“Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” warned Sir Walter Scott ages ago in his poem, Marmion. Be that as it may, it has never deterred people from stretching the truth or blatantly lying through their teeth if it benefits them in some way. History is filled with examples of famous liars and fraudsters who didn’t think twice before foregoing the truth but lived to see the fallout of their choices. Let’s take a look at these men and women whose claim to fame is based on falsehoods and deceit.
1. A Realtor with a Twist
Consider having someone tell you the Eiffel Tower was for sale. Think you wouldn’t fall for it? Well, such was Victor Lustig’s confidence that he managed to convince not just one but two men that he had the authority to sell the iconic building. Even weirder, the first man Lustig conned never reported it. Why not? He (maybe rightfully) assumed he’d be a laughingstock if word came out.
Since he’d gotten off scot-free the first time, Lustig decided to try to con someone else in the same manner. This time, his mark swallowed his pride and reported the crime, so Lustig had to flee to America.
2. Serial Scammer
Lustig didn’t just try to scam people into buying the Eiffel Tower—he lied and conned people throughout his life. He posed as a musical producer looking for investments in a fake Broadway production, claimed to have a machine that duplicated currency bills, and eventually faked illness to escape from a detention center in New York. He and Charles Ponzi would probably have been best friends if they met!
3. Behemoth Bankruptcy
The bigger the lie, the bigger the fall, and who better exemplifies this than Kenneth Lay. The CEO and chairman of Enron, he was one of the richest and most influential businessmen in the world before his mismanagement and dishonesty led to the company going bankrupt and over 20,000 employees losing their jobs. Authorities eventually charged Lay for securities fraud and for misleading investors—but he died before his sentence hearing.
4. The Liar Pyramid
Everyone (should) know to beware Ponzi schemes, which promise unbelievably high returns for investments, but how much do we know about Charles Ponzi, the original swindler who invented the scheme? Ponzi tricked investors out of millions at the peak of his career. His pyramid scheme encouraged people to invest in his company for the incentive of receiving 100% interest in 90 days. It sounds too good to be true…because it was.
5. The Swindler
Ponzi collected enough money to pay his initial investors, which helped him reel in new ones. But he wasn’t investing anything—the only money coming in was from investors: In essence, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” This wasn’t the first time a liar like Charles tried to pull one over people’s eyes either! From forging checks to smuggling undocumented Italian immigrants to the US, he’d done it all. He’d even spent time in lockup for it.
One would imagine spending years in prison might have deterred him from continuing his swindling ways, but clearly, one would have been mistaken.
Ponzi’s infamous legacy has persisted, and since his day, countless conmen and women have used his pyramid scheme. Most prominent among them is Bernie Madoff. Authorities caught up to him in 2008, and that’s when the world finally learned that he’d been swindling billions from many innocent investors. Some of Madoff’s most famous marks were Steven Spielberg, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Elie Wiesel.
7. The Liar President
Think President Nixon and you’ll automatically think of Watergate. It was the first time a US president came under suspicion for illicit activities. It also ended up being the first and last time a US president resigned from office. Nixon was initially unabashed in declaring his (fake) innocence when he announced: “I am not a crook.” We all know how that turned out.
8. Behind Enemy Lines
Nixon and his team took the idea of “keep an eye on your enemy” a little too literally. Their plan was to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Complex and to tap phones and take pictures of any campaign documents. Unluckily for the “burglars,” the guard realized someone had broken into the building and called the police. Authorities apprehended the five men there, and eventually 48 people, mostly Nixon administration officials, found themselves indicted.
9. No Place to Hide
Nixon was re-elected while the drama had begun and tried to cover up his involvement by refusing to release White House tapes which proved he knew of the event. He had to give them up when the Supreme Court subpoenaed them though, and he resigned when his impeachment became inevitable.
