It’s Tuesday, 25 August 1835. You’ve picked up a copy of today’s The (New York) Sun from a paperboy.
Occupying three of the four columns of the front page is an exploration of life on the moon.
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time.
More than 100 years before the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in the United States, The Sun (no relation to any current newspaper) had launched “one of the most famous media hoaxes of all time.”
The paper claimed that there was life on the moon, such as “fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats.”
We know it as The Great Moon Hoax.
The newspaper never retracted the story.
It had been 17 years since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel widely touted as the first science fiction novel. It would be another five years, 1840, before John William Draper stood on the roof of New York University and took the first photographs of the Moon.
The Sun had been established two years earlier, in 1833. A respected broadsheet (not tabloid), it was the “first successful penny daily newspaper” in the United States.
Abolition was the political topic of the day. That summer, the American Anti-Slavery Society, headquartered in New York City, “attempted to influence public opinion in pro-slavery states by mailing thousands of anti-slavery pamphlets to addresses in the South.”
Earlier that summer, the Southern Literary Messenger had published an Edgar Allan Poe story, “Hans Pfaall, a Tale.” It was also presented as true and told the story of life on the Moon. According to the Library of Congress, “Poe’s sense of humor betrayed him and his article was quickly recognized as fiction by many of his readers.”
The Great Moon Hoax
The narrator or scribe, Dr. Andrew Grant, was a fictional character.
The series, about 17,000 words in total, was positioned as a reprint from The Edinburgh Journal of Science; a real journal, it was no longer in print.
In 1834, well-known and respected British astronomer Sir John Herschel had established an observatory with a “powerful new telescope” in Capetown, South Africa. (Less light pollution than London. His father, Sir William Herschel, had discovered the planet Uranus.)
Grant is Herschel’s Waston, the narrator/observer sharing with us the wonders of Herschel’s telescope, with its seven ton, 24-foot diameter lens. Such a lens would have been six times larger than anything else in the world!
When you’re going to tell tales, include tidbits of truth!
In addition, the 25 August 1835 edition of the paper included an unsigned introduction that positioned the series as true:
Great Astronomical Discoveries—We this morning commence the publication of a series of extracts from the new supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science, which have been very politely furnished us by a medical gentleman immediately from Scotland, in consequence of a paragraph which appeared on Friday last from The Edinburgh Courant … We are necessarily compelled to omit the more abstruse and mathematical parts of the extracts … but even the latter cannot fail to excite more ardent curiosity and afford more sublime gratification than could be created and supplied by anything short of divine revelation from heaven. Now indeed it may be said that we live in an age of discovery.
The series was a resounding success, if its goal had been to boost circulation and visibility.
By mid-afternoon [the first day], not a copy of the paper could be bought in the city at any price…By the end of the series, regular circulation had almost doubled.
Asa Greene, editor of the New York Transcript, commented about the hoax in 1837 (via The Washington Post):
The credulity was general. All New York rang with the wonderful discoveries of Sir John Herschell [sic]… There were, indeed, a few skeptics; but to venture to express a doubt of the genuineness of the great lunar discoveries, was considered almost as heinous a sin as to question the truth of revelation.
Britannica notes that The New York Times dubbed the discoveries “probable and possible.”
“Not one person in ten discredited it,” [Edgar Allen] Poe wrote. “A grave professor of mathematics in a Virginian college told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair!”
A testament to the extent of the credulity, the series spread far and wide, and quickly, before electricity would speed up communication. The first Samual Morse telegram: 1844.
By the end of August, most of the other New York papers began reprinting the narrative, in response to their readers’ intense interest in it. Meanwhile, word of the discoveries quickly spread to the rest of the country, within days reaching the other major eastern cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. In a little less than two weeks it had travelled as far west as Cincinnati. Within a month, it had crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Everywhere the news caused the same buzz of interest and speculation.
Intended as satire, [the articles] were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.
The articles also “became a catalyst for conversation… [about] … what was truth, where it could be found, where and how it should be presented in a news medium.”
The Great Moon Hoax is an example of a fabrication going viral before the telegraph. It surfaced questions we continue to grapple with today: credulity; information literacy; and news media tendency to sensationalize science.