10 Hoax Definitions, Paper Towns, and Other Things That Don’t Exist

Facts are hard to copyright—impossible, actually. This is problematic for people who deal in information; any reference material is factual, and therefore difficult to protect from dirty, lying thieves who want to steal your work. That’s where fictitious entries come in: facts become very easy to copyright when they aren’t true. These are people, places and things that exist only on paper, solely to thwart would-be info burglars.

1. Lillian Virginia Mountweazel

The mythical Ms. Mountweazel was a photographer and fountain designer. Her book, Flags Up!, was purportedly an unmatched collection of rural American mailbox photography. Unfortunately, she was killed in 1973 in an explosion, while on assignment for the equally nonexistent Combustibles magazine. Lillian Mountweazel’s life was a sham, created to protect the contents of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, but it wasn’t without its perks: her (fake) life would become the subject of an exhibit in Dublin, and her (fake) name would later serve as a neologism for fictitious entries, thanks to a New Yorker article about the next Mountweazel in this list...

2. Esquivalience

The second edition New Oxford American Dictionary was published early in 2005. Almost immediately afterward, a rumor leaked that the NOAD 2E contained a secretly made-up word which began with the letter e. A man with a lot of free time set about isolating the fictitious entry from the 3,128 e-words, using a combination of careful cross-referencing and probably-unhealthy obsession. He narrowed the options to six words: earth loop, EGD, electrofish, ELSS, esquivalience and eurocreep. Of a group of nine lexicographers, six pegged esquivalience as the fraud. This was confirmed by the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, Erin McKean, who said, “Its inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious.” (Fakeitude does not appear in the NOAD 2E.)

3. Zzxjoanw

Rupert Hughes’ Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia of 1903 included the word zzxjoanw, defined as “a Maori word for ‘drum.’” The entry persisted through subsequent editions, well into the 1950s. It was later proved a hoax when someone noticed that there are no Z, X, or J in the Maori language. If you’re wondering, zzxjoanw is pronounced just how it looks.

4. Dog of Norway

The Golden Turkey Awards is a weird 1980s catalogue of obscure and bad films, wherein the authors award movies of poor quality a Golden Turkey. (It’s like a Razzie, only even less prestigious.)

The authors, film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry, revealed that one entry was a complete hoax, and then challenged readers to discover which movie never actually existed. This time, no cross-references or obsessive searches were necessary: the imaginary film, Dog of Norway, starred "Muki the Wonder Dog"... the same dog featured on the cover of the book with the authors. (That dog’s name was Muki, too.)

5. Agloe, NY

The town of Agloe, New York, was invented by map makers, but the practice of inserting fictional towns, roads, rivers or other geographical has been in place nearly as long as cartography itself. The weird thing that happened with Agloe, though, doesn’t really ever happen: it became a real place. The Agloe General Store was built at its fictional location, prompting the (real) county administrator to declare Agloe an actual town. (Paper Towns by John Green is partially set in Agloe, and one character has a dog named Myrna Mountweazel.)

6 & 7. "The Song of Love" and The Cysterz

Joel Whitburn created a book series based on the Billboard music charts. To throw potential copycats, Whitburn’s pop chart compilations say that, for the week ending December 26, 1955, Ralph Marterie's "The Song of Love" peaked at #84. Sad news for Ralph Marterie, who was probably shooting for a single-digit rank, but it was all okay, because Billboard Magazine didn’t even issue a list that week, and “The Song of Love” was never recorded by Marterie.

In Whitburn’s rock charts, the song "Drag You Down" by The Cysterz makes an appearance, though neither the group nor the song ever did in real life.

8 & 9. Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio

The official state map of Michigan from 1978 includes a pair of hoax entries designed to irk every football fan in Ohio. The chairman of the State Highway Commission (and Michigan alumnus) had Beatosu and Goblu (“Beat OSU!” and “Go Blue!” to Michigan fans) inserted in the Ohio side of the Michigan-Ohio border. They were removed from later editions, but Goblu was briefly of interest again later when it was revealed that Road Pig from G.I. Joe was born there.

10. Philip

In the 1970s, Fred L. Worth began publishing a series of trivia encyclopedias, imaginatively titled The Trivia Encyclopedia, The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia, and Super Trivia volumes I and II. In order to protect his stake in the trivia encyclopedia market (which was not yet booming), Worth inserted a single entirely false “fact.”

In 1984, Trivial Pursuit hit the market and sold like gangbusters. Unfortunately, the company was about to get sued for a lot more than the $256 million they raked in that first year. Why? Because one answer on the game’s cards was known to only one person—Fred L. Worth, who’d fabricated it years earlier:

The card said the answer was Philip, which was false. In fact, Columbo's name was never revealed, a fact that's been confirmed by both the cast and writers of the show. (Unless you believe this screenshot of Columbo's badge has the answer.) Worth’s suit fingered the creators of the game as well as their distributors; aside from the fictitious entry, he showed that Trivial Pursuit’s creators had lifted his work so completely that the game even included his typos and misspelled words. Trivial Pursuit eventually admitted that they had, in fact, stolen Worth's work for the game—but they had also stolen trivia from a lot of other places, too, which they defended as "doing research."

