The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

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Feb. 26 2008 11:11 AM

Would You Like a Hair Sandwich?

The life and times of America's greatest hoaxer.

Abel Raises Cain.

Like all good stories, this one begins with a bull humping a cow in the middle of the road. In 1957, Alan Abel, a lecturer and jazz drummer who occasionally went by the name "Professor Paradiddle," was on his way to a performance in Denton, Texas, when he found himself caught in a traffic jam caused by the aforementioned beasts. "My father sat there studying the appalled expressions on the faces of the other motorists," recalls Abel's daughter Jenny. "He suddenly had an idea."

The idea was to write a satire about a group called "The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals," or SINA, which would call for animals to be clothed for the sake of decency. Abel submitted his story to the Saturday Evening Post, but when the editors missed the joke and angrily rejected it, he got an even better idea and founded SINA for real in 1959. The agenda: to get Bermuda shorts on horses, dogs, and any animal taller than 4 inches or longer than 6. The battle cry: "A nude horse is a rude horse!"

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Thus was launched the career of America's greatest living hoaxer. Abel's story is chronicled in Abel Raises Cain, a documentary directed by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett and now available on DVD. The filmmakers have been tirelessly promoting the film along the festival circuit and recently inked a deal with a Canadian distributor. They're still self-distributing in the United States.

If Abel Raises Cain is a little thin at points—we never learn exactly how Abel was able to make a living for so long as a not-for-profit hoaxer, nor where the funding for his more elaborate ruses came from—it's also an invigorating and often hysterical look at a gifted comic and the nation of dupes he continues to use as his medium.

The SINA hoax would never have worked were it not for Abel's timing, media savvy, and performer's instincts—assets that would prove indispensable over his long career. Eisenhower-era moralists were forever squalling about the filth corrupting the nation's children, and the media, then as now, loved stories about weird individuals that encapsulated the larger weirdness of their time. Abel, together with accomplice Buck Henry (who went on to write screenplays for The Graduate and Catch 22), played the role to the hilt, portraying a pair of stern, if slightly demented, moral majoritarians. SINA (they had a dedicated phone line, staff, and stationery) quickly drew attention from national media—including Walter Cronkite, who covered the crusade. A few CBS staffers recognized Henry after the Cronkite segment aired and blew the whistle, but by then the damage had been done.

SINA worked because it seemed plausible to a substantial number of Americans that their more pious peers believed a child's morals could be completely unspooled by the merest glimpse of horse cock. As it happened, some Americans actually did agree with Abel. According to the film, independent SINA chapters formed across the country, a SINA float turned up in a parade in the Midwest, and one lady even sent in a check for 40 grand so that SINA could continue God's work. (Abel appreciated the gesture, but says he never cashed the check.)

With SINA, Abel had found his vocation. He came to regard his hoaxes as performance art, a form of moral commentary, and a way to inject a bit of fun into what he saw as an irritatingly self-serious national scene. While his hoaxes varied in scale and message, the quality of execution was always sterling. When a broke and crime-ridden New York City teetered on the verge of collapse in the 1970s,Abel launched "Omar's School for Beggars," which supposedly taught unemployed professionals tactics for successful panhandling. When the uproar surrounding Dr. Kevorkian was reaching fever pitch in the '90s, Abel created a fake company that specialized in "euthanasia cruises." A ship with a greased deck would venture a few hundred miles offshore and then tip slightly, dumping its disconsolate human cargo into the ocean.

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.

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.