February 2008

The Great Moon Hoax

Every history of American journalistic hoaxing properly begins with the celebrated Moon hoax that "made" the New York Sun for Benjamin Day, the editor and publisher of the newspaper. 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, an eminent British astronomer. Herschel, who shortly before the articles were published, had left for the Cape of Good Hope in South America 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 August 26 edition of Sun contained a story credited to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. (That publication had suspended publishing some time before.) There was a great deal of matter about the importance of Herschel’s impending announcement of his discoveries.

On August 27, 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. However, the Sun told them the telescope had, unfortunately, been left facing the east and the Sun's rays, concentrated 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.

HistoryBuff.com Update
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It Takes All Kinds
Several times a month I receive phone calls from people wanting to know the value of an old newspaper they have. Recently I received one such call that I will remember for a long, long time. How soon do you spot the "trouble" with the newspaper the man had? Here goes:

The man stated he had a newspaper from 1777. When I asked what specific date he hum hawed around and said there was no day or month. Just the year 1777. Perhaps it was a broadside instead. Pressing futher, I asked for more details. He told me the main content was something about "Roots" and it had a color photo of LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte. I asked for confirmation again that it wasn't really 1977. He confirmed it was dated 1777. When I informed him that in 1777 photography did not exist at all let alone color photos and the movie Roots did not exist prior to 1977, he informed me that he KNEW it was an original 1777 newspaper because his grandmother had saved it. I then asked if his grandmother was over 231 years old? He replied that he wasn't sure how old she was. He then got mad at me and hung up!

January Contest

CONTEST ONE QUESTION: Of the following, which is NOT the middle name of a United States President?

ANSWER: Sampson

CONTEST TWO QUESTION: Which state was the first to legally allowed women to vote?

ANSWER: When I wrote this question I had Wyoming in mind. Several entries gave the answer New Jersey in the late 1700's. In checking this out, I discovered it was true. Any women owning property with a value of $250 or more could vote. Thus I accepted either as the correct answer.

Seventy-eight people entered the contest. Twenty either had incorrect answer or email subject heading. All prizes were claimed.
The January Contest Winners Were:
  • Rhonda Spaulding - Wyoming
  • Lisa Muller - Connecticut
  • Marlene G. Stringfellow - Maryland
  • Dan Davidson - Michigan
  • Karen Duld - Pennsylvania
  • Dave Kelley - Utah
  • André-Louis de la Bruyère - France

This Issue's Questions:

To enter Contest One, answer the question: Who was the first graduate from West Point to become a United States President?

To enter Contest Two, answer the question: Who was the first graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy to become a United States President?


Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Thursday, February 14, 2008. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 24 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • To enter Contest One or Contest Two, email your answer to curator at historybuff.com

  • To enter Contest One, use "Contest One Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • To enter Contest Two, use "Contest Two Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but only win one prize.

  • If entering both contests, entries must be sent in separate emails.

  • You MUST select ONE prize from the list.

  • From subscribers entering the contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE contest prize they want to win, EIGHT will be selected to win ONE of the contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.
February Contest One Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)

At Leningrad's Gates
The Combat Memoirs of a Soldier with Army Group North
By William, Lubbeck

This is the remarkable story of a German soldier who fought throughout WWII, rising from a private to captain in the heavy weapons company on the Eastern front.

At 19 Lubbeck was drafted in August 1939. As a member of the 58th Infantry Division he was present at the 1940 invasion of France and on the northern sector of the Eastern Front from 1941-45. This book contains detailed information on the organization, training, equipment, and operations of his unit. The author attained the rank of sergeant before being assigned in late 1943 to officer training in Germany. He returned to the Eastern Front and was assigned as the company commander of his old unit just before the massive Soviet summer offensives commenced in 1944. My only regret is the book contains few details of the fighting during this period. Details of combat from 1944-45 are few, but the ones he provides will hold your interest.

The book can be ordered from Amazon.com


February Contest Two Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)


Little Lord Fountleroy (1936)
FreddieBartholomew & Mickey Rooney


The Borrowers (1973)
Staring Eddie Albert & Tammy Grimes

Original Historic Newspapers

Original Manchester American & Messenger (New Hampshire) historic newspaper from 1853

New York Tribune historic newspaper from 1860

Original New Hampshire Patriot historic newspaper from 1868

Original Coldwater Republican (Michigan) historic newspaper from 1876
That's it for this issue.

Rick Brown

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