11 of the Wildest Pre-Internet Rumors in American History

Fake news wasn’t just a 21st-century problem.
People have doubted the 1969 moon landing for decades.
People have doubted the 1969 moon landing for decades. / Jeffrey Coolidge/Stone/Getty Images (TV); Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (moon landing footage); Pakin Songmor/Moment/Getty Images (speech bubble)

Today a rumor can spread across the world at the speed of light, often accompanied by deceptively realistic evidence to back it up. But even before the advent of the internet, social media, deep fakes, or artificial intelligence, rumors had a way of getting around. 

Here are 11 of the most famous—and strangest—rumors in U.S. history. Each of them managed to go viral through little more than word of mouth.

1. Grover Cleveland Fathered a Child Out of Wedlock // 1884

President Grover Cleveland
President Grover Cleveland. / Oscar White/GettyImages

Scurrilous rumors about the sexual habits and possible progeny of presidential candidates were nothing new even in the 1800s. But this one, with its accompanying chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” proved a particular embarrassment to Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. The rumor may well have been true, but it didn’t derail his candidacy, and he was elected president that November.

2. A Mummy’s Curse Sank the Titanic // 1914

The Titanic
Mummies had nothing to do with the tragic fate of the 'Titanic.' / Topical Press Agency/GettyImages

The Titanic disaster of 1912 gave rise to countless rumors, many of which endure to the present day. None was weirder than the one that claimed the doomed liner was carrying a cursed Egyptian mummy case that had already caused so much havoc at the British Museum that officials were shipping it to the U.S. to get rid of it. The story was related in a 1914 issue of The Sun, which quoted a publication called The International Psychic Gazette that said, “A story is now being told in well informed circles, which is said to have emanated from one of the museum authorities.” 

Addressing the rumor on its website today, the British Museum offers a photo of the supposedly cursed “mummy-board” (a cover that would have sat on top of the actual coffin) and notes that, “Needless to say, there is no truth in any of this; the object had never left the Museum until it went to a temporary exhibition in 1990.”

3. World War I Is Over // 1918

American soldiers in Alsace carrying their flag during WWI
American soldiers in Alsace carrying their flag during WWI. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

On November 7, 1918, thousands (maybe millions) of Americans took to the streets to celebrate the end of the First World War. In New York, office workers tossed scraps from torn-up phone directories out their windows until “it seemed as if a snowstorm had descended upon the city,” the Associated Press reported. Ships in the harbor blew their whistles, factories sounded their horns, schools and churches rang their bells. Opera star Enrico Caruso led a national anthem sing-along from his hotel balcony. The New York Times described it the next day as “a delirious carnival of joy which was beyond comparison with anything ever seen in the history of New York.” 

The excitement wasn’t limited to New York. In Philadelphia, celebrants mobbed Independence Hall and rang the Liberty Bell. In Chicago, police “were forced to use their clubs” to control the crowds. Just about everywhere, factories, shops, and other businesses closed up, and happy mobs paraded throughout the afternoon and into the night. 

The only problem was that the war wasn’t actually over. An erroneous newspaper dispatch had started the furor, and although the government debunked it within hours, the war-weary crowds preferred to believe it was true. When the real armistice came, four days later, Americans went at it again, their enthusiasm apparently undimmed by any earlier embarrassment. And, of course, they were now well practiced.

4. President Warren G. Harding Was Black // 1920

President Warren G. Harding
President Warren G. Harding. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

 At a time when the election of a Black, or even partially Black, president seemed beyond the realm of possibility, a college professor accused Warren G. Harding of hiding the fact that he had a Black great-grandmother named Elizabeth Madison. It wasn’t until DNA tests in 2015 that the rumor was finally put to rest. But the same tests proved the veracity of another Harding rumor: that he had fathered an illegitimate child with a mistress.  

5. President Franklin D. Roosevelt Had Advance Notice of Pearl Harbor // 1941

The American destroyer USS 'Shaw' explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The American destroyer USS 'Shaw' explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor. / Keystone/GettyImages

The December 7, 1941, sneak attack by Japanese forces on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was no surprise to the commander in chief—at least, according to a long-lived rumor. His motivation, it was said, was to hasten America’s entry into World War II on the side of the British. Few historians today give the story any credence, but it became the first of many rumors to circulate during the war. 

Concerned that rumors were undermining Americans’ wartime morale, newspapers across the U.S. established “rumor clinics” to investigate and debunk them.

