In August 1835, a local newspaper declared that a famed British astronomer had discovered life on the moon. And not just any old life: fantastic creatures that did fantastic things just a couple of hundred thousand miles away.
Countless readers fell for the grand hoax, which wasn't actually meant to fool anyone. In his 2008 book, author Matthew Goodman tells the story of this whopper of a tall tale.
To commemorate the anniversary of this epic case of flimflammery, I asked Goodman about what he discovered while researching "The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York."
Q: So what actually happened in New York City in August 1835?
A: The New York Sun, the first of the so-called penny papers – the first paper that was directed not at the elite of the city but at average working people – published a series of articles that claimed life had been discovered on the moon by means of this supposedly powerful new telescope. It had allegedly been invented by the great British astronomer Sir John Herschel.
Over the course of the articles, the discoveries on the moon became ever more wondrous and exciting. Initially, there were bison and sheep on the moon, but as time went on the astronomers were said to have discovered ever more complicated creatures: unicorns and beavers that walked on their hind legs and discovered the secret of fire.
The series caused a huge sensation in New York. It was done with versimilitude and a tremendous amount of scientific detail. Herschel was a real astronomer, the most famous in the world, who was conveniently thousands of miles away in South Africa.
The culmination at the end of the series was the discovery of lunar man-bats.
Q: What is a lunar man-bat?
A: These were four-foot-tall creatures that talked, flew, built temples, and fornicated in public.
A majority of people in the city believed these accounts, perhaps 9 out of 10. They swarmed around the Sun offices waiting for the next account in the series. The Sun had become the most widely read newspaper in the entire world.
At the time, compared with today, most newspaper circulations were exceedingly small. Newspapers were very expensive, and they were meant for the elite of the city. They covered only the sorts of stories that merchants and the elite would be interested in, and very often they had circulations of only a few thousand.
But by the time this series was over, the Sun had a circulation of over 19,000, which was about as much as all the other newspapers in New York put together, larger than any other paper in the world, including the Times of London.
Q: Did the series help usher in sensationalism, the era of yellow journalism?
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.