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.

3 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot

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Growing up in Washington State during the 1970’s meant hearing tales about Bigfoot. We “country” people knew the legends to be just that, legends and tall tales, it was the “city” folk who swallowed the stories hook line and sinker. Locals worried about brown bear encounters, visitors asked about Bigfoot sightings.

My grandparents owned a farm an hour from Redmond. The 40 acres  sat in the middle of the King County, which, when I was growing up was in the heart of logging country. My grandparents were good friends with some members of the Snoqualmie tribe. Fred, one of the tribal elders, would use Bigfoot as a way of scaring us kids out of wanting to camp in the woods. When the thought of bears did not scare us Bigfoot’s name was brought up. We knew the wild hairy man was myth, but still…. We never did manage to get the nerve up to camp to far from home.

Of course it is fun to think that there just might be an unknown creature living in the wilds of North America. The idea that something so wild and free can elude modern man is kinda romantic.  Maybe this is why so many people want to believe that there are 8-foot tall bands of primates living in the woods.

Thanks to mass media Bigfoot is alive and well. He sells Jerky ads and is featured in several “reality” shows, most notably “Hunting for Bigfoot”. Thanks to The Discover Channel, gullible people tune in each week as “expert” Squash hunters make fools of themselves as they unsuccessfully try to track down the big guy.

Have you ever wondered how this myth got started? Do you think you know? Thanks to Daniel Loxton and Donald Prthoero’s hard work and dedicated research, we find that the answer is almost as interesting as the myth itself. They co-authored the book Abominable Science; Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and other famous cryptids.  The book is a well researched, well written account of the people and events that shaped our ideas and beliefs about modern monsters.  The pictures and illustrations are of very high quality. These alone could be a reason to pick up the book, but it is the pages of documented accounts of hoaxes and explorations that make this book the definitive book on cryptozoology.  The two authors gather the vast array of claims and stories together in order to show the many problematic “facts” and show readers why they just don’t add up. To give you an idea of how well put-together this book is I am going to offer you,

3 things you may not know about Bigfoot

No, that’s not what they were talking about

Cryptologists point to the long history of Bigfoot sightings by Native Americans.  They love to say that for hundreds of years Native Americans have included Sasquatch in their legends and oral traditions.  The problem with this connection is that the wild man that haunts Native American lore is not the same creature that eludes us today. The Native American Bigfoot legends talk of hairy wild men and women who are human, many can even speak local languages. Some suggest the wild men are super strong and are cannibalistic and vicious. In some accounts, Bigfoot is made of stone and can shoot fire out of his fingers! Some are tall and some are very short. The shy primate like giant is not found in any Native American story.

In 1920 John Burns, an American schoolteacher who was teaching (acclimating) native children became fascinated by the stories he heard while working in Washington State. He is the one who coined the name Sasquatch. It is an anglicization of a word in the mainland dialects of the Halkomelem language. His stories that were recounted in a magazine told of a tall wild Indians, with long hair and who could use fire, wore cloths and used weapons. So how the hell did we get a hairy primate out of these stories?

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In 1957 the town of Harrison Hot Springs in British Columbia decided they needed some publicity. The Government was giving out $600 dollars to towns that would come up with a project celebrating the centennial. What better project than to stir up tourism? The stunt? Put on a Sasquatch hunt! Use a mostly forgotten local legend in order to bring in tourists and their dollars. The project was rejected by the government, but the ploy was a huge success! Newspapers all over Canada ran the story and soon hunters and newsmen flocked to Harrison Hot Springs. Though the idea and hunt was silly, many started to take the folklore serious. John Burns came to the town to affirm that Sasquatch was human. So again, how did we end up with a hairy primate? No hunter came back with a sighting claim, but one local man did. In short William Roe said, “that in 1955 while hiking in the woods I came across a very large animal that stood about 6 feet tall and almost 3 feet wide. It was covered in hair. As it came closer I noticed it was female! Her arms were thicker and longer than a man’s. When she walked she placed her heel down first. Her head was higher in the back, her nose was broad a flat. The only uncovered area on her body was around her mouth, nose and ears. When she noticed me she turned her head and watched me for a moment as she walked away. This was more animal than man”. The story spread like wildfire, and one man in particular paid close attention to this account.

He wrote about it and then he filmed it.

The account I quoted above should sound familiar to anyone who has seen the Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin footage. In 1966 Roger Patterson wrote a book titled Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? In this book he cites witnesses and their stories including Roe’s. A year later he announced he was setting off to find this creature, and lo and behold he did just that! He filmed the exact scene Roe described, down to the heel pattern, female anatomy and head turn! It is not surprising that today’s Cryptologists, when arguing for the film’s authenticity ignore the striking similarities of the two sightings. Patterson never let anyone see the original film footage. He made a copy and to this day the copy is locked away in a safe. He died asserting the film was real, though he made little money off of it. The documentary he tried to make was turned down because no scientist would say the film was genuine. To this day the only people who argue for the film’s authenticity are those who firmly believe in the creature.

For anyone sitting on the fence over the existence of Bigfoot, this should be enough to finally convince him or her that what started out as Native American folklore has morphed for some into a White American symbol for the last remaining piece of the undiscovered country; the last vestige of the untamed North American forests. For others Bigfoot is the ultimate sideshow gaffe, something to fool the masses with. To all those who still believe Patterson and Gimlin caught the legendary beast on camera I can only say that P. T. Barnum was right; there’s a sucker born every minute. Actually, Barnum didn’t say this, his competitor George Hull did. People like Hull and Roe are lost to history, but real showman like Barnum and Patterson live on.