The twisted tale of football star Manti Te'o's girlfriend -- who reportedly died this past year under tragic circumstances but then was found never to exist – has shocked and mystified people across America.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve had the collective wool pulled over our eyes. Here are some of the most successful hoaxes and tall tales in American history:
Balloon Boy: In April 2010, the nation was riveted as cable news networks cut into live programming to broadcast the runaway flight of a Fort Collins, Colo., family's experimental balloon, which supposedly contained their six-year-old son, Falcon Heene. The silver, helium-filled aircraft had become untethered from the family's yard and for two hours, authorities chased it as it wobbled above Colorado. When it landed in a field, empty, the Heene family -- who had twice appeared on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap" prior to the balloon incident -- insisted their older son had said Falcon climbed into the balloon before it took off. As it turned out, Falcon had been hiding in a cardboard box in the attic the entire time. In January 2011, the Heene children started a heavy metal band they call HEENE BOYZ, which includes Falcon as lead vocalist and bass player, Bradford, the oldest, on lead guitar, and Ryo, the middle son, on the drums.
Charles Tasnadi / AP file
Janet Cooke and 'Jimmy's World': In September 1980, Janet Cooke wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for the front page of The Washington Post about an eight-year-old boy with a heroin addiction, whose life was the product of rape. Just 26 herself, Cooke faded out of public view after Washington, D.C., police, desperate to help Jimmy out of his life of addiction, couldn't find him, and it was discovered that she had made up the entire tale. The Post returned her Pulitzer in 1981. Her boyfriend revealed years later that she was working for minimum wage at a department store.
Milli Vanilli's Grammy: Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan of the German pop band Milli Vanilli took the stage in Los Angeles in 1990 to accept a Grammy award for best new artist, performing their big hit, "Girl You Know It's True," which hit number one on the U.S. charts. Sadly, the glitz and glamour of the Grammy night wore off quickly when it was discovered the two had not only lip-synched their Grammy performance, but the song's lead vocals belonged to other singers. To date, Milli Vanilli is the only group to ever have a Grammy revoked. Pilatus died of a suspected accidental drug overdose in 1998; Morvan told USA TODAY in 2010 he wants his Grammy back, but "there's no bitterness. It made me a better man."
James Frey: In January 2006, author James Frey got a literary slap in the face from one of the most influential book critics of all: Oprah Winfrey. "I feel duped," she told him on her talk show after accusing him of lying in his so-called memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," which chronicled his struggles with recovering from addiction. "But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." Frey's fall from book club pick to accusations of fabrication began after a thorough investigation from The Smoking Gun website found the author had "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.'" Despite the revelations, the book continued to fly off the shelves, but Doubleday, the publisher, added a note to future editions of "A Million Little Pieces" explaining some events in the text had been embellished. Since then, Oprah has publicly apologized to Frey for her harsh words, and he has gone on to publish a couple of other books -- but didn't classify those as memoirs.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images file
'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast: On Halloween eve in 1938, Americans who tuned into Orson Welles on CBS Radio received some astonishing news: A meteorite had crashed into New Jersey, and New York had been invaded by Martians. What the broadcast failed to convey to the stunned listeners who may have missed the introduction to the show was that they were listening to an adaptation of the science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds," written 40 years earlier by H.G. Wells. "Good heavens -- something's wiggling out of the shadow," one of the newscasters on the show, describing the meteorite in New Jersey read to terrified listeners, some of whom took to their basements to hide. "It glistens like wet leather. But that face -- it ... it is indescribable." Welles later expressed regret for causing such a panic.
CBS News via AP file
Stephen Glass: In the spring of 1998, journalist Stephen Glass was regularly publishing stories for Harper's Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Slate, and was an associate editor at The New Republic. But one story -- "Hack Heaven," about a 15-year-old hacker -- struck some as being too good to be true. As it turned out, all of it was: Neither the young hacker nor the software company he was allegedly blackmailing existed. As editors delved into more of Glass's stories, fabrications were found in a large portion of them. Since then, Glass has written a novel, "The Fabulist," and last summer, sought a California law license.
