“The Great Moon Hoax” refers to a series of six articles that were published in the New York Sun beginning on August 25, 1835, about the supposed discovery of life and even civilization on the Moon. The discoveries were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, perhaps the best-known astronomer of his time.
The headline read:
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]
The articles described fantastic animals on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids (“Vespertilio-homo“) who built temples. There were trees and oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle”.
The author of the narrative was supposedly Dr. Andrew Grant, who described himself as the travelling companion and amanuensis of Sir John Herschel, but Dr Grant was fictitious.
Eventually, the authors announced that the observations had been terminated by the destruction of the telescope, by means of the sun causing the lens to act as a ‘burning glass’, setting fire to the observatory.
Authorship of the article has been attributed to Richard A. Locke, a Cambridge-educated reporter who, in August 1835, was working for the New York Sun. Locke never publicly admitted to being the author, while rumours persisted that others were involved. Two other men have been noted in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer travelling in America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the moon-hoax issues appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine. However, there is no good evidence to indicate that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.
Assuming that Richard A. Locke was the author, his intentions were probably, first, to create a sensational story which would increase sales of the New York Sun, and, second, to ridicule some of the more extravagant astronomical theories that had recently been published. For instance, in 1824, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, professor of Astronomy at Munich University, had published a paper titled “Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings”. Gruithuisen claimed to have observed various shades of color on the lunar surface, which he correlated with climate and vegetation zones. He also observed lines and geometrical shapes, which he felt indicated the existence of walls, roads, fortifications, and cities.
However, a more direct object of Locke’s satire was certainly Rev. Thomas Dick, who was known as “The Christian Philosopher” after the title of his first book. Dick had computed that the Solar System contained 21,891,974,404,480 (21+ trillion) inhabitants. In fact, the Moon alone, by his count, would contain 4,200,000,000 inhabitants. His writings were enormously popular in the United States, his fans including intellectual luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The story was advertised on August 21, 1835, as an upcoming feature allegedly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant. The first in a series of six was published four days later on August 25.
Reaction and effect
According to legend, the New York Sun’s circulation increased dramatically because of the hoax and remained permanently greater than before, thereby establishing the New York Sun as a successful paper. However, the degree to which the hoax increased the paper’s circulation has certainly been exaggerated in popular accounts of the event. It was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.
Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. He became annoyed later when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.
The story may also have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write and publish “The Balloon-Hoax” in the same newspaper on April 13, 1844.
Poe had published his own Moon hoax in late June 1835, two months before the similar Locke Moon hoax, in the Southern Literary Messenger entitled “Hans Phaall–A Tale”, later republished as “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”. The story was reprinted in the New York Transcript on September 2–5, 1835 under the headline “Lunar Discoveries, Extraordinary Aerial Voyage by Baron Hans Pfaall.” The story is regarded as one of the first science fiction stories. Poe described a voyage to the moon in a hot-air balloon using a factually plausible scenario. Pfaall lived for five years on the Moon with lunarians and sent back a lunarian to earth. The Poe Moon hoax was less successful because of the satiric and comical tone of the account. Locke was able to upstage Poe and to steal his thunder. In 1846, Poe would write a biographical sketch of Locke as part of his series “The Literati of New York City” which appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book.