Primary Sources and April Fool’s Day: The Great Moon Hoax of 1825

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the current Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

April’s Fool’s Day pranks are usually fairly short term: An entire class simultaneously falls asleep or a teacher assigns a forty-page essay due the next day, and everyone laughs once the trick is revealed. Hoaxes, on the other hand, have a different intent, as they are engineered to deceive over the long term, and often on a large scale. Invite your students to consider the difference as they analyzing primary sources connected to the Great Moon Hoax of 1825.

In August of 1825, the New York newspaper The Sun published a six-part series about life found on the moon, written by Dr. Andrew Grant, a protégé of Sir John Herschel, a respected astronomer. The series described goat-like creatures with horns and beards frolicking about on green turf. Another installment focused on water birds and animals, including a spherical amphibious creature that rolled along the moon beach. Most thrilling of all was the description of beings that walked upright with dignity and “averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper hair, and have wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of the shoulders to the calves of the legs.”  When it was discovered that Grant was a fictitious persona created by journalist Richard Adams Locke, the hoax fell apart, but for a time, readers were completely taken in by the reports.

Lunar animals and other objects Discovered by Sir John Herschel in his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope and copied from sketches in the Edinburgh Journal of Science. 1835

Pique student interest in the Moon Hoax with this drawing that was published with the series. Use the Library of Congress primary source analysis tool  in conjunction with prompting questions selected from the Analyzing Prints and Photographs Teacher’s Guide to encourage student observation, reflection, and questions.

Invite a deeper analysis by asking:

  • What similarities are there between the beings depicted and beings on Earth?
  • What scientific errors does the drawing include?

In 1918, The Sun published a series of articles on the history of the newspaper. The Moon Hoax situation was a significant part of their story. Offer students this newspaper article reporting details about the original news items, Richard Locke, and the success of the hoax.

Moon Hoax article

The Famous Moon Hoax Article that Fooled the Whole World. 1918

Ask:

  • What questions did you have that were answered by the news article?
  • What questions do you still have?
  • Why might The Sun‘s readers have been fooled?
  • What scientific knowledge would a reader have needed to understand the claims made in the stories?
  • What do we know about the moon today that newspaper readers in 1825 did not? How do we know?

Encourage students to look closely at the overview to identify the claims made in the original series of articles about discoveries on the moon. Create a list of the claims. Consider teaming with the school librarian to conduct research to support or refute each claim.

The week after The Sun detailed the history of the hoax series, they discussed the effect of the revelation of the hoax.

Reflect:

  • What surprised you about reactions to the revelation of the hoax?
  • What do you still want to know about the Moon Hoax? How will you find answers?

Students may investigate further by finding information about this or other hoaxes in history.

We’d love to know how your students react to this hoax, and especially to the drawing of Lunar Animals – let us know in the comments!

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