In the last week of August 1835, New York City — and soon all of North America and Europe — was abuzz with revelations of the most extraordinary scientific discovery.
The famed British astronomer Sir John Herschel was reported to have constructed the world’s most advanced and powerful telescope at the southern tip of Africa and had been able to observe in great detail the hitherto dimly seen surface of the moon.
And — wonder of wonders — Herschel had discovered there was life on the moon, life of a most sophisticated, complex and bizarre nature!
This was a discovery as revolutionary and exciting as the strange stories, samples and captives Christopher Columbus brought back to Europe from the other side of the world in 1493.
And the only place you could read about this incredible lunar marvel, it seemed, was in the pages of The Sun newspaper.
Let me hasten to assure you that The Sun referred to here is in no way connected to the Toronto Sun or Sun Media or any other Sun newspaper currently in existence. “The Sun” is just one of those newspaper names that has been kicking around since at least the 18th Century, a name used by any number of saints and scoundrels for their journalistic endeavours.
The Sun we’re talking about here isn’t even remotely connected to the conservative New York Sun daily newspaper that published from 2002 to 2008 (and still exists in an emaciated online form).
The 21st Century New York Sun did, however, appropriate the name, masthead and even the later motto (“It shines for all”) of The Sun we’re talking about, which was started in New York City in 1833 by Benjamin Henry Day and which was one of the first — and certainly most successful — populist “penny press” newspapers in the United States.
I said “later motto” above, because the original motto of Ben Day’s Sun in 1833 was “The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements.” Perhaps not as catchy as “It shines for all” but certainly descriptive of its aims and intent.
Following the lead of Britain’s new, vibrant and rather scandalous penny press upstarts, Benjamin Day’s Sun introduced to an American audience journalism that focused on sensation, crime, disaster, scandal, gossip and human-interest stories — all directed at the ordinary citizen, not the elite, and at a price affordable to almost anyone in New York City except the most abject beggar.
Day also introduced another British penny press innovation — street-corner hawkers, usually young boys with armloads of papers hot off the press selling them to all comers in the neighbourhoods and commercial districts where the great masses of ordinary people lived and worked.
Previously, the more staid, respectable newspapers of the day — like The New York Times (not the one we know today) and The New York Herald — had relied almost entirely on the more expensive and slower model of delivery-by-subscription which catered to the interests and doing of the city’s economic, political and cultural elites.
Ben Day’s Sun blew that model out of the water. The Sun very quickly built a hunger in the increasingly literate public for breaking news and news of an exciting, relevant (to the ordinary person) nature. Feeding that hunger, The Sun posted hitherto-unheard-of circulation numbers and turned a spectacularly healthy profit, even at the bargain-basement selling price of one penny per copy (an even more radical price reduction in the U.S. than it had been in Britain, since the American penny was worth far less than the British penny). Although advertising had been an important part of many North American newspapers’ business operations for a long time — not so much so in Britain and Europe, where more newspapers were owned and subsidized by political, religious and business masters — Day was also able to substantially increase The Sun’s ad revenue, in large part because of his paper’s much-greater circulation.
… This is an aside to an aside and probably only of interest to the most deeply and boringly committed newspaper aficionados, but … “Ben Day dots,” the dot-matrix printing process used to create images in newspapers and magazines — and lots of other printed material from mail-order catalogues to comic books — for much of the 20th Century, was a technique developed in the 1880s and 1890s by illustrator Benjamin Henry Day Jr. — the son of our Ben Day, founder of The Sun newspaper. Prior to Ben Jr.’s dot innovation, newspaper and magazine illustrations were generally hand-drawn engravings — even if the engravings were based on actual photographs. Although Ben Jr. was himself best known as an illustrator and engraver — including for some of Mark Twain’s books — his Ben Day (or Ben-Day or benday) dot process made possible the reproduction of actual photographs on the mass-produced printed page. Everything, in the end, is interconnected.
By the late summer of 1835, The Sun was the most widely read newspaper in the world, with a higher circulation than The Times of London or any of the other New York newspapers. The moon story helped solidify that position, but it was really just icing on the cake.
So that’s where things stood in the world of New York journalism on Tuesday morning, Aug. 25, 1835, when The Sun began publishing its series of electrifying front-page reports on the incredible astronomical discoveries of Sir John Herschel.)
