August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
IT’S A PETRIFIED MAN!
IT’S A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY IDOL!
IT’S A HOAX!
ITS THE CARDIFF GIANT!
One morning in early November of the year 1868 three men appeared at the railroad depot in Union, New York, just outside Binghamton. The most imposing of the trio, a tall, heavily bearded figure in his mid-forties, dressed in funereal black, identified himself to the station agent as George Hull and explained that he wanted to collect a shipment being held for him. After the necessary formalities the visitors carefully levered a heavy, iron-strapped wooden box almost a dozen feet long into their wagon and set off in a northerly direction.
Their journey was a slow and circuitous one, for they were at pains to avoid settled areas. It took them five days to travel sixty miles as the crow flies. At stopovers curious farmers or tavern loungers were told, variously, that the big crate contained castings, a tobacco press, or a monument to fallen heroes of the late war. Finally on the night of November 9, in a pounding rainstorm, they pulled up at the farm of Hull’s brother-in-law, William C. Newell, near Cardiff, a village twelve miles south of Syracuse. The box was unloaded behind Newell’s barn and covered over with straw. Hull and his two helpers left the next morning.
Two weeks later Hull returned. He and Newell dug a pit five feet deep in a low, marshy area between the barn and nearby Onondaga Creek. The crate was opened to reveal an enormous stone figure, which with the aid of block and tackle they buried in the pit, planting the site in clover. When Hull left this time, he told his brother-in-law not to expect him again for a year.
George Hull’s thickening plot, already two years old, now required him to be patient. By trade a cigar maker in Binghamton, Hull was a man of unbridled imagination whose reach for the main chance had so far always fallen short. A variety of inventions had brought him disappointing profits, and certain of his tobacco dealings had brought him only trouble with the internal-revenue laws. A plunge into the study of the natural sciences had led him to alchemy experiments, with predictable results. Never before, however, had any scheme so engaged his full powers of creativity as this one.
In 1866 Hull had journeyed to Ackley, Iowa, to straighten out a tangle over a shipment of cigars consigned to another of his brothers-in-law. While in Ackley he became involved in a heated discussion with a visiting revivalist preacher, one Reverend Turk. Hull was a confirmed and argumentative atheist, and the revivalist raised his temperature. The debate got around to the biblical reference “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4), which the prescher insisted on interpreting literally in the face of Hull’s scoffing. Then the flash of inspiration: suddenly, Hull later related, he “thought of making a stone, and passing it off as a petrified man.”
The inspiration fermented slowly. Two years later, in June, 1868, Hull returned to Iowa, to the gypsum quarries at Fort Dodge. He engaged a quarryman to cut him a block 12 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet for what Hull described as a piece of patriotic statuary. In its sedimentary form as found in the Fort Dodge deposits, gypsum is soft and easily worked; it is also heavily striated, or veined. But the five-ton block frustrated Hull’s best efforts to reach the railroad forty miles away; several bridges as well as his wagon broke down under the load. He finally had to hack off a sizable piece of the gypsum, putting a crimp in the figure that loomed in his soaring imagination. The abbreviated block was soon on its way to 940 North Clark Street in Chicago.
The North Clark Street address was the establishment of a journeyman stonecutter named Edward Burghardt, to whom Hull had entrusted the task of (so to speak) bringing his petrified man to life. To ensure security Burghardt and his two assistants, Fred Mohrmann and Henry Salle, did the carving in off hours and on Sundays. The sound of their hammering was quieted by draping the studio with quilts and carpeting, and Hull supplied buckets of beer to keep the artisans from spilling the story in a neighborhood saloon.
Through the summer months the sculptors chiseled away. Hull, who supervised every detail, ordained that his biblical Giant assume a supine position, turned slightly to the right with the left leg drawn up. The left arm extended straight along the side and somewhat underneath the body, while the right hand clutched the stomach. The overall impression of this posture was of an agonizing death—perhaps from a stomachache. In striking contrast were the Giant’s features: regular, composed, with even the hint of a smile. An anguished facial expression may well have been beyond the limited skill of the carvers; or possibly HuJJ, who unblushingly served as the model, was too pleased with his scheme to put on a suitable face. In any event, the final effect was intriguingly mysterious.
