Oddments: The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
Updated: Mar 5, 2019
This nearly 200-year-old hoax isn't even the oldest one I plan to write about this year (That honor goes to the prank played on poor stuffed shirt astrologer Titan Leeds by the one and only Benjamin fucking Franklin over a hundred year prior in 1733.), but it is the one that injected itself into my soft malleable brain-parts at the earliest possible moment.
I first read about The Great Moon Hoax when I was nine or ten years old and at the height of my ghosts, cryptids and UFOs phase. I found it in a book from my local library called "Monsters, Giants and Little Men From Mars" by Daniel Cohen, a prolific writer who passed away last year and who I'm pretty sure wrote 75% of the books in my library's 398.2 kids' section.
(The other 25% were those hardcover Usborne World of the Unknown books that every kid in my school loved and now can't be bought for love or money.)
Mr. Cohen's book introduced me to a plethora of wacky delights from US history, like The Cardiff Giant, Charles Fort, and Mothman. But the Moon Hoax stuck to me like gum on a hot sidewalk. In fact, I even referenced it back in last year's Oddities research and inspiration post (public).
Now, this entry is going to be a bit more diffuse and rambling than previous installments, partly because I'm still recovering from the one-two knuckleduster of bronchitis and sinusitis that my temperamental flesh-sack of a body was pleased to bestow on me upon Christmas Day (no, really, you shouldn't have), and partly because this is a far more well-trodden subject than the other strange little nuggets I usually give you to chew on.
There's a very comprehensive write-up of it over at The Museum of Hoaxes, and a delightful two-part episode from Stuff You Missed In History Class (Part 1) (Part 2), and if you want the full background on this hoax, you should check those out.
No, instead of a straightforward breakdown of the hoax and its progress, and who the perpetrator was, I'm going to concentrate more on how delightfully and minutely bugnuts it was, because this 19th century hoax inspired the short story that is in the process of becoming my novel Oddities.
Ah yes, a hoax so lovingly rendered, it should be considered science porn.
Or, well, science fiction porn. Because it was entirely science fiction. But really serious and earnest science fiction, of the sort that the 19th century perfected. Like, you know the loooooooong, looooooovingly detailed descriptions of all the fishes in the oceans in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Yeah, like THAT.
The thumbnail version of this hoax is that for a week in August 1835, a series of articles ran in the New York Sun (no, not this one) (this one!), claiming to have been originally published in the Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science, describing the marvelous discoveries of life on the moon via means of a powerful new telescope built by Sir John Herschel. Now, Herschel was a very real and very important scientist, but he knew nothing about these supposed 'discoveries' being attributed to him.
And whoa dang, were there some amaaaaaaaaaazing discoveries in those Sun articles.
Literally the biggest reason I wanted to talk about this mess is because of how wonderfully crazy and yet also prosaic all the fake discoveries are. Like, holy damn, Richard Adams Locke - amateur astronomer, reporter at the Sun and self-confessed hoaxer extraordinaire - you did not have to go this hard but you did and I salute you for it, sir.
A fun thing I learned as I was researching this article: in September 1927, Hugo Gernsback, the writer, editor and magazine publisher for whom the Hugo Awards are named, published Locke's account of the moon hoax in his science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories.
And that is precisely where it belonged, because it builds so very, very beautifully.
(All quotes are taken from The Museum of Hoaxes's transcript of the original newspaper articles. They are all walls o' text, so expect many silly gifs to break up the monotony.)
It starts off with a mostly dry but still exciting-because-Science description of Herschel's shiny ginormous new telescope.
Oh, I'm sorry, did I say dry? I meant 'rendered in so much purple prose, it would make a Gothic novelist blush':
"We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity."
I spend a lot of time pawing through repositories of old newspapers, and I can confirm, this is just how newspaper articles were written in the 1830s. WITH OPIUM-LACED MADNESS.
"Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away."
God, I wish modern reporting was this flowery and ridiculous. It would certainly make it easier to read... Oh, but the telescope. THE TELESCOPE.