Now let’s look at the actual day-by-day reports that so excited New York with their breathtaking description of the wonders to be seen on the surface of the moon — if only you had a powerful-enough telescope.
Part 1, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 1835
The first article in the series was a set-up, pure and simple.
Claiming to be extracted from a “supplement” to the (very real) Edinburgh Journal of Science, the piece went on at great length about the (equally real) astronomical pioneering efforts of Sir John Herschel, the son of a noted German astronomer and himself Britain’s official Royal Astronomer as well as a renowned mathematician and inventor who had already discovered and named the planet Uranus and four of its moons plus seven moons of Saturn.
Part 2, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 1835
The second article picked up where the first had left off, lauding the accomplishments and vast expertise of Herschel, then moving into the astronomical observation advantages of the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and finally going into even greater detail about the enormous, sophisticated and powerful telescope observatory which Herschel had built there with the assistance of “the Royal Engineers … and a large party of the best English mechanics.” The author of the piece also noted the degree of secrecy imposed on the project by the British government explained why no one had previously heard of the construction of this marvel, “the most magnificent specimen of philosophical mechanism of the present or any previous age.”
Not the telescope described in The Sun, but an even larger — and real — one built by Sir John Herschel’s father.
And then the deep hook was set in.
The first observation of the surface of the moon was recorded about 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 10, 1835: ” … a beautifully distinct, and even vivid representation of basaltic rock. Its colour was a greenish brown (with) articulations similar to those of the basaltic formation at Staffa. This precipitous shelf was profusely covered with a dark red flower … and this was the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.”
Next came a lunar forest of giant trees like “the largest kind of yews in the English churchyards,” followed by “a level green plain which … must have been more than half a mile in breadth; and then appeared as fine a forest of firs, unequivocal firs, as I have ever seen cherished in the bosom of my native mountains.”
The last remarks are attributed to “Dr. Andrew Grant,” described as Sir John Herschel’s assistant and the principal source of the anonymously written Sun articles.
Then came visions of an enormous inland sea with “a beach of brilliant white sand, girt with wild castellated rocks, apparently of green marble, varied at chasms, occurring every two or three hundred feet, with grotesque blocks of chalk or gypsum, and feathered and festooned at the summit with the clustering foliage of unknown trees … (but) we perceived no trace of animal existence … Our chase of animal life was not yet to be rewarded.”
Then more rocky vistas and great mineral formations including “a lofty chain of obelisk-shaped, or very slender pyramids, standing in irregular groups, each composed of about thirty or forty spires, every one of which was perfectly square, and as accurately truncated as the finest specimens of Cornish crystal.”
Next on the agenda was “a wild mountainous region” again covered with sprawling forest, followed by “an oval valley, surrounded, except at narrow opening towards the south, by hills, red as the purest vermilion, and evidently crystallized.”
And here in this magical valley, Dr. Grant reported, “our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears.”
Hallelujah! Great jumpin’ jehosaphat! At last — real, live moon creatures. And these mini-buffalo were just the beginning.
Next came a creature which “would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead colour, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular.” A unicorn, in other words.
And there, dear reader, in “the Valley of the Unicorn,” the exhausted and mesmerized astronomers ended their breathtaking lunar peepshow for the night.
Part 3, Thursday, Aug. 27, 1835
After two cloudy nights unfavourable to observation, the intrepid astronomers renewed their lunar quest on the night of Jan. 13, 1835. This time the telescope’s target area was shifted to a different part of the moon’s surface, a rough and jagged mountain area that seemed to be “old craters of extinct volcanoes, from which still issued a heated though transparent exhalation.”
Adjoining the volcanic range were more forests and then plains, all abounding with lunar wildlife: “a small kind of rein-deer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver.”
Biped beaver? What the hell is a biped beaver?
“The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire. Still its head and body differ only in the points stated from that of the beaver, and it was never seen except on the borders of lakes and rivers, in which is has been seen to immerse for a period of several seconds.”
Well, tarnation — before there was a planet of the apes there was a moon of the biped beaver.
Then a further travelogue of mountains and caverns and lakes and volcanoes and gigantic crystalline formations — and a few more rather ordinary animals (miniature zebras and blue and gold pheasants).