Hull’s study of paleontology had led him to conclude that hair did not petrify, so the Giant was bald and clean-shaven. Nor, he decided, should there be any traces of clothing. (The Giant was a giant in every respect, requiring the attachment of a sizable fig leaf in the woodcut illustrations that later appeared in newspapers and pamphlets.) The striations in the gypsum produced a nice effect of veins and musculature, and Hull added skin pores by hammering with a mallet faced with darning needles. The underside of the figure was grooved by scouring with wet sand to imitate the erosive effects of ground water. After some experimentation a suitably aged look was induced with sulfuric acid. However, Hull was unsuccessful in locating pieces of petrified wood to bury with the Giant.
The finished Giant was 10 feet 4½ inches tall and weighed in at a fraction under 3,000 pounds. His shoulders were 3 feet across and his feet 21 inches long. He would have taken a size 37 collar. Hull originally contemplated burying him in Mexico, but upon reflection he settled for a site closer to home in an area he knew well, and the stone man was crated up and shipped to the Union depot near Binghamton. After the November burial on the Newell farm Hull returned to the prosaic business of making cigars, giving the Giant time to settle comfortably in his grave. The undertaking had thus far cost him twenty-six hundred dollars; if his hunch about the public’s credulousness was right, it would be the best investment of his life.
Hull’s selection of Cardiff as the launching platform for his hoax was inspired. The village was square in the middle of one of the yeastiest American landscapes of the nineteenth century. Historian Carl Carmer has described York State—upstate New York—as a country that summons up strange images. “This stretch of wrinkled land,” he writes, “has held in the near past more of man’s mystic and psychic receptivity, perhaps I should say creative imaginings, than any other region in America.” Many remarkable figures indeed had preceded George Hull down what Carmer calls this “broad psychic highway.”
To the Albany area had come Mother Ann Lee and her Shaker followers to prepare with lovely simplicity for a better world and to express their gentle faith in ecstasies of whirling dances. In 1823, on Hill Cumorah north of the Finger Lakes, young Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed to him the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. In the i84o’s John Humphrey Noyes established at Oneida, east of Syracuse, a perfectionist community featuring “complex marriage” as well as exceedingly successful manufactories. The region witnessed other curious phenomena in the forties. In a farmhouse near Rochester the prankish Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, parlayed their talent for loud toe-cracking into the spirit-rapping craze that swept them to fame and fortune. On October 22, 1844, across the length and breadth of the psychic highway, thousands of white-robed followers of farmer William Miller perched on hilltops and barn eaves, girding themselves to rise up when the Second Coming brought the cleansing fire to the land.∗
∗For Joseph Smith see “The Farm Boy and the Angel” in the October, 1962, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE ; for John Humphrey Noyes, “The Great Oneida Love-in,” February, 1969; for the Fox sisters, “The Medium had the Message,” February, 1971 ; for William Miller, “The Trumpeter of Doomsday,” April, 1964.
Beyond such manifestations of societal boil and bubble was the area’s heritage of folklore, especially a stock of Indian legends of unparalleled richness and dark mystery. And the fact that the region was renowned for its paléontologie relics—the digging of the Erie Canal, for example, had turned up countless fossil remains and such curiosities as huge bones and “stone fish"—was the final perfect bit of stage setting for the discovery of a petrified man of huge proportions.
In October, 1869, Hull decided the Giant was settled in realistically enough and passed Newell the word to begin Operation Discovery. Newell hired two local handymen, Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, to dig a well for him. He carefully specified the spot, some twenty feet behind his barn, and on Saturday, October 16, Emmons and Nichols set to work. Three feet down their shovels struck what appeared to be a large stone foot. With rising excitement they soon uncovered the rest of the Giant. “Jerusalem, Nichols, it’s a big Injun!” exclaimed Emmons.
The word that something was up at “Stub” NewelPs place spread at a rate possible only in a small town. That day and the next, reported the Syracuse Journal , “men left their work, women caught up their babies, and children in numbers, all hurried to the scene where the interest of that little community centered.” Speculation was intense. Some, like well digger Emmons, recalled the Onondaga tribal legend of a race of great stone men that had once stalked the valley. Among the faithful the reference in Genesis to giants in the earth was explanation enough. Whatever his origin, all agreed, the Cardiff Giant was a sensational find.