10. Embellisher of Truth
It’s hard to say what Frida Kahlo is most famous for: Her paintings or her troubled and unconventional life. Not your usual liar, she did stretch the truth about her birth and ethnicity. She claimed she was born in the year of the Mexican Revolution, 1910, whereas she was actually born in 1907. She also claimed her father was a German Jew who had moved to Mexico, while in truth he came from a long line of Lutherans. As far as lies go, they get a lot worse than that. I guess she just liked the thrill of it?
11. (Un)Patriot Act
One of the most admired US generals in the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold decided to turn against his own country. Why? Above all else, Arnold was a jealous man, and he felt like the Americans hadn’t given him proper respect. So, he started biding his time, waiting for his chance to really stick it to his country…
12. The Great Pretender
Several Americans suspected Arnold of corruption, but not the one person who mattered. George Washington trusted him and placed him in charge of West Point. Bad idea. Arnold’s plan was to surrender the fort to the British in return for £20,000. There was only one problem: The Americans captured the British general he was in cahoots with. Before they hanged him, the general revealed Arnold’s treachery.
Arnold still managed to escape and defected to the British side. As a result, he fought against the very men he had once commanded, and his name became synonymous with treason and betrayal.
13. Cowgirl Tales
Heaven knows we need more strong women role models, and historically we haven’t had too many of them. So the legend of Calamity Jane, a rare female hero in a world of cowboys, has held strong to this day. Remembered as Wild Bill Hickok’s sidekick, her popularity might have even overtaken his at times. However, their relationship may not have been what it seemed. It seems Calamity Jane was a serial liar.
Hickok’s friends claim that he had no interest in being her friend, and their partnership was a figment of her imagination.
14. Plain Jane?
Jane’s relationship with Hickok might not be the only thing that makes her a liar, either. For years, the story has been that Jane served as a scout and saved her captain from capture. After her heroics, he gave her the title of “Calamity.” It’s a great story—and it might be just that. There’s no proof it ever happened—in fact, there’s no proof of her being a scout at all. Most historians now believe, like many aspects of her life, Jane just made it up.
15. Princess Liar-ies
The Russian Revolution was one of the bloodiest chapters in history. The Bolsheviks erased the entire Russian Imperial family…or did they? Several imposters sprung up some years later, each claiming to be the youngest princess, Anastasia. One of them looked enough like the real Tsarina that many people took her seriously. Her name was Anna Anderson and she filed a claim in 1938 to prove that she was truly the young Russian princess.
16. The (Un)Real Deal
Anderson’s suit was unsuccessful, but she spent the rest of her life standing by her claim. The lady was nothing if not determined. After she passed in 1984, scientists tested her DNA to settle the story once and for all. Not only was she not related to the Romanovs at all, her true identity finally came to light. “Anna Anderson” was actually a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska. You have to give her full marks for cheek though.
17. The Lying President Reboot
If you thought Nixon was the last US president to be caught telling a lie which led to possible impeachment, you were wrong. Of course, we’re talking about…Bill Clinton. Unless you forgot about the Monica Lewinsky affair? Clinton took a page out of Nixon’s book and completely denied having to do anything with Lewinsky at first. We all know how that ended up for Nixon, and Clinton should have known too.
18. True Colors
Clinton had to eat his words and confess that he had lied earlier when he realized that the truth would come out no matter what he said. Although he only revealed the truth when he had absolutely no other option, he was able to come out of the scandal relatively unscathed. He continued his presidential term in the White House and his reputation has almost completely recovered. Hey, we said these people were liars—we didn’t promise they paid for their lies.
19. A Creepy Showman
Labeled the “Greatest Showman,” Phineas Taylor Barnum’s showmanship was often more disturbing than great. He knew how to put on a show that the public wanted to see—but he was willing to stretch the truth a little. Or a lot. As a young man, Barnum purchased a slave, Joice Heth, whom he used as the main attraction of his show. What made Heth so special? Barnum claimed she was really George Washington’s 161-year-old maid. Spoiler alert: She was not.
