George Mason University's historical hoaxes
Students of George Mason University, as part of Professor T. Mills Kelly’s course – “Lying about the past”, have created two hoaxes: the Edward Owens hoax and the Reddit serial killer hoax.
Edwards Owens hoax
The Edward Owens hoax is a historical hoax created by students at George Mason University in 2008 as a class project on "Lying About the Past". The students created a website and a fictitious entry on English Wikipedia about Edward Owens, purportedly a Virginia oyster fisherman born in 1853 who became a pirate. The hoax was reported as true in some media outlets.
Students published a blog and videos about the fictional Owens, created by the fictional student "Jane Browning." The blog asserted that Owens fell on hard times during the Long Depression of the 1870s and took up piracy in Chesapeake Bay to survive. The students claimed he robbed smaller commercial vessels and wealthy pleasure boaters from Maryland using a punt gun to threaten his victims. The students created a fake will which asserted that Owens and his crew eventually went back to oyster fishing. The students later created a hoax biography of Owens on Wikipedia. After some media outlets and academics reported the hoax as factual the class divulged the hoax. In March 2013, Kelly announced that he would no longer be teaching the course, after the university declined to make it part of the regular curriculum of his department.
Reddit serial killer hoax
The Reddit serial killer hoax is a failed historical hoax perpetrated by students of George Mason University, as part of Professor T. Mills Kelly’s course – “Lying about the past”. When the course was first tested, in 2008, students created and published a fake story about the last American pirate Edward Owens. After studying historical hoaxes, the students worked together to fabricate the pirate; they wrote a false Wikipedia entry and filmed clips of the student presumably researching the story. Many were taken by the pirate hoax until, two weeks after it was published, Professor Kelly revealed it as a hoax. In 2012, Professor Kelly taught the course for a second time in a similar format, but this time the hoaxes devised as course projects were not as successful. The Reddit hoax, about an alleged serial killer named Joseph Scafe, was posted on the Reddit site on the 28th of April, 2012, and was debunked in just over an hour.
The participating students created a sockpuppet named Lisa Quinn and under her name opened a Wordpress.com blog titled: “I think my uncle was a serial killer.” In her blog, Lisa wrote that she found some odd items in a Saratoga steamer trunk that she received with the death of her grandparents. Lisa posted pictures of the trunk, ladies shoes she presumably found inside the trunk, and newspaper clippings from 1895, one of which was about the murder of Alice Walsh, later identified as taken from “The evening World” April 22, 1895 edition.
According to Lisa, the trunk belonged to a relative, Joseph Scafe, also called 'Uncle Joe,' and that it contained, in a false panel, ladies’ jewelry and a disturbing journal. Lisa supposedly wanted to know if in the opinion of her readers, her uncle was a serial killer.
With a new sockpuppet, DisturbedThrowaway, the students posted the story on AskReddit under the question “Do you think my uncle Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?”  Through Reddit, the hoax was expected to spread. It is a goal of the course to create a sweeping Internet deception. As prof. Kelly states in the course’s syllabus:
“What’s our goal? Buzz, of course! Viral! We want our hoax to be picked up and spread around the Internet like wildfire!”
At first, the hoax was arousing interest and many comments requested more photos (which DisturbedThrowaway declined) and alluded to the commercial success the case may lead to. The name of Jack the Ripper was mentioned as well. Yet, within 26 minutes suspicions were rising. DisturbedThrowaway, the poster of the question, claimed to find the names of two victims: Alice Walsh, and Diamond Flossie, in the documents she retrieved. She asked the redditors for assistance in research. A quick Wikipedia search brought forth information connected with the two names, and commenters were wondering why DisturbedThrowaway didn’t perform the search herself.
Just over an hour after the initial post, HatesRedditors suggested that the post was viral marketing. He noted that the Wikipedia entries for the victims were created within two weeks of the posting and the articles in the picture looked faked. The students tried to keep the deception going, but the story was exposed. On May 14, Kelly revealed the serial killer hoax, and a second hoax perpetrated by his class on his blog.
With the hoax exposed, Wikipedia deleted the two entries written by the students’ sockpuppets about Alice Walsh and Diamond Flossie. The professor and students claimed that the entries were factual, but Wikipedia found them to be of insufficient notability. Wikipedia admins raised questions about the course’s ethicality. Some claimed that Professor Kelly calls for Wikipedia vandalism and some opted to block contributions from IP addresses associated with George Mason University, but this measure was discarded as too extreme.
Yoni Appelbaum wrote in "The Atlantic" the article “How the Professor Who fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit” in which he compared this serial killer hoax and the last pirate hoax. In his article, he wonders why the 2008 hoax was successful, while this hoax failed in minutes. One answer he supplied is that Wikipedia has a trusting community, while Reddit has a critical and skeptical community.
Professor Kelly did not express regret in this matter, “I don’t think there were any real victims here”, he blogged:
“I will also continue to teach Lying About the Past. Given the ubiquitous nature of Wikipedia in the information landscape, I think it’s fair to say that whenever I teach the course again, Wikipedia will be a part of it some way, some how.”
In March 2013, Kelly announced that he would no longer be teaching the course, after the university declined to make it part of the regular curriculum of his department.
- Yoni Appelbaum (May 15, 2012). "How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
- Howard, Jennifer (18 December 2008). "Teaching by Lying: Professor Unveils 'Last Pirate' Hoax". The Chronicle of Higher Education.(subscription required)
- Jon Brodkin (January 14, 2011). "The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia's first 10 years". Network World. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
- T. Mills Kelly. "True Facts or False Facts—Which Are More Authentic?". Playing With History. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
- Matheson, Whitney. Pop Candy blog, USAToday.com, December 4, 2008
- "The Last American Pirate", December 4, 2008
- Mills Kelly (March 31, 2013), No More Lying About the Past, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
- Christian Yoder (May 17, 2012). "How Reddit debunked an elaborate Wikipedia hoax". The Daily Dot.
- "HatesRedditors comments on Opinions please, Reddit. Do you think my 'Uncle' Joe was just weird or possibly a serial killer?". Reddit.com. 2012-04-28. Retrieved 2012-07-20.
- "I Think My Uncle Was A Serial Killer". Lisaquinn565.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2012-07-20.
- "Who Killed Alice Walsh?". The Evening World. April 22, 1895.
- Prof. T. Mills Kelly. "Lying About the Past syllabus".
- "Serial Killers, Beer, and Lies About the Past". edwired. 2012-05-14. Retrieved 2012-07-20.
- "Admin discussion".
- "Wikipedia and Me". edwired. 2012-06-01. Retrieved 2012-07-20.