The Great Moon Hoax and why we still fall for it

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*Humbug: An act that calls attention to itself; it also allows for the possibility of doubt, and requires consent from those who participate.

*The first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of man: a field of poppies.

*Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon, The remarkable true account of hoaxers, showmen, dueling journalist and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I love anything that smacks of a good hoax. An added bonus? Man-Bats! Who wouldn’t pick this gem up?

A couple of months ago my son Alex and I stopped by my favorite indie bookstore, GrassRoots Books. This cleaver book was on display front and center. With it’s enticing title and beautiful cover I just had to look at it. From the front sleeve:

On August 26, 1835, a fledgling newspaper called the Sun brought to New York the first accounts of remarkable lunar discoveries. A series of six articles reported the existence of life on the moon—including unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats. In a matter of weeks it was the most broadly circulated newspaper story of the era, and the Sun, a working-class upstart, became the most widely read paper in the world.

I had heard of the Great Moon Hoax, but had never paid much attention to the story. It was one of those stories that I thought might be myth. Did a newspaper really fool that many people? I had to find out.

What I thought would be a tale of mischief and humbuggery turned out to be a history lesson into the early days of newspapers and American pre-Civil War politics. In the mix we meet Edger Allan Poe and P.T. Barnum. One man would prove to be the world’s greatest showman; the other a down on his luck writer who went to his grave believing the Moon story was stolen from him.

There is so much in this book I don’t know where to start. The history lesson starts before the summer of 1835. Goodman describes the tension building between the anti and pro slavery activists and how the New York newspaper fueled this tension and ended up creating the opinion based editorials that we now see as normal in print and cable media.

I had erroneously believed that it was our modern media that came up with the idea of replacing opinions with facts, and that the divide that is so prevalent in our culture is a result of it. Not so, teaches Goodman. In rich and vivid detail Goodman recounts the development of activist journalism and how its effects are still with us today.

Using the slavery debate as a backdrop, Goodman introduces us to newspaper owners, James Watson Webb, William Cullen Bryant, Benjamin Day, and others. Each determined to sway popular opinion in his political favor. To do so required a new type of newspaper, one that Benjamin Day would create and be the example all others followed, even as some went at it kicking and screaming.

Before the summer of 1835 there were roughly 852 circulating newspapers in America. New York had the largest selection (if I remember right there were four). At that time newspapers were viewed as a luxury for the upper- crust as the masses could not afford the time or money to read them. And who can blame them? Before Day came along newspapers were full of foreign news; mostly economic news coming from the English trading companies. When local news was reported on, it was usually watered down crime reports and highlights from events for the rich.

Day set out to change all that. First, he lowered the price of a paper to a penny. Next he sent a reporter out to cover crime stories as if they were Penny Dreadfuls; no subject or criminal was too “indecent” to cover. Day decided his audience would be the working-class. His editorials, unlike his rivals, did not cover “polite” politics. Day went against the grain and wrote about his anti-slavery views at a time when these ideas were only loud whispers, that usually found the view holder on the outs with proper society.

In order to sell his papers for a penny, Day had to sell a lot of them. And this is where Richard Adam Locke came in. It was Locke’s ability to weave a good yarn as they say, that Day needed. Locke came up with the idea of writing a factious account of Sir John Herschel’s real work in an observatory on the Cape of Good Hope. While Herschel was away studying the moon’s orbit, Locke would write of the “accounts” coming back via Scotland. It was a whimsical series, and well, if people believed it, then it was their fault.

The story of the Great Moon Hoax and its hold on the world is remarkable enough, but what is truly amazing is what it did to the publishing world at large. The other newspaper owners realized that by blending science facts with biased opinion, they could get their readers to believe what they wanted. We saw this in action when the pro-slavery movement came up with Social Darwinism to bolster their claims of mental inferiority.

Recently Roger Ailes is alleged to have said, “The Truth is whatever people will believe”. While there is no actual proof he said this, the sentiment was true in 1836. This is when paper men like Webb and Byant set out to shape mass opinion. I cannot find the quote (I should have taken better notes) but one of them roughly said, “we will tell the people what they should think”. This was said during a time when riots and street fights were becoming commonplace due to low wages, income inequality and dueling views on slavery. Newspaper owners may have trying to keep the city from tearing itself apart, but ended up dividing it with vitriolic editorials.

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Poe wrote about the hoax and the fallout; “The consequences of the scheme in their influence on the whole newspaper business of the country, and through this business on the interest of the country at large, are probably beyond calculation.”

We may not be able to measure the consequences, but we feel them. Of course not all of the fallout is entirely without merit. For without Locke and Day we would not have the Weekly World New’s Bat-boy. Yes, he is in this book too.

The Sun and the Moon is my favorite read of 2014. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

8 thoughts on “The Great Moon Hoax and why we still fall for it”

    1. Thanks Brian. It didn’t bother me that the text was missing as Goodman gives us a good sample from each episode. But it was so nice of you to link this for the readers who want to explore the hoax.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for filling in these details, which I was only hazily aware of. Print media, and more recently electronic media, has such a power: “if it’s in print it must be true” is such a strong if dubious meme. And of course such ridiculous memes can be at best mischievous, at worst dangerous, fuelling conspiracy theories which are impossible to counteract.

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