'German Wild Boy' Sentenced for Fraud
Hoaxes have long been a part of history, from the ancient Greeks to modern day. In celebration of April Fool's Day, count down with us some of the greatest moments of trickery known to man.
The Trojan Horse
Whether you believe the tale Virgil tells in "The Aenied" is fact or fiction, the Trojan Horse still stands as one of the greatest hoaxes known to history, real or literary. Legend has it that the Greeks, in a longstanding war against the Trojans, built a giant (and hollow) wooden horse and presented it to their rivals. After the Trojans willingly brought the peace offering into their fortified city, an army of Greeks burst out of the statue and effectively crushed the opposition, using what’s now considered to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Photos by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Im
"The War of the Worlds" Broadcast
On Halloween night, 1938, a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" had people convinced that aliens were invading the United States. The broadcast was orchestrated by the famous Orson Welles (pictured above, answering questions from the press the following day). Much of the show was in an “emergency bulletin” format. Those who tuned in mid-broadcast didn't recognize that they had stumbled upon a fictional show and instead thought they had tuned in just in time to hear emergency announcements that aliens were invading. Welles claimed he hadn't foreseen the hysteria. The event is still commemorated to this day in Grover’s Mill, N.J. (home to the “invasion”) by a stone monument.
The Piltdown Man
The Piltdown Man is literally the definition of hoax. In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward unearthed a strange set of fossils in Sussex, England. These fragments would be pieced together to form the "Piltdown Man" skull and were famously hailed as proof of the "missing link" between humans and apes, according to the British Natural History Museum, which uses the incident as a prime example of "bad science." It would take 40 years, and the invention of better scientific dating, for the skull to be revealed as a fake. To this day, no one (or no group of individuals) has been identified as the mastermind behind the Piltdown Man hoax, although there have been theories.
In the midst of WWII, on June 4, 1944, the U.S. Navy captured the German submarine U-505 and kept it and its surviving crew members a secret. The Allied forces hoped to use the materials and code books found aboard the sub against the Nazis without the opposition knowing they had an upper hand. And it worked. U-505 was towed to Bermuda. The 58 Nazi soldiers captured during the raid were kept in relative isolation and not allowed to send letters from their imprisonment. The German army considered them dead, even sending notice to their families, according to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where the submarine currently is on exhibit to the public. The survivors were eventually released at the end of the war.
Heene Family Video Released to Press/YouTube
Perhaps once of history's most recent hoaxes, the plight of a young boy, Falcon Heene, supposedly launched (accidentally of course) into the Colorado skies in his family's UFO-like balloon, captured widespread media attention on Oct. 15, 2009. Heene would later be found safe and sound, hiding in his family's home. In a news interview the next day, young Falcon Heene would also accidentally mention it "was for the show," revealing the hoax. His parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, admitted to orchestrating the entire incident for the publicity. They were fined and had to serve jail time.
In 2011 a young man wandered into a German police station and told office workers, “I’m all alone in the world, I don’t know who I am. Please help me.” He claimed he had amnesia and had been living alone in the forest for at least five years.
According to an MSNBC story, ”The boy, who authorities say is in good health and calls himself Ray, showed up in Berlin on Sept. 5 carrying a backpack and sleeping bag … He said he was 17 and told officials he and his dad were living in tents and huts until his father died recently. He has no identity card, no papers, no passport, nothing.”
Ray, who spoke fluent English and a few words of German, said he remembered nothing else about his family or early life except that his mother died in a car accident. He buried his father in the forest two weeks before setting off, under his late father’s instructions, to seek help in Berlin.
Ray became world-famous as the mysterious “forest boy,” though authorities grew suspicious of his story as weeks and months passed with no new leads to support his story. For example Ray was unable to lead investigators to the forest where he claimed to have lived for five years, despite, apparently, having walked to Berlin from those woods just weeks earlier.
His clothing, possessions, and tent were in unusually good condition for having been in continuous use for years. Ray also was reluctant to publicize his photograph, and refused to help police find members of his extended family, claiming that it would be pointless because they had all died.
After nearly a year of searches by both German and international police the truth was finally revealed. According to The Local, Ray “was actually 21-year-old Robin van Helsum from Hengelo in the Netherlands, who was bored with his internship at a telecom company and reportedly confused about the direction his life was taking … people in Holland recognized a picture of him circulated by the German police. Soon after that he was charged with fraud, with Berlin authorities saying they had spent €30,000 (over $40,000) looking after him.”
Van Helsum, who was described by a former roommate as a shy man who liked to play computer games, smoke marijuana, and watch “Family Guy,” avoided jail time by pleading guilty and was sentenced to complete 150 hours of community service.
Brazen attempts to adopt a new identity are unusual but not unheard of. In 1997 a young Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, through a combination of skill, charisma, and luck, managed to convince an American family that he was their son who had been missing since he was a teenager.
Amazingly, Bourdin managed to pass as the missing boy despite being seven years older and speaking with a French accent. The story was turned into a 2012 documentary film called “The Imposter.”
Now that the identity of “the Dutch Pinocchio” has been established, the biggest remaining question is why he would pull such a strange hoax. So far Van Helsum has been silent on the subject. Perhaps the public needs to wait for his story to be dramatized as a movie to get answers.
Photo: Berlin Police Department