The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

16 September 1835, the newspaper “New York Sun” had to acknowledge publicly that their revelations about the alleged discoveries of life on the moon by the renowned British astronomer Sir John Herschel was a canard. The Great Moon Hoax was over.

"The Difference. — The sixpenny papers think and talk as if they were philosophers, critics, learned, intelligent men. Now mark the test. Not one of the penny papers ever believed the moon hoax — one half the sixpenny were hoaxed. The Herald at the jump was the only paper that explained the whole humbug." (The New York Sun, October 1835)

An illustration of the moon’s inhabitants inspired by the “Moon Hoax”

The first two years of the penny paper “The Sun” of New York were anything but successful and their idea to supply the public daily with news so cheap that everybody could afford them did not really catch on at first. Then Richard Adams Locke took over as editor and thought that something must be done about it and when Sir John Herschel set forth to the Cape of Good Hope with his 21’ long telescope to chart the Southern Skies and the illustrious “Edinburgh Journal of Science” brought an article about it, the scion of the “Father of Classical Liberalism” John Locke came up with a very bright idea: posing as Dr Andrew Grant, the made-up sidekick of Herschel, he decided to spice up the boring scientific reports with a bit of drama and elaborate on the tall tale of Franz von Paula Gruithuisen from Munich who had claimed to have discovered moon men and their buildings in 1824.

"Our plain was of course immediately covered with the ruby front of this mighty amphitheater, its tall figures, leaping cascades, and rugged caverns. As its almost interminable sweep was measured off on the canvass, we frequently saw long lines of some yellow metal hanging from the crevices of the horizontal strata in will net-work, or straight pendant branches. We of course concluded that this was virgin gold, and we had no assay-master to prove to the contrary."

On 25 August 1835, the first article appeared in “The Sun” on three quarters of its front page, reporting the discovery of life, probably insects, on the Moon by Sir John Herschel with his extraordinary 24’ wide telescope - the present day Hubble telescope has a width of just about 8’. The next day saw the bugs magnified to an actual herd of lunar bison, on day three, even more local beasties were spotted and on day 4, 29 August, the discovery of edifices and their inhabitants marked the climax of the tale. According to Grant, the moon was populated by bat-winged, furry humanoids, who – the story appeared in a tabloid after all –mated in the open. Day 5 and 6 had  more reports about the architecture and society of the so-called Vespertilio-Homo until the wonder telescope was destroyed by a ray of sunlight that, magnified by the thing’s giant lenses, destroyed Herschel’s South African observatory.


Locke’s story caused one of the first recorded mass media events – at least in New York City. If a majority of the public actually believed the “Sun’s” tale is at least doubtful, but the numbers of copies sold rose dramatically from 8,000 to 19,000 copies in August 1835. The “Sun” tried to delay their confession of having published an elaborate hoax for as long as possible, stalling for time with the pretext to wait for news from Europe, weeks in the years before the Transatlantic telegraph cable was laid. But, finally, they confessed everything. Herschel himself was amused and agreed that Locke’s news were at least more colourful than his own report. Only Edgar Allen Poe was a bit miffed, because Locke allegedly was plagiarising his own tall tale of the journey to the Moon by Hans Phaall, published in the “Southern Literary Messenger” that hardly attracted any interest at all. Probably because it lacked the mating scenes. However, Poe told another canard, 11 years later, the Balloon-Hoax, about a bogus three-day Atlantic crossing in a gas balloon. Published, of course, in the “New York Sun”.

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