During the week of August 25, 1835, the world was treated to a fantastic story of scientific discoveries by the famous British astronomer, Sir John Herschel. He had realized the speculations of his father, astronomer Sir William Herschel, as he discovered life on the moon. Or so the readers of The New York Sun were told, in a series of articles now known as the Great Moon Hoax.
When we think of stories about life on other worlds and visits to or from those worlds presented as truth rather than fiction, we usually think of legends, news reports, or hoaxes of the mid-twentieth century to the present day. Similarly, the problem of sorting out fact from fiction in news items, especially those passed along through internet news sites and social media, seems quite modern. But speculation about life on the moon or planets in the solar system is older than the written word. News hoaxes also have a long history. Publisher Benjamin Franklin was a famous source of both legitimate news and hoaxes.
Folklorists have an interest in news hoaxes, alongside interest in legends of extraordinary events and the supernatural. News hoaxes succeed when they are written in the news style of the day and draw from contemporary factual news, while legends are stories with origins in oral traditions. But the two often parallel each other and may even include versions of the same stories. Russell Frank discussed modern “newslore” in his book talk at the Library of Congress, “Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet.”
Leading up to the Great Moon Hoax was another story published in June, 1835. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story in the Southern Literary Messenger, told as if true: “Hans Phaall, a Tale.” It described the return of an explorer to his native Holland with stories of life and adventures on the moon. In his day, a satire was counted as successful if a good portion of its readers thought it to be true. But in this case Poe’s sense of humor betrayed him and his article was quickly recognized as fiction by many of his readers. The Southern Literary Messenger was a periodical of fact and fiction that was only ten months old when Poe wrote this story, so it did not have a wide circulation at that time.
But someone, likely a writer on the staff of The New York Sun, either read Poe’s story or was thinking along the same lines. There was excitement about the return of Comet Halley expected in the fall and a predicted transit of Mercury, as well as astronomer John Herschel’s expedition to catalog the stars of the southern hemisphere. In the world of philosophy, the Scottish minister, amateur astronomer, and popular author, Rev. Thomas Dick, was making imaginative claims about intelligent life on other worlds. For example, he calculated the population of the solar system at over twenty-one trillion. This was a time of exciting events, theories, and claims. Stories playing on curiosity about astronomy could sell newspapers.
The author of the Great Moon Hoax series, unlike Poe, composed the serialized article as if reported by an astronomer who had accompanied Herschel on his expedition, the fictitious Andrew Grant. He included many quotes from Herschel, reporting discoveries made through close observation the moon. The articles cited the Edinburgh Journal of Science as the source for the story and was written in a style similar to that of both William and John Herschel. They may even have been inspired by an 1824 article by the German astronomer Baron Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, with a title that translates into English as “Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings” (in German).
While Poe had begun his story with the dramatic appearance of a balloon-like craft arriving from the moon, the author of the Moon Hoax articles reeled his readers in slowly, beginning with the reasons for the expedition to South Africa and an elaborate description of a new type of telescope invented by Herschel. This grounded the story in some facts. Herschel had gone to South Africa, taking with him a large reflecting telescope he had built, though Herschel’s telescope was not combined with the latest in microscope technology as described in the story. Towards the end of the second installment, the forests and plants of the moon were described with a few birds and mammals, including a unicorn-like creature. At this point other newspapers began reprinting the story from the beginning. In the third installment, the author described the geography, flora, and fauna of the moon in greater detail, with miniature bison and beavers that stood on two legs. A live volcano was described, which corresponded to William Herschel’s report of what seemed to be volcanoes in his observations in 1787. The segment concluded with a description of an island with cliffs studded with sapphires. This had Americans talking. In the fourth installment on August 28, 1835, the world learned that Herschel and his team had discovered humanoids: “We could then perceive that they possessed wings of great expansion, and were similar in structure to this of the bat, being a semi-transparent membrane expanded in curvilineal divisions by means of straight radii, united at the back by the dorsal integuments. But what astonished us very much was the circumstance of this membrane being continued, from the shoulders to the legs, united all the way down, though gradually decreasing in width.” Two more exciting installments followed, ending with an unfortunate accident in which the powerful lens of the telescope causes a fire, disrupting the research. (The full text may be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website.)
What happened next is a mix of history and legend, as the Moon Hoax itself has legends attached to it. One idea about this story from the time of its publication until the present day it was widely believed and represents an example of the gullibility of the public. But the hoax was carefully crafted to appear to be a genuine scientific report of its day. Hershel, who actually was doing research in South Africa, was not able to respond quickly to deny the claims. The August 28th edition describing winged people did tip the scales, and led many to stop believing the reports. On the 29th several papers cried hoax. The New York Evening Post, (page 3) a competing paper, ran an editorial that began “If Jonah swallowed a whale, according to one version of the story, he did not take down a larger mouthful than some of the sage conductors of the [illegible] quarter of the world show themselves capable of doing when they swallow, without a wry face, the ingenious hoax about certain lunar discoveries, a portion of which was published yesterday, and give another portion this forenoon.” On the same day the Massachusetts paper, The Gloucester Telegraph, not only informed its readers that the account was probably a hoax, but named papers that believed the articles to be authentic and those that “speak of it as mere moonshine” (page 2).
