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What is the truth?
Delightfully deceiving new tomes by Alex Boese and Ricky Jay

Alex Boese maintains a fine and intriguing Website, the Museum of Hoaxes (www.museumofhoaxes.com), documenting a wide variety of hoaxes, pranks, frauds, and similar deceptions throughout history. In The Museum of Hoaxes, he offers Luddites such as myself a hard copy sampler of his site and its many wonders, which makes for entertaining reading and browsing.

The book begins with a "Gullibility Test" to gauge the reader’s credulousness. (True or false? "Mud throwing was an official event at the 1904 Olympics" and "Sir Thomas Crapper invented the toilet." The answers are at the back of the book — no peeking!) In his introduction, Dr. Boese offers this definition: "A hoax, then, is a deliberately deceptive act that has succeeded in capturing the attention (and, ideally, the imagination) of the public." For Boese, it is this "public" aspect which separates hoaxes from frauds, pranks, urban legends and tall tales, and other deceits.

Observing that people today are neither more nor less gullible than they were in the past — "though we are probably just as gullible" — Boese quite rightly points out that the Internet "has become the great incubator of every lie, rumor and half-baked idea imaginable." Here in the Information Age, "Sensing which sources are reliable, and which are not, has become a fine and highly inexact art. Inevitably, not everyone succeeds. But not only the ‘gullible’ fail." And The Museum of Hoaxes (book and site) offers plenty of reasons to be cautious. He points out that even trusted sources such as the New Yorker, the New York Times (how timely!), and National Geographic have been hoaxed.

Hoaxes are grouped chronologically and, with each chapter, Boese traces the changing perception and intention of hoaxes throughout history. The medieval audience, for instance, often regarded these fanciful tales not as factually accurate reports, but more as tales embodying greater moral or religious truths. Hoaxing was elevated to a fine art in the 18th century, when they were often used to critique or educate, while the 19th century saw cheap newspapers that catered to the working-class hoaxing the more expensive highbrow newspapers. The double-edged sword of the media’s growing sway over public perception and people’s willingness to believe anything they read is also discussed.

The tour through the Museum’s vast holdings continues, with Pope Joan, Shakespeare forgeries, Mark Twain swindles, P. T. Barnum humbug, the Cottingley Fairies, sea serpents, the chess-playing Turk, Charles Ponzi’s original pyramid scheme, the Piltdown Man (and later the Piltdown Chicken), jackalopes, Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast ("the idea that the broadcast touched off a huge national scare is probably more of a hoax than the broadcast itself, which was never intended to fool anyone," we are informed), "Paul is dead," the Hitler diaries, Sidd Finch, Tawana Brawley, crop circles, www.manbeef.com, Milli Vanilli, and tricks played on April Fools’ Day throughout history. We also read of a couple of things which were thought to be hoaxes, but later turned out to be true (such as the duckbill platypus).

One particularly disturbing section details September 11 hoaxes, including the famous (or infamous) photograph of "Touristguy," supposedly found in a digital camera recovered from Ground Zero. And the alleged September 11 prophecy of Nostradamus, which was widely circulated on the Internet, is also shown to be a hoax (as if the originals weren’t enough to begin with), albeit one with an interesting history. Yet all of these hoaxes based on tragic events come off more as pointlessly callous than clever.

The afterword, "How to Avoid Being Hoaxed," offers some simple suggestions, and is followed by the answers to the Gullibility Quiz and recommendations for further reading. The only complaint to be raised is that some of the write-ups are too brief; one wants to know more about many of the hoaxes detailed. And there are one or two curious and lamentable omissions, such as the story of Stephen Glass, who published some 27 made-up articles in the New Republic before anyone caught on (or bothered to do some serious fact-checking). But despite these minor cavils, this is a hugely enjoyable work, and Boese does us all a service, pointing out the occasionally high cost of credulousness and, at the same time, marveling at our nearly infinite capacity for belief.

Ricky Jay, master of sleight of hand, connoisseur of the strange, and historian of the unusual, has collected thousands of dice over the years. "They come from diverse sources: generous friends, dealers in collectibles, distraught gamblers ready to embrace a new calling," he tells us. "They are fabricated from different materials, but the vast majority are made of celluloid." Celluloid, the first commercially viable plastic best known for its use as movie film, remains stable and strong for decades, but then suddenly fragment and implode dramatically. Jay’s huge collection was slowly disintegrating.

So he collaborated with Rosamond Purcell, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, photographer whom he describes as "doyenne of decaying objects," and the result of that collaboration is a slim volume with a dozen essays by Jay and 21 color photographs by Purcell.

The essays, which first appeared in the New Yorker, are brief and eloquent ruminations and anecdotes upon and about dice, their history (real and supposed), mystery, and mystique. Those familiar with Mr. Jay and his reputation will not be surprised to find that much of what he relates here involves cheating, by loading, shaving, mis-spotting, and other nefarious alterations. Such cheating was such a serious problem in Elizabethan England that the Queen issued an edict forbidding the manufacture of false dice in 1598; as a result, the best false dice were obtained in prisons from then on.

Jay offers many other famous and infamous names who have contended with the bones, from Plato (who stated that an Egyptian deity invented dice; interestingly, loaded dice have been discovered in certain Egyptian tombs) and the Roman Emperor Claudius to Galileo, Fermat, Pascal, and Matthew Buchinger, a favorite topic of Jay’s.

The chapters, some only one or two paragraphs in length, have intriguing titles such as "The True Practice of Falsehood," "The Palingenesis of Craps" (on the impossibility of tracing the etymology), "Dice and Deity" and, of course, "When a Die Dies," which details the destruction described above. Each small essay manages to pack interesting information and the occasional oddball digression into a very little space.

Purcell’s photographs show dice in varying states of preservation, and her arrangements catch the light and the odd features of the cubes ("warped, cracked, and sometimes smelly," she says in her afterword). Some photographs reveal translucent dice glowing with light; others show examples with the texture resembling soft (and nasty) cheese; another displays only a few crystalline shards and fragments. All of them are quite striking and effective, and sometimes even eerie or a little sad. Ricky Jay says appreciatively, "The dice have never looked better."

To describe much more would rob readers of the pleasure and enjoyment of discovering the book for themselves. This is a handsome little volume, a sort of mini-coffee table book. Fans of Jay’s earlier books, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, both devoted to the history of unusual and eccentric entertainers and characters, will also want this one of their shelves. It is not only a document of and a testament to his dying collection, but also a fascinating tour through a tiny world that none but Ricky Jay knows quite so well.

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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