By R. J. Brown
Every History of American journalistic hoaxing properly begins with the celebrated moon hoax which "made" the New York Sun of Benjamin Day. It consisted of a series of articles, allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science, relating to the discovery of life on the moon by Sir John Herschel, eminent British astronomer, who some time before had gone to the Cape of Good Hope to try out a new type of powerful telescope.
The first installment of the moon hoax appeared in the August 25, 1835 edition of the New York Sun on page two, under the heading "Celestial Discoveries." The brief passage read in part as follows: "We have just learnt (sic) 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."
As a mater of fact, Herschel had gone to South Africa in January, 1834, and set up an observatory at Cape Town. Three columns of the first page of the Sun contained a story credited to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. (That publication had suspended some time before.) There was a great deal of matter about the importance of Herschel's impending announcement of his discoveries.
On August 25, the Sun ran four columns describing what Sir John had been able to see, looking at the moon through his telescope.
So fascinating were the descriptions of trees and vegetation, oceans and beaches, bison and goats, cranes and pelicans that the whole town was talking even before the fourth installment appeared on August 28, 1835, with the master revelation of all: the discovery of furry, winged men resembling bats. The narration was printed as follows:
"We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood... Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified... About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas; but of all the others we had perfectly distinct and deliberate view. 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 calves of their legs.
The face, which was of a yellowish color, was an improvement upon that of the large orangutan... so much so that but for their long wings they would look as well on a parade ground as some of the old cockney militia. The hair of the head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled but apparently not woolly, and arranged in two circles 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...We could perceive that their wings possessed great expansion and were similar in structure of those of the bat, being a semitransparent membrane expanded in curvilinear divisions by means of straight radii, united at the back by dorsal integuments. But what astonished us most 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 theirs to shake off the water, and then as instantly closed them again in a compact form.
The Sun reached a circulation of 15,000 daily on the first of the stories. When the discovery of men on the moon appeared Day was able to announce that the Sun possessed the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world: 19,360.
Later stories told of the Temple of the Moon, constructed of sapphire, with a roof of yellow resembling gold. There were pillars seventy feet high and six feet thick supporting the roof of the temple. More man-bats were discovered and readers of the Sun were awaiting more astounding details, but the Sun told them the telescope had, unfortunately, been left facing the east and the Sun's rays, concentrated through the lenses, burned a hole "15 feet in circumference" entirely through the reflecting chamber, putting the observatory out of commission.
Rival editors were frantic; many of them pretended to have access to the original articles and began reprinting the Sun's series. It was not until the Journal of Commerce sought permission to publish the series in pamphlet form, however, that Richard Adams Locke, confessed authorship. Some authorities think that a French scientist, Nicollet, in this country at the time, wrote them.
Before Locke's confession a committee of scientists from Yale University hastened to New York to inspect the original articles; it was shunted from editorial office to print shop and back again until it tired and returned to New Haven. Edgar Allan Poe explained that he stopped work on the second part of The Strange Adventures of Hans Pfaall because he had felt he had been outdone. So many writers have perpetuated the legend that Harriet Martineau in her Retrospect of Western Travel said a Springfield, Massachusetts, missionary society resolved to send missionaries to the moon to convert and civilize the bat men.
After a number of his competitors, humiliated because they had "lifted" the series and passed it off as their own, upbraided Day, the Sun of September 16, 1835, admitted the hoax. When the hoax was exposed people were generally amused. It did not seem to lessen interest in the Sun, which never lost its increased circulation.