The case was thrown out before going to trial on the grounds that Trivial Pursuit was “substantially different” from Super Trivia. Worth and his attorneys appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but to no avail.

Because of Trivial Pursuit’s persistent popularity (and more than a few original versions that are still in play), some shady-looking “fun fact” sites continue to insist that Columbo’s first name was, in fact, Philip.

Image credits: FactFixx, Nerdfighters, and Trivia Hall of Fame.

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Country Time Is Paying Off Fines on Kids' Lemonade Stands
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A summer staple has come under threat. “The Man” is cracking down on makeshift lemonade stands across the country and busting kids without business permits. Thankfully, one beverage maker is here to help.

As CNN reports, Country Time—known for its powdered lemonade mix—has started a legal fund to help pay off the fines and permit fees incurred by little lemonade hucksters. The company has vowed to cover fees of up to $300 for each business permit bought this year, as well as fines on lemonade stands that were shut down in 2017 and 2018.

The initiative, dubbed Legal-Ade, was reportedly inspired by an incident that occurred in Denver just last week in which two brothers who were selling lemonade for charity were forced to close down shop because they didn’t have a permit. In recent years, similar cases have been reported in Texas, Maryland, Iowa, Georgia, and more. Some fines have climbed as high as $500.

“When we saw these stories about lemonade stands being shut down for legal reasons, we thought it had to be an urban myth,” Adam Butler, an executive at Kraft Heinz, which owns Country Time, told CNN. “A very real response seemed the best way to shine a light on the issue."

The company posted a playful advertisement on YouTube showing a group of hard-nosed lawyers crossing their arms and cracking their knuckles behind a child’s lemonade stand. “Entrepreneurship? Good work habits? Good old-fashioned fun? Shut down because of old, arcane, but very real laws,” declares a voice in the video. “Tastes like justice,” one man in a suit says after downing his lemonade and crushing the plastic cup in one fist.

The company says it’s prepared to cover up to $60,000 in fees. To apply for some lemonade relief, head to Country Time’s website and upload a scanned copy of your child’s fine or permit receipt.

[h/t CNN]

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15 Facts About The Staircase, Netflix’s New True Crime Docuseries
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At 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina-based novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911 to report an accident. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down a flight of stairs and was unconscious, but still breathing, in a massive pool of her own blood. Michael, who claimed he had been sitting out by the pool, was not sure how it had happened—he just knew that he needed help. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. But the police weren’t convinced that Kathleen had fallen, or that her death was an accident at all.

Within two weeks, Michael Peterson would be indicted for the murder of his wife, and the case—which stretched on through 2017—only got stranger from there.

There’s not a lot one can say about The Staircase without giving too much away. So if you’ve yet to watch all 13 episodes of the compelling docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bookmark this page and come back once you have. For those of you who have powered through it all and are thirsting for more details on the case, read on.

1. IT’S NEW TO NETFLIX, BUT IT ORIGINALLY PREMIERED IN 2004.

If you had a sense of déjà vu while watching The Staircase, it could very well be because you’ve seen it before—at least most of it. A truncated, two-hour version of the miniseries, which is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, first premiered on Primetime Thursday in the summer of 2004. The completed docuseries made its television premiere one year later, first in England and then in America (on the Sundance Channel). In 2012, de Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up that continued the story. Netflix’s rendition includes all 10 of the original episodes, plus three brand-new ones, which follow some more recent developments in the case.

2. FILMING BEGAN SHORTLY AFTER MICHAEL PETERSON WAS INDICTED.

In 2001, de Lestrade directed the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, which highlighted the case of Brenton Butler, a black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, Florida. De Lestrade was on the lookout for his next project, and he had a very specific idea for his follow-up: another documentary that would dissect the American criminal justice system, but this time from the perspective of a white defendant who could afford a top-notch legal team. De Lestrade told The Ringer that he and his team spent five months reviewing about 300 cases, which is how they found Michael Peterson. (That both Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to offer the filmmakers unfettered access to their preparations for the trial was obviously a bonus.)

But de Lestrade had a feeling that there was something unusual about Peterson’s case that would make for a compelling story. “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade said. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.” Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife on December 21, 2001; shooting on the series began shortly thereafter.

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A TWO-HOUR DOCUMENTARY.

Though de Lestrade knew that there was something different about Peterson’s case, even he couldn’t imagine the number of turns it would take over the next 15-plus years. It didn’t take long for the director to realize that his original plan to make a two-hour documentary on the case would barely even scratch the surface.

“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be,” de Lestrade told Metro. “Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.” Fortunately, the film’s distributors were receptive to the idea of a miniseries.

