On April 1, 1985, Sports Illustrated published George Plimpton's profile of an unknown pitching phenom training with the Mets named Siddhartha Finch. According to Plimpton, Finch went to Harvard, studied with a yogi in Tibet, played the French horn—and could throw a baseball 168 miles per hour. "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" was a sensation. And a very clever hoax. What most readers failed to notice was that the story appeared on April Fool's Day. (Indeed, the first letter of every word in the article's subhead spell out "Happy April Fools' Day—ah fib.)
Not every hoax is good-natured, of course. In 2001, Tad Friend reported on Anthony Godby Johnson, a teenager who had written a memoir about being physically and sexually abused. Johnson, who had contracted AIDS, found champions and friends in authors Armistead Maupin and Paul Monette—but did he even exist? "As Maupin grew entwined in Tony's life, he kept telling the story to his friends, and eventually he realized that the tale had all the enticing ambiguities of fiction," Friend wrote. "In 1994, he signed a six-figure contract with HarperCollins to write a novel inspired by Tony. But for three years he found himself unable to write a word. 'Every time I allowed myself to think that he didn't really exist, I felt a clench of guilt in my gut. So I kept talking to Tony as if everything were fine. I broke my brain down the middle.'"
Four years later, Stephen Beachy profiled another acclaimed writer, JT Leroy, whose story (and existence) had eerie parallels to Johnson. "Does it matter if 'JT LeRoy' never lived in a squat, if he never tricked on Polk Street, never was a lot lizard, isn’t from West Virginia?" Beachy asked. "Does it matter if he is, more or less, a 39-year-old mother named Laura Albert, originally from Brooklyn? Where’s the harm?"
So why are people—particularly smart people—so susceptible to hoaxes and frauds? Paul Hoffman came to this conclusion in 2010: "A society of paranoids and cynics would not function as a society It is sobering to realize that human beings blindly trust authority and that authority figures like Nobelists are the ones most easily duped."