… In August 1835 the New York Sun carried the headline ‘Celestial Discoveries’ and an article about a new super-powerful telescope set up in South Africa by the British astronomer Sir John Herschel. The story ran that Herschel had pointed his new telescope at the moon and had found life! Not only that but complex and varied life comparable to that of earth.
The newspaper waxed lyrical for four columns about the vast array of plants and animals Herschel had found living on the moon. There were hoofed animals like blue-coloured unicorn goats, ball-like amphibious creatures that rolled up and down beaches, bison with flaps over their eyes to protect them from the light, birds like pelicans and cranes. After four days of rising circulation figures the newspaper printed its most shocking revelation: the moon was home to intelligent life….
This intelligent life took the form of winged, furry ape-men apparently even possessed of their own religion. So powerful was Herschel’s new telescope that the article was able to give a full and accurate description of these creatures as if the observer had been standing only a few metres away:
‘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; but of all the others we had 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 their legs.
‘The face, which was of a yellowish color, was an improvement upon that of the large orang-utan … so much so that but for their long wings they would look as well on a parade ground as some of the old cockney militia. The hair of the head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled but apparently not woolly, and arranged in two circles over the temples of the forehead. Their feet could only be seen as they were alternately lifted in walking; but from what we could see of them in so transient a view they appeared thin and very protuberant at the heel…We could perceive that their wings possessed great expansion and were similar in structure of those of the bat, being a semitransparent membrane expanded in curvilinear divisions by means of straight radii, united at the back by dorsal integuments. But what astonished us most was the circumstance of this membrane being continued from the shoulders to the legs, united all the way down, though gradually decreasing in width. The wings seemed completely under the command of volition, for those of the creatures whom we saw bathing in the water spread them instantly to their full width, waved them as ducks do theirs to shake off the water, and then as instantly closed them again in a compact form.’
Needless to say, this story shocked the world and led to rival newspapers copying it or making their own versions, calls to send missionaries to the moon and the circulation of the New York Sun to sky-rocket, becoming the highest selling newspaper in the world. Not everyone was taken in by the hoax, but any scientists who came to inspect the original messages were sent across New York in a wild goose chase until they eventually gave up and went home. The stories grew increasingly wilder over the coming days in describing the society and the temples of the moon men until eventually the newspaper printed the sad story that the telescope had been left facing East and the rays of the sun had burnt out the reflecting chamber, destroying the telescope.
The stories were collected in pamphlet form by Richard Adams Locke, who had been their author all along, making some $25,000 from them before interest waned. When word of the stories eventually reached Herschel and he immediately saw the funny side before dismissing them outright. Another person who passed comment on the stories at the time was Edgar Allen Poe who said he stopped work on a sequel to ‘The Strange Adventures of Hans Pfaall’ because he had been outdone.
As cons and hoaxes go, the great moon hoax was one of a rare breed of cons, like P. T. Barnum’s ‘The Great Unknown’ and the BBC’s ‘Spaghetti Harvest’ hoax that created amusement on behalf of those that had fallen for the tall stories without any great offence or regrets.