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According to myth, a young George Washington confessed to cutting down a cherry tree by proclaiming, “I cannot tell a lie.” The story is testament to how much respect Americans have for their cherished first president and honesty in general. Unfortunately, in the annals of history it seems there are 10 dishonest scoundrels for every honorable hero like Washington.
Supposedly, the truth can set you free. But for many, deceit holds the key to money, fame, revenge or power, and these prove all too tempting. In history, this has often resulted in elaborate hoaxes, perjuries, and forgeries that had enormous ripple effects.
In the following pages, we’ll go over some of the most colossal and significant lies in history. Although such a list can’t be comprehensive, we sought to include a variety of lies that influenced politics, science and even art. As a result of these, lives were lost, life-savings destroyed, legitimate research hampered and — most of all — faith in our fellow man shattered.
Without further ado, let’s delve into one of the oldest and most successful lies on record.
The Trojan Horse
If all is fair in love and war, this might be the most forgivable of the big lies. When the Trojan Paris absconded with Helen, wife of the Spartan king, war exploded. It had been raging for 10 long years when the Trojans believed they had finally overcome the Greeks. Little did they know, the Greeks had another trick up their sleeves.
In a stroke of genius, the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse with a hollow belly in which men could hide. After the Greeks convinced their foes that this structure was a peace offering, the Trojans happily accepted it and brought the horse within their fortified city. That night, as the Trojans slept, Greeks hidden inside snuck out the trap door. Then, they proceeded to slaughter and decisively defeat the Trojans.
This was unquestionably one of the biggest and most successful tricks known to history — that is, if it’s true. Homer mentions the occurrence in “The Iliad,” and Virgil extrapolates the story in “The Aeneid.” Evidence suggests that Troy itself existed, giving some validity to Homer’s tales, and scholars have long been investigating how historically accurate these details are. One theory behind the Trojan horse comes from historian Michael Wood, who proposes that it was merely a battering ram in the shape of a horse that infiltrated the city [source: Haughton].
In any case, the story has won a permanent place in the Western imagination as a warning to beware of enemies bearing gifts.
Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer Forgeries
This lie resulted from a classic case of wanting to please the critics. Han van Meegeren was an artist who felt underappreciated and thought he could trick art experts into admitting his genius.
In the early 20th century, scholars were squabbling about whether the great Vermeer had painted a series of works depicting biblical scenes. Van Meegeren pounced on this opportunity and set to work carefully forging one such disputed work, “The Disciples at Emmaus.” With tireless attention to detail, he faked the cracks and aged hardness of a centuries-old painting. He intentionally played on the confirmation bias of critics who wanted to believe that Vermeer painted these scenes. It worked: Experts hailed the painting as authentic, and van Meegeren made out like a bandit producing and selling more fake Vermeers. Greed apparently overcame his desire for praise, as he decided not to out himself.
However, van Meegeren, who was working in the 1930s and ’40s, made one major mistake. He sold a painting to a prominent member of the Nazi party in Germany. After the war, Allies considered him a conspirator for selling a “national treasure” to the enemy [source: Wilson]. In a curious change of events, van Meegeren had to paint for his freedom. In order to help prove that the painting was no national treasure, he forged another in the presence of authorities.
He escaped with a light sentence of one year in prison, but van Meegeren died of a heart attack two months after his trial.