It requires a lot of time and effort to create and maintain a successful hoax. However, it takes a particularly crazy mentality to conduct a hoax which involves the fabrication of a person who does not even exist. As insane as it may sound, sometimes a prankster will go to the trouble of creating the persona of a completely fictitious individual and convince a lot of people that said individual is real. If the prankster has enough dedication, they can keep this illusion going for a long time before anyone figures out that they have become invested in the life of a nonexistent person.
10 Kodee Kennings
In May 2003, Southern Illinois University student newspaper The Daily Egyptian published a letter from an 8-year-old girl named Kodee Kennings. Kodee claimed that her mother was deceased and that her father, Dan Kennings, was a solider with the 101st Airborne Division in the midst of being deployed to Iraq. Kodee expressed how worried she was about her dad and her letter garnered such a strong reaction that it would become a recurring feature in the newspaper. Over the next two years, they would publish Kodee’s letters on a frequent basis, as she provided updates about her life and her dad’s service overseas.
These letters were provided to The Daily Egyptian by a young woman named Colleen Hastings, who claimed to be Kodee’s caregiver. However, in the summer of 2005, everyone was shocked to discover that neither Kodee nor Dan Kennings existed. “Colleen Hastings” was actually an SIU student named Jaimie Reynolds, who wrote all of Kodee’s letters herself and deliberately included misspellings and grammatical errors to make them look like they written by a young girl.
Reynolds had friends of hers pretend to be Kodee and Dan Kennings for photographs and public appearances, telling them they were merely playing parts for a movie. Reynolds even went to the trouble of disguising her voice to impersonate Kodee during phone calls to the Egyptian’s newsroom. The hoax unraveled after Reynolds claimed that Kodee’s father was killed in action in Iraq, but a subsequent investigation found no record of a “Dan Kennings” ever having served in the 101st Airborne.
9 Anthony Godby Johnson
In 1993, a memoir titled A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story was published, chronicling the troubled life of a 15-year-old boy named Anthony “Tony” Godby Johnson. Tony was repeatedly abused throughout his childhood by his parents, who allegedly ran a pedophile ring. He managed to escape and was cared for by his adoptive mother, a social worker named Vicki Johnson. Even though he had contracted AIDS, suffered a stroke, and had his leg amputated, Tony bravely told his story in A Rock and a Hard Place, which became an acclaimed best-seller.
Tony’s story even wound up being profiled by Oprah Winfrey in an Emmy-nominated television special about children overcoming adversity. However, over the years, people started realizing that no one else besides Vicki Johnson could ever confirm meeting Tony. Vicki always claimed that Tony was too ill to do any interviews or make public appearances, and that she had to keep him out of the spotlight to protect him from the pedophile ring. While Vicki did allow Tony to speak to people during phone calls, a voice analysis expert listened to a recording of one of the calls and determined that it was Vicki disguising her voice.
In 2006, Vicki provided a photograph of Tony for a segment on the news program 20/20. However, a viewer came forward to say they recognized “Tony” as another child named Steve Tarabojika, who had been a former student of Vicki’s when she taught grade school under her real name, Joanne Vicki Fraginals. Tarabojika was soon confirmed to be living a normal, healthy adult life and knew nothing about Tony’s story. Today, the general consensus is that the memoir was a hoax and that Tony never existed.
8 John Adam
In January 2005, a group of militants calling themselves the Mujahedeen Brigades released a statement on their website, claiming they had abducted an American military man serving in Iraq and were holding him hostage. They said the military man’s name was John Adam and posted a photo of a black soldier sitting up against the wall with his hands bound behind his back and a rifle pointed at his head. The militants stated they would behead Adam if certain Iraqi prisoners were not released by the US within 72 hours.
While this story managed to garner mainstream media attention, the US military was instantly suspicious, since none of their soldiers were known to be missing in Iraq. Furthermore, the kidnapped soldier in the photo looked strangely stiff and emotionless. The so-called “kidnapping” was finally exposed as a hoax by a most unlikely source: a representative from the American toy manufacturer, Dragon Models USA, Inc. He noticed that “John Adam” bore quite a striking resemblance to “Special Ops Cody,” a military action figure from their toy line. In other words, these militants had taken a photo of themselves pointing a toy rifle at the head of a toy doll and tried to pass it off as a hostage situation.
