It takes a certain combination to make an internet hoax/myth/meme take flight. It must be just credible enough to be possible, usually paired with a small “Wow! Cool!” factor. Below are 10 popular untruths that have misled thousands. If any readers can contribute additional information about the truth behind these myths, we welcome the enlightenment.
1. The Proof is in the Canoodle
They say: The photo at the top of this post was secretly captured, taken around the time of her famous “Happy Birthday” song, proving the famous, illicit intimacy of Marilyn Monroe and JFK.
The Truth: The photo is part of the eerie portfolio of artist Alison Jackson. She is famous for her staged photos of impersonators who bear stunning resemblances to celebrities. To be truly unsettled, seek out her pictures of the British royal family taking a bubble bath together.
2. PIN Panic
They say: "If a thief forces you to take money from an ATM, punch your PIN in reverse. If your PIN is 1234, you punch 4321. The moment you punch in the reverse, the money will come out but will be stuck in the machine and the machine will immediately alert the police without the thief’s knowledge. Every ATM has this feature. Can't believe I never knew this!!"
The Truth: There have been attempts to implement safety codes like this in ATMs, all unsuccessfully. In 2004, the Kansas state legislature introduced a bill that would require this exact scenario, but it never passed. The Federal Trade Commission analyzed the potential of a panic code, and concluded that it just wouldn’t work. The commission believed a panic code would not deter crime (by the time the police got there the thief would be long gone) and might pose a deeper danger to the victim. Plus, few banks support the idea, not wanting the installation cost or liability of such a feature. Not to mention that the system would be useless to consumers with palindromic PINs.
3. Nature Embraces a Dead Boy’s Bike
They say: A boy left his bike chained to a tree when he went away to war in 1914. He never returned, leaving the tree no choice but to grow around the bike. Incredible that this bike has been there for 98 years now!
The Truth: Santa has a hearing problem. No, that’s probably not the true story, although Berke Breathed’s children’s book based on the famous bike is much more interesting than the accepted theory. The bike was donated to a boy, Don Puz, after his family suffered a house fire. He wasn’t fond of the bike, with its solid rubber tires and tricycle-like build. So, he left it in the forest of Washington State’s Vashon Island in 1954. The tree grew around it, possibly with anonymous help over the years.
4. The Tragic Lucky Life of Anna Mae
They say: Here is the story of a woman who was personally touched by nearly every national tragedy of the 20th century and beyond. The Titanic, the Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and all points of sadness in between. Poor Anna Mae Dickinson.
The Truth: The only record of this article is from the New York Intelligencer, which doesn’t seem to exist. There was no one with the surname Dickinson listed as a passenger aboard the Titanic, nor was anyone named “Alfred” (Anna Mae’s tragic uncle) among the Hindenburg casualties, to debunk just two of the claims made in the original piece. As for the photo, that is real. It’s Grandma Moses, an American folk artist who did not start her career until very late in life. Her work was extremely popular in the 1950s.
5. The Grandmother of All Tumors
They say: “This is a picture of 46 year old Jane Todd Crawford. In 1809, she rode 60 miles on horseback to see Dr. Ephraim McDowell who removed a 7.5 lb ovarian tumor through a 9" incision in 25 minutes (without anesthesia and antiseptic). Twenty-five days after the surgery she got back on the horse, rode home, and lived another 33 years."
The Truth: The story itself is true, and was recorded by Doctor McDowell himself in a report, "Three cases of extirpation of diseased ovaria," in the journal The Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review, Medical and Philosophical. The problem is the date. Photography didn’t exist in 1809. Some supposedly reliable sources claim this is Crawford, and the surgery happened in 1851. But the historical plaque marking her grave disagrees, saying she died in 1842. What’s more, Dr. McDowell died in 1830. This photo is more likely the face of another woman said to have had a tumor scooped out of her body through a 9 inch incision, without anesthesia, singing hymns to keep herself calm. The poor woman pictured is unidentified.
6. Get Over It
They say: Ian McKellen wears an awesome shirt in public.
The Truth: Ian McKellen wears a different awesome shirt in public. (Although if McKellen doesn’t own the shirt on the left, someone needs to give him one.)
7. Baby’s First Step
They say: Behold, the precious miracle of life!
The Truth: Babies can make their mothers' stomachs jump and bulge when they flail about in the later months of gestation. But even a very thin mother has too thick of an abdominal wall, uterus, and belly fat to allow such detail to show through.
8. The Spaceman Who Went to Church
They say: This Spanish cathedral, the New Cathedral, in Salamanca, was built in the 1700s with a spaceman carved into its ancient masonry, probably because ancient space travelers visited earth in the past.
The Truth: There is a spaceman carved into the stonework of this 16th century church, but it was put there in 1992 when the building was undergoing restoration. It is the habit of stonemasons, in this case one Jeronimo Garcia, to “sign” their work with depictions of modernity.
9. To Toro or Not To Toro
They say: Bullfighter Álvaro Múnera is shown here, faced with the bull he was supposed to kill for sport. But he had a sudden epiphany that bullfighting was cruel, and stopped in the middle of the fight.
The Truth: Álvaro Múnera was a real bullfighter, and he did come to see bullfighting as cruel. His career as a torero was ended when he was just 18, after a bull gored him and injured his spinal cord. But the photo is not Múnera, it’s Francisco Javier Sánchez Vara. And he’s not slumped in defeat; Vara is in desplante, which is the opposite of defeat or sadness; it's actually showboating by placing yourself in a vulnerable position right in front of the bull, to show you aren’t afraid of him. If the above myth was true, Múnera would have picked a terrible time to give up bullfighting, as it would be very unlikely that the bull had decided to give up peoplefighting at the same time.
10. The Universe Corrects Time Travel with a Fatal Car Crash
They say: In 1950, a man dressed in Victorian costume was hit by a car and killed. At the morgue his pockets were found to contain a bill for horse and carriage care, $70 in Victorian era banknotes, and similar tokens of the previous century. His business card identified him as “Rudolph Fentz.” They were able to trace the widow of a Rudolph Fentz, Jr., who claimed her father-in-law went out for a walk one night in 1876 and never returned.
The Truth: Despite being reported as a real live unsolved mystery throughout the 1970s and '80s, the story can be traced back to science-fiction writer Jack Finney, in a story published in the 1950s called “I’m Scared.” However, some true believers still hold out hope, claiming that a newspaper story detailing the Fentz “myth” was published months before Finney’s story, and that researchers have found true evidence of a live Fentz existing in the 1800s. However, the evidence for this has not been forthcoming.