were used as roof supports.

But after (and yes, they admit to this) a few alcoholic drinks were consumed, a local restaurant owner realized what else the stone supports looked like, and pitched the idea of a fertility temple. If you do go to visit, it’s recommended that you don’t mention that the temple may be a hoax, since it’s an important source of income for the small village.

4. The Museum of Art Fakes - Austria

Image: Duncan Robson; Museum of Art Fakes - the name says it all.

Art lovers know that an authentic Vermeer painting, for instance, is worth a small fortune. But it turns out that fakes can fetch a lot, too, as long as they’re a forgery of something recognizable, they’re well-done, and there’s a story behind them. Some sell for tens of thousands of pounds, and that’s a strange phenomenon.

The Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna has around 80 of the best-known - and well-travelled - examples of forged artwork. Each item has a fascinating story to go along with it, like the forged pages of Hitler’s diary that not only sell for about £500 each, but have spawned other claimants, including a woman who created fakes of the fakes and started selling them, claiming that she was the forger’s great-niece. Then there’s the story of Han Van Meergeren, forger of the aforementioned Vermeer, who was put in front of a group of art experts and told to paint in order to prove that he’d pulled one over on Hermann Göring and sold him a fake.

The museum also provides a compelling glimpse into an aspect of fine art that we rarely get to see. While it’s estimated that some 20 percent of the fine art sitting in galleries and museums around the world is fake, we sadly, rarely get to hear stories about characters like Lothar Malskat. Hired to restore church frescoes in 1951 West Germany, he didn’t so much restore them as he whitewashed them and just gave them a complete do-over.

5. Treaty Oak - Jacksonville, United States

Image: James Willamor; the magnificent ‘Treaty Oak’.

In reality, Treaty Oak is, at best, a very big, very old oak tree. Technically, it’s a Southern Live oak tree, and the fact that its age (at least several hundred-years-old) and its size were almost not enough to keep it from being cut down says a lot about the world in which we’re living. Fortunately, it also says a lot about our world that a handful of journalists told a little white lie in order to save it.

A common image on postcards over the decades, it was only in the 1930s that it started being labelled as ‘Treaty Oak‘. According to the story, the 70-foot tall tree with a trunk that’s more than 25 feet in circumference was once a part of the Dixieland Amusement Park. After the park closed, the plan was to redevelop the area. That meant cutting down the tree, which likely would have occurred had it not been for the creative story-telling of Florida Times-Union journalist Pat Moran.

Moran devised the story that the oak, which reportedly cast enough shade to shelter 3,000 people, had once been witness to a number of treaties signed between European settlers and Native American tribes. The fact that no one had ever heard the story before didn’t stop the modern myth from spreading, and Big Oak became Treaty Oak. Later, the tree and the land around it was privately purchased then donated back to the city of Jacksonville, Florida with the stipulation that all it would become a public park - cementing Treaty Oak’s future. Perhaps someday it’ll even stand witness to an actual treaty.

6. The Acámbaro Figures - Mexico

Image: Fchavez2000; the weird Acámbaro figures.

The collection of the Waldemar Julsrud Museum in Mexico is of questionable authenticity and has proved incredibly controversial. The museum is home to more than 33,000 clay figures that weren’t just supposed to be artefacts from an ancient, unidentified culture, but were also claimed to prove that at one time, dinosaurs walked the earth alongside primitive man.

According to the story, the Acámbaro figures were discovered by German immigrant Waldemar Julsrud in 1945. He found them buried at the foot of El Toro Mountain near Acambaro, and claimed them as proof that ancient man had been in contact with dinosaurs. Based on radiocarbon dating of nearby organic material, it was estimated they were about 6,500-years-old.

The Acambaro figurines were, however, denounced as fakes from the beginning, even in the face of less-than-reliable carbon dating. The dig was overseen by real archaeologist Charles di Peso, who noted that they were recovered from loose-packed dirt that didn’t match the surrounding area. He also noted that they were remarkably complete, showed no signs of aging, and didn’t even have dirt packed into their cracks and crevices. The story was completely debunked when di Peso met a family that actually made the figures, drawing on inspiration from movies and comic books, supplementing their income by selling them for a peso apiece.

7. The Throne Chair of Denmark - Rosenborg Castle, Denmark

Image: Dennis Jarvis; Throne Chair of Denmark at left.

The Throne Chair of Denmark is epic, we’ll give it that. Surrounded by life-size silver lions, the throne was built in the 17th century. It was inspired by the story of King Solomon, and crafted in recognition of his throne, which was said to have been guarded at all times by 12 lions. Back in the days when Denmark was the scene of elaborate royal coronation ceremonies, the throne was centre stage - along with its utterly mythical unicorn horn.

