August 25, 1835 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appeared in the New York Sun newspaper (subsequent installments appeared on August 26, 27, 28, 29, and 31). It bore the headline:

GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
LATELY MADE
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

"A View of the Inhabitants of the Moon" Illustration from an 1836 English pamphlet, publisher unknown. Note the biped beavers on the right.

The article began by triumphantly listing a series of stunning astronomical breakthroughs that the famous British astronomer, Sir John Herschel, had apparently made “by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle.” Herschel, the article declared, had established a “new theory of cometary phenomena”; he had discovered planets in other solar systems; and he had “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.” Then, almost as if it were an afterthought, the article revealed Herschel’s final, stunning achievement: he had discovered life on the moon!

The article continued on and offered an elaborate account of the fantastic sights viewed by Herschel during his telescopic observation of the moon. It described a lunar topography that included vast forests, inland seas, and lilac-hued quartz pyramids. Readers learned that herds of bison wandered across the plains of the moon; that blue unicorns perched on its hilltops; and that spherical, amphibious creatures rolled across its beaches. The highpoint of the narrative came when it revealed that Herschel had found evidence of intelligent life on the moon: he had discovered both a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding biped beavers, and a race of winged humans living in pastoral harmony around a mysterious, golden-roofed temple. Herschel dubbed these latter creatures the Vespertilio-homo, or “man-bat”.

1835 lithograph of the lunar "Ruby Amphitheater" and moon men, described in the New York Sun's moon hoax.

The article, of course, was an elaborate hoax. Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope. But Herschel had not really observed life on the moon, nor had he accomplished any of the other astronomical breakthroughs credited to him in the article. In fact, Herschel was not even aware until much later that such discoveries had been attributed to him. Furthermore, the Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. However, the New York Sun managed to sell thousands of copies of the article before the public realized that it had been hoaxed.

The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Intended as satire, they were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.

However, Locke never publicly admitted to being the author of the hoax, and rumors have persisted that others were also involved in the production of the story. Two men in particular have been mentioned in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer who was travelling through America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the moon hoax appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.

“New Inhabitants of the Moon” from Delle Scoperte Fatte Nella Luna del Dottor Giovanni Herschel, Napoli, 1836 (Italian edition of the Moon Hoax).

Readers were completely taken in by the story, however, and failed to recognize it as satire. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.

Despite the intense public speculation about the moon story, the Sun never publicly conceded that it was a hoax. On September 16, 1835 the Sun did publish a column in which it discussed the possibility that the story was a hoax, but it never confessed to anything. Quite the contrary. It wrote that, “Certain correspondents have been urging us to come out and confess the whole to be a hoax; but this we can by no means do, until we have the testimony of the English or Scotch papers to corroborate such a declaration.” This is the closest the Sun ever came to an admission of guilt.

People were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer.

References:

  • Michael J. Crowe. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900. (Cambridge University Press, 1986) pp. 202-15.
  • David S. Evans. “The Great Moon Hoax.” Sky and Telescope. September, 1981 (196-198); October, 1981 (308-311).
  • William N. Griggs (ed.). The Celebrated “Moon Story,” its origin and incidents; with a memoir of the author, and an appendix containing, I. An Authentic description of the moon; II. A New Theory of the Lunar Surface, in relation to that of the earth. (New York, 1852).
  • Frank M. O’Brien. The Story of The Sun. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928). Chapters 1-6.
  • Edgar Allan Poe. “Richard Adams Locke,” from “The Literati of New York City No.VI,” October 1846, Godey’s Lady’s Book, pp.159-162.
  • Gibson Reaves. “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” The Griffith Observer. November, 1954. Vol. XVII, No. 11, pp. 126-134.
  • Ormond Seavey (ed.). The Moon Hoax, Or, A Discovery That The Moon Has A Vast Population of Human Beings. (Boston: Gregg Press, 1975).
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One response to “August 25, 1835 (a Tuesday)

  1. Haha this made me laugh. Thanks for posting. Good thing the Sun has changed its ways and now post only true stories…

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