Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

Dawson and Woodward

There have been many theories put forth, which concern Dawsons potential involvement or lack thereof in the Piltdown case. However, since the hoaxs discovery, many of those people involved in Piltdown have died. Therefore, there is a very limited amount of information and testimony concerning the events surrounding Piltdown. Moreover, much of the evidence relating to the fraud has long since disappeared, with the exception of the key relics, that of the skulls and other fossils. Thus, the scant evidence does not allow for anyone to be fully implicated in the scientific scandal of the century.

Nevertheless, one of the main suspects and one of the first to be implicated in the Piltdown forgery was Charles Dawson. This is not too surprising, as he was the one who initiated both Piltdown I and II excavations. Moreover, it was Dawson who allegedly found the controversial jawbone, as well as some of the other questionable artifacts.

There are those who believed that Dawson was the culprit because he had allegedly engaged in other hoaxes apart from the Piltdown fraud. According to Thomson, Dawson plagiarized a historical account of Hastings Castle in Sussex from an earlier unpublished manuscript. And he apparently bought his elegant house on the grounds of Lewes Castle by pretending to act on behalf of the Sussex Archeological Society. Furthermore, he had been implicated in trafficking and selling counterfeit antiques. Yet, regardless of his minor transgressions, his reputation remained untarnished throughout the entirety of his life.

However, if Dawson had initiated the fraud, many wondered what his motive would have been. Thomson suggested two possible motives that may have propelled Dawson to partake in the Piltdown hoax -- humor and ambition. It has been speculated that Dawson may have been a jokester and the Piltdown could have been one of his gags that had gone father than expected. Yet, many believe that theory unlikely, because there was a great possibility that the discovery of the alleged prank would have ruined his law career and reputation.

Ambition was also proposed as a motive, because Piltdown would have enhanced Dawson's chances of being accepted as a scientist. Moreover, he would have also become famous from making such a significant find, which is precisely what happened. Yet, its hard to imagine that ambition would allow him to risk a secure career and a reputation as a good citizen.

It will never be known if Dawson masterminded the Piltdown hoax or whether he was just a recipient of a cruel joke. Regardless, many consider Dawson to have been the main perpetrator. Furthermore, it is also believed that he may have carried out the hoax with the assistance of accomplices, one of whom may have been his most ardent supporter.

Arthur Smith Woodward
Arthur Smith Woodward

Woodward was not initially suspected of playing a part in the Piltdown hoax, because he was so respected by the scientific community. Moreover, his personality did not fit the type of a prankster. However, in 1967 he was implicated for the first time as a co-conspirator in the scam.

British Museum of Natural History
British Museum of Natural History

According to Harter, there was a strong case against Woodward, since he had access to many of the Piltdown artifacts and that he could have provided some of the specimens that were used in the hoax. Furthermore, Harter stated that Woodward also had a strong motive that could have driven him to commit such a crime -- ambition. He stated that at the time of the Piltdown discovery, Woodward was campaigning for a position as director at the British Museum of Natural History. The Piltdown discovery could have been just the boost he needed to get the job.

Yet, although he may have been ambitious and had access to the site and artifacts, it is still considered unlikely by many others that he engaged in the Piltdown fraud. If he had, discovery of the hoax would have undoubtedly spelled doom for his entire career. Moreover, there is simply no evidence available that supports the theory that he was ever involved. It is more likely that he was, like Dawson, on the receiving end of a particularly cruel hoax that would forever tarnish his good reputation as an outstanding and honorable scientist.

Despite the fact that there was no evidence, Woodward was implicated in the hoax almost as often as Dawson. Yet, he was only one of a long list to be drawn into the Piltdown case. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Martin A.C. Hinton were just as frequently accused of having been behind the fraud as Dawson and Woodward.

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