20. To Make Things Worse
As if it wasn’t bad enough to own an old woman to use as a live exhibit to attract an audience, Barnum made sure to use her even in death. After her passing, he advertised her “autopsy” as an attraction and took 50 cents from each audience member who wanted to watch her being “cut up.” This process revealed she was actually in her 80s, half of what Barnum had been telling his audience. Whoops.
21. More “Exhibits”
After Heth, Barnum continued to provide crass entertainment to the masses—and he didn’t exactly clean up his act. Barnum exhibited many other humans who appeared “different” and passed them off as anomalies. Take the exhibit that Barnum simply labeled, “WHAT IS IT?” Barnum speculated that the “creature” on display was the offspring of an African and an orangutan.
In reality, “WHAT IS IT?” was simply William Henry Johnson, a black man from Barnum’s hometown. So, for whoever’s counting, that makes Barnum a liar and a racist.
22. Father of Lies
Herodotus was an ancient Greek author who wrote about the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Ironically, his names include both the “Father of History” as well as the “Father of Lies” because of his tendency to embellish the truth. He turned every story into a tale of Greek exceptionalism and embellished the “facts” (if you could even call them that) to make every Greek victory ten times greater than it might have been.
23. A Holy Liar
Rodrigo de Borgia, or Pope Alexander VI, was one of a kind, to put it mildly. He loved the good life, and despite being the Pope, he wasn’t too stressed about the laws of celibacy and piety. Alexander got it on with several women discreetly and fathered four kids with his long-time flame, Vannozza dei Cattanei. He lied about their paternity in the beginning, but once he became Pope, he figured there wasn’t much anyone could do about it and proceeded to legitimize them all.
24. Power Hungry
Borgia supposedly had five more kids with other women as well. He loved power more than anything, and rumor has it that he bribed every Cardinal he could find to make sure he became Pope. While he did play a role bringing peace to Rome, he also made sure his kids ended up in powerful positions all across the country, ensuring Borgia influence for generations.
25. Trickster Par Excellence
Frank Abagnale posed as a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and who knows what else—and he got started at just 16 years old. On the way, he became a master cheque-forger and swindled banks out of millions of dollars. But, after years of cat and mouse, the authorities finally caught up to him. He served time, but eventually, the FBI realized that he possessed a very useful set of skills.
They let him out on the condition he help them catch cheque-forgers. He subsequently made a career as a security consultant.
26. Believe it or Not!
Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip was so popular that it earned him a $100,000 salary from the infamous William Randolph Hearst—during the Great Depression no less. Why did people like it so much? Ripley mixed up ridiculous facts with lies that no one could ever verify, and audiences ate it up. He eventually claimed the title as the “World’s Biggest Liar” when he took his show on the road to talk about his work.
27. Beware of Gifts
Legend has it that the conflict between the Trojans and Greeks lasted for ten years after Paris ran away with Helen, wife of the Spartan king. After a decade of fighting, the Trojans thought they’d all but won. The Greeks were sneaky though: They built a hollow, wooden horse as a peace offering, with their men hidden inside. These men snuck out of the horse when the Trojans were sleeping and slaughtered them.
So, the Greeks won and the Trojan Horse became legendary. If it happened (it probably didn’t) it’s one of the greatest deceptions in history. Either way, we’ve been telling stories about liars since ancient times.
28. The Liar Who Spread Chaos
In the reign of Charles II, Titus Oates spread panic everywhere when he claimed that the Catholics were planning to do away with the King and install his younger brother (a Catholic) on the throne. While Charles didn’t take it seriously initially, everyone around him did and this lie led to the deaths of many Catholics at the hands of the Protestants.
29. Fake Fossil
In 1910, Charles Dawson unearthed a fossil that he believed was the “missing link” between humans and our primate ancestors. Archaeologists at the time considered it the holy grail of the field—but it was too good to be true. Eventually, researchers realized someone had simply stained a human jawbone to look old and buried it with orangutan teeth. No one knows whether it was Dawson himself who was behind the hoax, or someone else.
