Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2004/5

In case you were wondering ...



Richard Dengrove

Illos by Terry Jeeves

I announced several Challengers back I was going to write an article on the Moon Hoax of 1835. Someone said that that had been done to death. However, I think I have new material, and a new take, on it

In case you do not know about the Moon Hoax of 1835, the idea is that the New York Sun published over six days an article about how the greatest astronomer of the time, Sir John Herschel, had built a new superpowerful telescope. The article was supposedly written from information supplied by his amanuensis, Dr. Andrew Grant. With this telescope, Herschel was able to view intelligent life on the Moon. The article caused a great sensation. It still does.

Most readers believed the article. Then the Journal of Commerce proclaimed Richard Adams Locke, a reporter for the Sun, had admitted to its reporter, a fellow called Finn, that he had fabricated the Moon Hoax. While the Sun denied he had, that effectively ended the Hoax.

I presume the Journal of Commerce was the one who claimed Locke admitted it in a Sun office. Two journalism academics, Susan Thompson and Brian Thornton, doubt this. They believe that drink is the real story.(1) Their evidence is an 1883 article where Locke's boss, Benjamin Day, suspected this. Thornton even speculates that Locke admitted his authorship in the tap room of the Washington Hotel.

The story rings true. Apparently, Locke had quite a reputation as a drinker. Also, for being kindhearted - especially after drinks.

Now, as promised, I will try to tell you what the principles were thinking. Of course, I do not have telepathy; I am guessing from evidence at hand.

What were the publishers of the New York Sun thinking? Most accounts say they wanted a larger circulation. Since it was a penny newspaper, it was affordable by the average laborer. However, it depended on selling a lot of papers to make a profit. You bet it did: the first penny newspaper folded because it did not sell enough papers.

On the other hand, The Journal of Commerce cost six cents a paper and was affordable only by businessmen. That price gave it a sizeable margin of profit, and it did not have to worry as much about selling papers.

So strongly did the Sun owners Moses Beach and Benjamin Day believe the Moon Hoax would increase circulation that they paid the author, Richard Adams Locke, what, in those days, was a princely sum. Locke claimed they paid him $150. Benjamin Day claimed it was $600.

They also agreed that Locke was the writer to pull off the Hoax. Certainly Benjamin Day, the power behind the Sun, doubted he could. He saw himself as a printer, and had no confidence in his own writing ability.

So what did Richard Adams Locke think of his Moon Hoax? I am certain he liked the $150 or $600 he received, but I gather that was not his original inspiration.

What was? Day claimed Locke had a highflown explanation where he claimed it was a satire on the political press in America. However, such an indictment sounds too broad.

The real inspiration, I believe, Locke laid out to a William Griggs, who wrote about it in 1853. Locke told Griggs he had been outraged by the Reverend Thomas Dick.. Unlike America's political press, Dick at least had something to do with other planets being inhabited: he had written extensively on the question.

Locke thought it was Celestial Scenery that had outraged him, but that was written two years after the hoax. Other of Dick's books would have done just as well. Christian Astronomy and Philosophy of a Future State are prime candidates.

I doubt Locke objected that Dick was licensed as a Presbyterian minister. However, he believed Dick was guilty of mixing religion and science too much. At one point in the Hoax, Locke alludes to this. He has Herschel observe a temple of the higher Man Bats; and note he does not know whether it had been consecrated to religion or science.

I have to emphasize it is not Fundamentalist religion Locke objected to, but the Physico-Theology that was so popular during the 18th Century, and had overflowed into the 19th Century.

This is difficult to explain to readers these days. They will ask where is it in the Bible that other planets are inhabited? While there were religious conservatives in 1835, whose view of the planets was based on the strict word of the Bible, Dick was not one of them.

I have to emphasize Dick was a Physico-Theologian. They do not exist much anymore. Dick were not quoting the Bible here. He, as other Physico-Theologians, claimed to base his religion on the facts. I will presume that the reader understands this. I realize I can probably say that Dick claimed to base his religion on the facts until I am blue in the face; and someone will ask where Dick's Bible quotes are.

