#3. Alexander of Abonoteichus and His Pet Snake/Puppet Demigod
Alexander of Abonoteichus was a self-proclaimed prophet from the second century. Of course, back then oracles were a denarius a dozen, but Alexander took his chicanery to a whole new level. Around the year 160, he founded a new cult dedicated to worshiping a snake god called Glycon.
Jonathan Burton/Fortean Times
No, "Glycon" wasn't his name for his penis. That was "Alexrammer of Aboneteichus."
It so happened that Glycon was the God of Convenient Circumstances, so he took the earthly form of Alexander's pet snake, which only Alexander could speak to. To distinguish his godly reptile buddy from all the other non-divine serpents out there, Alexander put a fake human head made of linen on it, creating the second most disturbing Muppet in history. (Elmo's the first. Elmo is always the first. Those lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye ...)
The cult of Glycon spread throughout the ancient world. His influence was so great that even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius relied on Alexander's prophecies. Hey, you know what typically doesn't end well? Taking battle advice from a snake puppet.
"Stop building spears. Glycon demands more felt mice!"
Acting on Alexander's "divine" insight, Marcus Aurelius led his troops into battle against the Marcomanni, and 20,000 legionnaires died in the rout.
He still ruined fewer lives than Elmo.
#2. The Penn Family Takes a Big Chunk of Pennsylvania From the Lenape Indians With Speed Walking
The Penn family were Quakers who settled in the Americas in the late 1600s, on land alongside that of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Being Quakers, they didn't really go for the whole "killing Injuns and takin' their land" thing that the other colonials were doing at the time. Oh, that doesn't mean they valued or respected the native people and their right to exist on the land they had always existed on -- there were just way easier ways to take said land besides killing. Seriously, have you ever tried killing somebody? It's way harder than it looks. Most of them completely refuse to stand still and let you choke them into oblivion. Totally unreasonable.
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"You can't fight back! That's cheating!"
Here's one easier way: The Penns found (or more likely forged) a treaty stating that the Lenape would sell them a tract of land, beginning at the junction of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, that would extend as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half. Instead of taking that as a rough estimate of distance, the Penns took it as a challenge.
While it was assumed "the distance a man could walk in a day and a half" was about 40 miles, the Penns figured they could beat it, so they hired the three fastest walkers in the colonies, outfitted them with whatever the period-correct equivalent of spandex bodysuits and those stupid pointy helmets were, and set the speed walkers off. They covered over twice the expected distance, netting the Penns more than 1.2 million acres of extra land.
Almost twice the size of Rhode Island, for what that's worth.
Up to that point, the Penns had enjoyed a gleaming reputation with the local tribes, since their ancestor William Penn was famous for his fair treatment with them. But now they had obviously lost the trust of the Lenape, who joined with the French in the Seven Years' War and led several deadly raids on the Penns a few decades later. Hey, killing people is hard, but some folks are natural go-getters.
#1. Manuel Elizalde Invents an Entire Culture
Manuel Elizalde was a wealthy, Harvard-educated Filipino businessman with close ties to the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. He saw himself as a defender of the country's indigenous tribes, to the point that he adopted 50 children from minority groups. In fact, he loved the native peoples so much that he went ahead and created some.
Not by impregnating native women. He was more ambitious than that.
In 1971, National Geographic ran a series of articles on the Tasaday, a tribe in the Philippines that had developed in complete isolation. They lived in caves and possessed only Stone Age technology. Then CBS ran a documentary, putting these aborigines fully in the spotlight. The world was captivated by these peaceful, primitive people who were so simple and noble that their language lacked the words "war" and "enemy." Treasuring their cultural innocence, Elizalde declared himself the Tasaday's protector. He established a foundation, PANAMIN, to support the Tasaday, gaining celebrity donors like Charles Lindbergh and John Rockefeller IV. He convinced the government to create a 46,000-acre preserve for the tribe, complete with a wall and armed guards, to protect them from outside influences. Influences such as "loggers," "poachers," and "the general concept of skepticism."
After Marcos was deposed in 1986, Elizalde could no longer keep those accursed skeptics away from his precious people. Cruel and heartless experts violated the prime directive and met with the Tasaday, only to discover that that the tribe had made some truly amazing progress in their decade of total isolation. For example, they no longer lived in caves, but rather in normal houses, and had switched from loincloths to jeans and T-shirts.
"However, we did struggle with access to only black-and-white TVs. No cable either."
Yep, you guessed it -- the whole story of these peaceful, naive, and sheltered people was concocted by Elizalde, who fled to Costa Rica with $35 million of PANAMIN's money and enough teenage girls to qualify for a harem license. "And that's why charity is bullshit," said a whole generation who'd just witnessed the spectacle. They went on to be the '80s.
John Martin is a teacher who doesn't have a Twitter account or a blog, but you can message him through the website or comment below. Check out Dave Snyder's best bad movie guide here. Special thanks to the editors and C.K. Bond for helping with this article.
Related Reading: Some con-artists are straight heroes, like the man who conned Nazis into releasing thousands of Jews. Other con artists have balls for miles, like the asshole who became the Ponzi scheme's namesake. And hey, have you heard about the fake forensic scientist who tricked British courts for years?