Almost a hundred years before Orson Welles soiled the knickers of radio listeners across the country with his broadcast of A War of the Worlds, a New York newspaper had many of its readers convinced that the world’s most famous astronomer had observed a civilization on the Moon through a powerful telescope.
On August 25, 1835 the New York Sun published the first of six articles which claimed that noted British astronomer Sir John Herschel made the observations through a powerful new telescope “of a new design.” The telescope was so powerful that the scientist could allegedly observe and identify a number of species of animals including types of bison, goats, and giant tailless beavers that walked erect on their hind legs. Most miraculous of all were the winged humanoids, dubbed Vespertilio-homo who built civilizations with great temples on the shoes of vast oceans.
All of this was made more credible by the claim that it was reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant who in turn referenced a report in The Edinburgh Journal of Science and accounts by Herschel’s traveling companion and amanuensis, Dr. Andrew Grant. Herschel was real enough and his observations and naming of the moons of Saturn and Uranus had made him famous. Dr. Grant, however, was entirely fictional.
According to the stories, observations came to an end when the telescope was left open and pointing in the direction of the Sun causing the lenses of the telescope to act as “burning lenses” which ignited a fire and burned down the observatory.
The Sun, a broadsheet aspiring to ascend to the first ranks of newspapers New York’s highly competitive circulation wars, was just two years old when the Moon stories first ran. They were intended to build circulation, and they certainly did. Some claim that the paper tripled its sales and that its numbers stayed strong enough after to push it to the front ranks.
The stories ran before science fiction had established itself as a popular literary genre. All though there had been fantastical tales of trips to the moon by the real Cyrano de Bergerac and attributed to the Baron Von Munchausen, few Americans would have ever heard of them. The inventions of Jules Verne, including his novel From the Earth to the Moon were decades in the future. Edgar Allan Poe had published his story Hans Phaall—A Tale about a man who ascended to the Moon in a hot air balloon a few months earlier in the Southern Messenger, but it is unlikely to have made much of stir in the northern city. A rival paper did reprint it in September in response to the success of the Sun series.
So readers had no cultural understanding of these fantastic stories about space. They were regularly exposed to claims of scientific discoveries and the inventions that were a staple of the period. Many were quite legitimate as major advances in many fields were being made regularly. Others were patently false. The latter category included the claims of Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, Professor of Astronomy at Munich University who had claimed he had seen evidence of civilization on the Moon and The Rev. Thomas Dick a/k/a The Christian Philosopher who claimed that the whole Solar System was populated by humanoid beings including over 400 million supposedly residing on the Moon. Even men as sophisticated as Ralph Waldo Emerson fell under the spell of Dick’s claims.
It was, after all the dawn of the era of great hoaxes. Phineas T. Barnum was just getting his career off of the ground exhibiting an elderly Black woman as allegedly George Washington’s nurse.
Several weeks after the publication of the series, denials by Herschel were printed in other newspapers exposing the hoax. But The Sun never retracted the story or issued an apology for running it.
The author of the series has never been positively identified, however most scholars of the period are fairly certain it was Cambridge educated Sun reporter Richard A. Locke. He never admitted to being responsible. Some other names have been floated as possible accomplices, or perhaps sources for Locke, but these have also turned out to be dead ends.