The 6 Most Bizarre Medical Hoaxes People Actually Believed
The human body can do amazing things. If you need proof, just type "parkour" into a search engine. But every so often, we're told a story so remarkable that it's almost impossible to believe it. And we should listen to that instinct.
The Pregnant Man
The idea of a pregnant man has fascinated scientists and writers of corny comedies ever since cave people first figured out that some people had babies but some people didn't.
"This make great vehicle for sweaty Austrian man."
But if you believe hundreds of bloggers and YouTube viewers, male pregnancy is already a reality. Malepregnancy.com is a website dedicated to Lee Mingwei, supposedly the first male to achieve a viable pregnancy. There are pages dedicated to Mingwei's everyday life as a pregnant man, ultrasound photos and detailed explanations of the science behind the miracle, such as our most pressing question: How is he going to push a baby out through his dick?
But upon closer inspection, there is something awfully suspicious going on here. Not the least of which is that the site was created in 2002 and is still bizarrely ongoing. There is no location listed for RYT Hospital, which as it turns out doesn't even exist. The news coverage is equally suspicious:
Wait a minute ...
As it turns out, Mingwei and his collaborator, Virgil Wong, are both conceptual artists who say the website was "created to be an exploration of a very likely scenario that may one day result from new advances in biotechnology and infertility treatments."
Interestingly, though this is possibly the least believable of the hoaxes out there, it is one of the most persistent. Videos and blogs about Mingwei continue to garner responses. This is due in part to the sophistication of the site itself. It looks like a hospital website. But the real reason so many people continue to believe it is because Lee Mingwei looks a little bit like someone else.
Thomas Beatie, a transgendered legal male who chose to keep his lady bits, is credited with being the first legal male to have a baby. His story created a sensation in 2008, and many many people mistook Mingwei for Beatie. Some blogs even use Mingwei's picture when talking about Beatie. Others attempt to dispel the confusion by explaining that these are two different pregnant dudes. And though the Mingwei site is almost 10 years old, many people continue to hold onto the belief that Mingwei is some miracle straight out of science fiction, rather than maybe some guy with really bad, chronic indigestion.
"Hey now, we can't go fact-checking when there are headlines to write."
Vilcabamba: Where Idiots Go to Die
In the 1970s, researchers began flocking to Vilcabamba, a town in the Andes which apparently boasted the oldest population on Earth. Residents regularly reached ages of 115 and beyond but remained as healthy as people much younger. In 1973, National Geographic ran a story by a researcher from Harvard Medical School about this amazing valley and its people's perpetual youthfulness.
Above: The next Aspen.
Many theories were offered to explain this phenomenon, from clean air to super-antioxidant minerals found in the water. Tourists as well as people suffering from chronic conditions began pouring in under the assumption that they were all going to turn into Benjamin Button. Even today, Vilcabamba.org boasts to potential tourists that "years are added to your life ... and life is added to your years!"
Except for one thing. It was all a big lie. Like many cultures that aren't the United States, the people of Ecuador value the wisdom and experience that comes with old age, and to that end it's tradition in Vilcabamba to exaggerate your age. After people turn 70 or so, it starts to get really ridiculous as they tack as much as a decade per year onto their true ages. To confuse things further, because many residents are named after their parents, they can simply claim their parents' birth records as their own.
"And over here is where we keep the immortality juice."
The researchers who studied the people of Vilcabamba fell prey to what is known as confirmation bias: Because they already wanted to believe that Indiana Jones was real and that there was a fountain of youth in some small town in Ecuador, they skipped right over the possibility that the people were simply lying. When people started asking the right questions, Vilcabamba looked less like the "Valley of Longevity" and more like a retirement community in Florida.
The Rabbit Babies, aka The Grossest Thing Anyone Ever Did For Attention
John Howard was a practical man. In 1726, he'd been practicing midwifery for 30 years and thought he's seen everything. So when Mary Toft came to him and told him she'd been giving birth to rabbits, he did what any sane person would do: He totally believed it.
Toft captured the imagination of England when she "gave birth" to several rabbits and parts of other animals in the presence of numerous physicians and skeptics. The charade went on for months, perpetuated by daily newspapers, which were still a novelty. And back then, every newspaper resembled the Weekly World News, in which Bigfoot attacks are every bit as newsworthy as local politics.
The real explanation? If you need to ask, it turns out that Toft was simply stuffing live baby animals up ... well, let's just say that people started to get suspicious about the fact that Toft's husband had been buying a lot of rabbits lately.
She shouldn't have pushed it after birthing the first warren.
Toft had been taking advantage of several old wives' tales doing the rounds at the time. One popular theory in England was called "maternal impression." Doctors back then believed that a mother's experiences during pregnancy could make an "impression" on her baby. Some physicians even warned pregnant women against contact with pets, lest their babies become like animals. She also banked on the "pregnant women are yucky" theory that is still popular today.
Thank God for muumuus.
It didn't help at all that King George I was totally taken in by the story and sent surgeons from the royal household to investigate. Though the claim ultimately destroyed their careers, they were under pressure to agree with the king.
How could you argue with that oval-shaped face and those mountains of brown ringlets?
It wasn't until months later that, under intense pressure and the threat of a painful surgery, she finally confessed to the ruse. Initially, she was arrested and charged with being a "vile cheat and imposter," but she was eventually released, because apparently no one knew what the heck to charge her with.
