Looking back, we might refer to it as the “War of the Worlds” hoax of the nineteenth century. On this day in 1835 a series of articles began to be published in the New York Sun, purporting, among other things, that evidence of life on the moon had been discovered. The Sun had been established in 1833 and according to History.com, “was one of the new ‘penny press’ papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price and a more narrative style of journalism” — a nice way perhaps of describing sensationalized yellow journalism.
Perhaps it was a ploy to increase circulation, because in the opening days of the series circulation numbers rose to fifteen thousand. By the end of the series the number was 19,360, and editor Benjamin Day would proclaim his newspaper had the largest circulation in the world. Competitors started to panic a bit and began printing the series in their own papers, pretending they had the same access as the Sun.
It was implied that a well-known astronomer, Sir John Herschel, was the author but that was completely false:
Herschel had traveled to Capetown, South Africa in 1834 to build an observatory housing a powerful telescope. The article was attributed to the Edinburgh Journal of Science as the original source, although the publication was defunct. Dr. Andrew Grant, an associate of Herschel’s, had apparently (purportedly) relayed the story to the Journal. Grant was later found to be a fictional character.
On day one of the series the Sun printed a detailed description of the telescope which Herschel had reportedly built, including its enormous size and magnification power:
The weight of this ponderous lens was 14,826 lbs. or nearly seven tons after being polished; and its estimated magnifying power 42,000 times. It was therefore presumed to be capable of representing objects in our lunar satellite of little more than eighteen inches in diameter, providing its focal image of them could be rendered distinct by the transfusion of article light.
The public was hooked after the first day and each succeeding day provided more vivid (and unimaginable) detail. On day three the following description was provided:
The surrounding country is fertile to excess: between this circle and No. 2 (Endymion), which we proposed first to examine, we counted not less than twelve luxuriant forests, divided by open plains, which waved in an ocean of vendure, and were probably prairies like those of North America. In three of these we discovered numerous herds of quadrupeds similar to our friends the bisons in the Valley of the Unicorn, but of much larger size; and scarcely a piece of woodland occurred in our panorama which did not dazzle our visions with flocks of white or red birds upon the wing.
By day four there was heightened interest as the series continued by describing “life” on the moon:
We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood. . . Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified . . . About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas; but of all the others we had perfectly distinct and deliberate view. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of the shoulders to the calves of their legs.
The face, which was of a yellowish color, was an improvement upon that of the large orang outang being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of simia genus. In general symmetry of body and limbs they were infinitely superior to the orang outang; so much so that but for their long wings they would look as well on a parade ground as some of the old cockney militia. The hair of the head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled but apparently not woolly, and arranged in two circles over the temples of the forehead. Their feet could only be seen as they were alternately lifted in walking; but from what we could see of them in so transient a view they appeared thin and very protuberant at the heel.
Not only were rival newspaper editors interested in “getting a piece of the action”, the Journal of Commerce expressed interest in printing the entire series in pamphlet form. This was when, however, the whole thing was exposed as a hoax. Richard Adams Locke confessed to having conjured up the story, and Benjamin Day finally admitted on September 16 to being aware of the hoax. Even with the admission, the Sun continued to maintain its increased circulation levels. Perhaps their readers could laugh at themselves for having been so gullible.
The whole episode seems to have inspired none other than Edgar Allan Poe to write a hoax-based tale of his own. At the time, Poe was writing The Strange Adventures of Hans Pfaall and confessed later that he stopped work on the second part, assuming he had been out-hoaxed by Locke. One scholar argued, however, that Poe came up with his hoax after Locke’s, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of “The Great Moon Hoax.”
Whatever the reasons or the possible connection Poe had to The Great Moon Hoax, the nineteenth century certainly had its share of hoaxes. Another one, The Balloon Hoax, was written and perpetrated by Poe in 1844. There were many more, including perhaps the first Photoshop® job ever in 1895. I feel a “Far-Out Friday” article coming on — stay tuned!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!