The Great Lunar hoax of 1835
The moon has always held a certain fascination. After all, it is the nearest heavenly body to planet Earth and on a clear night, not that we have too many here in Blighty, you can easily see its contours and shades of light and dark. The more fanciful amongst us speculate whether there may be life lurking in amongst the craters. It was this stream of thought that the New York Sun tapped into with its elaborate lunar hoax.
It all began with a discrete announcement on page two of the edition for 21st August in which the paper announced that it had got its hands on some reports, from a publisher in Edinburgh, of some astronomical discoveries which the eminent scientist, Sir John Herschel, had made whilst out in South Africa. The full details were to be provided exclusively in the paper over six days the following week. And so it was. The articles ran to around 17,000 words in total and were supposed to have been based on articles that had appeared in the Edinburgh Courant which had taken the account from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
Of course, to be able to inspect the moon so closely and with such clarity, Herschel would have needed a telescope far more powerful than those currently deployed. So the first article, published on Monday 24th August, went into great detail about Herschel’s immense telescope – it was said to be 24 feet in diameter – built on new principles and so powerful that it could be used to study “even the entomology of the moon, in case she contained insects upon her surface.”
Having established the fact that Herschel had the means to explore the surface of the moon in minute detail, the article published on the Tuesday recounted the moment on 10th January 1835 when the scientist first trained his telescope on to it. He wasn’t disappointed finding rocks “profusely covered with a dark flower” and then, more sensationally, herds of brown quadrupeds, a goat and “a strange amphibious creature, of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach.” Day three brought even more discoveries – a wide variety of flora and fauna, including bipedal beavers which lived in huts “constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages.” Naturally, they had fire.
Day four revealed the discovery of bat-like humans, dubbed Vespertilio-homo, whose appearance was a “slight improvement upon that of a large orang outing.” They spent their time conversing and copulating in the open. In the fifth extract the discovery of a mysterious abandoned temple was announced and the cliff-hanger for the weekend was what did it all mean. The answer was revealed in the sixth and final extract – a superior version of Vespertilio-homo who lived near the temple, spending their time collecting fruit, flying, bathing and conversing in a “universal state of amity.”
The discoveries caused a stir. When Herschel heard about them – he was alive and blissfully unaware that his name had been taken in vain – he was naturally pissed, initially commenting “it is a most extraordinary affair! Pray, what does it mean?” and later complaining “I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon — In English French Italian & German!!” The story was quickly declared a hoax by the Journal of Commerce which pointed out, amongst other things, that the Edinburgh Journal of Science did not exist and named the perpetrator as one of the Sun’s staff, Richard Adams Locke. More detailed exposes appeared in the New York Herald.
But the genie was out of the bottle and throughout the rest of the 19th century, the moon hoax was the gold standard against which anything suspicious was measured. In Van Kempelen and His Discovery, Edgar Allan Poe used the term moon hoaxy. Quite what Locke was hoping to achieve by such an elaborate and time-consuming hoax has been lost in history.
If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone