Great Moon Hoax

Great Moon Hoax
The depiction of the Moon dwellers by Leopoldo Galluzzo above is a mash-up of the original news articles, Poe’s moon hoax, and various retellings of the story in other newspapers of the time. [Credit: Earthly Mission / Smithsonian Libraries]

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Sir John Herschel had reportedly made an astounding discovery. His powerful new telescope showed not only life on the Moon, but a lunar civilization. His findings were already known in Edinburgh, Scotland, but in August 1835 they were revealed to the American public by The Sun newspaper in New York.

But had Herschel discovered life on the Moon? Viewing from the 21st century, you're not likely to be convinced. You have the advantage of knowing that orbiting spacecraft have taken thousands of photos of the Moon, and none show any signs of life, let alone civilization. The only documented life on the Moon has been the temporary visit of twelve Apollo astronauts. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the Moon as “magnificent desolation”.

In this first part of what will be a 2-part article, we'll look at the The Sun's story and people's reactions. Although we call it the Great Moon Hoax, it seems that it may not have been intended as a hoax.

Watch this space
On August 21, 1835 The Sun advertised a feature reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The author was named as Dr. Andrew Grant, and he chronicled the great discoveries of his friend Sir John Herschel. It wasn't unusual for newspapers and magazines of that time to provide articles about scientific discoveries. Their readers were quite interested, especially if they were about discoveries in distant places. This was long before television, the internet or airplanes.

Sir John Herschel
The first article was headed
At the Cape of Good Hope

Herschel was reported as having “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy” and credited with a revolutionary new telescope “of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle” with a magnifying power of 42,000 times. He supposedly took this telescope to South Africa, where he assembled it and made his revolutionary discoveries.

John Herschel was the son of William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus. And he was indeed at the Cape of Good Hope with a telescope. The Cape Town of today is still a long way from New York, though it no longer takes two months to sail from England to the Cape. It's also about 8000 miles, as the crow flies, from New York. Before telephones, satellites and the internet, communications traveled at the same speed as humans. So we need to remember that not only was this man of international reputation safely tucked away at the tip of Africa, but that New York was also a goodly distance from Scotland where supposedly everyone knew about the discoveries.

The newspaper issue sold well, but the second in the series of six sold even better.

The discoveries
The second and third articles described what Herschel saw on the Moon, and were even more popular. The Sun had to increase the print run to meet demand.

Bill Anders, who orbited the Moon in Apollo 8, described the color of the Moon as “a very whitish gray, like dirty beach sand”. But Herschel saw red poppies, green forests, blue seas and crystal cliffs. Not to mention numerous creatures, including some resembling small bison, blue-tinted unicorns, and miniature zebras. Most notable was a tailless beaverlike animal that lived in wooden dwellings and carried its young in its arms as humans do.

But no Robin
The final three articles described beings to which Herschel and Grant had given the scientific name Vespertilio-homo (bat-man). [Portrait from an edition of the Moon series published in Naples, courtesy of the New York Public Library] The man-bats were humanoids about 4 feet tall and orange-colored with wings. They were also seen talking to each other.

The end
The story ended when the observations ended. The observations ended when the Sun hitting the telescope lens caused a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory.

Public reaction
The story was a fantastic success. Circulation soared. Rival newspapers commented and themselves reprinted it. One newspaper even included comments from their own correspondent who claimed also to have been at the observations.

As the hysteria grew, Sun owner Benjamin Day prepared a pamphlet version of the accounts along with a lithograph depicting the man-bats and other “Lunarian” species. Both sold well. People were discussing this excitedly in the USA and also in Europe, the believers apparently outnumbering the skeptics.

Herschel's response
Of course, it wasn't until late in the year that John Herschel learned of the hoax. Initially, he was good-humored about it, saying “It is too bad my real discoveries here won't be that exciting.” However when the story persisted, he found the queries tiresome. In 1837 he wrote, “I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English, French, Italian & German!!” The Moon stories continued to circulate around the world for two decades.

Hoax or satire?
Who wrote the newspaper stories? And why? And how did the newspaper get away with it? We'll take a closer look in a future article.

You Should Also Read:
John Herschel
Exploring the Apollo Landing Sites
Carrying the Fire – Book Review

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