The Great Moon Hoax of 1835: The Birth of Fake News?
In 1835, The Great Moon Hoax convinced people around the world that the Moon wasn't a barren wasteland but actually a rich landscape full of ruby caverns and towering amethyst crystals, populated by intelligent humanoid bat-people, two-legged badgers, and unicorns.
While this seems ridiculous in hindsight, at the time, everyone from Ivy League students to middle-class professionals were roped in by the six-part series in The New York Sun newspaper. Claiming to be a supplement to a serious scientific journal in Scotland, the series played on the era's excitement over a steady stream of revolutionary scientific discoveries, and an increasingly literate audience hungry to be "in the know."
The Sun never quite fessed up to inventing the whole thing, and those involved would claim that it was just satirizing the spectacular claims of popular scientists and was never meant to by taken literally. But there's no question that the story was taken as fact by its audience and that it was a financial windfall for The Sun, which claimed that the story helped boost its circulation to become the best-selling newspaper in the world.
So was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 a cheeky bit of satire that got out of hand, or was it a harbinger of modern-day fake news?
An era of scientific possibility
The 19th century was a remarkable one for scientific progress that people could actually see. In the two centuries before, scientists like Isaac Newton and Ole Rømer had made incredible scientific discoveries, but these discoveries were largely confined to academic papers and made little impact on the lives of everyday humans, who lived not that differently than their great-great-grandparents. They might even have been farming the very same land with the very same kinds of tools as their ancestors did two centuries prior. So what did the speed of light or the development of calculus have to do with them?
During the Industrial Revolution scientific discoveries manifested in the form of the steam engine, locomotives, machinery, and telescopes that began transforming the lives of everyone seemingly overnight. Scientists had gone from stuffy academics to modern-day wizards who seemed to be pulling the secrets of the universe from the aether. The thing that made Mary Shelley's Frankenstein so terrifying for readers in the 19th century was that people believed scientists were genuinely on the cusp of raising the dead by harnessing electricity.
For them, every day brought startling new discoveries that no one could have previously imagined, so life on the Moon didn't seem too far-fetched — especially when there was money to be made in the process.
The Rise of the Penny Press
The so-called "penny press" was taking advantage of the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and turning tabloid newspapers – once the exclusive province of political parties and business leaders – into one of the greatest disseminations of knowledge in human history.
The cheap, easily distributed tabloids got their start in the early 1830s and became a popular way for the up-and-coming middle class to read about the world and all of the incredible progress that was being made in science and industry. Claiming to be politically independent, their purpose was to inform their audience, but also to entertain them. By avoiding the touchy issue of politics, they could appeal to a wide audience regardless of outside affiliations, and thanks to the explosion of literacy during the Industrial Revolution, that audience was growing fast and was hungry for content.
In 1835, The Sun was consistently outsold by rival daily tabloids in the city, especially The New York Herald, founded just a couple of years later. So, The Sun's publisher, Benjamin Day, went looking for the most sensational story he could find to boost circulation and challenge the Herald. What he published would do more than beat out the Herald, it would become one of the largest mass-media events in the world, and cement The Sun's position as one of the most influential daily tabloids for more than a century.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 was the work of The Sun's editor, Richard Adams Locke. Together with Day, Locke crafted an account of the findings of Sir John Herschel, a real and prominent British astronomer who at that time was working in South Africa.
Written up as a "supplement" to a paper published in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 was presented as the account of Herschel's associate, Dr. Andrew Grant. Grant, as Locke wrote it, recounted the construction of the world's largest telescope at the Cape of Good Hope, capable of identifying planets around neighboring stars and making precise observation of the lunar surface.
Every day brought more and more incredible details of the lunar surface, starting with the discovery of dark-red poppy-like flowers and other plant life on the moon. Next came herds of bison-like quadrupeds populating lunar forests, blue goats with a single horn, and, "a strange amphibious creature, of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach."
By the third day, readers learned of bipedal beavers that appeared to be a form of primitive intelligent life, living in rudimentary huts, carrying their young in their arms the way humans swaddle their infants, and — from the smoke billowing from their huts — they were clearly capable of using fire.
Locke was building up to the most incredible claim though. On the fourth day, The Sun published an account of humanoid creatures living in a valley dubbed the "Ruby Colosseum." Most incredibly, these creatures were capable of speech and conversation, indicating human levels of intelligence. They also had wings and were capable of flight, leading Herschel to supposedly give them the scientific name Verspertilio homo, or Man Bats.
The last two parts of the series pointed to a form of possible religious devotion, though the "author" included the caveat that they ought not make baseless speculations about the nature of their temples or ceremonial buildings (after having done exactly that), a brilliant flourish on Locke's part. The final installment pointed to a state of complete harmony on the Moon, implicitly alluding to an Eden-like innocence among the lunarians. Conveniently, the final installment also describes a terrible accident that damaged the observatory and which prevented Herschel from making any further observations of the lunar surface.