7 Martin Eisenstadt
During the 2008 presidential campaign, many bloggers and mainstream media outlets followed the writings of a man named Martin Eisenstadt who claimed he worked as an adviser for Republican candidate John McCain. Eisenstadt first garnered notice in a YouTube video, where he was interviewed on Iraqi television and claimed that a casino was going to be built inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Eisenstadt maintained a blog detailing his experience as a campaign adviser and it began to generate a strong following. After the election, word leaked out that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin thought that Africa was country, and Eisenstadt came forward to claim he was the source of that leak. Some mainstream outlets, including MSNBC and The Los Angeles Times, reported this as fact.
Not long afterwards, it was finally revealed that “Martin Eisenstadt” did not actually exist and was an elaborate hoax concocted by filmmakers Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin. Gorlin had portrayed Eisenstadt in the fabricated “interview” for Iraqi TV. Since some bloggers believed the interview was real, Eisenstadt’s comments about the casino in the Green Zone generated controversy, so the filmmakers decided to continue on with their hoax. While some people figured out that the Eisenstadt character was a work of satire, others reported his quotes as legitimate news. In essence, Martin Eisenstadt was devised as an experiment to expose the media’s tendency to report a story before checking the facts. After the hoax was revealed, Mirvish and Gorlin went on to publish a satirical fake memoir called I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man’s (Wildly Inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans.
6 Taro Tsujimoto
In 1974, George “Punch” Imlach was the general manager of the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres. In June, Imlach was participating in the NHL’s annual amateur draft and things were moving at a very slow pace. By the time the draft reached the 11th round, Imlach was bored out of his mind, since the teams were mostly selecting players who had no chance of making it to the NHL. In order to relieve the tedium, Imlach decided to play a little prank and drafted Taro Tsujimoto, who played for the Tokyo Katanas of the Japanese Hockey League. Of course, neither the player nor the team actually existed.
Imlach decided to keep the joke going for the next several months, refusing to admit that Taro Tsujimoto wasn’t real. Tsujimoto was listed as an official draft pick by the NHL and Imlach kept telling everyone that this mysterious Japanese player was going to show up for the team’s training camp. Tsujimoto’s name made it into the Buffalo Sabres media guide and the team even went to the trouble of making him a uniform and assigning him a stall in the locker room. Imlach did not even tell Sabres’ owner Seymour Knox that the whole thing was a hoax and made him believe that Tsujimoto was going to be checking in at the team’s hotel. This led to an awkward situation where Knox stalked a random Japanese man through the lobby because he was thought it was Tsujimoto. To this day, “Taro Tsujimoto” remains a popular inside joke among Sabres fans and he even has his own fictitious trading card.
5 Nat Tate
In 1998, a British novelist named William Boyd published a biography titled Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960. The book told the story of an abstract expressionist painter named Nat Tate, who worked in New York during the 1950s and produced some beautiful works of art. While he did achieve some modest success, Tate was also a depressed, irrational alcoholic who suddenly became very dissatisfied with his work. He wound up destroying 99 percent of his paintings before leaping to his death from the Staten Island ferry in 1960. Photos of Tate’s few remaining works of art were published in Boyd’s book.
However, Nat Tate never actually existed and the Boyd’s book was a complete fabrication. Tate’s supposed artwork in the book was actually painted by Boyd himself. Boyd even went to the trouble of recruiting some celebrity friends to help him with his elaborate prank. Gore Vidal and Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, openly endorsed the book. David Bowie stated that Tate was one of his favorite artists and that he owned some of his surviving works. Bowie also held a launch party for the book and invited several prominent figures from the art world. Throughout the evening, no one in attendance acknowledged that they didn’t know who Nat Tate was, and some even claimed to have attended retrospectives of his work in the 1960s. Of course, no one seemed to notice that the launch party was held on April Fools’ Day, and the art community was left with egg on its face when the hoax was revealed one week later.
4 J.S. Dirr
Over the course of several years, a man named J.S. Dirr acquired an Internet following by sharing his story on numerous social networks. J.S. claimed he was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and chronicled a life where he had numerous sexual encounters with different women and fathered 10 children. J.S. eventually married a surgeon named Dana, but his seventh child, Eli, was afflicted with leukemia. The couple set up a Facebook page for him called “Warrior Eli” and it garnered a huge outpouring of support for the child.