"The weight of this ponderous lens was 14,826 lbs. or nearly seven tons after being polished; and its estimated magnifying power 42,000 times. It was therefore presumed to be capable of representing objects in our lunar satellite of little more than eighteen inches in diameter, providing its focal image of them could be rendered distinct by the transfusion of article light. It was not, however, upon the mere illuminating power of the hydro-oxygen microscope, as applied to the focal pictures of this lens, that the younger Herschel depended for the realization of his ambitious theories and hopes. He calculated largely upon the almost unlimited applicability of this instrument as a second magnifier, which would supersede the use, and infinitely transcend the powers of the highest magnifiers in reflecting telescopes."
Likewise, I suspect that Locke calculated largely that his reading public wouldn't know what the highfalutin' fuck he was talking about. Because really, how many people in 1835 New York City would have any clue if any of that was even possible? Queen Victoria wouldn't take the throne in Great Britain for another two years; the miasma theory of disease transmission was still commonly accepted by doctors. Science and scientific language was not widely known across broad swathes of the reading public. This was a beautifully-timed hoax, is what I'm trying to get at.
Now we're almost at the end of this first article and we've spent thirty-five hundred words I am so not kidding -
- talking about long and pendulous lenses and what it feels like to be God, and I was promised some kind of extraterrestrial life--
"So sanguinely, indeed, did he calculate upon the advantages of this splendid alliance, that he expressed confidence in his ultimate ability to study even the entomology of the moon, in case she contained insects upon her surface."
*perks up* Moon bugs? I am here for moon bugs. :D
Okay, second article, skipping over sixteen hundred words about astronomical setup and dragging the lens up the side of a mountain in South Africa via oxen, NOW, what are we seeing through that giant totally not-phallic telescope today, Sir-Not-Actually-Appearing-in-This-Hoax?
"It was about half past nine o'clock on the night of the tenth, the moon having then advanced within four days of her mean liberation, that the astronomer adjusted his instruments for the inspection of her eastern limb. The whole immense power of his telescope was applied and to its focal image about one half of the power of his microscope. On removing the screen of the latter, the field of view was covered throughout its entire area with a beautifully distinct, and even vivid representation of basaltic rock. Its color was a greenish brown, and the width of the columns, as defined by their interstices on the canvass, was invariably twenty-eight inches. No fracture whatever appeared in the mass first presented, but in a few seconds a shelving pile appeared of five or six columns width, which showed their figure to be hexagonal, and their articulations similar to those of the basaltic formation at Staffa. This precipitous shelf was profusely covered with a dark red flower, "precisely similar," says Dr. Grant, "to the Papaver Rhoeas, or rose-poppy of our sublunary cornfields; and this was the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.""
Moon poppies. That's... oddly sweet, actually, that the very first signs of life humans might see on another celestial body would be flowers. And then trees. Miles and miles of yew-like trees. And then an actual lake in Mare Nubium, with a beautiful white sandy beach.
Man, so far the moon sounds like a rockin' vacation spot. But uh, excuse me, I was promised moon bugs?
"Our chase of animal life was not yet to be rewarded."
"The lenses being removed, and the effulgence of our unutterably glorious reflectors left undiminished[...]"
OH COME ON.
"presently a train of scenery met our eye, of features so entirely novel, that Dr. Herschel signalled for the lowest convenient gradation of movement. It was a lofty chain of obelisk-shaped, or very slender pyramids, standing in irregular groups, each composed of about thirty or forty spires, every one of which was perfectly square, and as accurately truncated as the finest specimens of Cornish crystal. They were of a faint lilac hue, and very resplendent."
*gasp* Pyramids on the moon???
"I now thought that we had assuredly fallen on productions of art; but Dr. Herschel shrewdly remarked, that if the Lunarians could build thirty or forty miles of such monuments as these, we should ere now have discovered others of a less equivocal character. He pronounced them quartz formations[.]"
Locke, you buzzkill.
I am skipping over quite a lot of descriptive filler in my haste to get to my favorite part, but I have to say, while the copy editor in me appreciates the slow build of anticipation, I'm also cringing at all the linguistic fulminations. On the other hand, the cultural history fan side of me is sternly reminding me about how before the advent of audiovisual mass media in the home, newspapers, periodicals and books were intended to be and frequently were read aloud and shared, and I should judge the writing styles of 1835 against those of 2019 and come on, Locke, get to the aliens!
