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WISCONSIN: THE BALONEY STATE THE STATE ENJOYS A RICH TRADITION OF HOAXES AND MYTHS.
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WISCONSIN: THE BALONEY STATE THE STATE ENJOYS A RICH TRADITION OF HOAXES AND MYTHS.

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April 1 is a day of special significance to Wisconsinites. The Badger State is blessed (or cursed) with some outrageous hoaxes.

First, though, why April Fool's at all?

"It's been around a long time," says Marshall Brain, founder of the know-it-all Web site, HowStuffWorks.com. "It seems to be worldwide."

It may surprise some to know that Brain (yes, it's his actual name) has even turned up records of April Fool's Day hoaxes in Iraq, though the unofficial holiday is best known in America, Great Britain, and in its birthplace, France.

When the modern calendar was imposed on France by King Charles IX in 1564, New Year's was moved from the beginning of April to the beginning of January. "It took a long time for that change to propagate," says Brain, from his home in Raleigh, N.C.

Meanwhile, the country bumpkins who refused to accept the new calendar were mocked as the original April fools, and were sent humorous gifts and invited to non-existent parties. By the 1700s, Brain says, the tradition spread to England and, from there, to America.

Perhaps it's because of our logging history that we in Wisconsin particularly enjoy tall tales. After all, we're the land of Paul Bunyan. We like to create hoaxes and myths, whether or not on the first of April. Some of the most famous include Rhinelander's saber-toothed Hodag, a mythical green beast said to roam the North Woods; Madison's Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota, and the 1933 photo in The Capital Times showing the collapse of the state Capitol (the 16th all-time greatest April Fool's Day stunt at The Hoax Museum, www.museumofhoaxes.com).

In honor (dishonor?) of April Fool's Day, here are some of the greatest hoaxes in Wisconsin history:

The petrified man of Rusk County

In 1926, the Wisconsin Historical Society took possession of a remarkable fossil. It was the body of a French voyager, lost since 1663, found by loggers inside the trunk of a massive basswood tree. The explorer had apparently crawled inside a hole in the trunk, perhaps to escape the weather, and was trapped. Over the centuries his body was perfectly preserved by the tree's sap.

When loggers Art Charpin and Walter Latsch finally opened the cavity, they were met by "the entire body of a man, fully clothed in a coarse homespun and buckskins, which fell away when touched, and the head had been covered with long hair which had been tucked up under a coonskin cap," reported Manley Hinshaw in The Rusk County Journal. "With the mummified body in the hollow tree was an old muzzle-loading flintlock rifle and a muzzle-loading pistol of fanciful design."

The story was picked up by other newspapers and a news service, and the Wisconsin Historical Society was pestered by letters, telegrams, and visitors who wanted to see the petrified man. But it was a hoax, every word of it, by journalist Hinshaw. Reportedly, the story still turns up as truth in "this day in history" sorts of newspaper columns.

Green Bay's King of France

Following the French revolution, there was a mystery. What had happened to the dauphin, the 10-year-old child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? Had he been executed, as were his parents, or had he escaped in 1795? In the decades that followed, some 40 men stepped forward to claim that they were the lost prince, Louis XVII, rightful king of France. One was Eleazar Williams, a missionary and Native American leader who lived and worked near Green Bay.

Williams claimed no memory of his life before the age of 13. So convincing were his claims that he not only received financial support from Europe, he supposedly was even asked by surviving French royalty to sign a formal abdication. Williams refused.

After many years of fighting for his return to France, he concluded, "I see now the futility of vain ambition and hope of glory. Better am I to be here as a servant of God among savages than to be seated on the throne of my fathers."

But Williams was not the prince. With the aid of DNA tests on purported remains, scientists in 2000 finally concluded that the lost dauphin had indeed died in 1795, in a Paris prison. Williams died in 1858.

The miniature colony of Haunchyville

"It's got all the elements of a great story," says Richard Hendricks, co-author with Linda Godfrey of "Weird Wisconsin." "Private road blocked by a gate. Colony of crazed pint-sized people hiding in the woods. Full-sized guardian toting a shotgun. The ghostly silhouette of a snooping interloper dangling at the end of a rope in a barn."

Welcome to Haunchyville, near Mystic Drive, in Muskego. It supposedly is a miniature village, with miniature houses, miniature fences and miniature street signs. The secret town of what we used to call midgets (they prefer "little people") was allegedly founded by two disgruntled circus performers, and even today the residents jealously prize their privacy. They employ a conventionally sized guard, and chase off tourists themselves with pitchforks and baseball bats.

This is bigoted urban folklore at its worst, but the story continues to circulate after at least a half century.

"I've talked to dozens of teens who have heard the story from a parent or other relative or friend," says Hendricks. "All those tellers of the tale swear the story is true, naturally."

But it is a hoax, and one that makes continual problems for watchful Muskego police, who write many, many tickets to curious trespassers, year after year.

Vikings settled Wisconsin

Sometimes a hoax escapes its maker and takes on a life of its own. In 1935, when UW-Milwaukee excavated a mound near Spencer Lake, in Burnett County, archaeologists discovered artifacts, 58 burials, and something that was impossible: a horse skull. Horses are not native to this hemisphere, and the mound was dated to 500-700 A.D. So here, at last, was proof that Vikings had not only discovered America, but had settled far inland.

For more than 25 years the "evidence" was not challenged. In fact, it was reported as fact in at least three professional journals. While non-scholars believed the skull was proof of the Vikings' presence, archaeologists merely assumed that the mound had been dated incorrectly. Still, certainly, there was a mystery of some sort at Spencer Lake.

But the skull was a hoax, and the man responsible tried to confess -- unsuccessfully. In 1936 one of the archaeologists, Ralph Linton, was visited by a "Mr. P," who had a strange story. As a teenager, in 1928, Mr. P and a friend had buried the skull in the mound. "The miscreants mutually agreed that in about 200 years some archaeologist would dig up the skull and conclude that he had found something really worthwhile," Linton later recalled.

But Linton didn't publish the confession, and the skull remained "fact" until 1962.

That year, Mr. P stepped forward once again, this time to explain to the Milwaukee Public Museum, which was preparing a major publication about the Burnett County excavations. This time the confession took hold.

"The Spencer Lake Mound horse skull is a perfect example of a prank that did exactly what it was supposed to do; and has gone on to plague generations of archaeologists," says K. Kris Hirst, a former archaeologist, ex-Madison resident and science writer based in Iowa City. She researched the story for The New York Times' Web site, about.com.

But when it comes to April Fool's Day, sometimes it's hard to sort out exactly what the truth is. In 1960 remains of a very real Viking colony were discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. That settlement dates to around 1000 A.D.

Really.

Hoax list

Some of Wisconsin's greatest hoaxes:

The petrified man of Rusk County

Green Bay's King of France

The miniature colony of Haunchyville

Vikings settled Wisconsin

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