In 1931, George P. Burdell graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology (best known as Georgia Tech) with a BS in Ceramic Engineering. A few years later, Burdell received a masters degree from this same institution. One of the college yearbooks lists him as a member of the basketball team and his engagement was announced in the major Atlanta paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’d leave Georgia Tech soon after, entering military service in World War II — for a time, he was listed as being part of the Air Force, flying a dozen missions over Europe. But Georgia Tech was Burdell’s home. He’d return to the school, enrolling in countless other classes, and remained active with the campus community by writing letters to the editor of the college paper and being so ubiquitous at football games that he is regularly singled out by the public address announcer. There is even a store in the student center named after him, as seen above. At Georgia Tech, George P. Burdell is a popular fellow.
He is also, entirely, fake.
In 1927, William Edgar Smith was admitted to Georgia Tech — but, accidentally, received two enrollment forms. While most people would simply throw out the second, Smith decided to pull a prank, enrolling a second, fake person as well. Smith combined the names of his high school principal (George P. Butler) and the maiden name of a family friend (Burdell) and came up with the amalgam for his prank. From that point forward, Smith had Burdell mirror his actions at Georgia Tech. If Smith enrolled for a class, so would Burdell. When Smith turned in an assignment, he’d turn in a slightly adjusted one for Burdell. When Smith took an exam, he’d do so twice — one for him, one for his ghost. Burdell graduated and is an official alumnus, even though he never existed.
Other students have been carrying on Smith’s legacy ever since, mass-enrolling him in classes despite the university’s best efforts. (Multiple times, the university upgraded its systems to prevent Burdell from appearing on the class rolls; the students proved savvier, defeating these attempts time and time again.) Burdell’s inclusion in the Air Force, on the George Tech basketball team, and everywhere else is the byproduct of an organically developing ruse over the course of nearly a century — with no end in sight.
Bonus fact: As old as the Burdell hoax is, it may not be the longest running one. In later 1917, American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote a column in the New York Evening Mail titled “A Neglected Anniversary,” retelling the unsung history of the bathtub. Mencken’s history of the wash basin was undisclosed fiction, alleging (among other things) that President Millard Fillmore popularized the bathtub in the U.S. by installing one in the White House in 1850. While made up, some of these “facts” have been cited as fact as true as 2008 (in a Kia commercial, of all things).
From the Archives: The Missing Person Living in Savannah: Another Georgia resident who isn’t who we think he is.
Related: “A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History’s Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes and Frauds” by Michael Farquhar. 4.5 stars on 12 reviews, available on Kindle.