Thus endeth Part 3 — with the tantalizing promise that “Dr. Herschel entertained some singular expectations” for the next region the astronomers would observe in Part 4.
Part 4, Friday, Aug. 28, 1835
The new target area included a mountain of ruby-coloured crystal dripping with long lines of virgin gold — and more moon animals.
“The first observed was a quadruped with an amazingly long neck, head like a sheep, bearing two long spiral horns, white as polished ivory, and standing in a perpendicular parallel to each other. Its body was like that of a deer, but its fore-legs were most disproportionally long, and its tail, which was very busy and of a snowy whiteness, curled high over its rump, and hung two or three feet by its side.” Then came flocks of very earth-like sheep “which would not have disgraced the farms of Leicestershire.”
As the telescope tracked further into a land of “dark behemoth crags … crested with trees,” the astronomers suddenly beheld a sight that would never be seen in Leicestershire — or anywhere else on earth except in a most vivid nightmare.
Some three dozen “large winged creatures” were seen circling slowly down from the cliffs and, when they alighted on a nearby plain, they folded their wings and began walking upright toward a wooded area at the base of the cliffs.
And here I will reproduce an extended description of these astounding new creatures:
“Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified… They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-coloured hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh colour, was a slight 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… The hair on the head was a darker colour than that of the body, closely curled, but apparently not wooly, and arranged in two curious semicircles 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…
“(T)hese creatures were evidently engaged in conversation; their gesticulation, more particularly the varied action of their hands and arms, appeared impassioned and emphatic. We hence inferred that they were rational beings, and although not perhaps of so high an order as others which we discovered the next month on the shores of the Bay of Rainbows, they were capable of producing works of art and contrivance…
“Some of these creatures had crossed this water (a lake) and were lying like spread eagles on the skirts of the wood. We could then perceive that they possessed wings of great expansion, and were similar in structure to this of the bat, being a semi-transparent membrane expanded in curvilineal divisions by means of straight radii, united at the back by the dorsal integuments. But what astonished us very much was the circumstance of this membrane being continued, from the shoulders to the legs, united all the way down, though gradually decreasing in width. The wings seemed completely under the command of volition, for those of the creatures whom we saw bathing in the water, spread them instantly to their full width, waved them as ducks do their to shake off the water, and then as instantly closed them again in a compact form…
“We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”
Oh, yeah! Man-bats! And apparently naughty ones too.
The good Dr. Grant then concludes Part 4 by saying Dr. Herschel would lay out a fuller description and scientific analysis of the man-bats in a future published paper, along with the testimonials of “several Episcopal, Wesleyan, and other ministers, who, in the month of March last, were permitted, under the stipulation of temporary secrecy, to visit the laboratory, and become eye-witnesses of the wonders which they were requested to attest.”
Yeah, baby. I have the proof right here in my pocket. And your cheque is in the mail.
Part 5, Saturday, Aug. 29, 1835
Well, after the man-bats it’s all a little anti-climactic, isn’t it? The fifth article goes back to lunar cataloguing — three vast oceans, seven seas and lesser lakes beyond count. Continents, peninsulas, islands, towering mountains and wide open spaces. Yawn.
And then another magical valley makes an appearance, a place “of paradisiacal beauty and fertility, and like primitive Eden in the bliss of (its) inhabitants.”
And then signs of these inhabitants: First “a magnificent work of art … an equitriangular temple, built of polished sapphire, or of some resplendent blue stone, which, like it, displayed a myriad points of golden light twinkling and scintillating in the sunbeams.” Then more wild description of metallic, glowing flames and soaring pillars and flocks of wild doves on the pinnacle — but no new creatures actually appear.
Part 6, Monday, Aug. 31, 1835
So after a day of rest for a feverishly overexcited city caught up in a lunar (and lunatic) mania, we come to the grand finale. And since this is the grand finale, more man-bats have to make an appearance — bigger and better man-bats, even.
Again, another long descriptive passage:
“(W)e found that nearly all the individuals in these groups were of larger stature than the former specimens, less dark in colour, and in every respect an improved variety of the race.
