From a fake photo of a Syrian boy sleeping next to his dead parents to the September 11 photo that fooled thousands of people, join us as we take a look at 10 famous photos that turned out to be hoaxes.
10. Mumler’s Ghost of Abraham Lincoln
William H. Mumler was a 19th century ‘spirit photographer’ that worked out of New York. His claim to fame was that he could photograph people and have the spirits of their deceased friends and relatives appear in the back of the portrait.
One of his most famous photographs is the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The story goes that sometime in early 1869, Mary Todd Lincoln sat for one of Mumler’s portrait photographs under the alias ‘Mrs Lindal’. It’s thought that Mumler couldn’t have known this was the former wife of Abraham Lincoln.
Once the image was developed Mumler claimed that the spirit of Abraham Lincoln could be seen standing behind Mrs Lincoln. It was later revealed that Mrs Lincoln was encouraged to identify the figure as her late husband by Mumler’s wife, who also claimed to be a medium.
In April 1869, Mumler was taken to court on account of fraud. Famous showman P. T. Barnum testified against Mumler, saying that he was taking advantage of grief stricken customers whose judgement was clouded by the passing of their loved ones. Some witnesses claimed that Mumler broke into houses to steal photographs of deceased relatives, others said that the ‘spirits’ showing up in his photos were pictures of people that were still alive at the time. Mumler was eventually acquitted of fraud but his career was left in tatters. Today his ‘spirit photographs’ are considered hoaxes.
9. Syrian Boy Sleeps Between His Dead Parents
This image isn’t a deliberate hoax as such rather it’s a good example of how traditional and social media can run with false information.
In early 2014, this image started spreading around news outlets and social media. Attached to it was a story that this was an orphaned Syrian boy that sleeps next to the graves of his dead parents. The striking image struck a cord with the public and was shared thousands of times.
The truth is that this is a staged image created for an art project by photographer Abdul Aziz al-Otaibi. It was taken in Saudi Arabia and has nothing to do with the crisis in Syria. The two ‘graves’ are just piles of stones and the young boy is al-Otaibi’s cousin.
8. Benito Mussolini Removes Horse Handler
In an effort to look mighty, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini doctored this image. First he had the horse handler removed to make it look like he’s in full control of the animal. The man at the rear of the horse was also erased. Finally, he manipulated the clouds to make it a more striking and powerful image.
7. Baby Adolf Hitler Hoax
In 1933, this photo began circulating through a number of widely read newspapers, purporting to be an image of baby Adolf Hitler. The photo was originally distributed by Acme Newspapers, claiming that the squishy, pug-faced child was the future fuhrer of Germany. In October 1933, the Chicago Tribune ran the image next to a picture of an adult Hitler addressing 500,000 farmers and storm troopers with the caption ‘Two Pictures of Hitler’.
Weeks later the German consulate in Chicago wrote to the Chicago Tribune to correct the mistake. They then submitted this authenticated image of baby Hitler:
It wasn’t until 1938 that the identity of the squishy faced child was revealed. Mrs. Harriet Downs from Ohio saw the picture in a magazine and immediately recognised it as her baby boy, John Warren. Here’s the original image:
You can see that the original image shows a cute little boy with a fresh, white bonnet on. The dark scowl lines and matted hair had clearly been doctored into the image.
To this day, no one knows how the image began circulating as baby Adolf Hitler. Acme Newspapers, who were the first to run the image, investigated its origins tracing it back to their syndicate’s London bureau who in turn received it from someone in Austria. But that’s where the trail ends. Historians are dumbfounded how a random photo of a baby from Ohio made its way to Austria to become a famous piece of propaganda.
Sadly in 1938, just months after his baby photo was correctly identified, eight year old John Warren died when he fell from his bicycle and pierced his heart on a milk bottle.
6. Indian Ocean Tsunami Hoax Photo
Following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, an email chain began circulating this image. It claimed to be taken from a tall building in Phuket, Thailand right as the wave was about to hit the shoreline. The email asked the reader to appreciate the sheer scale of the wave as many news outlets weren’t showing it at its height of destruction.
As the email chain gained traction, people started noticing some inconsistencies with the image. If it’s Thailand, why are they driving on the right hand side of the road? Also, the waves that struck the coast of Thailand measured four metres, yet the wave depicted looks about 20 storeys high. And finally, it doesn’t resemble the coast of Phuket at all, in fact an internet commentator noted that it’s actually the coast of Antofagasta, Chile. Thus proving this image to be a complete hoax.
5. German Divorce Photos Hoax
In June, 2015 a Youtuber by the name of ‘Der Juli’, who was supposedly going through a divorce at the time, started cutting all his belongings in two to get back at his ex-wife. He posted photos of a TV sliced in twain, a little stuffed bear in two pieces and even a car cut in half. He said he was going to sell everything he cut up on Ebay.
Almost everyone bought the story as the internet lapped it up, watching this jaded lover cut through all his belongings, piece by piece.
However, it was soon revealed to be a complete hoax. Nothing more than a marketing stunt from a German website that helps people find lawyers.
4. Kuwait Shark Tank Explosion
This image started doing the social media rounds in 2012. It was allegedly taken at the Scientific Center in Kuwait after their shark tank exploded, filling the lobby with thousands of litres of water and two large sharks. The image spread like wildfire as people the world over marveled at the striking photo.
However, the photo was soon debunked when identical images, minus the sharks, emerged. The actual location was Toronto’s Union Station after a surge of rainwater and sewerage flooded the entrance.
To this day, no one knows who created the image.
3. September 11 Tourist Guy
Shortly after September 11 this photo started appearing around the internet. It shows a man standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York right as a plane is about to hit. The story goes that after the plane hit, the camera survived the building’s collapse and was recovered by the FBI during clean up – revealing this startling photo.
Some months later a Brazilian businessman by the name of José Roberto Penteado claimed to be the tourist in the photo. He got significant media attention, doing chat shows and radio, he was even allegedly offered a TV commercial deal with Volkswagen.
With the swell of media attention that Penteado received another man by name of Péter Guzli from Hungary stepped forward stating he was the man in the photograph. However, he claimed that he doctored the photo and was never there on September 11, 2001. He claimed the photo was taken in 1997 during a vacation to the US. He later submitted evidence to authorities that indeed proved that he had faked the photo from the very beginning and only intended to share the image as a joke among friends.
2. Air France Flight 447 Hoax Photos
In 2009, a pernicious email thread was spreading around this photo. It claimed it was snap taken during a horrific mid-air collision of Air France flight 447 and an Airbus 330. While these two flights did meet a tragic end, they didn’t collide with one another and this photo was not taken on board either of the planes.
This photo is a single frame taken from the pilot episode of ABC’s television show Lost.
1. President Bush Upside Down Book Hoax Photo
In late 2002 this photo of former president George W. Bush went viral around the internet. It shows the former president reading a copy of America: A Patriotic Primer by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice-President Dick Cheney. There in Bush’s hands the book appears to be upside down. Many theories were offered to explain the image. It could have been an assistant that handed the book upside down right as the photo was taken, giving little time for Bush to realise the mistake. Another theory said the jacket of the book may have been place upside down so the words would have been the right way up but the cover upside down.
In actual fact, the image turned out to be a complete hoax. Here’s the original photo taken for the Associated Press at the George Sanchez Charter School in Houston during the summer of 2002: