Aug. 25, 1835: ‘Great Moon Hoax’ published, announces false discovery of life on moon

On Sept. 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles were untrue

DETROIT – On Aug. 25, 1835, the New York Sun newspaper began publishing a series of articles describing the supposed discovery of life on the moon.

Known as "The Great Moon Hoax," the series of six articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.

The article was attributed to Dr. Andrew Grant, described as a colleague of a famous astronomer, Sir. John Herschel, who traveled to Capetown in 1834 to set up an observatory with a new telescope.

Grant claimed Herschel found evidence of life forms on the moon, including the discovery of unicorns, two-legged beavers, winged humanoids, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.

They claimed to have made these discoveries using "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."

The only problem was Grant was not a real person.

New York Sun publishes fictitious story

Founded in 1833, the Sun was one of the "penny press" papers that brought a broader appeal to audiences with cheaper prices and different perspectives.

Sales for the paper skyrocketed after the hoax was published, despite the fact that none of it was true.

The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publishing years earlier. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter who enjoyed satire.

Sun readers failed to recognize it as satire. The story spread fast, even tricking a committee of Yale scientists - who traveled to New York in search of the journals.

The paper's circulation soared to more than 19,000 -- more than any daily paper in the world. Rival papers started reprinting the stories themselves.

The New York Transcript even published accounts from an "exclusive correspondent" who claimed to be present during the discovery.

What Hoax claimed to find on moon

The first articles touched on the findings of elaborate basaltic rock formations and fields of blood-red poppy flowers.

"The first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men."

They also described the finding of blue-tinted unicorns with goat beards and an orb-shaped amphibian.

The third article touched on erupting volcanoes and crystal formations. Miniature zebras that wandered the green hillsides, and woods filled with horned bears and roving herds of elk.

Most fantastical was the "biped beaver," a tailless, upright-walking creature that carried its young and used fire.

The final three articles detailed the findings of a species of winged humanoids that soared through the skies. They supposedly stood 4 feet tall, and "were covered, except on the face, with short and flossy copper-colored hair."

"We scientifically denominated them a Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat,” the story’s author wrote, “and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures."

The series of six articles were published between August 25 and August 31.

Sun comes clean

On Aug. 31, 1835 - the New York Herald published "The Astronomical Hoax Explained," which attempted to debunk the Sun's story, even claiming Locke confessed to one of its reporters while drunk in a bar.

On Sept. 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles were untrue. Readers weren't generally upset with the admission, but more so amused by it all - and paper sales continue to be strong.

The Sun continued operation until 1950, until it merged with the New York World-Telegram.

The paper never issued a true retraction on the hoax.

How Hoax came to be

The stories supposed author was a real astronomer, Sir John Herschel, and he really did visit South Africa with his new telescope.

But the magical world he was said to have discovered was not accurate.

When Herschel heard of the stories, he was not thrilled. In an 1837 letter, he wrote:

"I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English, French, Italian & German!!"

The true author, Richard Adams Locke, had penned satire of the early 19th century astronomical community, attacking them for making claims about alien life.

His target was Thomas Dick -- a Scottish author, who wrote on theories of the moon and the universe -- once claiming the solar system was home to exactly 21,894,974,404,480 inhabitants.

Locke later admitted that he was hoping to lampoon Dick's followers by making equally absurd claims.

“The credulity was general,” newsman Asa Greene later remembered. “All New York rang with the wonderful discoveries of Sir John Herschel…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.”

One of the first doubters was writer Edgar Allan Poe, who accused the Sun of plagiarizing his story “Hans Phaal, a Tale,” a would-be literary hoax about a Dutchman traveling to the moon in a hot air balloon.


More: Feature articles from ClickOnDetroit


About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.