The moral of this story could be “Don’t believe everything you read,” because not only do writers make occasional mistakes, some writers intentionally insert fake facts into their works of non-fiction.
Authors or publishers have a lot of reasons for inserting the occasional fake fact in an otherwise rigorously researched reference book—they may be laying a “copyright trap” to see if anybody uses their book without giving credit. Or sometimes they just do it because it’s fun to trick people.
FAKE SONG. Joel Whitburn compiles music chart history books based on Billboard’s many charts, which go back to the 1930s. A number of his books note a very obscure song called “The Song of Love” recorded by bandleader Ralph Marterie. Whitburn says the song debuted and peaked at #84 on the pop chart for the week of December 26, 1955. However, Marterie never recorded “The Song of Love.” Nor did Billboard put out a chart the week of December 26, 1955. Whitburn included it to track just how far and by whom his research goes. (Ralph Marterie, however, was a real bandleader and made several recordings in the 1950s.)
FAKE FACT. In 1977, Fred L. Worth wrote The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia. Since there are lots of other trivia books out there (Really?), Worth wanted to protect the hard work he’d done compiling his book, so he included one fake fact in his book—a “gotcha” in case he ever saw that “fact” in another book. Seven years later, Trivial Pursuit became a huge fad, selling more than $200 million worth of games. Worth noticed that a lot of the material on the cards was very similar to the stuff that in his book, and sued the makers of the game for copyright infringement. His smoking gun: a Trivial Pursuit card claimed that the rarely-spoken first name of ‘70s TV detective Columbo was Philip. Except that it wasn’t true—Worth made it up for just such a reason. The case was thrown of court; the judge ruled that facts cannot be copyrighted—fake ones notwithstanding. (By the way, Columbo’s name was never actually revealed on the show—although lots of TV trivia websites and books out there still insist that it was Philip.)
FAKE MOVIE. The 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards was one of the first ever to celebrate bad movies for being bad—for example, it renewed interest in the work of ’50s B-movie director Ed Wood, whom authors Michael and Harry Medved say directed the worst movie of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Many of the movies detailed in the book were well-known but others were obscure, particularly Dog of Norway, a terrible animal movie starring Muki the Wonder Hound. But Dog of Norway, it turned out, was a hoax, and two clues to that fact were in book: A dog named Muki is included in the author’s photo, and the book is dedicated to Muki.
Want to read a whole book of fake facts?
Then check out Uncle John’s Fake Facts.