However, tragedy struck again in 2012 when J.S. announced on Facebook that his pregnant wife had been killed in a car accident. However, Dana managed to give birth to his 11th child just before she died. After this story went viral, people started to notice some suspicious inconsistencies, as there didn’t seem to be any news reports out there about Dana Dirr’s accident. It was eventually discovered that most of the photos of the Dirr family on the “Warrior Eli” page had been taken from other websites. In fact, the photos of “Eli” originated from the Flickr page of another boy undergoing cancer treatment in New Mexico.
Whenever supporters wanted to send donations to J.S., he always said that he couldn’t give out his address but told them to send everything to his sister, Emily, in Rootstown, Ohio. It turns out that Emily Dirr was actually a 22-year-old university student from Ohio who had fabricated J.S. Dirr’s entire story. She had gone to the trouble of creating over 70 fake Facebook accounts using hundreds of stolen photos. While she eventually apologized for her actions, her motivation for this elaborate hoax remains a mystery.
3 Reece James Dalton
In 1998, Matthew Wojtowicz, a young Australian train station attendant, had a brief relationship with a woman from Beverly Hills named Debra Ann Dalton. After the relationship ended, they went their separate ways until Debra suddenly phoned up Matthew and told him she had just given birth to their child, a baby boy named Reece James Dalton. Debra said she planned to raise the child on her own and asked Matthew not to visit her at the hospital, but it wasn’t long before Debra contacted Matthew again to tell him that Reece needed treatment for a chronic kidney disorder, which would require child support payments.
Over the next two years, Matthew had no reason to doubt Debra’s story, as he was sent several invoices of payment from a child support agency. He also received documentation from a pediatric center in New York, confirming that Reece would need to seek treatment there. Matthew wound up paying over $23,000 in child support, causing himself great financial strain, but he was always denied access to Reece.
When he finally inquired about his legal rights, police decided to question Debra and were shocked to discover that she never had a child and that her whole story was a hoax. Reece James Dalton was not real and all the documentation confirming his existence had been fabricated by his “mother” in order to extort money from Matthew. Debra would be charged with fraud and sentenced to 400 hours of community service while Matthew took legal action to recover his so-called child support payments.
2 Jimmy, The Eight-Year-Old Heroin Addict
On September 28, 1980, The Washington Post published an article titled “Jimmy’s World” that garnered instant acclaim as one of the most vivid and gripping stories they had ever done. The article was written by a relatively new journalist on the staff named Janet Cooke and chronicled the life of a poor eight-year-old African-American boy named Jimmy, who also happened to be a heroin addict. This harrowing story made such a strong impression on the public that Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry organized a police task force to find Jimmy and get him medical treatment. The following April, Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
However, an investigation could turn up no trace of Jimmy and there were allegations that the entire story was fraudulent. It was discovered that Cooke had lied about many of her academic credentials, and when Washington Post editors could find no record of her original meeting with Jimmy in Cooke’s files, they decided to question her. Cooke finally confessed that her article was fabricated and that “Jimmy” never actually existed. The Post would issue a public apology for the hoax, and only two days after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Cooke would be forced to give it back and resign from the newspaper.
1 J.T. LeRoy
In 1997, an anthology of memoirs called Close to the Bone was published, featuring a memorable story titled “Baby Doll.” Written by someone using the name “Terminator,” “Baby Doll” told the tale of a 12-year-old boy who lived an abusive lifestyle as a child prostitute and often dressed up in women’s clothing. Two years later, this same character would resurface in an acclaimed novel titled Sarah, which was written by an author named Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy. The story was allegedly an autobiographical one, based on J.T. Leroy’s own troubled childhood. After Leroy published some more autobiographical stories chronicling his experiences, the reclusive transgendered author finally came out of the shadows and started making public appearances.
However, in October 2005, it was revealed that all of these stories were penned by writer Laura Albert and that “JT LeRoy” did not actually exist. What about the person who was making public appearances and pretending to be Leroy? That actually turned out to be Savannah Koop, the half-sister of Albert’s partner, who wore a disguise in order to assume the J.T. Leroy persona. Even though the stories were fabricated, Albert described LeRoy as an “avatar” which allowed her to explore deeply personal issues that she couldn’t have written about on her own, but a lot of people were angered by her deception. Albert was actually sued for fraud and forced to pay damages after she had the nonexistent J.T. Leroy sign a contract granting a production company the film rights to his story.
Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopedic movie knowledge to publish numerous articles at Cracked.com. He is also the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and recently worked on a sci-fi short film called Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow.