This was originally published 11 years ago April 1.


Today being April Fools’ Day, and this being Washington, it seemed appropriate to visit the office of Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce Flora Pilos, whose responsibilities include policy analysis, consumer affairs and, most to the point, hoax management.

Under federal law, a hoax is a fraud perpetrated without criminal intent or economic consequence, but with the effect of confusing the public. Pilos’s job involves identifying such pranks and limiting their spread.

I asked her: Aren’t hoaxes, by their nature, harmless? Is this really necessary?

(by Eric Shansby)

She smiled dryly. “You’re asking a bureaucrat if her job is necessary?”

Good point.

Necessary or not, her office was a beehive of activity. Pilos and her two deputies — Alan Smithee and Lorem Ipsum — were gearing up for a difficult month.

“Once every seven to 11 years,” she said with a massive sigh, “April 1 falls on a Sunday. Every tinhorn newspaper editor in charge of some Sunday-only light features section with a dweeby name like ‘Wheee!’ or ‘Laffs n’ Leisure’ decides it would be clever to pull a supposedly harmless trick. Frankly, I think newspapers who do this are squandering a sacred bond of trust with readers.”

Pilos, a former executive with Phlogiston Inc., an alternative energy company, has no patience for practical jokes. “So-called harmless hoaxes,” Pilos said, “sometimes have unintended negative impact. Some are even stitched into the very fabric of Washington.”

“You know about the statues of the Civil War generals, right?” Pilos asked.

Well, no.

“That’s Sheridan’s head on Winfield Scott. Some moron with a welder’s torch and too much time on his hands made the switch in 1962. He’s never been caught. He was pretty good; you can barely see the seam.”

So Scott’s head is on Sheridan’s body?

“Nope. Scott’s head was never recovered.” 

Now my head was spinning. “Then, whose head is on Sheridan’s body?”

“Near as we can tell, it is Marinus Van Der Lubbe, the Dutch communist who set fire to the Reichstag in 1933, solidifying Hitler’s power base. We don’t know where the hoaxster got that head.”

This is not widely known?

“We’ve never had a complaint. People only notice the horses. Only the pigeons know. As hoaxes go, it was quite a coo.”

The most insidious hoaxes, she explained, are those that wind up simply being accepted as fact. At first, Pilos said, rising young New York state politico Frank D. Rosenfeld was simply joking when he claimed to be a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. In time, the “Franklin D. Roosevelt” identity proved politically useful, and Rosenfeld actually adopted it.

Actually, I’d known about that. 

She smiled. “Bet you didn’t know about this. Got a dollar bill?”

I took one out.

“Turn it over. You’ve wondered about the eye?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Yes. It is weird but harmless. It has nicely distracted attention from the true outrage of that seal, which is the result of the most vicious form of hoax. ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ was written by George Spelvin, who was Jefferson’s trusted scholar of the classics. Supposedly, it’s Latin for ‘New Order of the Ages,’ but it turns out that Spelvin was a jerk, and an Anglophile, and a closet Tory. The Great Seal, translated with more exactitude, means ‘Born From Treason.’ ”

“Holy cow.”

“It’s our Great Seal. It is what it is.” 

Finally, I asked about a rumor I had heard: that somewhere in Congressional Cemetery, someone whose first name is Robert was buried with $15 million in gold and jewels in his casket.

“Actually, we’d prefer you not write about that one,” she said. “We fear consequences, because that one’s true.”