"At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history."
Moon bison! MOON! BISON!
"Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears. We could most distinctly perceive this hairy veil, which was shaped like the upper front outline of a cap known to the ladies as Mary Queen of Scots' cap, lifted and lowered by means of the ears. It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Dr. Herschel, that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected."
Is anyone else imagining herds of Appas with little sun hats? Because I damn well am!
They saw other animals, including blue unicorns (moonicorns? ...Moonicorns.) and birds they compared to pelicans and cranes, before clouds rolled in and obscured their lens's vision, ending the second article.
The third article is about beaver. Bipedal, upright, civilized beaver. No, I don't care that the majority of the article is actually about geological formations, trees, other animals and birds, and neither should you. I mean, I just--
"[This] resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire."
BEAVER. BEAVER WHO USE FIRE.
Whatever Locke was smoking and/or drinking, someone needs to send ten pounds of it to my house immediately.
The fourth article, though, this is what I've been waiting for. This article starts with weird deer and completely normal sheep--
"...three good large sheep, which would not have disgraced the farms of Leicestershire, or the shambles of Leanenhall-market."
--and ends with the glory of glories, the real reason this hoax has stuck with me for over twenty years and why it deserves a place in the annals of classic science fiction, the Vespertilio-homo - the man-bat.
"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 their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of simia genus. In general symmetry of body and limbs they were infinitely superior to the orang outang [...] The hair on the head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled, but apparently not wooly, and arranged in two curious semicircles over the temples of the forehead. Their feet could only bee 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."
Oh wait, these are pre-Victorian aliens (complete with era-appropriate racism) (Christ, I'm surprised Locke didn't compare the moon-bat-people to 'the more civilized sort of Africans' or something), so it should be more like...
...Look, you try finding good GIFs from a 117-year-old film and see how that works out.
And if you actually read the short story link back near the top, you may recognize Vespertilio-homo as the inspiration for Victor, the strange winged creature who may or may not have fallen off the moon and into the clutches of a mad collector. So as you can see, I owe this ridiculous hoax a lot.
Article #5 ratchets the lunar wonders up another notch by the discovery of three mysterious temple-like structures, seemingly long-abandoned, and all built of polished blue sapphire, topped with copper globes surrounded by flames. But what could these buildings be? Tell us, tell us!
"I by no means despair of ultimately solving not only these but a thousand other questions which present themselves respecting the objects of this planet; for not the millionth part of her surface has yet been explored, and we have been more desirous of collecting the greatest possible number of new facts, than of indulging in speculative theories, however seductive for the imagination."
Subtitled: When the Worldbuilding Gives Out. *rubs forehead* Locke, I swear, you are the worst kind of creator-troll. But this did give adolescent me something to think about and ponder over for a couple of decades, doing all the xenoanthropological supposing that Locke never got around to.
The sixth article then talks about how they pointed the telescope at a different random valley on the moon and found even more man-bats, but these were
"of larger stature than the former specimens, less dark in color, and in every respect an improved variety of the race."
...Remember, kids, all fiction and especially science fiction is always a reflection of contemporary culture and society and there's no such thing as an apolitical scifi book!
"...shortly after sunrise the next morning, Dr. Herschel and his assistants, Dr. Grant and Messrs. Drummond and Home, who slept in a bungalow erected a short distance from the observatory circle, were awakened by the loud shouts of some Dutch farmers and domesticated Hottentotts"
Domesti--OH FUCK YOU, LOCKE.
And then the telescope burns down so they can't do anymore research and you know what? GOOD. GOOD I'M GLAD IT BURNED DOWN. THOSE LUNAR BAT-PEOPLE ARE SO MUCH BETTER OFF WITHOUT US.
God, this is so much worse than I remembered it being.
I was going to talk about other stuff, like how one of Edgar Allen Poe's earliest literary efforts got derailed by this hoax and also how there was apparently a shitton of merchandise inspired by Locke's stunt, like snuffboxes and wallpaper, which are the most early-19th century things I can possible think of, but noooo, now I'm too pissed off at the entirely unsubtle racism that I never noticed as a kid because I was completely distracted by omg BAT-PEOPLE.
THANKS, RICHARD ADAMS LOCKE.