The Coma Man
As a young man, Rom Houben was in a car accident that left him paralyzed and comatose. He lay in bed day after day, responding to no one. In 2006, doctors performed a brain scan and made a horrifying discovery: Houben is most likely suffering from "locked-in syndrome," completely paralyzed but entirely conscious.
"Oh, God, if there are any telepaths out there, please scratch my balls."
Houben made international headlines when, with the help of a therapist, he began communicating through a computer. He was interviewed by numerous news agencies. Soon, he was at the center of the heated debate over keeping vegetative patients alive.
There's nothing sick people like more than lengthy debate!
There was just one small problem -- it was complete bullshit. Houben's therapist was using a method called "facilitated communication," where in theory, nonverbal patients can type or write while a therapist supports their arm and hand. FC became hugely popular in the early 90s among parents desperate to communicate with their kids on the autism spectrum. But study after study revealed that it was actually the therapists speaking for the patients. When coma patients were shown pictures that their "facilitators" couldn't see, the method suddenly stopped working. Predictably, Houben failed similar tests.
The "mystery" of facilitated communication lies in something called the ideomotor effect. This is an unconscious tendency to indicate or influence a response based on one's own expectations. The best example of this is what happens when you use a Ouija board. People don't know that they're influencing the "messages" they receive from beyond. Still, when we stand to gain, many of us are willing to believe almost anything.
This is how dead people choose to communicate.
Beginning in the 1960s, Vinnie "The Chin" Gigante rose quickly through the ranks of the Genovese crime family, finally being named boss in 1981. Mob bosses are notorious for evading conviction on the grounds that they're too scary to testify against, but Gigante decided on a different approach. In 1969, he began acting strangely -- puttering up and down his street in his robe and slippers, having heated conversations with no one in particular, and pissing on himself for good measure.
Basically, his whole life was your freshman year of college.
Granted, convincing people that you're nuts isn't exactly rocket science. The really unbelievable thing about Gigante is that he played the part of a total lunatic for over 30 years. Every day, even when he wasn't under indictment, he'd roam around Greenwich Village, sometimes smoking discarded cigarettes. Then he'd top his day off with a friendly pinochle game between mobsters. As if this facade wasn't enough, he also committed himself to the hospital 22 times between 1969 and 1990. With the help of his mother, who claimed that his IQ was around 69, Gigante managed to convince the public, as well as several judges, that he was unfit to stand trial by reason of total crazypantsiosity.
Pictured: The insanity defense.
Gigante's ruse was so convincing that he was declared crazy by several prominent psychiatrists, including those hired by prosecutors. At different times, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, dementia and psychosis. His antics allowed him to delay his trial for racketeering charges for seven years. When he was finally convicted in 1997, Gigante continued acting like a nutcase to hide the fact that he was still running the Genovese crime family from the inside of his prison cell.
It wasn't until he was 75 that he finally admitted it was all just a big con, and we presume this played out exactly like the final scene in The Usual Suspects, as The Chin abandoned his crazy-walk in midstride, lit up a cigarette and strutted away.
For real, though. Are we the only ones who think his chin is actually pretty normal-sized?
The Vaccine Victim
At 25, Desiree Jennings was a successful marketer who was married to a handsome man and served as a cheerleading ambassador for the Washington Redskins. But Jennings became famous in 2009, amid the swine flu scare, when she began exhibiting disturbing symptoms after a flu shot. In days, Jennings dissolved into a helpless woman prone to muscle spasms, slurred speech and difficulty walking. Jennings claimed she had been diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological condition, and that it was caused by the vaccine.
Videos of Jennings on YouTube went viral, and though there was some jeering about "Wobblegirl," the response was mostly sympathetic, because even the Internet had trouble justifying making fun of her.
Not that they held back from posting sexual proposals or links to Loose Change in the comments section.
People began to shy away from the flu shot after seeing Jennings interviewed on Inside Edition. However, neurologists examining the videos began to question her diagnosis. Jennings' symptoms appeared to be different every day and weren't in keeping with a true dystonia condition.
The resulting controversy saw Jennings become a poster girl for the anti-vaccine movement. Generation Rescue, an organization run by neurologist actress Jenny McCarthy, rallied in support of Jennings' cause. Meanwhile, Jennings went to see Dr. Rashid Buttar, who specializes in alternative "treatments" such as hyperbaric chambers, heavy-metal chelation and injections of a patient's own urine.
Within a few days, Jennings posted a video showing that she'd made remarkable progress and was speaking normally. Despite Buttar's claims to have cured Jennings, her recovery seemed to confirm skeptics' criticisms, since dystonia is an incurable condition.
Ironically, after Generation Rescue challenged journalists to review dystonia claims in the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System (VAERS), journalists did exactly that and found Jennings' VAERS report, which did not show a dystonia diagnosis at all but rather that the neurologist she saw believed that her condition had a "strong psychogenic component."
In other words, her own brain had more to do with her issues than any vaccine.
In the end, Inside Edition did a follow-up piece, observing Jennings walking normally, going shopping and even driving. When confronted by a reporter, Jennings suddenly began displaying symptoms again, walking sideways and speaking in an Australian accent, which she said was the result of an "inability to pronounce words." The interview ended when Jennings got into her car, giggled and asked the reporter not to film her because "I don't think I'm supposed to be driving." She suddenly had no accent.
While it's unclear whether Jennings faked her symptoms or simply suffers from a delusion, either way, getting a flu shot probably won't turn you into a Wobblegirl, and even if it does, you shouldn't try to cure it by injecting yourself with your own pee.