6. The Japanese Attacked Los Angeles // 1942 

photo of a hotel in Los Angeles, 1942
Los Angeles, 1942. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

Just months after Pearl Harbor, wartime jitters gave rise to the rumor that the Japanese had launched an air attack on Southern California. In the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, anti-aircraft batteries in Los Angeles and surrounding communities fired thousands of rounds into the night sky, attempting to turn back the invaders. Within days, authorities had come to the conclusion that it was a false alarm, and the non-event came to be known, with a touch of irony, as the Battle of Los Angeles. 

Although the Japanese attack theory was quickly laid to rest, UFO buffs have since claimed the “Battle” as evidence of extraterrestrial visitors in the skies over L.A.

7. Hitler Got Away // 1945 

photo of Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler definitely died in 1945. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Despite assurances from Nazi radio that he had “died a hero’s death” and from British Intelligence that he’d died by suicide, the world wasn’t quite ready to believe that Adolf Hitler was really dead. Rumors of his escape—by plane, submarine, or luxury yacht to Argentina, Spain, Japan, or even the Antarctic—flourished. Some believed that the burned corpse thought to be Hitler was actually his body double

Rumors have continued to this day, despite a 2018 report by French researchers who confirmed that teeth recovered outside his Berlin bunker in 1945 by the Russians were definitely Hitler’s. 

8. Paul McCartney Is Dead // (1969)

Paul McCartney photographed in January 1980
Paul McCartney photographed in January 1980. / David Harris/GettyImages

The rumor that Beatle Paul McCartney had been killed in a 1966 car crash and replaced by a double seems to have started on college campuses before spreading to the general public, largely through the efforts of radio disc jockeys. Looking for clues to the mystery in Beatles songs became an international pastime and the group’s often-enigmatic lyrics and experiments with backwards snippets in their recordings gave rumor buffs plenty to work with. Though two of the four Beatles have died in the years since, McCartney remains very much with us at age 81.  

9. The Moon Landing Was Faked // 1970

Footprints the 'Apollo 11' astronauts left on he moon
Very real footprints the 'Apollo 11' astronauts left on he moon. / NASA/GettyImages

Within a year of the first moon landing by U.S. astronauts, on July 20, 1969, a wire service story reported that “There is wide support for a theory that the government and the news media conspired to hoodwink the public with a fake telecast of a moon landing.” (“Wide support” may have been something of an exaggeration; reporters had apparently spoken with 1721 people in total, and the article cites the number of skeptics as ranging between 2 percent in Detroit to 19 percent in Macon, Georgia.) 

Even so, the rumor had taken off, with conspiracy theorists often citing NASA’s own photos as evidence. One celebrated theory maintains that NASA hired Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to oversee the filming.

Despite being debunked repeatedly, the moon landing rumor seems to have only gotten stronger in the internet era. While a 1999 Gallup poll found that 6 percent of Americans believed the landing was faked, a 2021 University of New Hampshire survey put the figure at 12 percent, with another 17 percent of respondents saying they weren’t sure.

10. Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors Are Married // 1971

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson, who was definitely not married to Jim Nabors. / Herbert Dorfman/GettyImages

This rumor, which predated the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. by some four decades, gained wide currency. Its success as a rumor may have had less to do with the homophobia of the era than the seeming absurdity that the handsome movie idol Hudson and goofy Gomer Pyle sitcom actor Nabors could possibly be a couple. 

The rumor apparently evolved from a joke (“If Rock Hudson married Gomer Pyle, he’d be Rock Pyle”) and gained such traction that both men felt compelled to deny it publicly. “I heard it from a woman who heard it from her hairdresser,” Hudson told a newspaper columnist. “It has reached such tremendous proportions, there’s really nothing to say. Despite our denials, some people are going to believe whatever they want to believe.”  

11. Elvis Is Alive // 1977

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley in 1966. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 at age 42 was followed almost immediately by rumors that he was, in fact, alive and had gone into hiding. In some versions, he faked his death to escape the Mafia, in others simply to escape the burdens of fame.

Reported sightings of an aging Elvis have continued ever since, sometimes as jokes, other times with dead seriousness. A 1997 Gallup poll found that only 4 percent of Americans believed he was still alive. 

Fans who yearn to see the King in concert one more time will get their chance in the fall of 2024, when a life-size AI-generated hologram of Elvis is supposed to take the stage in London for the start of a world tour.