There were few treasures in all of history greater than a unicorn horn, and if there’s anything that might be a more majestic way to show off the strength of a nation, we’re unsure what it could possibly be. The addition of the unicorn horn was said to have made the throne even more exotic than Solomon‘s, whose own ceremonial chair most likely didn’t have arms, legs, and supporting pieces crafted from the treasured bony projections of the mythical beast.

The throne is not, of course, made of unicorn horn. The horn comes from the narwhal, reported to have potent medicinal value and made all the more exotic by its rarity.

8. The Peg Leg Smith Monument - United States

Image: kendra k; sign board at the monument of Thomas Long ‘Peg Leg’ Smith.

It’s one of the weirdest monuments in the USA, erected in remembrance of a man who was a prospector and chronic liar. The monument of Thomas Long Smith, aka Peg Leg, stands at the heart of the southern California desert, where the Kentucky-born miner had once claimed to have found a stash of pure gold nuggets. Fond of telling anyone who would listen about his find, Smith would tell them about how he’d be a rich man, if only he could remember where he’d found the gold.

The monument is little more than a sign and a pile of rocks, but the rock pile stands testament to people’s inability to let a story go….just in case. A wooden sign bids visitors to add 10 rocks to the pile if they’re interested in finding the gold. And, even though we’re pretty sure that the story was just a tall tale and a complete hoax, the rock pile is noticeably large.

So why was he called Peg Leg? According to the story, Smith was out trapping in the wilderness when he was shot in the leg by a Native American. Smith made it back to the trappers’ camp and pleaded with his associates to amputate the remains of his shattered leg. No one would, so he did it himself, stopping to instruct his fellow trappers to cut teeth into the butcher knife he was using so he could get through the bone. When he passed out due to the pain and blood, another trapper finally stepped in.

Smith survived the ordeal and was loaded onto a stretcher and they headed west. Peg Leg Smith later recalled how, throughout the journey, he pulled out several bone shards protruding from the stump that had been cauterized with a hot iron. Supposedly, he and his peg leg went on to become a prolific horse thief, trading post owner, gold miner, and fighter-for-hire who’d use his wooden leg as a secret weapon.

9. Blantyre Carvings - Scotland

Image: Section1; one of several Blantyre Carvings.

A cliff face overlooking the River Clyde in Scotland features a series of incredibly unusual carvings, and there’s a rather beautiful explanation for how they got there. Some claim the carvings to be medieval, created by local monks who once inhabited Blantyre Priory. The carvings depict three of the Stations of the Cross: the second, where Jesus is given his cross, the eleventh, in which he’s nailed to it, and the fourteenth, where his body is laid in the tomb. The main carvings are surrounded by a series of smaller works, depicting other scenes of the Crucifixion.

It’s a cool idea, that the so-called Blantyre Carvings originated from a group of monks working to create something on the cliff edge that would span the ages. Only, it’s unfortunately not true. The first actual mention of the carvings comes from a newspaper article, suggesting they first appeared around the late 1950s or early 1960s. This was later confirmed to be true.

The wear on the images, said to indicate centuries of erosion, turned out to be little more than vandalism, and the story of the medieval carvings turned out to have been largely inspired by the shy, secretive nature of the man who actually created them.

Local artist Tommy Hawkins worked mostly at night, his rock canvas lit by lamplight. Those that asked him what he was doing would be met with a refusal to answer, but at the time he was working, it was well known what he was up to - he even earned a commission from the Queen and a set of chisels for his artistic achievement.

10. The Kensington Runestone - United States

Image: George T. Flom; the enigmatic Kensington Runestone.

Exactly who it was that first made the trip across the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas has been an enduring topic of debate. In 1898, Swedish-American farmer Olof Ohman supposedly found proof that it had been the Vikings, in the form of a stone slab carved with Viking runes. Unfortunately, the Kensington Runestone proved to be a fake, given away in no small part by the fact that the runes were simply contemporaneous Swedish words written in ancient script.

But that wasn’t the end of the mystery, and though experts have gone back and forth over everything from the weathering on the stone to its plural forms, locals kept insisting it was real. They were so certain, in fact, that they opened the Kensington Runestone Park on the site of the discovery, followed by the Runestone Museum.

The museum still advertises the so-called Kensington Runestone as being potentially real, citing its influence on Minnesota culture. Its other exhibits include a Viking home of the period, a early 20th century room, and an incredible display of Native American artwork and artefacts.

Top image: The Yorck Project; likely forgery long attributed to Goya.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]