The Giant In The Earth

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One requirement of a successful hoax is credibility of the setting, and Stub Newell, the front man, played his role beautifully. After checking among Cardiff’s two hundred residents the Journal ’s correspondent concluded that Newell was a “sober, industrious and worthy citizen . .. generally esteemed as a right good fellow.” In fact, he continued, that right good fellow was so upset and perplexed by the whole business that for a time he “resolved that the excavation should be filled up and the discovery be kept quiet.”

Newell rapidly overcame his perplexity, as those who swarmed over the farm on Monday discovered. A tent had been erected over the pit, and tickets of admission cost fifty cents. The spectators were herded into the tent, where an “exhibitor” delivered a spiel on the Giant’s vital statistics and discovery and the speculations about his pedigree. “An air of great solemnity pervaded the place,” a witness recalled; “visitors hardly spoke above a whisper.” After fifteen minutes the crowd was herded to the exit to make room for the next group of gawkers.

As the Syracuse papers spread the news Newell’s business grew to landoffice proportions. The roads to Cardiff were jammed with buggies, rude farm wagons, and special stages from Syracuse that carried passengers to the scene for a dollar a head. Weekday attendance was in the hundreds, and on Saturdays and Sundays the daily draw was as much as twenty-six hundred. Crude eateries sprang up near the site, advertising “Warm Meals, Oysters and Oats.” Taverns and hotels in Cardiff and the surrounding towns, bearing such freshly painted signs as “The Giant Saloon” and “Goliath House,” were filled to the rafters. Not only was Stub Newell raking in the money—"the receipt of hundreds of dollars astonished and bewildered the humble farmer,” a reporter noted- but now a good many others also had a stake in the Giant’s longevity as an attraction; they became believers, willing or otherwise.

The line dividing a hoax from an outright swindle, such as a stock fraud, is sometimes blurred, but generally speaking the difference lies in the originator’s intent. What might be termed class-c hoaxes, which seem to find their way into print on slow news days, have included reports of such fauna as whistling cats, monkeys trained to pick cotton, and a beaver that gnawed off the wooden leg of a dozing farmer. These usually involve nothing more than a bored reporter seeking to brighten his day. A class-B hoax reflects considerably more imagination but is equally harmless. Classic examples are the eighty-odd entirely fictitious biographies that one or more contributors managed to slip into 1880’s editions of the respectable Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography ; Edgar Allan Poe’s breathless 1844 news account in the New York SMW of a transatlantic balloon crossing; and the 1926 tale of the discovery in a hollow tree in Wisconsin of a member of the Marquette-Joliet expedition, neatly preserved in tree sap.

Class- A hoaxes are distinguished for their dazzling audacity and for the breadth, even if only temporary, of their success. Clifford Irving’s recent “autobiography” of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes falls into this category. So does the series of articles, “reprinted” from a nonexistent scientific journal, that appeared in the New York Sun in 1835 detailing the discovery by the noted British astronomer Sir John Herschel of life-forms, indeed whole flourishing communities, on the moon. H. L. Mencken deserves high ranking for his exaggerated and entirely fictitious history of the introduction of the bathtub in America, which he wrote in 1917 [see “Postscripts to History,” page 100]. Four decades after its inception his bathtub history was still soberly making the rounds. A well-constructed hoax dies hard.

George Hull’s Cardiff Giant certainly deserves a class-A rating. It was conceived to gull the credulous and expose the pompous. If it indeed turned a profit for all concerned, the modest admission price hardly ranks it as a serious swindle. In the final reckoning the success of Hull’s hoax rested on simple gullibility, on a popular if uninformed fascination with natural science—and on a good measure of luck.

 

The gullible, through ignorance or a pathetic willingness to believe anything delivered in high-flown terms by an “authority,” were the sort who had made P. T. Barnum wealthy. Among the more sophisticated who flocked to see the Giant were amateur scientists inspired by Darwin’s recent evolutionary theory to dabble in geology and paleontology. “Geology is quite a new science,” noted the Syracuse Standard . “It depends on observation and all that it teaches us is that a Fossil Giant never was discovered until William C. Newell dug his well at Cardiff.” Local tales of past findings of strange fossil forms and oversized skeletons and human remains turned “hard as stone” were trundled out to buttress the arguments of the “petrifactionists.”