“They were chiefly engaged in eating a large yellow fruit like a gourd, sections of which they divided with their fingers, and ate with rather uncouth voracity, throwing away the rind. A smaller red fruit, shaped like a cucumber, which we had often seen pendant from trees having a broad dark leaf, was also lying in heaps in the centre of several of the festive groups; but the only use they appeared to make of it was sucking its juice, after rolling it between the palms of their hands and nibbling off an end. They seemed eminently happy, and even polite, for we saw, in many instances, individuals sitting nearest these piles of fruit, select the largest and brightest specimens, and throw them archwise across the circle to some opposite friend or associate who extracted the nutriment from those scattered around him, and which were frequently not a few.
“While thus engaged in their rural banquets, or in social converse, they were always seated with their knees flat upon the turf, and their feet brought evenly together in the form of a triangle. And for some mysterious reason or other this figure seemed to be an especial favourite among them; for we found that every group or social circle arranged itself in this shape before it dispersed, which was generally done at the signal of an individual who stepped into the centre and brought his hands over his head in an acute angle. At this signal each member of the company extended his arms forward so as to form an acute angle horizontal angle with the extremity of the fingers…
“We had no opportunity of seeing them actually engaged in any work of industry or art; and so far as we could judge, they spent their happy hours in collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing, and loitering about on the summits of precipices.”
And other moon creatures, including a tall white stag, would wander peacefully among the fruit-eating man-bats.
“The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious creature, gave us the most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal companion of our larger, but less favoured world.”
Then tragedy. Or at least a temporary setback. Apparently, the angle of the morning sun caught the telescope’s gigantic lens in such a way that it focused a burning ray of solar power.
“Shortly after sunrise the next morning, Dr. Herschel and his assistants … were awakened by the loud shouts of some Dutch farmers and domesticated Hottentotts (who were passing with their oxen to agricultural labour), that the “big house” was on fire! Dr. Herschel leaped out of bed from his brief slumbers, and, sure enough, saw his observatory enveloped in a cloud of smoke.”
Acting quickly, the astronomers turned the lens to disarm the ray-gun and extinguished the fire, saving irreplacable equipment and records in the observatory.
“Masons and carpenters were procured from Cape Town with all possible dispatch, and in about a week the whole apparatus was again prepared for operation.”
Then weather conditions and lunar cycles put an end to moon observations for a month or so and the astronomers turned their attention to Saturn which, in comparison to the moon, seems a much more boring heavenly body although the rings of Saturn are ascertained to be “the skeletons of former globes, lying is a state of wild and ghastly confusion.”
Finally, one last optical visit to the moon, where some more lunar creatures are discovered and an even more highly evolved species of man-apes appear, a group “of infinitely greater personal beauty, and appeared in our eyes scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters. Their social economy seemed to be regulated by laws or ceremonies exactly like those prevailing in the Vale of the Triads, but their works of art were more numerous, and displayed a proficiency of skill quite incredible to all except actual observers.”
But the writer seems to have run out of steam and enthusiasm and just doesn’t hit the same batty fever pitch he did before. After another reminder that Dr. Herschel would soon be presenting a fuller, more detailed report on the expedition’s findings, the anonymous writer comes to an abrupt halt and apparently disappears into the moon mists he so graphically conjured.
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we now stand in amazement that the people of New York — and the world — could be taken in by the bizarre fantasies presented in The Sun as real documentary proof that advanced life existed on the moon in an atmospheric and organic environment more or less the same as Earth’s.
But the reports were, for the most part, taken as an astounding but true account of a marvellous scientific discovery — much the same way as the ordinary person today has to take it on faith that the Higgs boson subatomic particle actually exists and that the Large Hadron Collider really is a super-sophisticated piece of advanced technology and not just some gimcrack piece of conman artifice used to suck hundreds of millions of dollars in spurious funding from gullible governments. And, as in 1835, we base most of our knowledge and opinion on published news reports. Feeling a little nervous about Higgs boson?
There was scepticism about the Sun series, of course, but more so from competing newspapers than from the American scientific community itself, which was more likely to either enthusiastically embrace the news or at least remain conservatively and ambiguously non-committal.
And even those New York newspapers that were openly hostile to The Sun’s supposed revelations were picking up the stories and running them verbatim in their own pages the following day. Ben Day protested such thievery (which was relatively common at that time) but could not counteract the argument that the Sun itself had started the process of plagiarism by purportedly reprinting the articles from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
New York was the heart of the moon mania and the further the story spread from that centre, the more sceptical was the reception and the more the reports were likely to be labelled an outright hoax.
