April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
The New York Sun for August si, 1835, carried a modest but intriguing item on its second page. It read: CELESTIAL DISCOVERIES —The Edinburgh Courant says—“We have just learnt from an eminent publisher in this city that Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”
Four days later the Sun printed the first of a series of daily articles reporting the presence of life—vegetable and animal—on the moon.
The Sun , nearly two years old, was the brain child of Benjamin H. Day, a bold young printer who had been casting about for a profitable sideline. With the help of a young printer-writer, George W. Wisner, Day’s Sun was a successful penny sheet in a city of six-penny mercantile newspapers.
Day encouraged Wisner in turning out readable copy at all costs; by supplying an abundance of short, breezy items, sensational and irreverent in tone, the Sun claimed, by mid-1835, a then-remarkable daily circulation of 15,000. When Wisner left him that summer, Day hired Richard Adams Locke, a crack reporter, away from Day’s archenemy, James Watson Webb, editor and proprietor of the Courier and Enquirer .
Soon Locke was laying before Day a scheme that was sure to boost circulation still further. Locke was entirely frank as he revealed the mechanics of his plan and explained its great likelihood for success. Britishborn and Cambridge-educated, Locke was familiar with recent satiric speculations in British learned journals about the possibility that the moon was inhabited. Locke was also well informed about the mission of Sir John Herschel, the astronomer son of an astronomer father; he had indeed set up house and observatory near Cape Town in January of 1834. Finally, Locke was adept in the spieling of scientific-sounding malarkey.
On Tuesday, August 25, 1835, having given the foundation story a long weekend to settle, Locke came forward with his first installment (allegedly from a “Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science ” as “very politely furnished us by a medical gentleman immediately from Scotland, in consequence of a paragraph which appeared on Friday last from the Edinburgh Courant ”). The Sun ’s heading for its front-page story of the twenty-fifth was:
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, LL.D., F.R.S., &C. AT THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
And after much solemnizing about the unlocking of the secrets of the universe, the anonymous Locke got down to cases.
To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once that by means of a telescope, of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the southern hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of one hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what orders of beings. …
Installment One also carried details of the casting of the great lens for the “new principle” telescope. The lens was, so stated the Sun , twenty-four feet in diameter, weighed nearly 15,000 pounds after polishing, and had an estimated magnifying power of 4.2,000 times.
The Sun ’s second chapter appeared the next day, August 26. This time the author ventured into far greater detail, “quoting” Herschel and his aides on their observations. They recorded the presence of lunar vegetation, a clear demonstration that “the moon has an atmosphere constituted similarly to our own, and capable of sustaining organized and, therefore, most probably, animal life.” The reader soon found himself in a wonderful moon valley where the astronomers reported seeing “continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison” but far smaller, and then a beautiful antelopelike creature of “a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn .” The moon had its wildfowl, too: On examining the center of this delightful valley we found a large, branching river, abounding with lovely islands and water-birds of numerous kinds. A species of gray pelican was the most numerous, but black and white cranes, with unreasonably long legs and bill, were also quite common. …
The Sun ’s story of the twenty-sixth ended with the promise of an even greater treat the next day—and what could that be but that the moon was inhabited by humanoid creatures? Readers awaited the next issue impatiently, and competing publishers fumed in impotence. How could they possibly match Sir John Herschel’s “Valley of the Unicorn”?
Many of the New York papers were, for lack of an alternative, friendly to the Sun stories; most notable was the Mercantile Advertiser , which was reprinting them in full. The Daily Advertiser commended the Sun for its reportorial zeal; the New York Times and the Sunday News spoke up for the plausibility and even probability of the moon story. The Courier and Enquirer ’s Webb stood balefully silent, hating every minute of the Sun ’s triumph and praying for its eclipse.
Installment Three, on August 27, introduced new geographical features on the moon, but teasingly held off on the matter of manlike inhabitants. The reader was told about the Vagabond Mountains, the Lake of Death, and twelve luxuriant forests divided by open plains. The story went into fanciful minutiae about the moon’s flora and fauna, including a biped beaver: “The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than its destitution of a tail and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms, like a human being, and walks with an easy, gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire.”
Needless to say, the Sun had the whole town talking even before the fourth installment, on the twenty-eighth, with its supreme revelation that the moon harbored a species of bat-men. Herschel was quoted, reportedly by a faithful amanuensis, as being “thrilled with astonishment” at the sight of “successive flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds.” The story continued: … we counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine, and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood. … Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified. …
About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas [on which the moon images were reflected]; but of all the others we had a perfectly distinct and deliberate view. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of the shoulders to the calves of the legs.
The face, which was of a yellowish flesh-color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orangutan, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expanse of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of the Simia genus. …
Whilst passing across the canvas, and whenever we afterward saw them, these creatures were evidently engaged in conversation; their gesticulation, more particularly the varied actions of the hands and arms, appeared impassioned and emphatic.
The next view we obtained of them was still more favorable. It was on the borders of a little lake, or expanded stream, which we then for the first time perceived running down the valley to the large lake, and having on its eastern margin a small wood. Some of these creatures had crossed this water and were lying like spread eagles on the skirts of the wood.
We could then perceive that their wings possessed great expansion, and were similar in structure to those of the bat, being a semi-transparent membrane expanded in curvilineal divisions by means of straight radii, united at the back by the dorsal integuments.
On the appearance of his batmen issue, Day happily announced that his paper had achieved the largest circulation of any daily in the world: some 19,360 copies as against the 17,000 of the London Times . Day kept his press running ten hours a day to satisfy the public demand for news about the moon.
Locke was commissioned to get a lithographer to illustrate a separate pamphlet that would embody the entire series, including a final installment, which described the discovery of still another group of bat-men. The astronomers reported: We had no opportunity of seeing them actually engaged in any work of industry or art; and, so far as we could judge, they spent their happy hours in collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing, and loitering about upon the summits of precipices.
The pamphlet’s sales were understandably brisk.
A deputation from Yale College hurried to New York to inspect the original articles—the “Supplement”—from Scotland. The professors were given a thorough runaround, from Sun office to print shop and back; they retreated to New Haven in bafflement. Harriet Martineau, a British commentator, amusedly reported the following story, for whose reliability she did not vouch: … the astronomer has received at the Cape a letter from a large number of Baptist clergymen of the United States congratulating him on his discovery, informing him that it had been die occasion of much edifying preaching and of prayer-meetings for the benefit of brethren in die newlyexplored regions; and beseeching him to inform his correspondents whedier science affords any prospects of a method of conveying die Gospel to residents in the moon.
But even before Herschel was confronted—to his utter amazement—with a copy of the Sun ’s pamphlet, Locke himself had exposed the hoax. New York’s lordly Journal of Commerce had finally capitulated to public demand and decided to reprint the moon stories. A Journal reporter and friend mentioned the decision to Locke, who blurted out—apparently to keep his friend from looking foolish if the hoax were uncovered—“Don’t print it right away. I wrote it myself.” The Journal promptly denounced the hoax, and other papers chimed in. The Sun finally admitted the deception on September 16, but, just to keep the pot boiling, proudly took credit for gulling the academic community and for amusing the public. Indeed, the Sun felt that it had provided a valuable public service in “diverting the public mind, for a while, from that bitter apple of discord, the abolition of slavery.” And if, in the bargain, it had brought off a gaudy coup, had stampeded its competitors into copying its material, and had put new heart into the struggling penny press—why, so much the better. Lunatics have done crazier things.