Day 436: Great Standing Beavers, Thar Be Life On The Moon!

originally published March 11, 2013

That is the sullen yet learned face of Sir John Herschel, the greatest astronomer of his time, “his time” clearly coming before the advent of quality hair product. In 1835, he taught us all about the secret goings-on taking place upon the moon’s surface, including trees, oceans, beaches, and a variety of thriving animal life. Herschel wasn’t insane, nor was he horrendously bad at his job. His name was simply appropriated for the purposes of an elaborate prank.

The articles – and there were six full articles about this weirdness – appeared in the reputable New York Sun, the most conservative of the three New York dailies. They claimed that an extraordinary new telescope at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa had unveiled a previously unheard-of civilization on the lunar surface. The author of these pieces, which had previously been published in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, was one Dr. Andrew Grant, travelling companion and amanuensis (a dude who takes dictation) of Dr. Herschel.

Of course, Dr. Andrew Grant didn’t exist, and these articles never sullied the pages of any journal of science. But it sounded legit, and they even included pictures.

Though it’s not 100% confirmed that he had penned the articles, the most likely culprit was Richard A. Locke, a respected reporter who was working for the Sun. Other suspects include Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker literary magazine (which makes sense, since these articles were so deeply entrenched in fiction) and French astronomer Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, best known for mapping the Upper Mississippi River. But Locke had the best motive for spewing this hoax.

First, he wrote for the Sun, and an exclusive on something like this was bound to cause a sensation and elbow the circulation numbers up close to New York Times numbers. Second, Locke was Cambridge educated – the guy was sharper than the average scribe, and might have been curious to see what the public would swallow. The nineteenth-century public wasn’t particularly astute as a whole, so maybe they’d buy into a civilization of man-bats living on that shiny orb in the night sky.

Perhaps the greatest motive for Richard A. Locke to write such ridiculousness is the fact that it would work as effective satire. This was not the first set of wild claims about the goings-on of the moon. A respected astronomer by the name of Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, who taught at the University of Munich, claimed to have discovered a lunar city in the rough surface just north of the Schröter crater. He was convinced that his little telescope had revealed streets and buildings, as well as shades of color which could only be vegetation zones and a varied lunar climate.

Gruithuisen’s claims were looked upon as bat-shittedly wonky by his peers, and as greater technology afforded better views of the lunar goings-on, the claims were quietly disproven. But far more ripe for mockery were the writings of the ‘Christian Philosopher’ who was immensely popular in the United States at the time, a guy named Rev. Thomas Dick.

Dick was a highly respected writer who effectively blended his Presbyterian background with the new Enlightenment-era sciencey stuff that was filling bookshelves at the time. The science that had intrigued him the most was astronomy, and he set about trying to calculate just how many inhabitants there were in our solar system. His math came up with about 21 trillion inhabitants. To be clear, he wasn’t simply throwing out a guess; the actual number he came up with was 21,891,974,404,480. He had to be specific; it was science, after all.

Anyway, Dick also asserted that 4.2 billion of our solar system neighbors were set up on the moon, just waiting for an invitation to come over for tea and pastries. People bought up his books and drank in every word – and not just the unwashed masses; Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the many intellectuals who were said to be fans of Dick’s work.

So why not a cavalcade of weird animals? If people were buying Dick’s numbers, who’s to say the moon wouldn’t have its share of bison, goats, bipedal beavers with no tail, unicorns (yes, fucking unicorns) and temple-dwelling bat-people?

Besides… pictures!

Of course the basis of scientific exploration is verification, so it would be expected that someone would jet down to the Cape of Good Hope and poke their eyeballs through this magnificent new telescope to confirm Sir Herschel’s findings, right? Well no – according to the articles the telescope was destroyed when the sun used the lens as a burning glass, and torched the observatory like a hapless ant at the mercy of a cruel ten-year-old boy.

Luckily, as a reputable newspaper, the Sun revealed the hoax in a front-page retraction a day after the last article went to print. New Yorkers had a good laugh, and life went back to normal.

I’m joking, of course. The Sun never printed a retraction. Its circulation numbers went up, and they simply pressed on with other news, ignoring the strangeness that had drawn readers into trusting them. The story actually wasn’t discovered to be a hoax for another few weeks, which means there is an impressive chunk of relatively recent history in which people believed in moon-based fantasy creatures.

Rumor has it a Massachusetts-based missionary society planned to send missionaries to the moon in order to capture and civilize the bat-like man-creatures. It’s hard to imagine the populace falling for an elaborate moon-based hoax in this era.

Sir John Herschel heard about the story, and found it quite amusing. He noted that his real observations could tragically never be so exciting. The story’s charm wore off though – years later he was still answering questions about the so-called findings of lunar man-bats credited to his name.

Two months earlier, a mostly-unknown writer named Edgar Allen Poe had published his own moon hoax in the Southern Literary Messenger, in which a scientist who had travelled via hot-air balloon to the moon revealed a race of lunarians with whom he then lived for five years. Poe’s piece was first published in New York just days after the Sun’s final article, before the hoax had been revealed. However, Poe’s comic slant was obvious, and no one truly believed it was anything more than fiction. Poe later commented that he opted not to write a follow-up, as the Sun’s story had gone over so well.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people will believe anything, so long as the science isn’t there to completely disprove you.

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