Even so, there was wide and willing belief that stories of man-bats and unicorns and crystal cathedrals on the moon were true.
Even newspapers in Edinburgh — which should have easily been able to ascertain that the original version of the story had never appeared in the Edinburgh Journal of Science — published The Sun’s claims without dispute.
The world was, after all, changing at an amazing pace in 1835 and things that were unimaginable a generation earlier were now commonplace and beyond dispute. So why not one more new, amazing, phantasmagorical discovery?
The U.S. railway boom was just in its infancy and Samuel Morse was still two years away from patenting his telegraph and Morse Code system. Charles Darwin was still aboard the HMS Beagle somewhere near the Galapagos Islands. Bloodletting was still an accepted medical treatment for many ailments.
But technological breakthroughs and innovation were happening everywhere: Only the previous year, the word “scientist” was used for the first time (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and Michael Farraday had introduced the terms “electrode,” “anode,” “cathode” and “electrolyte” in his 1834 treatise On Electrical Decomposition.
The Erie Canal had been operating for a decade, opening up mass transportation and the affordable movement of manufactured goods and raw resources between the Atlantic Coast and the burgeoning American Midwest. The Erie Canal had, in fact, made New York City the busiest and most important port in the United States, surpassing Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston.
At the same time, spurred by economic opportunity and mass immigration, the population of New York City had ballooned to about 300,000 by 1835, almost 10 times larger than it had been 50 years earlier at the end of the American Revolutionary War.
It wasn’t just societal and scientific thought that was changing. Religion and spirituality were also spiralling off in unexpected directions. In the 1830s, the U.S. was being swept by the Second Great Awakening, a movement of evangelical fervour centred in upstate New York. Church attendance was soaring and strange new religious movements were taking shape.
Joseph Smith (also from upstate New York) had published his Book of Mormon in 1830, and Edward Irving and John Nelson Darby were spreading the new doctrine of rapture which is at the heart of many pentecostal evangelical churches today.
Even showman P.T. Barnum was getting in on the act, founding his “Grand Scientific and Musical Theater” — P.T. Barnum’s Circus, in other words — in New York City a few months before The Sun’s great moon excitement.
People seemed to have accepted that the world was changing faster than they could keep up and, in fact, welcomed change and progress and the novelty of innovation and unexpected revelations. They were willing to believe — even in the unbelievable.
So I guess it is understandable why the fantastic lunar claims of The Sun would be so readily embraced — or, at least, not immediately disbelieved — by the vast majority of people.
(Adding to the authenticity of The Sun’s fabrications was the fact that Sir John Herschel really was the preeminent astrologer of his day and actually was in South Africa at that time with his 20-foot “focal length reflector” — one of the largest telescopes in the world in 1835, although not as large as the 40-foot telescope he had at home in England. Of course, Herschel was there with his telescope to look for Halley’s Comet, not man-bats on the moon. And when he finally heard about his supposed moon sightings months and months later, he was somewhat amused — at first. That amusement soon drained as this distinguished and accomplished scientist spent the rest of his life explaining to misinformed strangers that the moon story was a gigantic hoax and he had not seen man-bats and biped beavers, ruby temples and dripping gold on the lunar surface.)
Sir John Herschel
What does truly astound me is that the journalists of The Sun would knowingly and willingly engage in this lying, cheating hoax without ever showing the slightest degree of shame or remorse. And that, as the fullness of the hoax was gradually revealed, the newspaper’s readership did not hold The Sun to account for its shabby, duplicitous trickery.
But, again, I’m looking at the situation with the 20-20 hindsight of a person who has spent his life trying to follow the (increasingly quaint) 20th Century tenet that a journalist’s highest duty should be to the truth and accuracy and rigorous fact-checking, no matter how difficult or painful. Of course that’s ultimately a naive view, one that is daily undermined by the spin-doctoring, propaganda dissemination, subterfuge and outright chicanery one sees in news coverage from Moscow and Kiev and Baghdad and Paris and London and Washington and Ottawa.
But the thing you have to remember is that mass-distribution newspapers were a very new phenomenon in 1835. Operating protocols — and even expectations — were still being formed and were rather expansive and pliable at the time.
