Okay, we all know that unicorns aren’t real, but that hasn’t stopped tricksters and hoaxers from trying to convince the public they exist. Two of the following hoaxes actually went down…and one didn’t. Can you guess which story we’re using to pull your leg? The answer is at the end of the post.
By the mid-1980s, the circus was not the immensely popular entertainment option it had been at the turn of the century—after all, there were movies, video games, and cable TV by then. Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus had to pull out all the stops if it wanted to keep attracting crowds, so in 1985 it tried to attract paying customers with the promise of “The Living Unicorn.” While advertisements prominently featured a white, bearded animal with a golden horn protruding from its head, the creature that the circus actually had was far more grotesque: It was just a poor goat who’d had its two horns awkwardly surgically fused together. (Unicorns remain mythical.)
In perhaps the laziest unicorn-based hoax of all time, in 1994 the St. Louis Zoo claimed to have captured and put on display a creature that it didn’t call a unicorn but which clearly wanted the public to think was a unicorn (but without getting sued for false advertising). The “horned horse,” as it was called in newspaper ads was actually a white stallion…wearing a horn on a headband. (The strap was concealed beneath the horse’s flowing mane.) Nevertheless, attendance was up 35 percent at the zoo in 1994.
Before the idea of sedate, fact-based journalism became the universal standard (or at least the ideal, or promise), late 19th century newspapers were highly competitive for readers and would do whatever it took to sell as many copies as possible. In 1835, the New York newspaper The Sun ran a series of articles about an astronomer’s discovery of a civilization on the moon. Among the observations a British scientist had supposedly made with a high-powered telescope: beavers that walked upright, humans that had wings…and unicorns. Within a couple of weeks, The New York Herald had thoroughly and easily debunked the entire series. (Unicorns remain mythical.)
Want more fakes? Then check out Uncle John’s Fake Facts. (Really!)