AFP - Getty Images file
The Great Moon Hoax: In August 1835, The New York Sun published a series of stories on its front page about wild advances in astronomy, including a new telescope made by Sir John Herschel that "discovered new planets beyond our solar system," "solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy," and discovered life on the moon. There were blue unicorns and winged humans on the moon, according to what was seen in this telescope, the story alleged. Astronomer Sir John Herschel was not consulted before the story was written quoting him. After numerous other newspapers responded to the stories expressing skepticism, one exposed it as a hoax by the end of the month.
Jayson Blair: Plagiarize at one of the most venerable newspapers in the world, and you'll make the front page – as the subject of an article. This is a lesson Jayson Blair learned in the spring of 2003, when he, as a young reporter at The New York Times, stole writing from other reporters, made up quotes, invented details out of thin air, and created an "embarrassment of plagiarism and fiction," according to The New York Times' own investigation. As the war in Iraq ramped up, so did his lies, with claims of reporting from the Texas home of a missing soldier or another soldier's funeral in Ohio, when in reality, he never traveled to either. A reporter he had interned with in the past accused him of plagiarizing parts of her story, published in the San Antonio Express News, word for word, in April of 2003; the following month, The Times ran a 14,000 word article detailing Blair's deceptions, which concluded he had faked all or part of 36 stories in the six months of his employment with them. He later wrote a book, "Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times."
Mark Elias / AP file
Tawana Brawley: In 1987, at 15, Brawley was reportedly discovered in a garbage bag in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., her body smeared with feces and "KKK" and the n-word scrawled on her torso. In the hospital, she said that she had been kidnapped by white men and raped over a four-day period. Her terrible story propelled her into the national spotlight, with Rev. Al Sharpton and others supporting her as several men were implicated in the act. However, in late 1988, a grand jury investigation found "no medical or forensic evidence that a sexual assault was committed on Tawana Brawley," placing the entire account in question. One of the people Brawley had accused as an assailant was a New York prosecutor, who later successfully sued Brawley for defamation.
Lance Armstrong: He beat cancer, but he didn't beat allegations of doping. The Tour de France champion and Livestrong charity founder for years fought accusations that he took steroids to enhance his cycling performance. Along the way he built up a fortune estimated at more than $100 million. But on Thursday, Jan. 13, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey recorded earlier this week, he will finally admit that he did indeed dope, NBC News confirmed. It could spell the beginning of years of lawsuits that could cost him tens of millions of dollars.
Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images file
Roswell aliens: In July 1947, an aircraft fell from the sky, crashing on a ranch in Roswell, N.M. Whether it was a flying saucer from another world, a weather balloon, or something else entirely has left skeptics and believers debating for years -- but many out-of-this-world believers insist the government, which has a heavy military presence in Roswell, covered up the discovery of alien bodies in the aircraft. One intelligence officer and eyewitness to the crash, Maj. Jesse Marcel, fueled the speculation by saying years later that what was found on the ranch was "not of this Earth"; the Air Force issued two reports in the 1970s concluding the material was from Project Mogul, a secret program of atmospheric balloons used to detect nuclear tests from the Soviets.
Farmers Museum via AP file
The Cardiff Giant: In October 1869, a 10-foot-tall, petrified man was supposedly found by workers on a man's farm in Cardiff, N.Y. Some people thought he was a statue; others thought he was from biblical times. Crowds from all over flocked to see the stone giant, who, in actuality, was created by a man named George Hull. Hull decided to bury the giant in the ground after he got into an argument with a Methodist reverend about whether to take the Bible literally. Hull made the giant to show how blindly religious people will believe what they hear regarding their faith. Ultimately, the Cardiff Giant was an investment for Hull: He paid about $2,600 to make it, but a group of businessmen later paid him $37,500 to permanently display it in Cooperstown, N.Y..
What are your favorite tall tales and hoaxes? Tell us in the comments below.
- 9 baffling questions in the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax
- Manti Te'o mystery: How do you fall in love with someone you've never met?