The Great Moon Hoax Captivated Victorian Era Readers With Alternative Facts And Magical Thinking

Life was discovered on the moon in 1835, according to the New York Sun. On August 21, they advertised a six-part series on great celestial discoveries made by Sir John Herschel. The articles ran from August 25 to August 31. The series increased readership, although the exact numbers offer multiple alternative facts. Some readers were true believers, ready to send missionaries to the moon. Others were skeptics. Most were deeply amused. But it didn’t take long for the series to be proven a fake known as The Great Moon Hoax.

The Creatures Of The Great Moon Hoax

The moon was already on people’s minds in 1834. Multiple solar eclipses occurred around the time of the Great Moon Hoax. (Total eclipses occurred on July 17, 1833, November 30, 1834 and November 20, 1835. Partials occurred on January 9 and June 7, 1834.)  With the Sun’s series, the moon became the hottest topic in town.

The installment of August 28, 1835 described the moon’s inhabitants in detail:

“We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood…

Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified…

They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of the shoulders to the calves of their legs.”

The series describes in depth the science and technology of the great equipment used to gather lunar findings presented.

While many of the facts of the hoax were alternative, the following facts surrounding the Great Moon Hoax appear to remain true.

The Great Moon Hoax Irked Sir John Herschel

Dr. Andrew Grant supposedly penned the series. As it turned out, he was an alternative fact who was not a colleague of Herschel and did not pen the series. It’s quite possible that Grant did not exist. Still, the New York Sun claimed that Grant’s articles that they were republishing as a six-part series had appeared in the Edinburgh Currant. While that publication existed at one time, it had closed long before. Additionally, it never published the series that appeared in the Sun.

The series did attribute the finds to the very real and well-respected astronomer of the time, Sir John Herschel. Herschel was the moon man. He had named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus. He also established the use of the Julian day system in astronomy. He was the President of the Royal Astronomical society for three stints.

Among Herschel’s many accomplishments, he studied celestial happenings through a powerful, 21-foot private telescope. He studied the return of the Comet Halley and the Great Eruption of Eta Carinae in December 1837. However, he did not discover life on the moon.

When he learned of the Great Moon Hoax, he was initially amused. He said that his true findings were not as exciting as those printed in the Sun. The ongoing barrage of questions about the hoax got old very quickly.

Why Create The Great Moon Hoax?

The New York Sun newspaper was first published September 3, 1833. Edited by Benjamin Day, it was considered one of the new “penny press” papers.” Day recognized that there was money to be made from the expansion of literacy among the lower classes.

A maverick in publishing circles, Day was among the first to pursue personal stories about average people. His Sun reported crimes in the street, stories about deaths and marriages and other daily events. He was the first to publish a story about a suicide, which was groundbreaking for its day.

Day was also the first publisher to pay reporters to go out on the streets to collect stories. This later became the bread and butter for Joseph Pulitzer and reporters like Nellie Bly.

Clearly, Day’s instincts were good. The Great Moon Hoax was Day’s big play that pushed the Sun into the stratosphere in terms of readership. Even after the public realized it was a hoax, they continued reading the Sun, both for entertainment and for news.

Will The Real Writer Of The Great Moon Hoax Please Stand Up?

Educated at Cambridge University, Richard Adams Locke was the actual author of the six-part series for the Sun. Yes, it increased readership. That was most likely the original motive for the series. But Locke was also having a good time satirizing the magical thinking of his time.

One of Locke’s main targets was Reverend Thomas Dick. He was a popular science writer with several best selling books. Dick speculated heavily on extraterrestrial life on many planets, with only Weird Science to back his claims.

One of Dick’s most popular books was published in 1838, shortly after the Great Hoax. In Celestial Scenery, The Wonders of the Planetary System Displayed, Dick expands on his theories and claims of extraterrestrial life. On p. 277, a chart outlines his specific calculations that there were 4.2 million inhabitants on the moon alone. Undoubtedly, Locke greatly enjoyed this book.

Alternative Facts, Hoaxes And Today’s Media

It’s tempting to look down on the unsophisticated readers who were bamboozled by the Sun’s Hoax. But consider the secret of the “science” around the many health benefits of dark chocolate. A quick search will quickly yield mountains of articles and studies in the “pro” column.

In the interest of debunking, try searching for “The Dark Chocolate Hoax.” According to science writer John Bohannon, he and a colleague concocted associations, studies, trials and volumes of data to prove that dark chocolate is good for human health.

Did Bohannon present alternative facts in his claim that he created a hoax? Or is the benefit of dark chocolate a true hoax? Either way, he outlines the chilling possibility that any idea can be presented as truth. The more chilling fact is that anyone can press “publish” with the possibility that millions will believe.

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