The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

29 October 2011

Imagine that you wake up one morning, sit at your computer, and you are bombarded with links to a developing story from a major news outlet: Stephen Hawking, by making novel use of Cambridge University’s new quantum supercomputer to analyze data from SETI’s telescope array, has discerned that the universe is awash with signals from intelligent life. It reads like a regular science story, at first, but soon it is revealed that Hawking and his colleagues have tapped into an extra-terrestrial television transmission, and are even now watching, breathless, as the first, dream-like images of alien civilizations display themselves on the Q-computer’s tiny monitor.

You and your friends refresh your browsers compulsively, talking over each new description that emerges of strange alien races and the exotic landscapes they inhabit, as gleaned from upon the wacky sitcoms and low-budget reality shows that they are indiscriminately beaming into space. Then, questions are raised, skepticism emerges. You begin to have doubts. Eventually, you realize that you have been taken in by a clever hoax—you ought to have known better than to trust Fox News, after all—but despite the deception, you find that you cannot help but appreciate how, for one shining moment, people everywhere had set aside their petty rivalries and believed in marvels from above.

Such is how the people of New York City must have felt during the summer of 1835 when the New York Sun published a series of articles describing the startling lunar discoveries that had recently been made by the famous astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Using cutting-edge “hydro-oxygen magnifiers,” Herschel had developed a powerful new telescope that could achieve an astounding magnification of 42,000x—enough to resolve objects on the lunar surface as small as 18 inches in diameter—and project the images onto the wall of his observatory. Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science penned by Herschel’s assistant, Dr. Andrew Grant, it contained just the right mixture popular science buzzwords and technical minutia to render itself plausible.

The first images to resolve themselves onto the wall of Herschel’s observatory were of basaltic rock, and then, tellingly enough, a poppy field. The telescope next swept over lunar forests, populated by what looked like massive yew trees, by beaches of “brilliant white sand, girt with wild castellated rocks, apparently of green marble,”and clusters of resplendent crystalline spires and pyramids, lilac in hue. Finally, it came to rest on an oval valley, surrounded by crystallized hills of “purest vermilion,” with cascading waterfalls pouring from their cliffs, where they discovered, nestled in among its lush trees and vegetation, a herd of diminutive lunar bison. These sported a hairy, veiled appendage that—common to many lunar species soon to be discovered—it used to protect its eyes from the “great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.” Here also were waterfowl who fed upon some sort of shellfish or amphibian, and spritely, single-horned goats that bounded about the glades of the woods, nibbling on vegetation. They concluded their first night’s observations by dubbing this “the Valley of the Unicorn.” 

Over the course of successive nights the scientists discovered ever more complex and fantastic lifeforms, including a race of bipedal beavers that lived in huts, built fires, and carried its young in its arms. There were also, for some reason, sheep—just, regular sheep. It was in a amphitheater-like formation dubbed the “Ruby Colosseum,” however, that that first sightings were made of the iconic lunar man-bat:

Lithograph of the Ruby Colosseum from the New York Sun, August 28, 1835

Vespertilio-homo, as they were classified, stood erect and dignified, and could be witnessed gesturing with their hands and arms, evidently engaged in animated conversations. These were rational beings, albeit of a low order. In Dr. Grant’s words they were “doubtless happy and innocent creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.” On this point he declined to elaborate, noting merely that they were “of both sexes.” 

Still higher orders of Vespertilio-homo were soon to be discovered: an exceedingly beautiful, angel-race that inhabited the “Bay of Rainbows,” and a more human, middle-caste, that displayed polite social conventions, and whiled away its time feasting upon yellow, gourd-like fruits. These latter beings dwelled near the “Vale of the Triads,” where a trio of magnificent, sapphire temples were to be found. Each massive structure was triangular in shape, with a roof composed of gold, or some yellow metal, upon which were emblazoned the insignia of a globe engulfed in flames.  What did it mean? Did the builders of these monuments intend them to record a “past calamity of their world,” Grant pondered, or to predict “a future one of ours?

The moon story was an instant success, boosting the Sun’s circulation 19,360; a figure that exceeded even the Times of London.  It was quickly reprinted first by other New York newspapers, then across the country, and finally around the world. In modern parlance, it went viral. Not every publisher who printed it may have been willing to vouch for its authenticity, but that was hardly the point—people enjoyed the controversy. They did not become outraged and cancel their subscriptions once it became apparent that the story had been a fabrication, but rather appreciated it all the more for the way it had so cleverly captured the imagination of the public. It became a pop culture phenomenon, inspiring a play a the Bowery Theater and an elaborate display at Broadway’s City Saloon by diorama artist Henry Harrington, complete with moving canvasses, sound and light effects. 

Illustration to a Welsh Edition of the Moon Story

The story of the hoax and its authorship by Sun editor Richard Adams Locke is recounted in Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showman, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. One thread of Goodman’s book follows Edgar Allan Poe, who, at the time of the moon hoax, had just published his own The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfall—the story of a balloon trip to the moon—in the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe had intended to write a sequel, in which Pfall goes on to describe the lunar landscape and its inhabitants, but abandoned the project in frustration once Locke’s moon story broke. In its place, modern readers of his anthologies may now find a jealous diatribe wherein the famed writer complains that his own tale bears little resemblance to that of Mr. Locke, and goes on to expose, in rather pedantic detail, all of the scientific errors that ought to have given the Sun story away, had the public not been so dull-witted. The lowly newspaper editor had beaten him to the punch.

Poe’s initial suspicions and contempt, however, would eventually give way to respect. Both writers were working the same fertile ground, employing “verisimilitude, in the application of scientific principles,” as Poe put it, in order to imagine plausible futures and render fantastic scenarios credible. The Herald’s James Gordon Bennet described the moon story as a “New Species of Literature,” wherein Locke “has opened a new vein, as original, as curious, as beautiful as any of the greatest geniuses that ever wrote. He looks forward into the future, and adapts his characters to the light of science.” The same was true of Poe. Together, he and Locke were pioneering an emerging new genre that we recognize today as “science fiction.” 

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3 Comments to “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835”

  1. Wow. Never heard of this before. You always write about such fascinating things.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. We need stories like this today to jar us out of day-to-day life. I’d love to visit the Bay of Rainbows!

    • I couldn’t agree more. The space program seems to have taken a lot of the mystery out of the moon, but I’d love to see science fiction writers take it up again. Do you know if anyone in steampunk has written about aliens yet?

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