Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Real Big Hoax—The Cardiff Giant

Exhuming the Giant.

Americans have always loved and fallen for hoaxes.  Take the inventions of Parson Weems in his alleged biography of George Washington that gave us the cherry tree story, tossing the dollar across the Potomac, and the vision at Valley Forge—all entirely fictitious but amazingly still taught in American elementary schools. There were literary hoaxes as crude as Davey Crocket’s boasting or as bold as Edgar Allan Poe’s Balloon Hoax about a supposed air crossing of the Atlantic in 1844.  There were hoaxes for profit involving phony Spanish Land Grants and salted gold mines; strategic hoaxes like George Patton’s phantom army decoy in England before D-Day; accidental hoaxes like Orson Well’s War of the Worlds broadcast; tabloid hoaxes like the alien autopsy film and others too numerous to mention; and political hoaxes like Sarah Palin—oops just informed that last one was not a hoax.  Hard to believe.
Many early hoaxes involved showman P.T. Barnum, who makes an appearance in a supporting role in our tale today about the most famous of all American hoaxes—the Cardiff Giant.
On October 16, 1869 workers hired to dig a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York hit what they first thought was an enormous buried bolder. After clearing away more dirt, one of the men, either Gideon Emmons or Henry Nichols exclaimed, “"I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”
It was no Indian.  It was something else more strange and wonderful.  Newell rushed to the scene and in short order had a hoist erected over the excavation and hauled out the figure of a stone man 10 foot 4.5 inches long.  He even made sure that there was a photographer present to record the moment and the crowd of curious local on-lookers.  Newell quickly proclaimed the discover was a petrified man, erected a tent over it and began charging the curious the very tidy sum of 25 cents to get a gander at it.  Crowds were so big that in two days he upped the ante to 50 cents, but the crowds kept coming from far and wide in response to spectacular nationwide newspaper coverage. 
Not everyone was amused or taken in.  Almost immediately scientists pooh-poohed the idea.   Geologists noted that there was no good reason to dig a well where the giant had been found. Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh proclaimed it “a most decided humbug.”  If any had been able to obtain a sample of the stone they could have completely debunked the claims.  But the press and the public ignored the naysayers.  Members of the Evangelical clergy were particularly voracious in defense of the Giant’s authenticity because they found it proof of passage in Genesis 6:4 that “The Nephilim [giants]were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.”
Those preachers were just the ones that wealthy New York tobacconist and atheist freethinker George Hull wanted to make fools out of when he concocted his amazing, elaborate, and expensive plot.  Inspired by a hoax story that had appeared in the newspaper Alta California about a miner who had had drunk a liquid that he found within a geode and became petrified, Hull commissioned stone cutter in Fort Dodge, Iowa to hew out a large block of gypsum, a soft sulfate stone.  He told the men that it was destined for a monument to Abraham Lincoln and had it shipped by rail to an address in Chicago.
There he hired a German monument carver named Edward Burghardt, paid him handsomely, and swore him to secrecy.  Hulls instructions were detailed—the figure of a man had to be nude and apparently laying on his back, one arm behind him the other on his stomach.  His face should be rugged but recognizable. 
To age the carving various acids and other chemicals were applied to the surface, the supposed petrified flesh was beaten with a board through which steel knitting needles had been hammered to create a pore-like surface.  Soil was rubbed onto the carving.
Crated it was shipped to by rail to Cardiff and transported the final distance by wagon to the farm of Hull’s cousin Newell in November of 1868.  There they buried it in a pit behind the barn, covering the ground so that over the coming year vegetation would cover the disturbed earth.  Then 11 months later Newell hired the unsuspecting well diggers.  It is a wonder that experienced diggers did not notice that they were working in the loose soil and gravel used to refill the hole.  Or if they did notice, they were paid well to keep their traps shut about it.
To this point Hull had spent over $2,600 of his own money—about $45,000 in today’s dollars and two years of preparation on his hoax.
Even with Newell as a partner, however, Hull made huge profits on his hoax.  In addition to his take from the local exhibition, which was considerable, Hull sold his interest in the statue for $23,000, equivalent to $429,000 now.  Newell made out almost as well. 
David Hannum bought the Giant and sued Barnum
The new owners, a syndicate of five men headed by David Hannum transported the Giant to Syracuse, New York for exhibition.  In the more convenient location the Giant drew even bigger crowds—and fatter profits. 

That drew the attention of Barnum, who knew something about exhibiting frauds—and there was no doubt that Barnum understood that the Giants was a phony.  He offered the Hannum group $50,000, but was turned down cold.  Completely undiscouraged, Barnum arrange for a wax cast to be secretly made of the Giant from which a plaster of Paris copy was molded.  Within weeks he had his Giant on display in New York City claiming that his was the original and the one in Syracuse a fraudulent copy.  It was a bold lie, but Barnum was confident that he could get away with it.  For good reason.
The press, naturally, ate up the controversy that Barnum had stirred up.  One reporter sought out Hannum for a comment.  The Upstate promoter seemed to shrug the challenge off commenting, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  Somehow this quote entered into American folklore falsely attributed to Barnum.
But Hannum unwisely did not let sleeping dogs lie even though both showmen continued to rake in gate receipts.  He sued Barnum for claiming he was exhibiting a fake and sought an injunction to make him stop.  The judge, who may have been among those who had read the scientific debunkers, declined to issue an injunction unless Hannum could “get his giant to swear on his own genuineness.”
Throwing good money after bad, Hannum pressed the case.  While it was still pending on December 10, Hull somewhat gleefully confessed to the press, satisfying his urge to catch the preachers with their metaphorical pants down.  Naturally this did not enhance Hannum’s prospects in court.  February 2, 1870 both Giants were declared fakes in court and a judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for “calling a fake a fake.”
Interestingly, the well-publicized court case did not entirely damage the appeal of either of the Giants.  It turned out the public was almost as eager to pay to see what all of the fuss was about—and probably to be able to boast they were never fooled at al—as they were when they thought they we were seeing a genuine marvel.
Only time and diminishing novelty eroded the exhibits popularity.  Barnum got millage out of touring his Giant with the side show attractions of his famous circus.  Hannum and his successors would trot out the original for various exhibitions, most famously at the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco in 1901.  But compared to new and more dazzling attractions at the fair, the Giant was not a success.

The Giant as displayed at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown.  The banner was a reporduction of the one used by Hannum in Syracuse in 1869.
Amazingly both Giants remain on display today.  An Iowa publisher bought the original later to use in his basement rumpus room as a coffee table and conversation piece. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display to those who have time left over from the visit a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Perhaps fittingly Barnum’s plaster copy resides in Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, a coin-operated game arcade and museum of oddities in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
So, suckers, you can pays your money and takes your choice!

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