Right from the beginning, The Sun seems to have been prone to faking stories. The very first edition of The Sun contained a story about a Vermont boy who whistled constantly — even when asleep. The next day’s paper had a story about a four-foot snake that was coaxed out a sailor’s stomach by a bowl of warm milk.
Reading a newspaper then didn’t come with the automatic assumption that the publication would have done its best to ensure accuracy and truthfulness (or, at least, the appearance of such) in its content. The reality was quite the opposite, in fact. Newspapers were often the forum for throwing out wild speculation to be debated and judged after publication, not before.
As the New York Evening Post said when it reprinted The Sun moon hoax story verbatim: “We publish the article as we find it, and do not know that it is necessary that we should accompany it with any comments to shake the faith which credulous readers may be disposed to place in its authenticity.”
Let the buyer beware, in other words.
As Mario Castagnaro wrote in a 2009 appraisal: “The early 19th Century was a culture of curiosity, one in which readers did not have clear-cut expectations about truth and fiction and the two usually blended together on newspaper pages; credibility was not the chief reason people picked up newspapers.”
People, for the most part, bought newspapers to be entertained as much as informed, it seems. Hmmmm. That strikes awfully close to home in the wired, celebrity-obsessed media world of 2014, doesn’t it? Objective journalism be damned — bring out the dancing unicorns!
But one man was genuinely (I think) outraged by The Sun’s con job — James Gordon Bennett, editor of the competing New York Herald.
A few days after The Sun series ended, Bennett wrote in the Herald: “We mean now to show up the Sun — the impudent Sun — the unprincipled Sun —the mercenary Sun — the low bred Sun — the Sun that hoaxes the public — that tells untruths for money — that makes fools of the wine [sic] — that cheats the whole city and country. The revulsion of public sentiment, is fast accumulating. Its astronomical hoax will touch the Sun yet to the quick.”
But it didn’t. Even with the gradual general acceptance that the moon story was a deliberate hoax, the public response seems to have been one of amusement rather than indignation. Poor old Bennett ceased his attacks on The Sun as he realized his campaign was falling on deaf ears.
In fact, he seems to have decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The Herald, under Bennett’s editorship, soon developed a reputation for sensationalism and hucksterism that matched if not outdid The Sun’s. And that’s saying a lot.
The Sun never publicly admitted its moon stories were a hoax and never retracted the fictive claims. In fact, within a week of the series ending in The Sun, the entire elaborate story — along with some of the drawings you see here — was published in a separate pamphlet that quickly became a best seller in New York City. The story was soon translated and published in illustrated book form in countries throughout Europe.
As William Griggs wrote in 1852: “From England and France these glorious and astounding discoveries sped their welcome way through Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal, and were translated into all the languages. We have recently been assured, in the most serious manner, that in many of the interior parts of Germany, and of the Continent generally, they remain uncontradicted to the present day, and are believed like sacred and delightful truths by vast numbers of the population.”
Authorship of the moon stories was unattributed, apart from extensive quotations from the entirely fictional “Dr. Andrew Grant.” It is generally accepted, however, that the series was written by Richard Adams Locke, a Cambridge-educated Englishman then working as an editor for The Sun.
Richard Adams Locke
Locke was first outed by the Journal of Commerce as the author shortly after the fraudulence of the series was confirmed (in part by Locke’s supposedly confidential admission to another journalist and also by Dr. Herschel’s pronouncements on the real findings of his astronomical observations in South Africa). But he is said to have never publicly staked a claim to authorship even though most New Yorkers seemed to regard it as “a joke” and “magnificent hoax,” as fellow New York newspaperman Horace Greeley put it.
(Locke actually did take credit a few years later when a byline in the New Era, another New York penny paper he was now editing, identified him as “The Author of The Moon Story.” And later still, in 1840, he wrote a long piece for another paper, the New World, in which he explained how and why he came to write the moon series. Something about “scientific freedom” and his revulsion at the “pseudo philosophy” of “religious astronomers” who saw God in everything astral. He was intent on humbugging the humbuggers, it seems. But never mind.)
Locke returned to his hoaxing ways again in 1837 when he tried to bolster the New Era’s faltering circulation by writing and publishing the supposed “Lost Manuscript of Mungo Park.” Park was a famed Scottish explorer who had disappeared on an expedition into the heart of Africa in 1806. The “lost manuscript” was supposed to be a diary kept by Park and found by another Brit in Africa at a much later date.