4. JEAN-XAVIER DE LESTRADE VOWED TO NEVER MAKE ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST SEGMENT.

Michael Peterson in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Reflecting on The Staircase and Michael Peterson’s case for The Daily Beast in 2013, de Lestrade revealed that he never intended to come back to the story once the original series was in the can. “When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film,” he wrote. “I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.”

5. DE LESTRADE HAS NEVER STEPPED AWAY FROM THE STORY.

Though de Lestrade has worked on a handful of other projects since The Staircase’s original release, he has never stopped working on the project since he first began filming in 2002. When asked by Metro what it felt like to “return” to the project, the director was quick to make it clear that, “I never quit The Staircase. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character. It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”

6. FOR DE LESTRADE, IT WASN’T ABOUT PROVING PETERSON’S GUILT OR INNOCENCE.

In April 2018, Netflix’s three new episodes of The Staircase premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the screening, de Lestrade held a Q&A in which he explained that determining Peterson’s innocence—or guilt—was never part of his grand plan for the film. “The purpose has never been to look for the truth,” he said. “Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”

7. BUT FOR THE RECORD: DE LESTRADE DOESN’T BELIEVE THAT PETERSON IS GUILTY.

Though de Lestrade wasn’t looking to uncover the truth about Peterson's guilt or innocence, he did form an opinion: He does not believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife. “We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened,” de Lestrade told the Tribeca Film Festival audience. “We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand.”

8. THE CASE HAS BEEN A FRUSTRATING ONE FOR THE DIRECTOR.

The Peterson family in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Writing for The Daily Beast, de Lestrade admitted that the long road—and contradictory evidence—that has been presented throughout Peterson's seemingly endless legal battles has been difficult to reconcile at times:

“It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.”

9. AS BIZARRE AS THE “OWL THEORY” SEEMS, MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN ITS PLAUSIBILITY.

The Staircase puts forth a number of possible theories about what could have caused Kathleen Peterson’s death, the most bizarre one being that she was attacked by an owl. More specifically: that an owl got tangled in her hair and, in an attempt to extricate itself, ending up causing her death. It may sound strange, but the autopsy report did note that Kathleen had pine needles stuck to one of her hands, clumps of her own hair in both hands, and a few small feathers entangled in one of those clumps.

“When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Mary Jude Darrow, Peterson’s attorney, told Audubon in 2016. “But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.” Several animal experts agreed in the theory's plausibility, as did the film’s director … eventually.

“At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution,” de Lestrade wrote. “Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory. Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, ‘These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.’”

The idea, according to that same surgeon, is that the owl attack happened outside the house, which led to Kathleen fainting, “most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”

10. PETERSON CALLS ACCEPTING AN ALFORD PLEA “THE MOST DIFFICULT DECISION” HE HAS EVER MADE.

Given that the newest installments of The Staircase involve Peterson entering an Alford plea (a plea deal in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) to the charge of voluntary manslaughter, and walking free, it’s doubtful we’ll see new episodes of the series. But Peterson told Dateline’s Dennis Murphy that entering that plea was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life … And I’m talking, you know, joining the Marines, anything I did in my life, this was the most difficult decision I made. And I did it because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to live through that trial and listen to all of those lies and perjuries, the nonsense.”

11. THE DOCUMENTARY’S EDITOR BEGAN A RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL PETERSON.

Though the documentary is full shocking moments and revelations, one of the most surprising events happened off-screen: During the course of production, The Staircase editor Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson fell in love. “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years,” de Lestrade told L’Express. “Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

12. IT'S TAUGHT IN LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOMS.

Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in 'The Staircase (2018)
Netflix

Thomas B. Metzloff, a law professor at Duke University who was one of Michael and Kathleen’s neighbors at the time of her death, told The News & Observer that The Staircase is required viewing for his students—though he disagrees with the documentary’s suggestion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

“I don't think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of 'Oh, my gosh, here's an innocent man who is being victimized,'” he said. “Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of [SBI blood expert] Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”

13. IT HAS A LINK TO MAKING A MURDERER.

The Staircase has a coincidental link to Netflix’s first big true crime docuseries hit: Rudolf was the UNC clinical law professor of Jerry Buting who, along with Dean Strang, defended Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.

14. A PSYCHIC PURCHASED THE PETERSON HOME FOR $1.3 MILLION IN 2008.

Michael Peterson no longer lives in the Durham home he shared with his late wife Kathleen; it has passed through two owners since first being sold for $640,000 in 2004. The second, and current, owner is a psychic named Biond Fury, who said he had no knowledge of Peterson’s trial or the home’s history. According to WRAL, “he was attracted to the house because of its architecture and layout.”

15. NBC'S TRIAL & ERROR IS A PARODY OF THE STAIRCASE.

Anyone who has watched NBC’s Trial & Error, starring John Lithgow, has likely noticed the many nods to The Staircase in the mockumentary sitcom (there was even a reference to the owl theory).

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros … a documentary called The Staircase was going around,” Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof said at the 2017 Television Critics Association. “And I remember I watched it with my wife—and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work—[but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”

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