The New York Times Book Review has a review of "The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History," which traces the legend of the Indian rope trick to a hoax article in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. The hoax was written by John Elbert Wilkie, later the head of the U.S. Secret Service.
Here's the gist of the story:
An anonymous, illustrated article told of two Yale graduates, an artist and a photographer, on a visit to India. They saw a street fakir, who took out a ball of gray twine, held the loose end in his teeth and tossed the ball upwards where it unrolled until the other end was out of sight. A small boy, ''about 6 years old,'' then climbed the twine and, when he was 30 or 40 feet in the air, vanished. The artist made a sketch of the event. The photographer took snapshots. When the photos were developed, they showed no twine, no boy, just the fakir sitting on the ground. ''Mr. Fakir had simply hypnotized the entire crowd, but he couldn't hypnotize the camera,'' the writer concluded.The story was picked up by numerous papers and translated into many European languages.
"So what?" you ask.
Nothing, just this:
Four months later, a letter to the editor forced The Tribune to come clean. The tale, the newspaper confessed, had not been reporting at all, but "written for the purpose of presenting a theory in an entertaining form." In other words, it was phony. But where the original story had caused an international stir, the retraction attracted little notice.To use modern terminology: It was fakir but accurate.