Locke's objection to Dick was that, instead of the facts proving his tenets, as Dick claimed, his tenets proved his facts. For instance, Dick ignored the fact that other planets were tilted like the Earth, and he claimed they had no seasons or storms.

So what? a lot of people would ask. No seasons on most planets was an important tenet then. It was inferred from the premise of a good God, and seasons and storms had long been considered evils. The subtitle of Dick's Celestial Scenery says it all: illustrating the perfections of deity and a plurality of worlds.

However, the last draw for Locke was not this and not even found in Dick's books. It was found in an anonymous article. Locke apparently was a real astronomy buff, and one day, he came upon that article in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal.

In it, the German astronomer Gruithuisen had claimed to have discovered vast structures on the Moon, which could only have been erected by intelligent beings. This, the geologist Noggerath doubted.

That had greater religious repercussions than no seasons. Extraterrestrials were considered a far more important inference from God's goodness. In fact, because of God's goodness, many believed that even comets and asteroids had intelligent life.

However, that was not the last draw. What came next was. The article reported that Gruithuisen and another astronomer, Gauss, had suggested that giant geometrical figures be erected in Siberia to signal the Lunarians.

What incensed Locke about this was they would be willing to spend so much money on something so unproven as the existence of extraterrestrials. Money that could be put to much better use.

Where does the Reverend Thomas Dick fit into this article? Locke thought he could see the hand of the Reverend Thomas Dick in it. It did not matter to him that while extraterrestrials were an important religious tenet, Dick admitted their existence had not quite been proven yet. It did not matter to him that Dick was skeptical of Gruithuisen too.

That was Richard Adams Locke's inspiration. What does it show about his attitude toward Lunarians? It only shows that he doubted their existence had been proven. He may even have believed in them.

This was a view many famous people had taken over the centuries. This was the view Sir John Herschel took, whom Locke fathered the Hoax on. In fact, Sir John believed the existence of both Lunarians and Solarians would be eventually be proven.

Now that we know what Locke's inspiration was, what did Locke intend to do with his hoax - aside from making money? He was going to cover his extraterrestrials in the trappings of science, authority and reality. This, I am sure, he thought was the attraction of the likes of the Reverend Dick and Herr Doctor Gruithuisen.

Then he thought people would believe his Hoax no matter how absurd the actual evidence.

For one thing, he decided to encase his hoax in the trappings of science. Locke could write clearly if he wanted to. Edgar Allen Poe describes his writing as concise, spartan and complete. Probably when he wrote for the Sun, he usually was.

However, in the Hoax, he wanted to sound scientific. This meant he made his sentences complex and punctuated his writing with jargon. I am sure he figured the amanuensis of Sir John Herschel would write that way. In addition, he made the piece sound more scientific by the anticipation of more such pages. He had the amanuensis promise 40 pages of scientific appendices.

Also, Locke had the piece sound more scientific by Sir John's attitude. Sir John mentions the Lunarians almost in passing. A famous astronomer, like Sir John Herschel would not be interested in something so plebeian as extraterrestrials.

As well as science, Locke decided to encase his hoax in the trappings of authority. He claimed the Hoax had first been published in the Cambridge Journal of Science. I doubt many people would have noticed it had been renamed the Cambridge New Philosophical Journal in 1826.

As well as science and authority, Locke decided to encase his hoax in the trappings of reality. Therefore, he made up detail after detail. For instance, that the Moon has quite a few giant crystals.

Also, Locke had the astronomers acting like astronomers, e.g., adjusting their telescope with planetary movements and watching other heavenly bodies when the Moon's orbit was no longer propitious.

Having made his work authoritative, scientific and real, now it was time for absurdities. He wanted to see how far he could go without the reader doubting a word.

There were absurdities with the telescope. Edgar Allan Poe had a whole laundry list of them, which, I bet, he got from Locke. They seem to have been drinking partners.

The best, the one that knocked the whole story into a cocked hat, was that the Hoax claimed Herschel's new super telescope magnified 42,000 times. It would still be like seeing from five or six miles off. You certainly could not spot the color of small birds' eyes, which the Moon Hoax claims Sir John does.

