The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Feb. 26 2008 11:11 AM

Would You Like a Hair Sandwich?

The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

(Continued from Page 1)

The list goes on. Abel planted three people in a 1985 taping of Donahue and instructed them to faint one by one, forcing the producers to evacuate the studio. (Swept up in the moment, other guests had begun dropping as well, Abel says.) He went on TV (Midday Live With Bill Boggs) as "Dr. Herbert Strauss," claiming he raised his young daughter Jenny on a diet of nothing but human hair. In one of Abel Raises Cain's funniest clips, he turns to his daughter, holding a grotesque hamburger bun stuffed with black hair, and asks sweetly: "Jenny, would you like a hair sandwich?"Abel produced two fake lottery winners, one fake wedding (Idi Amin and a WASP from Long Island, N.Y., so the former Ugandan strongman could get U.S. citizenship), and one fake death—his own—in 1980, forcing the New York Times to retract a lengthy obituary two days later.

Abel has tended to launch his pranks during slow news periods, when reporters, editors, and producers are hard up for good material. He knows what they look for in a story. He's latched on to issues that tend to make people hysterical—pornography, euthanasia, child welfare, Richard Nixon—because they're also the issues that make people hopelessly gullible. If you're already convinced that the world has gone batshit by allowing a doctor to help people kill themselves, you're more likely to believe that some shameless cruise line operator would want in on some of that action, too.

Advertisement

Abel's keen sense of the zeitgeist remains undiminished today, making hoaxes like his recent crusade against breast-feeding eerily believable. "I've interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of breast-feeding mothers," he tells a couple of radio hosts in the film, "who after two hours of interrogation have admitted that they had erotic feelings with their babies, which is incestuous. It's a violation of their baby's civil rights, just as we feel circumcision probably is, too."

On its most basic level, Abel Raises Cain is a comedy, and a very funny one. But for all the good-natured hilarity ("I have no antagonism," says Abel, "I have no hateful attitude toward anyone"), there's a disturbing undercurrent to the film that's hard to ignore. As Jenny Abel puts it, the hoaxes are a form of entertainment, but they're also a warning. "The next time around," she says, "their hoaxer may be truly diabolical and rob them of things far more important and meaningful."

That may sound a bit ominous, given the tone of the film, but she's got a point. We can laugh at the suckers who thought dogs needed pants back in the '50s, but is 2008 really any less fertile ground for hoaxers, benign or otherwise? A squirrel-cooking creationist made a nearly credible bid for the White House. CNN employs an anchor who told viewers that illegal immigrants have caused a leprosy epidemic in the United States. And a couple of weeks ago, the Mississippi state legislators proposed a bill barring restaurants from serving meals to fat people—a push more than a little reminiscent of Abel's 2006 fat tax hoax, which he perpetrated with the help of Esquire.

In a national climate like this, it's hard to imagine Abel has pulled his last prank. But even if he never strikes again, Abel Raises Cain attests to a body of work that won't soon be forgotten. As with any art form, the truly great hoaxes long outlive their perpetrators. This month, car manufacturer Kia ran an ad for their President's Day sale in which a pitchman pays tribute to Millard Fillmore for being the first U.S. president to install a running-water bathtub in the White House. Unfortunately, that interesting bit of trivia is bogus, a hoax perpetrated by that other great scourge of rubes, H.L. Mencken, in 1917—a deft little marriage of absurdity and plausibility that, despite the author's frequent admissions of fraudulence, took on a life of its own, and lives on today as a reminder of the American public's unique knack for getting played for suckers.

Joe Keohane is a writer in New York.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.