Being the early days of journalism, the six-part series was written much more like a narrative work of fiction than anything we'd call journalism today, but for The Sun's audience, details like the precise measurements of Herschel's telescope, the story's appropriating the authority of an academic journal, the claim that other independent authorities were present to confirm Herschel's findings, and that all of their accounts and testimony were included in a forthcoming scientific paper on his findings, all lent credibility to the account.
After all, readers of the penny press tabloids had become accustomed to these kinds of details in news stories about genuine scientific discoveries. For many, it was just the greatest discovery yet in a growing line of great discoveries.
The world gets snookered by a tale of Man Bats on the Moon
The story soon caught fire in the United States. The Sun claimed that its daily circulation soared to 19,300, beating out the best-selling daily tabloid in the world, The London Times, whose daily circulation The Sun claimed to be around 17,000 (but which was actually closer to 10,000).
Other notable tabloids bought into the hoax as well, with The New Yorker declaring "the promulgation of these discoveries creates a new era in astronomy and science generally."
William Griggs, a student at Yale University in 1835, later wrote in The Southern Quarterly Review:
"Yale College was alive with staunch supporters. The literati — students and professors, doctors in divinity and law — and all the rest of the reading community, looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail with unexampled avidity and implicit faith. Have you seen the accounts of Sir John Herschel's wonderful discoveries? Have you read The Sun? Have you heard the news of the man in the Moon? These were the questions that met you everywhere. It was the absorbing topic of the day. Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story."
Though some had grown suspicious that the story was a hoax, there was little way to verify the story in any meaningful or timely way. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication under that name two years earlier, but with a round-trip-by-sail to England taking more than a month, even the most cursory fact-checking would take weeks.
What's more, ships sailing to England also brought copies of The Sun's story abroad, which then spread through Europe before anyone could verify it. Before long, newspapers in France and Italy were reprinting the story, complete with illustrations of Man Bats and other details of The Great Moon Hoax.
The main office for the New York Herald had coincidentally burned down in early August and the paper was out of print until August 31, 1835, the day of the last installment of The Sun's series. As such, there was no one prominent enough to challenge the story until it had already caught on with the public.
The Sun couldn't keep it going forever though. The Herald published a rebuttal to The Sun's story in its first edition once publication resumed, written by the paper's publisher, James Gordon Bennett. In "The Astronomical Hoax Explained," Bennett accused The Sun of fabricating the story and identifying Locke as its true author. It was also among the first critics to point out that the Edinburgh Journal of Science was no longer being published.
With no way for the public to tell who was telling the truth, Bennett's rebuttal had little impact. When The Sun refused to admit to the hoax, Bennett wrote a few days later:
"We mean now to show up the Sun — the impudent Sun — the unprincipled Sun —the mercenary Sun — the low bred Sun — the Sun that hoaxes the public — that tells untruths for money — that makes fools of the wine [sic] — that cheats the whole city and country. The revulsion of public sentiment, is fast accumulating. Its astronomical hoax will touch the Sun yet to the quick."
In the end, The Sun said that the only way to settle the issue was to wait for British papers to corroborate or debunk the story, claiming that it had simply reported on what was written in the Edinburgh Journal of Science so it couldn't be responsible if the story was a hoax in the end — thus sidestepping the issue long enough to effectively get away with the hoax.
Was The Great Moon Hoax satire gone too far, or was it the original fake news?
While the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 has all the markings of fake news, there is solid evidence that it genuinely was meant to be satire, at least for Locke. In The Celebrated 'Moon Story,' Griggs writes that Locke reportedly told friends before the story's publication: "If the story be either received as a veritable account, or rejected as a hoax, it is quite evident that it is an abortive satire; and, in either case, I am the best self-hoaxed man in the whole community."
In all likelihood, the story was meant as a dig at a popular Scottish astronomer named Thomas Dick, who claimed to have calculated that there were more than 21 trillion inhabitants of the solar system across all of the known planets. The moon alone, he said, had more than four billion. Herschel — the real one — didn't discount the possibility of lunarians, writing in 1834 that the only way to know for sure was to have a sufficiently large telescope that could get a clear enough look at the lunar surface to detect structures or evidence of agriculture.
Locke apparently read the works of Dick and found them absurd, and after reading Herschel's idea of a very large telescope to resovle the question, set about writing up the satire that would become the Great Moon Hoax of 1835.
Of course, that's not to say that Locke and Day weren't in it for the money, but they wouldn't be the first to blur the line between fact and fiction to sell newspapers. Journalistic standards really weren't a thing in 1835, and it would take decades before newspapers adopted the more deliberate, objective approach to their reporting that we expect from them today.
That expectation of objectivity is an important component of modern fake news and without that expectation, the label doesn't quite fit in this case. The readers of The Sun apparently all had a good laugh about it in the end and the readership of The Sun remained strong even after the public came to see the hoax for what it was.
Herschel, still in South Africa, found out about the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 later that year — but he, too, laughed about it when he did, saying: "It is only a great pity that it is not true."