The two next best absurdities with the telescope, Poe does not give. The Hoax claims that the new super telescope is in essence made by combining a microscope and a telescope. Also, there is a candle so Sir John can see details that darkness in the heavens might otherwise obscure.

Then there were absurdities with the Lunarians. People in 1835 were more status conscious; so Locke decided to turn their ideas of status upside down, which, through the ages, has been considered humorous.

The intelligent, Biped Beavers with their huts do that. I suspect the beavers were transitional creatures, however. On the one hand, beavers were used for hats, and, in that respect, they were not highly thought of. On the other hand, beavers had been considered industrious and clever. The phrase "Busy as a beaver" apparently dates from the 18th Century. Therefore, intelligent beavers were absurd but not too absurd.

What, I suspect, the beavers led up to were the full absurdity of the Man Bats. While Locke took their description word for word from Peter Wilkins' description of flying islanders (2)

, he called them Man Bats, and gave them the Latin name of Vespertilio-homo. In that age, a bat was a little regarded creature whom it would truly be absurd to combine with a human.

To make the whole thing even more absurd, Locke compared the Biped Beavers and Man Bats favorably to humans held in lower regard. These humans were still regarded as human, though. He had an officer compare the lower Man Bats favorably to a Cockney militia on a parade ground.

There were many other absurdities Locke injected.

There was something else Locke injected as well, the classics. He had gone to Cambridge University and had a classical education. There are a few references to the Ancient Greek and Roman classics. At one point, the Man Bats do a dance around their temple. This is what has been known as an Idyll. It had been a vehicle for satire and humor since Ancient times..

At another point, Sir John Herschel's super telescope had an accident. It was not positioned properly, and one of the lenses burnt a hole in the observatory, and did other damage. It took some time to fix the telescope and observatory again.

I am sure this is a reference to the Greek philosopher Archimedes, who set the sails of Roman ships on fire with a large mirror.

What did the public think of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. One school says they thought nothing of it. Alex Boese, of the Museum of Hoaxes, cites circulation figures that show that the Sun's circulation actually dropped from 26,000 two weeks before the hoax to 19,000 during.

Another school says that people loved the Hoax. Susan Thompson of the University of Alabama shows that the circulation figures are misleading. The 26,000 circulation represents a freak circumstance. Two weeks before, a fire had put the Sun's penny rivals temporarily put out of commission.

The Moon Hoax and its aftermath represent something more permanent The Sun's circulation remained at 19,000 for quite a while. That was 2,000 papers more than the second largest paper in the world, the London Times.

Did people believe in the Hoax? There were a few doubters. The New York Commercial Advertiser was one. It wondered how the super telescope could have been made without the British press hearing about it.

James Gordon Bennett of a penny paper, the Herald, was also a doubter. His paper was involved in cutthroat competition with the Sun. Also, Locke's anti-slavery views may also have played a part in Bennett's animosity.

However, these doubters seem to be exception. The Advertiser admitted that the Hoax had succeeded in mining the general vein of gullibility. Edgar Allan Poe claimed that only one person in twelve doubted the Moon Hoax - and for the wrong reasons.

Eighteen years later, a reporter claimed this was not limited to the uneducated. The students and professors at Yale believed in the hoax firmly, and could not wait until they got the next issue of the Sun.

It is easy to understand how the circulation could have increased during the Hoax. People were convinced something they really wished to believe for religious reasons had been proven scientifically. Doing this is still very much a crowd pleaser today.

However, why did people continue to read the Sun after the Hoax had been debunked? I think the answer lies in two quotes. The first is by Lady Herschel, Sir John's wife, in a letter to her aunt Caroline.

"It is a great pity it is not true but if grandsons stride on as grandfathers have done, as wonderful thing may yet be accomplished."

In short, she found Locke's Lunarians wonderful.

A wealthy man named Philip Hone said:

"In sober truth, if this account is true, it is most enormously wonderful, and if it is a fable, the manner of its relation, with all its scientific details, names of persons employed, and the beauty of its glowing descriptions, will give this ingenious history a place with 'Gulliver's Travels' and 'Robinson Crusoe."

