Extra! April Fool’s Day: Part 2 – Hoaxes

Despite it being a real scam, the idea that a conman once tried to sell the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, to gullible tourists has become an urban myth. There have been legitimate sales of California landmarks – pieces of old Hollywood signs or the Santa Monica Pier ferris wheel – and the legend about selling London Bridge is real too.

In 1968, pieces of the deconstructed 1832-built London Bridge passed through Long Beach on their way to Havasu City, Arizona, where it was carefully reassembled and still stands over the Lonn Colorado Rover.

At one stage Universal Studios were said to want it for their studio tour, but they pulled out of the running. Seller Ivan Luckin always laughed off rumors that the eventual buyers who paid over $1m actually thought they were getting the more famous Tower Bridge, but it could explain why Universal suddenly got cold fee

L.A’s human hoaxes go back as far as 1895.

On April 1st (which should have been a clue), the LA Times reported that residents of Sonoratown (now Chinatown) had called police to say that that someone had committed suicide at the Monkey Saloon, and was lying dead on the floor.

Two off duty policemen, a deputy coroner and reporters from the Herald and Express newspapers went to investigate, but all they found was a dressed man of straw (like a scarecrow or doll). It was a hoax, and of course the Times reporter – who, naturally, had suspected this all along – had stayed at home and bested his hack rivals!

One of my favorite stories in Gourmet Ghosts – Los Angeles was a hoax, and it happened at the Alexandria Hotel, once home to Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Mae West.

The “Alex” opened in 1906 and stood right at the center of L.A.’s budding movie industry (it was here in 1919 that Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks created their United Artists studio and many early movie companies based their offices).

The hotel is said to be the home for several ghosts, and on November 28, 1922 the Los Angeles Examiner headline screamed:

Wealthy, young Oregon rancher Vaden Elwynne Boge had registered himself and his wife at the hotel, saying that she would be coming later with their luggage. He was given a room on the 4th floor, yet no one saw a woman or any luggage arrive before he ordered lunch for two from room service: the “Death Luncheon Menu” was chicken sandwiches, rice salad, two pieces of pie, and cranberry sauce.

The room service waiter saw no one else in the room, but soon after, houseman James Hirst heard cries, and Boge staggered into the hall shouting:

“I believe I have been poisoned. Get a doctor!”

Boge died soon after, and one of the coffee cups was found to contain potassium cyanide while the other was half-empty – yet there was still no sign of any other person, let alone his wife. Boge’s family thought he was engaged to be married, but even after questioning the hotel staff the police were still in the dark, and a search of the city’s docks was ordered.

The newspapers showed a picture of the lunch tray, complete with its crumpled napkins and coffee cups, but within a couple of days all was revealed: it had been an elaborate suicide plot that the Los Angeles Evening Herald suggested had been inspired by a short story called The Guest by Lord Dusany.

It turned out that Boge himself had bought the cyanide, and had apparently been “melancholy and morose” and “blue” for months, possibly due to ill-health. More shockingly, there were also rumors of love for a cousin.  

“Boge feasted to death alone” was the headline, and the real reason behind his “self-destruction” was probably en route in the mail; Boge had apparently written to his mother two days before he drunk the fatal dose.

An unlucky thirteen year later, former boxer Thomas Watkins admitted in court that he had faked a story about being kidnapped at gunpoint – not once, but twice – by three men who wanted the address of actor Victor Jory, who had been his boxing manager. Watkins said that the men told him they planned to kidnap Jory’s five-year-old daughter Jean, and hold her for ransom.

The kidnap and murder of the Lindbergh Baby in 1932 had been an international sensation, and there was a rash of kidnaps – real, threatened and botched – in that decade, as criminals felt it was an easy way to make some fast cash. Even when Watkins confessed, Jory was still spooked enough to send Jean out of state.

The reason for Watkins’ frightening lie? He wanted to drum up some publicity for himself.