Alan Abel, history’s greatest con man – 71Bait

before The New York Times When they released their obituary for Alan Abel in 2018, they made absolutely sure he was dead. After all, he had deceived her once before.

In 1980, Abel – who had a strange and often annoying but never entirely malicious knack for continuing all manner of hoaxes – hired several co-conspirators to confirm his death Times. Feeling they had done their due diligence, the paper went ahead with the news of his death…only to print a retraction as he triumphantly returned from an apocryphal tomb.

For much of his 94 years, Abel has pulled off similar stunts and at various points has convinced the media that he chairs a society to dress “indecent” animals; supporting a bogus presidential candidate named Yetta Bronstein; insisting that he would promote the first competitive sport for intercourse, the International Sex Bowl; and convincing reporters that he was the reclusive Howard Hughes, hiding under a pile of bandages and preparing to be cryogenically frozen.

All of this was daily work for Abel, who used his deception for what he believed to be a noble cause: decades before John Stewart and Stephen Colbert made careers exposing the fallibility of a gullible medium.

Abel was born on August 2, 1924 in Zanesville, Ohio and grew up in nearby Coshocton. His father Louis was a shopkeeper who moved goods by creating artificial supply and demand problems. If a product was slow to sell, he would put up a sign announcing that he was limiting sales to two per customer. It’s easy to imagine that this mischievous streak is genetic.

Abel literally stumbled into a career of pranks and jokes. He said he once hopped onstage to give a serious speech to freshmen while he was enrolled at Ohio State University to study education. Instead, he stumbled and fell into the orchestra pit, which prompted him to laugh and set him on a different path. Abel turned to the performance arts, first as a one-man percussionist and then as a stand-up comic. Neither seemed to be going anywhere, so Abel decided to draw attention to himself in another way: by weaving media-friendly stories out of a whole fabric.

“It’s a relief from the animosity we all have because we’re being stepped on in small steps every day,” he later explained. “The pressure is building and you should let it out. You have multiple alternatives – crime, drugs, alcohol, congressional elections, bowling, movies. Mine is the swindle.”

His first big project was the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, SINA for short. Abel adopted the attitude of a man deeply offended by the nudity of nature and insisted that animals should possess the same modesty as humans. He initially envisioned the idea as a piece of fiction The Saturday evening post, who responded earnestly, chiding Abel for his “narrow” view. Amazed at how easy it was to fool people, Abel began promoting SINA, offering modest advice including Bermuda shorts for horses and burlap sacks for deer. Zoos, he said, are nothing more than a burlesque show.

With his wife Jeanne and his friend and comedian Buck Henry, Abel organized pickets, including outside the White House, where he admonished President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie about their naked horses.

SINA was reportedly the legacy of the fictional G. Clifford Prout (personally played by Henry), who died leaving his son Clifford Jr. $400,000 to fund the clothing of any animal “that stands more than four inches tall or is longer than six.” Customs.” Otherwise, according to Clifford Jr., “it triggers a moral decay and helps explain why there is so much juvenile delinquency and adult delinquency.”

The media part: Abel received nationwide television and print coverage and kept the part going for six years before finally announcing the stunt time in 1964. The goal, he later explained, was to poke fun at the censorship of banned books and music, and the moral outrage it caused. While he did receive donations, including a check for $40,000, he made no attempt to cash in on the stunt. At least not directly.

Without criminal intent, there is not much money to be made from hoaxing. Abel got by with speeches, books, faux documentaries, and other works that helped illuminate his mission of poking around in the media. His actual work – the pranks and put-ons – seemed to be performance art that seemed to be its own reward.

After SINA, Abel launched a presidential campaign for the fictional Yetta Bronstein, a Bronx grandmother who ran on a platform of platitudes. “Vote for Yetta and things will get better!” was the campaign slogan. Jeanne portrayed Yetta in telephone interviews; If anyone needed a photo, Abel would provide a snap of his own mother, Ida.

Yetta’s promises appealed to those suspicious of the government. She announced she would inject truth serum into Senate drinking fountains and impose a commission-based compensation plan on congressmen. She also promised national bingo tournaments.

Politics was an easy target. In 1974, Abel falsified the Watergate controversy by insisting he had found the missing 18.5 minutes from the infamous Richard Nixon recordings. After gathering members of the media, Abel, disguised in a mask, turned on the tape recorder and appeared shocked to find the tapes had been erased.

For his next prank, Abel chose to betray billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, who in his later years had slipped into a life of introversion and germaphobia. In 1972, Abel wrapped himself in bandages (the appearance resembled a disguise he had used when posing as a man claiming to “train” beggars, as seen in the video below). and appeared at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where he told curious media that he, “Howard Hughes,” was going to have himself cryogenically frozen to await a weak stock market. Two days later, Abel revealed the stunt.

“All I did,” said Abel, “was mock the gullibility of the American people. The Hughes press conference drew 36 people from the newspaper, radio and television… They wanted Hughes to come back… so I decided to do the speaking for him.”

Other tricks followed over the years, including Abel pretending to be Deep Throat’s informant in 1976, staging a fake “official” to disrupt the 1983 Super Bowl, and hiring cohorts to pretend to be in the audience for the Phil Donahue -Show fainting 1985 hot button topic gay seniors was broached. The talk show host had evacuated the studio for fear of a gas leak.

Abel also caused significant concern when he pushed a large kiosk, which he dubbed the Public People Pooper, through New York City, “protesting” the lack of public restrooms in the area. When challenged by business owners, Abel insisted he had “parade permission.”

At times Abel’s work became more inflammatory. He set up a friend to pose as a college student who wanted to sell his kidneys (both) for a profit. He oversaw the KKK Symphony Orchestra and invited that organization’s figurehead, David Duke (then running for governor of Louisiana) to serve as conductor. The publicity surrounding Jack Kevorkian in 1993 prompted Abel to promote a “euthanasia cruise” for those wanting to end their lives on the open sea – and promised dogs would be welcome at no extra charge.

Abel’s last high-profile swindle came in 2009, when he successfully convinced some reporters that birdwatchers get sexual satisfaction from their hobby. The movement, which he dubbed Stop Bird Porn, attracted millions of website views.

While those stunts were all bold, Abel’s peak probably came in 1980 when he was convincing The New York Times his demise.

“Alan Abel, a writer, musician and film producer specializing in satire and pamphlets, died of a heart attack yesterday in Sundance, a ski resort near Orem, Utah, while scouting for a location for a new movie.” , according to the obituary [PDF] read. “He was 50 years old and lived in Manhattan and Westport, Connecticut. … he gained national recognition a few years ago when he launched a campaign for animal decency, demanding that horses and dogs, for example, be dressed in underwear.”

Abel, whose pranks usually revealed when the media had failed to adequately check the facts, went to great lengths to ensure that they did Times would be scammed, to setting up a company name and dedicated phone line for an undertaker who would certify his death.

Two days later, Abel showed up, did a lap of honor and forced it Times to issue a correction. The newspaper had no choice, although it was sure to mention it [PDF] that at least 12 accomplices helped Abel complete the trick.

When he died of cancer and heart failure 38 years later, the newspaper went to great lengths to ensure he was really dead and made sure it had the proper confirmation from the palliative care and hospice center that had cared for him, as well as the Undertakers had oversight of its services.

“If I really die,” Abel once said, “I’m afraid no one will believe it.”

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