By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Empire actor Jussie Smollett has been arrested for staging an alleged hate crime against himself, Chicago police said. However, this incident has many forebears in copycat crimes and other hoaxes. Which fraudulent crimes have made waves in the United States?
Jussie Smollett initially claimed that he was accosted by two men in Chicago who shouted racial slurs at him, tied a noose around his neck, and more. Since then, police have uncovered evidence that seems to disprove his allegations. This evidence led to Smollett’s arrest for concocting the incident by himself. The entire incident leads many to ask when and how similar situations have happened before—and the answers may surprise you.
Sandy Pudding and Cola Syringes
In 2010, police charged an elderly couple from Long Island with petty larceny and product tampering after proving they had purchased 40 boxes of Jell-O Pudding and had replaced the pudding mix with aquarium sand and salt. The couple returned the mix to stores, where other customers purchased it and complained to grocers. Police concluded that the couple meant no real harm.
Twenty years earlier, in 1990, a grocery store clerk found a hypodermic syringe in a bottle of Pepsi. Although it was determined to be an isolated incident, three years later, multiple copycat reports appeared around the United States in a matter of days. “Within the next week or so, over 60 reports of hypodermic needles being found in Pepsi cans spanned 24 states,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph. “Pepsi brought in media on their end to demonstrate how unlikely it was these reports were true. Their automated cans produced 2,000 cans a minute, each one open for just nine-tenths of a second. At that rate, tampering was literally impossible.”
So what were the consequences? “The FBI arrested at least 20 people who had planted foreign objects in soft drink containers,” Dr. Murray said. As the public realized the dangers of making false reports, many consumers confessed to making false claims to avoid prosecution. However, the incident cost Pepsi an estimated $35 million. The Pepsi hoax illustrates how costly a fraudulent police claim can be.
Bilking Paleontology in the 20th Century
Amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson perpetrated another great hoax in the early 20th century with the “Piltdown Man.” Dawson orchestrated two fake archaeological findings—one in 1912 and the other in 1915—to fake a “missing link” between ape and man. “Between those two finds, Dawson brought the British Museum two partial skulls, half of a lower jaw with molar teeth in it, and one canine tooth that fit the jaw,” Dr. Murray said. Unfortunately, 40 years after the discovery, the cracks began to surface.
A pioneer paleontologist named Kenneth Oakley determined that two of the Piltdown skulls presented by Dawson “were both from modern humans from the medieval period, likely about 620 years old,” Dr. Murray said. “The jaw that many scientists said did not belong with the skull was about 500 years old and from a Borneo orangutan; the canine was from a Pleistocene chimpanzee.” Scientists still have not determined whether Dawson acted alone in forging his findings or if he had accomplices.
Regardless of scope or focus, hoaxes only complicate and obfuscate the facts behind their claims. Although they seem to be catalysts to action, they often slow the processes of truth and justice they seek to perpetuate. History offers countless examples of this, from Jussie Smollett to the Tylenol murder copycats to the Piltdown Man.
Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D., contributed to this article. Dr. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she teaches doctoral-level human gross anatomy and undergraduate-level anatomy and physiology, as well as forensic science.