30. A Controversial Affair
In the late 1800s, a Jewish French Army Officer named Alfred Dreyfuss faced some extremely serious charges. The army accused him of selling secrets to the Germans. They had discovered a series of incriminating letters that appeared to show Dreyfuss doing just that. But something about this whole thing stunk—and eventually, the truth came out.
Dreyfuss faced life in prison or worse, but then Major Hubert Joseph Henry admitted that he had forged some of the main documents. He took his own life soon after. The entire debacle had been an anti-semitic attempt to turn public opinion against Jewish people in France.
31. A Team Of Liars
Several members of the Chicago White Sox lied to their fans when they accepted $100,000 to lose the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. They were favorites to win, but they played terribly. Their sloppy pitching became the reason for their loss, and but almost immediately, people could tell something was up.
When everything was said and done, Eddie Cicotte, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and six other players were banned from the game from life. From that day on, the group was known as the Black Sox.
32. The Ol’ Switcheroo
A regular in the court of Louis XV, the Count of St. Germain was a diplomat, author, secret agent, and magician all rolled into one, but there’s one thing he almost definitely wasn’t: There’s no actual evidence he was really a Count! Still, St. Germain was a great favorite at court, in part because he claimed he could fix the flaws in gemstones. His work seemed too good to be true—probably because it was.
Today, historians believe he just swapped out the dull stones for better ones. I’m not sure how this benefitted him if he was left with the cheaper stone, but maybe he was after fame, not fortune?
33. Stayin’ Alive
St. Germain’s greatest claim to fame was that he was a skilled alchemist who had discovered the secret to eternal life. Nobody ever saw him eat, and he talked about past events so familiarly it seemed he had been there. Although there are records of his demise in 1784, many people since then have claimed to be him, and his staunch followers believe he still lives!
34. Magic On The Front Lines
Jasper Maskelyne was a magician whose stage career suffered because of WWII. He joined the army and claimed that he was instrumental in steering the Allies towards victory through “magic.” He claimed his illusions camouflaged tanks and produced “dummy steel helmets…guns…tanks…shell flashes…aircraft.” The official account is not as glamorous though.
According to reports, all he really did was perform his magic tricks for his fellow comrades.
35. A Lying Hero
Not all liars are selfish, and Raoul Wallenberg is proof of that. The Swede helped thousands of Jews escape from concentration camps by providing them with fake passports and papers. He also sheltered them in “safe houses” that flew the Swedish flag and did whatever he could to protect them. A superhero if ever there was one.
36. Fake Royal
Another contender for the Romanov fortune was Harry Gerguson. He claimed he was a lost member of the Imperial family, “Michael Romanoff,” and stuck to it until he passed in 1962. In reality he was an orphan, born in New York, but such was his confidence that he was able to rise through the ranks of society and get into Harvard.
Later in life, he even opened up a swanky Hollywood restaurant using his fake royal credentials. Someone should have introduced him to Anna Anderson.
37. The Liar Captain
Wilhelm Voigt, a German, spent most of his life in and out of prison for theft and burglary. He became famous for the stunt he pulled when he was 57, though. Dressing up as a captain, he took 11 men with him to the City Hall in Kopenick, in Germany, where he went in and confiscated 4,000 marks from the treasurer as a fine for irregular bookkeeping. Afterward, he ordered the men to stand guard, went to the train station himself, and disappeared.
38. Cashing In
Interestingly, although authorities eventually caught Voigt and sentenced him to four years, they pardoned him after two because the public and Kaiser himself liked his story so much. He made the most of his popularity and appeared in plays based on his exploit, signed photographs as the “Captain of Kopenick,” and even got a wax figure displayed in the local wax museum! That was one profitable lie.
39. Double Agent
Kim Philby was part of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service for many years. What they didn’t know was that he had been working as a double agent, spying on Britain for the Russians, the entire time. Charming and gifted, people almost discovered him on many occasions, but he convinced them of his innocence every time.
However, the truth finally came out and he fled to Russia in 1963 before the Brits could take him into custody. Must’ve been one heck of a liar to go undetected for so long!
