On the sultry streets of New York City of August 25, 1835, newsies cried out the headlines about a major discovery. New Yorkers were compelled to read about an incredible world, filled with strange plants and animals. There were living things on the Moon! The latest edition of the “New York Sun” newspaper was on the streets with the hottest exclusive story of the day. It was the first of a series of six sensational articles about the discovery of life on the Moon!
Under the byline of doctor Andrew Grant, the account was described as a reprint from the “Edinburgh Journal of Science”. Grant was introduced as a colleague of the most famous astronomer of the day, Sir John Herschel. The Herschel party had travelled to Capetown, South Africa the year before, to build an observatory housing a very large, powerful telescope. What was seen through the lens of the scope apparently amazed the stern astronomer.
The Edinburgh Journal account described solid evidence of life forms. The first installment of the series described bizzare creatures that resemble two-legged beavers, unicorns, and more importantly, furry, winged, human-like creatures that flit about like bats.
The story went on to say that professor Herschel constructed his telescope to research every aspect of the Moon. The account claimed that the telescope was quite huge and measured some seven metres in diameter. It had a secondary, powerful lense, comprising of a “hydro-oxygen microscope” that could illuminate, magnify, and project an image to a screen for study. In this manner, the scientists could examine the entymology of the Moon. That was how insects were discovered there, as well.
The “Sun” was one of the new breed of popular newspapers called the “penny press” that pandered to the mass audience. The periodicals sold well because of their cheap price and their reader-friendly narrative “journalistic style”. Editors of the “Sun” were eager to expand their readership. Just like other penny press newspapers, they lured the public with the hottest gossip and lurid tales. In this manner, the “Sun” was similar to today’s tabloids. The first installment of the Moon story in the “Sun” captured the public as never before.
As you can imagine, people were completely captivated by the stories. Problematically, none of the descriptions were true. Doctor Andrew Grant was a completely fictional character. The “Edinburgh Journal of Science” was an actual scholastic publication, but it had ceased operations several years earlier. The readership, and scholars hadn’t seen the satire of the series.
The five remaining articles went on to describe the plants and flowers found on the Moon’s surface along with amazing herds of animals that roamed the moonscape. The first sign that intelligent life existed on the Moon was claimed in that the animals were able to build small dwellings and build fires. The humanoid creatures were “covered…with short and glossy, copper-coloured hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs”. There was also a population of a “higher order” of human-like beings. Supposedly there was a temple constructed out of sapphire, as well.
The series ballooned into mass curiosity and enthusiasm among the population. Other New York newspapers, several in outlying areas, and even in Europe reprinted the news accounts. The “Sun” profited greatly from sales and permission for reprints. One result of the series’ popularity was that it cemented, in place, the already high circulation numbers of the “Sun”
A committee of scientists from Yale University was taken in, too. They hoped to find the original data from the “Edinburgh Journal”. “Sun” employees played delay tactics of sending the researchers back and forth from the printing plant to the editorial offices to discourage the group. The scholars returned to Yale, not understanding they, too, had been hoaxed.
As far as journalistic archivists can reckon, the Moon series was probably invented out of whole cloth by the “Sun” reporter Richard Adams Locke. The writer, educated at Cambridge University, apparently intended to lampoon speculations about extraterrestrial life. Particularly annoying to Locke were the tales written by the Reverend Thomas Dick. Reverend Dick was famous for his blending of practical philosophy, astronomy, and Christianity. He hoped to tone down the tension between Christianity and the field of Science.
On the pages of some of his best-selling, popular books, Dick claimed that the Solar System contained exactly 21,891,974,404,480 inhabitants. Out of that nearly 21-trillion number, the “Christian Philosopher” said the Moon, itself, was home to 4,200,000,000 beings.
Because of the public’s consumption of Reverend Dick’s writings and a general tendency of the mass population to go along with popular notions, most people consequently got caught up in the series from the “Sun”.
The “Sun” admitted, on September 16th, the stories had been a hoax but the paper never printed a full retraction. Sales figures did not drop afterwards, either. Many of the readers enjoyed the idea that the series was intended as a joke. In many intellectual corners, the “Sun” was greatly admired for its ability to pull off such an incredible hoax and to take advantage of the credulity of the general public.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 had become the first Mass-Media event in history. The combination of the already high circulation of the “Sun” and its spread to other papers and reprints elsewhere meant that everybody in New York, and elsewhere found out about the “discoveries” at about the same time. People in many parts of the world of all social classes shared in the phenomenon simultaneously.
Before the introduction of the steam-powered printing presses in the 1830s, such a massive demonstration of the power of mass-media would have been impossible.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that at first, Sir John Herschel, whose supposed work was quoted, was amused by the hoax. His attitude turned to annoyance when people continued to believe that the stories were not bogus.