In the history of American journalism, it is known as the Great Moon Hoax.
It happened --- or didn’t happen --- depending on how you look at it, on this week in 1835. The New York Sun was the culprit. It printed a series of six, long articles about new observations of the moon supposedly made by a famous astronomer, Sir John Herschel.
The public was entranced. As copies of the newspaper rolled off the press, people gobbled them up. The Sun reported that the astronomer, Herschel, had built a powerful new telescope and trained it on the moon -- and from the Cape of Good Hope he had observed fantastic living creatures. There were plants and animals, including herds of bison, blue unicorn, birds, other horned animals and what looked like sheep.
And Herschel’s most interesting discovery -- furry bat people who “were first seen flying gently down from cliffs and alighting on the ground.” One article that excited great attention said: “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 flossy copper-colored 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 color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orangutan.”
The Sun admitted, soon after the six articles were published, that it was a hoax. And most people accepted that fact without anger. They enjoyed the hoax. It was quite a contrast to what has happened in recent days, when a few naysayers came forward to insist that Apollo 11 never happened, that Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon.
It shows that that some people thrive on the unusual -- and are ready to accept it -- while others reject it even if there’s undeniable proof that it’s true. Thus, even the dramatic television broadcast of the moon landing when Neil Armstrong and his co-pilot, Col. Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. landed their ship near the Sea of Tranquility and Armstrong radioed to earth: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” failed to impress a small group of skeptics. They insist it was a fake.
Going back to the 1835 hoax, it’s interesting to note how some of our most famous Americans reacted at that time. Edgar Allen Poe suspected all along, he said, that the story was a fraud. “But [I] was astonished to find that I could obtain few listeners, so really eager were all to be deceived.” P.T. Barnum, who built a circus empire on the philosophy that there’s a sucker born every minute, called it “the most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the generation with which we are numbered has known.” This man, if anyone, could be looked upon as an authority on hoaxes.
A reporter named Richard Adams Locke wrote the six articles. Sir John Herschel, whose by-line adorned the stories about the moon, was amused by the articles. But, later, the astronomer became annoyed when too many people tried to question him about the moon story. After a group of Baptist ministers inquired about spreading the Gospel among moon residents, Herschel called the series he wrote “incoherent ravings.”
Political analyst Hank Sheinkopf told me: “What happened in 1835 is kind of like politics. We want to believe but then are disillusioned --- and we can’t hold on to our belief.”
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