These Are History’s Most Notorious Liars

From scientists to presidents, famous people throughout history have told infamous lies.

This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
View Images

1. richard nixon

Watergate set the bar for presidential lies when Nixon insisted he played no role. On the morning of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. The media, led by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued the story, exposing wiretaps, secret documents, and hush money. President Richard Nixon denied involvement in the scandal, declaring, “I am not a crook,” in a nationally televised press conference. But the White House cover-up failed. Faced with almost certain impeachment, Nixon resigned from his second term in office on August 9, 1974.

View Images

2. the 1919 white sox

The White Sox shocked the nation when they threw the World Series. Nearly a century ago, some members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team accepted a bribe—as much as $100,000 (about $1.4 million today)—to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Suspicions arose in the first game after uncharacteristically sloppy pitching by the White Sox, who were heavily favored to win. “I don’t know why I did it,” pitcher Eddie Cicotte testified before a grand jury. “I must have been crazy.” He and seven other players, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, were indicted on nine counts of conspiracy but acquitted by a jury. They were banned from the game for life.

View Images

3. anna anderson

Many made claims to be the grand duchess of Russia, but all of them were frauds. It was a gruesome crime: In 1918 Bolshevik revolutionaries executed Russian tsar Nicholas II, the empress, and their five children. But did Anastasia, the youngest daughter, escape? Several impersonators exploited this hope, most famously Anna Anderson, an Anastasia look-alike who filed an unsuccessful suit in 1938 to try to prove her identity—and claim an inheritance. Anderson, who had supporters as well as detractors, died in 1984. A posthumous DNA test found she was unrelated to the Romanovs and appeared to confirm she was a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska.

View Images

4. charles ponzi

A famous swindler lends his name to a fraudulent scheme that still endures. In 1919 Italian immigrant Charles Ponzi built a pyramid scheme around international postal reply coupons. Ponzi, who brought in $250,000 a day at the peak of his scheme (about three million dollars today), conned investors into sending him millions of dollars, promising eye-popping returns. Ponzi’s scam—paying one investor with money from others—unraveled in August 1920, when he was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud. In 2008 modern-day Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff was arrested after bilking investors—including Steven Spielberg, Sandy Koufax, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Elie Wiesel—out of billions.

View Images

5. p.t. barnum

A gifted showman, P. T. Barnum exploited the public’s desire to be amazed. At his first spectacle, in 1835, showman Phineas Taylor Barnum touted Joice Heth as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid. Crowds came gawking to see “the greatest natural & national curiosity in the world.” Barnum profited from the public’s hunger for entertainment by planting embellishments and lies in newspapers. His fabrication about Heth blew up after her death, when an autopsy found her to be no more than 80 years old. Barnum’s flair for fake news culminated when, in ill health, he arranged for the publication of his own obituary so he could read it before he died.

View Images

6. charles dawson and arthur smith woodward

Piltdown man, a clever fabrication of a human ancestor, created a sensation. In 1912 fossil enthusiast Charles Dawson and his collaborator Arthur Smith Woodward, a geologist at the British Natural History Museum, announced the unearthing of humanlike skull fragments and an apelike jawbone from a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. Just a few years earlier, Dawson had written to Smith Woodward, saying he was “waiting for the big ‘find.’ ” But Piltdown man, initially hailed as the missing link connecting ape to human, was a fraud: The bones were stained to resemble ancient fossils, and the teeth, from an orangutan, had been filed down to appear human.