The great Moon Hoax

Lapham’s Quarterly has the story of the rapping Fox sisters by PT Barnum, extracted from his 1866 book The Humbugs of the World, a guide to charlatanism in all its forms, from Spiritualism, dubious businesses, medicines and classic hoaxes. Mostly, the tales within are of common trickery and subterfuge: ‘There is a person by the name of J. V. Mansfield who has been called by spiritualists the “Great Spirit-Postmaster,” his specialty being the answering of sealed letters addressed to spirits. The letters are returned—some of them, at least—to the writers without appearing to have been opened, accompanied by answers purporting to be written through Mansfield by the spirits addressed. Such of these letters as are sealed with gum arabic merely, can be steamed open, and the envelopes resealed and reglazed as they were before.’ One chapter is devoted to the Moon Hoax of 1835, issued to coincide with Sir John Hershel’s journey to South Africa the previous year to make astronautical and botanical observations. The hoax was a great tabloid success, which boosted circulation of the paper that contained them, The Sun of New York.


The hoax purported to chronicle a wealth of fauna on the lunar surface, all made visible thanks to Herchel’s advanced new telescope, including ‘herds of brown quadrupeds’, a goat-like beast ‘of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and a beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from, the perpendicular’ and ‘a quadruped with an amazingly long neck, head like a sheep, bearing two long spiral horns, white as polished ivory, and standing in perpendiculars parallel to each other. Its body was like that of a deer, but its forelegs were most disproportionately long, and its tail, which was very bushy and of a snowy whiteness, curled high over its rump and hung two or three feet by its side. Its colors were bright bay and white, brindled in patches, but of no regular form.’ The moon also contained people, of course.

But all these beings faded into insignificance compared with the first sight of the genuine Lunatics, or men in the moon, “four feet high, covered, except in the face, with short, glossy, copper-colored hair,” and “with 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,” “with faces of a yellowish flesh-color—a slight improvement on the large ourang-outang.” Complimentary for the Lunatics! But, says the chronicler, Lieutenant Drummond declared that “but for their long wings, they would look as well on a parade-ground as some of the cockney militia!” A little rough, my friend the reader will exclaim, for the aforesaid militia.

Google ‘moon hoax‘ today and you get reams of mad ramblings that make Buzz Aldrin’s knuckles ache. But in the nineteenth century, for a few weeks at least, the Sun’s reports were widely accepted. Even Herschel grimly had to admit that the ‘discoveries’ were far more interesting than his own / other things: explore the Moon in Google Earth. Watch Moon. Read Full Moon, a sadly scarce book of incredible NASA-sourced imagery. Play Moonbase Alpha, the lunar base simulator.

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