Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Clifford Irving's Hoax

Of Might and Misery

Hell's Angels Movie Poster
Hell's Angels Movie Poster

Howard's intense interest in aviation began at a young age. When he was fourteen, he experienced his first flight, which changed his life. Not long afterwards, Howard convinced his father to allow him to take flying lessons. From that moment on, he learned as much about piloting and airplane engineering as he possibly could and eventually received his pilot's license in 1928. His passion for planes spilled into his film-producing career, when he made the epic aviation war movie Hell's Angels, complete   with aviation sequences never before witnessed on film.

According to Barlett and Steele, Howard established the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932, which was mostly used to build racing planes until it later became, "one of the nation's largest and most powerful defense contractors." Howard spent countless hours working away on constructing and recreating airplanes from new and used parts. During the mid 1930s he earned the reputation as one of the aviation industry's leading innovators, following his design and construction of one of the world's fastest planes, known as the Silver Bullet. He went on to create hundreds more new inventions that would change the face of aviation in the years to come.

Hughes as test pilot
Hughes as test pilot

Howard also earned a reputation as one of the world's greatest aviation heroes for his record-breaking flights. Some of his more famous flight achievements included a record for the world's greatest long-distance speed flight in 1937, a record breaking round-the-world flight in 1938 and his famous test flight of an aircraft developed by Hughes Aircraft Company known as the Spruce Goose. Brown and Broeske stated in their book that Hughes received "the prestigious Harmon International Trophy as the world's most outstanding aviator for 1936" for his contributions to aviation. Almost three decades later Hughes' achievements were once again recognized when he was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

Aside from Howard's aviation and film interests, he also devoted a considerable amount of time investing in a myriad of business enterprises throughout the country. He had important stakes in companies such as RKO Pictures and Trans World Airlines (TWA). However, Howard was not always successful in his business adventures.

During the 1950s problems began to develop between TWA executives and Howard, who owned a vast majority of the company's shares. The TWA people accused Howard of mismanagement and believed he was incapable of controlling the company. They claimed that Howard was mentally deteriorating and they feared he would run the company into the ground. TWA eventually filed suit against Howard and for many years he would be continuously haunted by litigations and tracked down by lawyers, in relation to the case.

In fact, Howard was far from running the company into the ground. However, there was no doubt that he was mentally deteriorating. He suffered from a series of degenerative medical disorders that disrupted his thought pattern and lead to frequent episodes of bizarre behavior. The two most significant problems Howard battled were a personality syndrome known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and a debilitating venereal disease called neurosyphilis, both of which severely affected his behavior and judgment.  

According to Brown and Broeske, some of the symptoms Howard experienced as a result of the neurosyphilis included, "difficulty in concentrating, defective judgment, memory deterioration, delusions of grandeur and a marked erosion of hygiene and grooming habits." Some of the symptomatic effects of OCD included anxiety; phobias; compulsive, ritualistic and obsessive behavior.

For instance, almost daily Howard would spend hours scrubbing his phone to rid it of unseen germs. Moreover, he often would not let people into his home for fear of contamination. Howard was also obsessive with women, which he would collect by the hundreds and form unnatural fixations on them, often becoming insanely jealous to the point of stalking.

Jean Elizabeth Peters
Jean Elizabeth Peters

As the years passed, Howard's mental condition became chronic. He lived in dread that he would be committed to a mental institution, possibly resulting in his money being confiscated from him. He decided that the only way he could escape such misfortune was to marry. In January 1957, Howard married long-time lover, Jean Elizabeth Peters. Like his first marriage, signs of trouble began to surface after several years.

Howard became increasingly reclusive, shutting himself away from the outside world in order to escape the threat of lawsuits related to the TWA case and germ contamination. Howard also began to withdraw from his wife. The couple spent much of their marriage living in separate residences. In fact, in the years preceding the divorce, Jean lived in California and Howard in Las Vegas.

Finally enough was enough for Jean. She asked Howard for a divorce, which he eventually granted. The relationship was legally terminated in June 1971. Not long afterwards Jean remarried. Howard had only his aides to keep him company and tend to his ever-increasing needs. By the time the divorce was granted, Howard had already moved from Las Vegas and had taken up residence at a hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

During his time on the island, Howard's mental disorder had worsened into a severe form of psychosis. He was so fearful of the outside world that he committed himself to a self-imposed exile that had lasted for more than a decade. Howard was psychologically at his most vulnerable and socially dysfunctional. It was during this time that a young author noticed an opportunity and took advantage of Howard's unusual position, in order to stage what would be considered one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. The mastermind behind the elaborate con was Clifford Irving.


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