"Tuesday, August 25, 1835
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]"
"The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster. It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular. The female was destitute of horn and beard, but had a much longer tail. It was gregarious, and chiefly abounded on the acclivitous glades of the woods. In elegance of symmetry it rivalled the antelope, and like him it seemed an agile sprightly creature, running with great speed, and springing from the green turf with all the unaccountable antics of a young lamb or kitten. This beautiful creature afforded us the most exquisite amusement."
This is just one of the fanciful creatures which the New York Sun claimed to have found on the surface of the moon with the help of a telescope in Capetown. In a series of six articles, the paper committed a huge hoax upon its readers, beginning on today's date, August 25, in 1835.
"The Great Moon Hoax" Begins
Called “The Great Moon Hoax,” the series of articles claimed to be reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. They were said to be written by one Dr. Andrew Grant, said to be a colleague of Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer of the day. Dr. Herschel had indeed
traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 and using a powerful new telescope, he had constructed a powerful observatory there. As Grant described it, Dr. Herschel had seen all manner of fantastic life forms on the moon, including the giant blue goat described above, as well as some furry winged humanoids which flew about as bats (above), unicorns, and two legged beavers. It also drew a vivid picture of the moon's geographical features which included lush vegetation, roaring rivers, and huge amethyst crystals.
"Dr. Grant" Turns Out to be Fictional
Of course the problem was that Herschel, a very real scientist (below), had never seen anything of the sort; wasn't even aware that such claims had been made. There was no Dr. Grant, and the The Edinburgh Journal of Science had ceased publication some years earlier, The
articles had in fact been satire, meant to poke fun at the fanciful claims being published in the speculative books by such writers as Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed that there were 4 billion inhabitants on the moon. But the articles had not been recognized as satirical by the readers if the Sun, but instead were widely read by the public. In fact, the Sun's circulation is said to have shot up considerably as a result of these articles. And this sort of amazing science definitely took hold with the public, which hung on every word.
"The Great Moon Hoax" Finally Collapses
But real scientists had taken an interest in the articles; a group from Yale University arrived in New York, looking for the articles which had been cited in the Edinburgh Journal. But after being directed and re-directed by employees off the Sun between various printing and editorial offices, the men realized that they had been taken in. Here, the historical record available on-line becomes a bit sketchy. "The History Channel" website says that on September 16, 1835, the Sun announced that the whole thing had been a hoax. But "Wikipedia" says "It was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction." And the public did not seem to be too angered by the whole affair, according to "the History Channel." In fact the Sun claimed that their circulation had risen considerably as a result of "the Great Moon Hoax" and that indeed, it had wound up staying with increased readership. The validity of this claim is said to have been greatly exaggerated by several sources. No doubt it was overplayed, but the Sun did nevertheless stick around until the 1950's. So this whole crazy affair couldn't have hurt them too much.