The Great Moon Hoax of 1835
By R. J. Brown, Editor-in-Chief
Every History of American journalistic hoaxing properly begins with the celebrated moon hoax
which "made" the New York Sun of Benjamin Day. It consisted of a series of articles,
allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science, relating to the discovery
of life on the moon by Sir John Herschel, eminent British astronomer, who some time before had
gone to the Cape of Good Hope to try out a new type of powerful telescope.
The first installment of the moon hoax appeared in the August 25, 1835 edition of the New York
Sun on page two, under the heading "Celestial Discoveries." The brief passage read in part
as follows: "We have just learnt (sic) from an eminent publisher in this city that Sir John Herschel
at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description,
by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."
As a mater of fact, Herschel had gone to South Africa in January, 1834, and set up an observatory
at Cape Town. Three columns of the first page of the Sun contained a story credited to the
Edinburgh Journal of Science. (That publication had suspended some time before.) There was
a great deal of matter about the importance of Herschel's impending announcement of his discoveries.
On August 25, the Sun ran four columns describing what Sir John had been able to see,
looking at the moon through his telescope.
So fascinating were the descriptions of trees and vegetation, oceans and beaches, bison and
goats, cranes and pelicans that the whole town was talking even before the fourth installment
appeared on August 28, 1835, with the master revelation of all: the discovery of furry, winged
men resembling bats. The narration was printed as follows:
"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... About half of the
first party had passed beyond our canvas; but of all the others we had perfectly distinct and
deliberate view. 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 face, which was of a yellowish color, was an improvement upon that of the
large orangutan... so much so that but for their long wings they would look as well on a parade
ground as some of the old cockney militia. The hair of the head was a darker color than that of
the body, closely curled but apparently not woolly, and arranged in two circles over the temples
of the forehead. Their feet could only be seen as they were alternately lifted in walking; but
from what we could see of them in so transient a view they appeared thin and very protuberant at
the heel...We could perceive that their wings possessed great expansion and were similar in
structure of those of the bat, being a semitransparent membrane expanded in curvilinear divisions
by means of straight radii, united at the back by dorsal integuments. But what astonished us most
was the circumstance of this membrane being continued from the shoulders to the legs, united all
the way down, though gradually decreasing in width. The wings seemed completely under the command
of volition, for those of the creatures whom we saw bathing in the water spread them instantly to
their full width, waved them as ducks do theirs to shake off the water, and then as instantly closed
them again in a compact form.
The Sun reached a circulation of 15,000 daily on the first of the stories. When the
discovery of men on the moon appeared Day was able to announce that the Sun possessed the
largest circulation of any newspaper in the world: 19,360.
Later stories told of the Temple of the Moon, constructed of sapphire, with a roof of yellow
resembling gold. There were pillars seventy feet high and six feet thick supporting the roof of
the temple. More man-bats were discovered and readers of the Sun were awaiting more astounding
details, but the Sun told them the telescope had, unfortunately, been left facing the east
and the Sun's rays, concentrated through the lenses, burned a hole "15 feet in circumference"
entirely through the reflecting chamber, putting the observatory out of commission.
Rival editors were frantic; many of them pretended to have access to the original articles and
began reprinting the Sun's series. It was not until the Journal of Commerce sought
permission to publish the series in pamphlet form, however, that Richard Adams Locke, confessed
authorship. Some authorities think that a French scientist, Nicollet, in this country at the time,
Before Locke's confession a committee of scientists from Yale University hastened to New York
to inspect the original articles; it was shunted from editorial office to print shop and back again
until it tired and returned to New Haven. Edgar Allan Poe explained that he stopped work on the
second part of The Strange Adventures of Hans Pfaall because he had felt he had been outdone. So
many writers have perpetuated the legend that Harriet Martineau in her Retrospect of Western Travel
said a Springfield, Massachusetts, missionary society resolved to send missionaries to the moon to
convert and civilize the bat men.
After a number of his competitors, humiliated because they had "lifted" the series and passed it
off as their own, upbraided Day, the Sun of September 16, 1835, admitted the hoax. When the
hoax was exposed people were generally amused. It did not seem to lessen interest in the Sun,
which never lost its increased circulation.
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