In short, he found Locke's Lunarians wonderful too.

I imagine others did similarly.

Scientists had a different reaction. They found the Hoax hilarious. It may even have been far better as an exposed hoax than a scientific claim. Sir John Herschel was said to have laughed immediately after someone showed the articles to him.(3) At the French Académie des sciences, France's greatest scientific organization, the astronomer Arago read the Hoax to the uncontrollable laughter of his audience of scientific notables.

In short, scientists found Locke's Hoax less wonderful than they did clever.

Other hoaxes, called humbugs at the time, were popular then. That is how P.T. Barnum also gained fame in 1835. People flocked to his 'museum' to see the Fiji Mermaid, a piece of taxidermy that was half fish half monkey.

Also, they flocked to see Joice Heth, a woman claimed to be the 161 year old maid of George Washington. Even after these humbugs were exposed, people flocked back for more.

Another example I could give is the Sun itself. Even before the Moon Hoax, it was no stranger to humbugs. In fact, in the first issue of the Sun, September 1833, Benjamin Day published two tall tales, i.e., humbugs. Not only did he do that, but he placed them on the first page.

One was a tall tale about a Vermont lad who whistled so much he was killing himself.

Humbugs could have been the end and not the beginning for both Day and Barnum. You had to have the right humbug. Another of Locke's Hoaxes was not right for either the public or scientists.

A year after the Hoax, he left the Sun and helped established another penny newspaper, The New Era. For it, he wrote what claimed to be the final the adventures of Mungo Park, a famed and foolhardy African explorer of the 1790s. Poe assures us Locke made up some very imaginative adventures.

However, the readers did not like them from the first, and the newspaper soon folded.

Finally, we get to the object of the Hoax. What did the Reverend Thomas Dick think? The person the Moon Hoax was aimed at to begin with. He did not like it one bit. He said,

"The author of this deception, I understand, is a young man in the city of New York, who makes some pretensions to scientific acquirements, and he may perhaps be disposed to congratulate himself on the success of his experiment on the public."

Dick went on to say that the hoax was against the laws of God, created chaos in the world, and was injurious to science. Also, it made the unlearned doubt the discoveries of science.

He ended by saying.

"It is to be hoped that the author of this deception to which I have adverted, as he advances in years and in wisdom, will perceive the folly and immorality of such conduct."

In short, extraterrestrials were too important an element in the Reverend Dick's theology to be made light of.

On the other hand, Dick did change his view in another way. He originally believed life on other planets might be discovered in his lifetime. After the hoax, he began doubting it. I do not know if this is precisely the effect Locke wanted.

Selected Bibliography

Boese, Alex. Text of Moon Hoax

Crowe, Michael J. The extraterrestrial life debate, 1750-1900 . Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999.

Dick, Thomas. The christian philosopher or, the connection of science and philosophy with religion. New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1826, pp376-80.

Dick, Thomas. Celestial scenery: the wonders of the planetary system displayed illustrating the perfections of deity and a plurality of worlds. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1838 pp271-77.

Griggs, William N. The celebrated "moon story," its origin with memoir of the author. New York, 1852, pp4-19.

"Moon and its inhabitants," Edinburgh new philosophical journal. (Oct. 1826): 389-90

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, 1850, v3. December 24, 2000

Thompson, Susan, "Rising and shining: Benjamin Day and his New York Sun before 1836" AEJMC Conference Papers, Sept. 9, 2001.

Thornton, Brian, "Humbug, P.T. Barnum and Batmen on the Moon: Editorial Discussion of the Moon Hoax of 1835" AEJMC Conference Paper, Sept. 30, 1999.

All the Websites were up and running as of February 15, 2005.

  1. Did an el cheapo production like the Sun even have offices.
  2. Robert Paltock, The life and adventures of Peter Wilkins, or The history of the flying islanders. Boston: Baker & Alexander, 1828.
  3. He did resent one thing about the Moon Hoax: so many people wrote him to ask whether the story was true.  

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