- Historic Sites
The Giant In The Earth
IT’S A PETRIFIED MAN! IT’S A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY IDOL! IT’S A HOAX! ITS THE CARDIFF GIANT!
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
The element of luck entered the scene along with the first so-called experts who came to view the Giant. A local lecturer on scientific matters, Dr. John F. Boynton, was quick to point out that no evidence existed for the petrifaction of flesh. The Giant was therefore not a petrified human, from biblical days or any others. He was, however, a figure of nearly equal interest. The Cardiff Giant, Dr. Boynton theorized, was a magnificent statue, carved some 250 years before by a French Jesuit priest to awe the local Indians.
“The chin is magnificent and generous,” Dr. Boynton wrote; “the eyebrow, or superciliary ridge, is well arched; the mouth is pleasant; the brow and forehead are noble.” The figure was definitely “the Napoleonic type,” bearing a striking resemblance to both George Washington and former New York Governor De Witt Clinton. Unhappily, George Hull’s reaction to these flattering comparisons is unrecorded.
The Reverend S. R. Calthrop of Syracuse embraced the Boynton statue theory and offered his own embellishment. The unknown French sculptor, he announced, was a man of “noble original powers… some one with a righteous soul sighing over the lost civilization of Europe, weary of swamp and forest and fort, who, finding this block by the side of the stream, solaced the weary days of exile with pouring out his thought upon the stone.” The Giant, the Reverend Mr. Calthrop concluded, represented a heroic Northman shot through the back by a poisoned Indian arrow.
The statue theory received important reinforcement from Professor James Hall, New York State’s geologist and a recognized authority on paleontology. After a fifteen-minute examination (which was all a no doubt nervous Stub Newell would allow) Hall was quoted as agreeing that the figure was a statue of some antiquity, “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in this country.”
The petrifactionists hastened to fill the newspaper columns with denunciations of the Boynton-Hall statue theory. The Giant had no pedestal or base; who ever heard, they asked, of a statue of a reclining figure contorted in agony? His exquisite naturalness was beyond the sculptor’s art; he could be nothing except a petrified man. In rebuttal the statuists dismissed the contention that flesh petrified as scientifically unfounded and pointed out that close study of the body’s striations revealed definite patterns that proved it had been carved from a single block.
The beauty of this heated debate, from the standpoint of Hull and Newell, was that it quite obscured more skeptical, speculations on the Giant’s origin. It was also very good for business. A further distraction in their favor was provided by a story in James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald on October 25, which turned out to be a hoax about a hoax. The Cardiff Giant, the Herald reported, had actually been carved a year previously by a “monomaniac” Canadian sculptor in order “to rival the fame of Michael Angelo,” that Italian artist of some reputation. The figure, according to what the Herald claimed was the deathbed confession of a Syracuse teamster who had befriended the Canadian, was in reality a representation of Saint Paul. By the time that particular hoax was exposed, the smoke screen was thicker than ever.
In the days before national press associations, news from the hinterlands tended to travel slowly, but by the end of October the Syracuse papers’ accounts of the Giant had been picked up by metropolitan dailies coast to coast. Several pamphlets were rushed into print and sold well at twenty-five cents. The author of one of these ,pamphlets concluded that whether the Giant was man or statue, he was “a marvellous production, and worth traveling many miles to see,” and he pleaded:
Perhaps fearing that his creation might do just that, George Hull had decided to take his profit while he was ahead. A week after the discovery a five-man syndicate of local businessmen paid thirty thousand dollars to Newell—Hull remained in the background, pulling the strings—for a three-quarter interest in the Giant. Heading the syndicate was a shrewd, dryly humorous banker and horse trader named David Hannum, who would achieve a fame of sorts as the model for the title character in the best-selling novel (and Will Rogers movie) David Harum by Edward Noyes Westcott, the son of one of the syndicate members. On November 5, 1869, Hannum had the Giant disinterred and shipped to Syracuse, where exhibition and promotion possibilities were considerably better.