This time, the hoax bombed — in large part because everyone now knew Locke was the perpetrator of the moon hoax. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote later: “Mr. Locke’s columns were a suspected district.”
The public’s gullibility and acceptance of being lied to seems to have undergone a fairly substantial change in the intervening two years since the moon hoax had been the toast of Broadway. The New Era folded soon thereafter and Locke began a long, tumultuous slide into alcoholism and debt.
Back at The Sun, meanwhile, Benjamin Day had sold the paper to his brother-in-law, Moses Yale Beach, in 1838. By 1844, The Sun was still profitable but nothing like it had been in the heyday of the moon hoax.
So Beach was more than willing to try another circulation-boosting hoax when a struggling Virginia-raised writer named Edgar Allen Poe came into his office with a proposal for a believable story about the first manned balloon flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Edgar Allan Poe
On Saturday, April 13, 1844, The Sun brought out a single-page special edition that screamed the supposed news:
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS!
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!
In nearly 5,000 words, Poe told how famed English aeronaut Monck Mason (a real balloonist, by the way, though his first name, Thomas, was left out of the Poe fiction) had been planning to fly across the English Channel with seven companions in his new balloon, the Victoria, when a connecting rod on the balloon’s steering system broke and allowed the airship to drift out over the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland.
The make-believe Victoria, based on a drawing of one of Thomas Monck Mason’s real balloons.
After the steering system was fixed (so Poe’s newspaper account went) one of Monck Mason’s companions convinced him that, rather than trying to beat back toward Paris, it would make more sense — and be altogether more adventurous — to take advantage of prevailing winds and continue across the Atlantic to North America.
Then, in diary form and using several voices, Poe recounted three days of drifting westward until the coast of South Carolina was sighted (How they would know it was South Carolina and not North Carolina — or Virginia or Georgia — I do not know).
Poe ended his fiction with an entry from supposed novelist William Harrison Ainsworth: “We have crossed the Atlantic, fairly and easily crossed it in a balloon! God be praised! Who shall say that anything is impossible hereafter?”
And then a final editor’s note: “The Journal here ceases.”
The “balloon hoax,” as it came to be known, was immediately and roundly condemned for what it was and does not appear to have dramatically improved The Sun’s circulation.
That may be partly attributed to the fact (reported later by one of Poe’s friends) that the author had drunkenly stood outside The Sun offices on publication day, proclaiming the story to be a hoax and identifying himself as the author. As Matthew Goodman, author of the book The Sun and The Moon about the various hoaxes, noted: “Poe’s career was riddled with acts of self-sabotage, often provoked by drink, which he came to regret when sober. Such may have been the case here.”
In any case, two days later — in the very next issue — The Sun printed a retraction of the balloon story: “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”
So the “balloon hoax” sank like a lead balloon. But Edgar Allen Poe went on to publish The Raven to great success in January 1845 (although he was paid only $9 for its first publication, less than a fifth of what he had made for the balloon hoax story). He continued to write poetry and short stories (nothing as good as his pre-Balloon-Hoax output, however), literary criticism and essays until his mysterious death in Baltimore in October 1849.
Nobody really knows what killed Edgar Allan Poe. He was found wandering the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, in a delirium and wearing clothes that were not his own. He was taken to Washington Medical College where he died four days later without ever regaining coherent consciousness.
Cause of death has variously been attributed to alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose, cholera, consumption (tuberculosis), heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, rabies or even “congestion of the brain,” as some newspapers reported at the time. But nobody knows for sure. Poe’s death certificate and other medical records are long since lost.
As for the author of the much grander Moon Hoax, Richard Adams Locke gave up journalism — and all writing — in 1842, becoming a New York customs inspector (a Tammany Hall patronage appointment), a post he held until his retirement in 1862 at age 61. He died in 1871.
No newspaper obituaries were written for Richard Adams Locke, author of the Great Moon Hoax, not even in The Sun. You can find more on the Great Moon Hoax (although not all of it is accurate, I’m afraid) at the Museum of Hoaxes website, including the full text of the six-part series that appeared in The Sun between Aug. 25 and Aug. 31, 1835 — 179 years ago this week