40. Feet of Clay
All heroes may not be what they appear, as was the case with Lance Armstrong. Beloved for his multiple Tour de France victories and for his courageous fight against cancer, Lance Armstrong fell from grace hard and fast. After years of passionate denial and personal attacks against anyone who claimed otherwise, the truth finally came out in 2012. The US Anti-Doping Agency finally proved that Armstrong had, in fact, used performance-enhancing drugs for almost his entire cycling career.
41. A Magical Distraction
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the Father of Modern Magic, also successfully averted a rebellion in Algeria. How’d he do it? By dazzling people with his magic tricks and illusions. Allegedly, Islamist magicians swayed the Algerians into a revolt against the French. The authorities decided to fight magic with magic and enlisted Houdin. The master illusionist’s tricks were so dazzling that he managed to pacify the rebels in the region.
Now, if only a magic show could stop wars everywhere, then we’d really be getting somewhere.
42. Faking the Masters
This next hoax came about because of a young artist’s desire to prove himself and his mad art skills. Han van Meegeren was a great painter, but his work was going nowhere. So, instead of trying to sell his original paintings, he passed his art off as the work of famous painters like Johannes Vermeer. Van Meegeren was extremely meticulous in perfecting his forgeries. He even baked them in an oven to make the paint look like it was centuries old.
43. Paint Power
Since critics accepted that van Meegeren’s paintings were Vermeer originals, he made millions selling them. However, his greed eventually made him sloppy, and it cost him dearly. He sold a painting to a well-known Nazi party member in Germany. After WWII ended, Dutch authorities wanted to try him for treason, as he’d sold a precious national treasure to the enemy. Facing the gallows, van Meegren had to admit the painting was a fake—just like all of his “Vermeers.”
44. Not Franklin too!
He’s one of the United States’ Founding Fathers among countless other claims to fame, but was Benjamin Franklin a liar as well? One of his own quotes, “Half a truth is often a great lie,” indicates that he might have been. Whether he did it with the purest intentions or not, historians will tell you that Franklin could stretch the truth with the best of them.
45. A Thought Experiment?
Franklin’s famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning generates electricity was almost definitely a hoax. The actual act could have been fatal, and since there are very little details about how he conducted the experiment, historians argue that he most likely…didn’t. Our boy Ben made an educated guess and claimed to have proven it so people would take the idea seriously and verify it.
46. Nom de Plume
Long before his lightning experiment, Franklin made a name for himself through his work in printing. He used to write letters in the voice of Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow, in a local newspaper. Silence became so popular that she received several proposals from male readers before 16-year-old Franklin confessed he was the real author. Makes you feel bad for those readers!
47. Fake it ‘til You Make it
Happy with his success, Franklin continued to write under several false identities later in life too. The famous ones were “Poor Richard,” whose Almanac also had mostly made up predictions but was widely popular, and “Polly Baker,” whose speech on the hypocrisy of unequal gender-based treatment went the 18th-century version of viral.
48. The Consummate Liar
Henry VIII married six times, breaking countless unspoken rules and telling who knows how many lies along the way. First up, he had to lie to get the Pope to annul his first marriage, so he claimed the union was invalid from the beginning (it wasn’t). When the Pope did not agree to the annulment, Henry VIII took matters into his own hands. He created the Church of England, made himself the Head of the Church, and set the Reformation in motion.
Yeah, this kinda changed the entire course of history and all, but hey, Henry really wanted a divorce, so it’s cool, right?
49. Another Wife, Another Lie
So Henry made his own religion just so he could marry Anne Boleyn, and it turned out great, right? Nope. After Anne failed to give him a male heir, he also started to tire of her spirit and intellect. So, Henry did the totally normal thing: He had her beheaded for witchery, treason, and just about anything under the sun. Ok, that seems a little extreme, but at least he had a lot of proof for those claims, right?
Nope. He made them all up so he could marry Jane Seymour.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21