Many believed that the author of the hoax was the British-born journalist Richard Adams Locke, and he was accused in the press. On August 31, the date of the last installment of the article, Locke replied to his accusers with a letter to The New York Evening Post, which was widely reprinted, expressing shock that anyone would think he was the author of the story. He wrote, “I beg to state, as unequivocally as the words can express it, that I did not make those discoveries and it is my sincere conviction, founded on a careful examination of the internal evidence of the work in which they first appeared, that, if made at all, they were made by the great astronomer to whom all Europe, if not an incredulous America, will undoubtedly ascribe them. ” On September 5th, Philadelphia’s Atkinson’s Saturday Evening Post, reprinted Locke’s non-denial denial, followed by an advertisement for a real estate auction for “nine thousand building lots situated in the territory recently discovered by Sir John Herschel. The tract composed of three lots is that in which the vegetable gold is found. It has hitherto been sold as pasture land, giving nourishment to large flocks of sheep with one horn and a flap over their eyes, which will be sold with the lots, if desired….” 
The popularity of the story as it traveled across the globe was likely also fueled by the conflicting claims of truth or hoax. This is what everyone was talking about. Those who believed and those who disbelieved were equally eager to read the next installment. Some papers reprinted the story with editorials or disclaimers, and as seen from the above examples, some of these were entertaining as well. But it took several weeks for the cries of “hoax” to begin to catch up with the “news” of the discovery. Even long after the initial event, the story was reprinted in the US and abroad, because now it was news as one of the great journalistic hoaxes of all time.
The late Linda Dégh famously wrote that legends are crafted to excite debate on subjects of great importance. Legends, she argued, invite those who believe and those who disbelieve to test the boundaries of our knowledge. Disclaimers and attempts to disprove legends can often spread the story further. Hoaxes sometimes work in much the same way, perpetuated as much by the interest of those who disbelieve a story as those who believe it.
Poe suspected his own story idea had been stolen and reworked for The Sun, and he was sure that Richard Adams Locke was the culprit. Historians today generally agree that Locke was the most likely author. But The Sun did not retract the story or reveal the name of the author. This became a story in itself, a story about how newspapers should behave. An occasional hoax might be forgiven, but there were objections to the failure of the editors of The Sun to own up to the truth once the hoax was unveiled.
Edgar Allan Poe, whose own story had been eclipsed by the hoax, did get even in a number of ways. He wrote another story, “The Great Balloon Hoax,” based on the Great Moon Hoax, which was more successful at fooling some of his readers. Better still, it was published by Richard Adams Locke. Today Poe’s story about Hans Phaall is considered an early example of science fiction. Jules Verne, a fan of Poe, had read the story of Hans Phaall and “The Balloon Hoax” and is thought to have been inspired to write his novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the World in Eighty Days by these early works by Poe.
- In his 1795 article, “On the Nature and Construction of the Sun and Fixed Stars,” William Herschel presented his speculations on life on planets, moons, and even the sun. This may be one of the reasons his son was a target of this hoax. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 1795-01-01, 85:46-72.)
- Franklin, Benjamin (1935). Satires and hoaxes of Doctor Benjamin Franklin, illustrated by Herb Roth. Peter Pauper Press, frequently reprinted.
- Herschel, William (1787). “An Account of Three Volcanoes on the Moon,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol. LXXVII, pp. 229-232. What Herschel saw may have been natural a phenomenon, but not active volcanoes.
- Atkinson’s Saturday Evening Post (1831-1839); Sep 5, 1835; XIV, 736; p. 3.
- Dégh, Linda (2001). Legend and Belief: The Dialectics of a Genere. Indiana University Press. See chapter 2, “Is there a Definition for the Legend,” pp. 23-97. GR78 .D44 2001.
Dégh, Linda (2001). Legend and Belief: The Dialectics of a Genere. Indiana University Press.
Goodman, Matthew (2008). The Sun and the Moon : The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. Basic Books.
Griggs, William N. (1852). The Celebrated “Moon Story,” Its Origins and Incidents with a Memoir of the Author and an Appendix. Bunnell and Price. Includes the full text of the “Moon Hoax” story, attributed to Richard Adams Locke.
Newland, Rebecca (2015). “Primary Sources and April Fool’s Day: The Great Moon Hoax of 1825,” Teaching with the Library of Congress. (Suggestions for using primary source materials related to this hoax in the classroom.)