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Monday, December 30, 2013

Famously Fake People Throughout History

In light of the fake girlfriend story associated with Notre Dame football player Manti T'eo, host Scott Simon talks to resident trivia expert A.J. Jacobs about several other prominent, nonexistent people in history.

There's been much coverage this week of the unusual case of Manti Te'o, the Notre Dame football player who told reporters that he mourned for his girlfriend who died of leukemia this season, the same day his grandmother died. Sportswriters and fans admired his character and pluck in playing through his sadness, but it turns out the girlfriend did not exist except online.

Whether she was a hoax on Manti Te'o or his hoax on fans is being investigated. Our friend A.J. Jacobs joins us from New York now to tell us she wouldn't even be the first famous first fake person in history. A.J., thanks for being with us.

A.J. JACOBS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: There was 13th century Pope Joan?

JACOBS: Yes, Pope Joan was my favorite pope who never existed, and she was in the 13th century, and she disguised herself as a man, so she was sort of the Catholic version of Yentl, and she rose to become pope and apparently gave birth while riding horseback, and that's when people were tipped off that maybe she wasn't a man.

But she was - she started as a rumor probably by the enemies of the papacy.

SIMON: What can you tell us about Silence Dogood?

JACOBS: She was a middle-aged widow who wrote a series of letters to the New England Courant. She complained about hoop skirts, which she called a topsy-turvy monstrosity, and Harvard College, which she said was filled with rich, spoiled kids. And she got a lot of fans, and she even got some marriage proposals. The only thing was she wasn't real. She was the creation of a 16-year-old apprentice named Benjamin Franklin.

SIMON: Benjamin Franklin was real, right?

JACOBS: As far as I know, he was real.

SIMON: But I check everything these days. But there are several stories out of sports. I mean, some of us remember Sidd Finch.

JACOBS: Yes, the greatest fake baseball player of all time. In 1985, Sports Illustrated ran a profile of a pitching prodigy named Sidd Finch who was training with the Mets, and he grew up in an orphanage, he studied yoga in India, he wore one shoe, and he could throw a fastball at 168 miles per hour without steroids.

But it turns out he was a hoax by writer George Plimpton, one of my heroes. Tons of people believed it. Other teams were worried they'd get hurt by his fastball. And weirdly, you know, this year the Mets had a pitcher who seemed like he was fake, this R.A. Dickey, who was a middle-age guy who started throwing these knuckleballs.

SIMON: Hockey hoax players. There's a player from Tokyo.

JACOBS: Right, the Buffalo Sabres made an 11th-round draft pick named Taro Tsujimoto. And he was the creation of the Sabres' general manager, who was annoyed that the draft was dragging on so long. So he submitted this fake name. And for years afterwards, Buffalo fans would chant: We want Taro, we want Taro.

JACOBS: So it became kind of a mascot, a legend.

SIMON: Well, as Pope Joan would say, many blessings.

JACOBS: Thank you, and to you.

SIMON: Esquire Magazine's editor-at-large, A.J. Jacobs. This is NPR News.

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