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.”
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.
In this new setting the Giant was a bigger hit than ever. The New York Central added a special rest stop so its passengers could make a quick inspection of “the wonder of the age.” The proud citizens of Syracuse gathered him to their hearts, even giving him a number of write-in votes for local office in the November elections. The syndicate began to schedule bookings for a tour of eastern cities.
However, Hull’s hoax was now starting to come unravelled. Skeptical reporters were asking hard questions. One local paper ran the headline “Scientific, Official Report of the recent Scientific Examination of the Stone Giant” over a column that was entirely blank. More devastating was the report of the brilliant Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, published November 25. After inspecting the Giant, Marsh was blunt and to the point: “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.… I am surprised that any scientific observers should not have at once detected the unmistakable evidence against its antiquity.” He pointed out fresh tool marks and smoothly polished surfaces, both of which would have been roughened by lengthy exposure in the earth. Dr. Boynton took a second and closer look and ruefully acknowledged that rather than 250 years the Giant’s age was probably closer to 250 days.
The clincher was the story, leaked out of the Onondaga County Bank, that Stub Newell had withdrawn a sizable sum from his account in the form of a draft drawn to one George Hull. This jogged memories. Local farmers remembered Hull with the wagon carrying the great iron-bound box, seen on the roads south of Cardiff the year before. Fort Dodge quarrymen recalled Hull’s purchase of an outsized block of Iowa gypsum. Tracked down in Chicago, the stonecutters Mohrmann and Salle confessed their role in the hoax. By then Hull had seen that the jig was up, and early in December he admitted the whole story.
Nevertheless Hannum and his syndicate pressed on undaunted. On December 20 the Giant went on display at the Apollo Hall at Broadway and Twenty-eighth Street in New York under a banner proclaiming “Genuine. CARDIFF GIANT. Original. Taller than Goliath Whom David Slew.” Public interest was whetted by Harper’s Weekly , which in its December 4 number had featured a story on the phenomenon, including four illustrations.
In New York, however, the Cardiff Giant came up against stiff competition from the Barnum Giant. The famous showman, balked in his effort to lease the stone man for sixty thousand dollars, promptly had a replica carved and put on display at Wood’s Museum, two blocks from the Apollo. The fake fake outpulled the real fake, proving again that no one could outhumbug the old master. In February, 1870, the syndicate moved the Giant to Boston. This time he had the town to himself, and he drew well. Ralph Waldo Emerson was reported to have called him “very wonderful and undoubtedly ancient.”
But Boston was his last hurrah. The bubble had burst. After touring New England and Pennsylvania with indifferent success for several years, the Giant was put into storage in a barn in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Except for an appearance at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, there he gathered dust for three decades.
George Hull went into similar eclipse. In an effort to repeat his success he assembled another petrified man, this one of baked clay containing human bones and equipped with apelike legs and a tail, which he caused to be “discovered” in Colorado. But this time he was quickly found out, again by Professor Marsh of Yale, and after that Hull dropped into obscurity. When he entered his last illness in 1898, perhaps he was comforted by the fact that he had carried off one of the classic hoaxes of American history.
The Cardiff Giant, however, lives on. In 1913 he was purchased for a reported ten thousand dollars and taken back to Fort Dodge, Iowa, the place of his birth. There followed various appearances at state fairs in Iowa and New York. In the igSo’s he was rescued from a bankrupt carnival in Texas by publisher Gardner Cowles, whose Iowa boyhood near Fort Dodge had been enriched by tales of the hoax. Cowles installed him as a conversation piece in the rumpus room of his Des Moines home.
During his stay in Des Moines the Giant suffered the indignity of having his manhood chipped by Cowles’s prankish, hammer-wielding young son and some of his friends, but after Cowles went to “considerable trouble” he was at least partially restored.
In 1948, thanks to the efforts of Stephen C. Clark and Louis C. Jones of the New York State Historical Association, the Giant found a permanent home at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown. Today he rests peacefully under a shed roof in a reconstructed crossroads village that is not unlike the Cardiff of a century ago. And like those who once thronged to Cardiff, today’s visitor must still buy a ticket of admission in order to view the great stone man with the faint enigmatic smile.