175 Years Ago, an Epic Case of Flimflammery (Plus Man-Bats)
New York City got lost in space 175 years ago this week
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A: In general, the Sun was the paper that did that. The publisher tried to create a paper that the average people in the city would want. He put a great deal of emphasis on crime stories, on scandal and gossip, on sports, theater coverage, and so forth. He really created the template for what we think of today as being tabloid journalism, both for good and bad.
Also, he put a lot more emphasis on good hard local political coverage, really covered the city that most people were living in. There was a lot to be said for this kind of journalism: It was more democratic.
Q: Didn't the paper worry that it would lose the trust of its readers once the hoax was exposed?
A: That didn't happen at all. This was the age of hoaxes. One of the main characters in "The Sun and the Moon" is a young showman who arrived on the scene at the same time – P.T. Barnum. He had with him an elderly African-American woman whom he claimed was 161 years old and the former nursemaid of George Washington. People flocked to go see her.
When the hoaxes were exposed, people didn't turn away from either Barnum or the Sun. They kind of tipped their hats and said, "Job well done."
Q: What's the relevance of this whole story today?
A: As I discovered in the course of researching the book, the man who wrote the hoax, the editor of the Sun, did not intend it to be a hoax at all.
He had intended it to be a satire of the religious astronomers of the time. There really wasn't a bright line of distinction between science and religion in those days, and astronomers as a group were quite a religious bunch.
Most of them believed there was life elsewhere in the universe. They believed that every celestial body was inhabited because God wouldn’t have created them without creating intelligent beings to appreciate them.
The editor believed this was religion masquerading as science. He wrote this series to satirize that type of thinking. What he hadn't anticipated was that the public, which had been trained in the ideas of these religious astronomers, accepted his satire as true.
The ongoing struggle between science and religion is something that continues to be deeply relevant today, with the fight over evolution being taught in the schools, stem cells, and all kinds of issues in which religion seeks to assert its dominance over free scientific inquiry.
Q: Of all the creatures on the moon, are the lunar man-bats your favorite?
A: You can't go wrong with a good lunar man-bat. But I do have a certain affection for the biped beavers. And there's something charming about the fact that these "astronomers" perceived as one of their first discoveries a flock of beautiful sheep who looked like they'd wandered in from a pasture in England, where the editor had come from.
Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.