Today's post represents a List of Surprises first: guest blogger! Please give a warm welcome to Laura Forshay. Ms. Forshay studied History and LOST with me at Tufts, regularly schooling me with her insights into both. Since graduation, she's moved to the Big Apple to work in the wonderful world of libraries. Her exploration into her new home town's history has inspired this beautifully batty post.
A lot of “great” things have happened in the history of the world. We are all familiar (hopefully) with the big ones: the Great Schism, Alexander the Great, the Great Depression…you get the idea. I submit for approval another Great event, slightly less famous, but just as badass: The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. I know, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but that happened.
So first of all, let us set the stage: it is 1835 in New York City. Printing House Square is busting, and penny journalism has been embraced by everyday New Yorkers who want their news at an affordable price. The Sun will be our publication of choice for the time being, as it pioneered the art of penny journalism, and thus, the time-tested chef d’oeuvre that is…the tabloid. As a penny paper, the Sun catered to the working class of the city, giving them the news they wanted and cared about (less political coverage, more dramatic court cases – the original Law & Order). So, despite a low selling price, widespread public appeal and cheap labor (Newsies-style) made the Sun a hit.
August 25, 1835: The front page of the Sun declares, “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately made by Sir John Herschel, LL.D., F.R.S., etc., at the Cape of Good Hope.” Sounds pretty legit, right? After all, Sir John Herschel (son of William Herschel) was, in fact, doing astronomy business in South Africa at the time, and the Sun introduced the article as a reprint from the Edinburgh Journal of Science – a publication that was no longer in print when the Sun's article was written. The contents of the article will obvi sound like the plot of a bad SciFi movie to us, but in 1835, the audience, who had no reason not to trust the paper, took it as the gospel truth.
The article appeared in installments over the course of the next six days. It basically stated (using some scientific-sounding words that make no actual sense when put together) that Sir John Herschel had built a superduper-powered telescope that allowed him to observe the surface of the moon in great detail. Among his observations were – and I’m paraphrasing here: three huge oceans, some great landscaping, a giant sapphire temple, crystal mountains, some eight-legged deer, fruit, and, most notably, a population of intelligent winged beings. These “Vespertilio-homo”, also referred to as “bat-men” were later described by one reader:
Their bodies, except the face, were covered with a short copper-colored hair and their foreheads were quite broad, which gave them an intelligent look. They were gathered in groups and many were gesticulating, which led to the supposition that an important election was pending.
Well, goodness, just another day in the life for the bat-men apparently.
Not surprisingly, in reaction to the article, the public went cray-cray. The Sun’s sales spiked to over 19,000 copies. Scientists across the country were all in a tizzy. News of the discovery spread around the world, the article was reprinted as a pamphlet, and other New York papers started to reprint the news as well. But, as one account goes, when a reporter from the Journal of Commerce bumped into article author Richard Adams Locke in a local pub, the two got to talking about the article and it came out that Locke had invented the whole thing himself.
The story had made such an impression on the world, however, that people continued to contact Sir John Hershel, asking about his discoveries. Herschel obviously had not contributed in any way to the story, and as an 1836 letter conveys, he was pretty P.O.ed that his name had been used in the hoax. He wrote to the editor of the Athenaeum, “…it appears to me high time to disclaim all knowledge of or participation in the incoherent ravings under the name of discoveries which have been attributed to me.” Oh, snap!
As people began to accept that they had been duped by Locke, some of them were obviously pretty upset. Bram Stoker chided Locke for blurring the border between fiction and reality. On the other hand, some complimented the article for instilling a curiosity and a desire for further (actual) research in the public. Some even admired Locke for succeeding in fooling the world. Writer, poet, and all-around Debbie Downer of the time, Edgar Allan Poe (unfortunately never played by Christian Bale) had this tasty bit to add:
As these discoveries were gradually spread before the public, the astonishment of that public grew all out of bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of the ‘Sun’ – the authenticity of the communication to the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Science’ – were really very few indeed; and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any ‘man-bat’ of them all.
In addition, just three weeks before Locke’s article was printed, Poe had published the first installment of “Hans Pfall”, a fictional story about a man sent to the moon, in the Southern Literary Messenger. Coincidence? I doubt it. But Poe doesn’t seem to have minded. In fact, it seems that he was pleased as punch to abandon his own article after the hoax came out, arguing that he could not top it.
Locke’s motivation in writing the moon hoax is still somewhat nebulous. He certainly succeeded in making a name for the Sun, if that was his intention, as it topped its competitors in sales and remained extremely popular after the hoax. Quotes from him claim that he intended the story to be a satire, and a later printing of the article includes a note from the publisher, describing the hoax as on par with literature such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. I’m pretty sure that in order to write a truly successful satire, people have to get that you’re not serious, which is kind of hard to do in a newspaper. But in any case, the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 certainly forced the greater public to realize that you can’t always believe what you read, and it opened up possibly one of the first big dialogues on ethics in journalism. So file this one away in your brain hole, readers, and consider all the people who have Richard Adams Locke to thank for bringing Batman into the world.
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Harrison, James Albert. Life of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co. Publishers, 1903.
Hodge, Orlando John. Reminiscences, Volume 1. Cleveland, OH: The Imperial Press, 1902
Locke, Richard Adams. The Moon Hoax; or, A Discovery that the Moon has a Vast Population of Human Beings. New York, NY: William Gowans, 1859.
Ruskin, Steven W. “A Newly-Discovered Letter of J.F.W. Herschel Concerning the ‘Great Moon Hoax’.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 33 (2002): 71-74.
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Stckley, James. “Moon Hoax, Newspaper Prank, Now Just a Century Old.” The Science News-Letter 28 (1935): 253.
Turner, H. B. When Giants Ruled: the Story of Park Row, New York’s Great Newspaper Street. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 1999.
Willis, Jim. 100 Media Moments that Changed America. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010.