The Moon Hoax: Journalism gone amuck

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Newspapers are generally known for their objectivity and trying to print, as the New York Times, put it, “all the news that’s fit to print.” That wasn’t always the case, however, and in 1835 the New York Sun probably perpetrated the greatest newspaper hoax in history.

What began as an innocent-looking blurb headlined “Celestial Discoveries” soon turned into one of the most talked-about newspaper series ever. The author of the hoax was Richard Adams Locke, a talented writer but someone a tad short on ethics. In any case, the first story appeared Aug. 21.

“We have just learnt from an eminent publisher in this city that Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

Four days later, Locke wrote another story about this fantastic discovery, furthering the tall tale by affixing its origin to a Scottish journal, the Edinburgh Journal of Science.

“GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES lately made by Sir John Herschel, LL.D, F.R.S., &C. At the Cape of Good Hope”

[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

The article relates some vague importance event, builds up to the moment Sir John Herschel looked into the telescope and pauses. And well might he pause!

“From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying. Well might he pause! He was about to become the sole depository of wondrous secrets, which had been hid from the eyes of all men hat had lived since the birth of time.

“… [B]y means of a telescope, of vast dimension and an entirely new principle, the young Herschel, at his observatory in the southern hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of 100 yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of beings; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy…”

The article ended with a description of the great telescope: 24 feet in diameter, 15,000 pounds in weight, magnifying power of 42,000.

The next day, Aug. 26, the Sun continued with the “astounding” story as it “reprinted” the Journal of Science again. In part, the Sun informed the readers about an incredible discovery: tiny moon buffalo.

“In the shade of the woods on the southeastern 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 was like that of our bos grunniens: but in its semicircular horns, the hump on its shoulders, the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembles the species to which I have compared it…

“The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward form the perpendicular. The female was destitute of the horn and beard, but had a much longer tail. It was a gregarious, and chiefly abounded on the acclivitous glades of the woods. In elegance of symmetry it revealed the antelope, and like him it seemed an agile, sprightly creature, running with great speed and springing form the green rug with all the unaccountable antics of the young lamb or kitten.

“… On examining the center of this delightful valley we found a large, branching river abounding with lovely islands and water-birds of numerous kinds. A species of gray pelican was the most numerous, but lack and white cranes, with unreasonable long legs and bill were also quite common. … Near the upper extremity of one of these islands we obtained a glimpse of a strange amphibious creature of a spherical form.”

The Sun was obviously on a bit of a roll, and even its competitors, that would have loved to prove the story fake, were cowed by the “scientific” nature in which the story was presented. In short, not a word in dispute was published. The next installment read like an “Indiana Jones” script, including the Vagabond Mountains, the Lake of Death, gigantic and long-dead volcanoes, great forest, vast plains and a lake the size of the Bay of Bengal.

In addition, Herschel had “classified not less than 38 species of forest trees,” and nine species of mammals described as “a small kind of reindeer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver.” Lest we forget, there were also zebras, 3 feet high, roaming the fields of the moon.

Nothing could match the Aug. 28 issue of the Sun, however. One, it was the day the Sun claimed the highest circulation in the world at more than 19,000; two, it was the day the Sun revealed that Herschel had seen n hold onto your hat, folks n men on the moon. Well, maybe not men, but close enough.

While looking at a new section of the moon the astronomers, according to the Sun, “ … were thrilled with astonishment to perceive four successive flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds, descend with a slow, even motion from the cliffs on the western side and alight upon the plain. … Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and the 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-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 claves of the legs.

“The face, which was of a yellowish flesh-color, was a slight improvement on that of the large orangutan, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expanse 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 the Simia genus.

“We could then perceive that heir wings possessed great expansion, and were similar in structure to those of the bat, being a semi-transparent membrane expanded in curvilinear divisions by mean of straight radii, untied at the back of the dorsal integuments …

The three families then almost simultaneously spread their wings, and were last in the dark confines of the canvas before we had time to breathe from our paralyzing astonishment. We scientifically denominated them the vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”

As Frank O’Brien writes in “The History of the Sun,” “New York now stopped its discussion of human slavery, the high cost of living … and devoted its talking hours to the man-bats of the moon. The Sun was stormed by people who wanted back numbers of the story …”

The final installment of the moon narratives published Aug. 31, reported on the work ethic of the man-bats.

“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 upon the summits of precipices.”

The entire episode came to an end like most hoaxes n a mouth overflowed.

In this case, the mouth was attached to Richard Adams Locke, who revealed the truth to a friend and fellow reporter for the Journal of Commerce. When the reporter said the Journal had decided to print the Sun’s stories, Locke said to wait, that he had written the stories. The next day n judgment day for Locke and the Sun n the Journal, as well as Bennett’s Herald, as well as about every other newspaper in town n cried foul, screamed hoax, and generally yelled loudly about abstract concerns such as ethics.

Two weeks later the Sun published an editorial on the subject.

“Some persons of little faith but great good nature, who consider the ‘moon story’ as it is vulgarly called, an adroit fiction of our own, are quite of the opinion that this was the amiable moral which the writer had in view. Other readers however, construe the whole as an elaborate satire upon the monstrous fabrications of the political press of the country and the various genera and species of its party editors. In the blue goat with the royal arms of England, many persons fancy they perceive the characteristics of a notorious foreigner who is the supervising editor of one of our largest morning papers.”

The end result? The people of New York apparently loved being put on. The Sun’s circulation didn’t just grow during the hoax; it grew afterward because of the hoax.