“The big Moon hoax” happened 180 years ago and it was one of the most successful deceptions because it led half of America to believe that there was life on the Moon. Interestingly enough, things haven’t really changed.
On august 25, 1835, New York newspaper, Sun, began posting a series of 6 articles about great inventions from one of the most well-known astronomers of that time – Sir John Herschel-Junior.
The newspaper based its articles on a short press release in the Edinburg magazine, Journal of Science and mainly on alleged notes by Dr. Andrew Grant (Herschel’s alleged assistant), who never actually existed, as was determined later.
It was reported that Sir John Herschel connected a microscope with a 7-ton telescope, and used this optical instrument which he set up on Cape of Good Hope, to zoom 42 000 times.
By pointing his apparatus towards the Moon he was able to see a civilization living there, bipedal intelligent beavers, and several clans of mouse-men who differed from one another by the color of their skin.
The beavers on the moon were like the Australian aborigines or the savages of the Amazon – they were able to make fire and lived in huts. On the other hand, the mouse-men had a more human-like appearance. Their size was no more than 4 feet, their face resembled that of an orangutan, and they were covered with dark fur and had wings similar to bats.
Because of the wings, they were able to fly wherever they want, feed on fruits and entertain themselves, “in a way that was hard to accept as something decent by our standards”.
The color of their skin determined their place in the hierarchy and their level of development – the lighter it was, the higher the social class that they belonged to. The newspaper would report that those mouse-men, who had the lightest skin, “were not far behind angels”.
A lot of space was set aside for the animal kingdom on the Moon, as well as for its landscapes. Herds of one-horned sheep grazed upon blooming fields between. Horned bears and creatures, resembling bisons from the Earth, roamed free. Numerous kinds of birds flew in the skies. Seas, oceans, rivers, lakes, crystal islands, and mountain sapphire peaks were described in the newspaper in glorious detail.
The scientist’s name, all the serious references, the objective writing style, the large amount of detail, as well the consistent information in the form of diary entries, and the level of knowledge back then completely allowed the concept for life on the Moon. And America went crazy!
No one cared for the weak objections of a few skeptics, or concerned themselves with the anonymity of the published articles, or paid any attention to the fact that sale numbers of the Journal of Science in Edinburg were decreasing. No one noticed the numerous disparities, like the fact that with a 42 000 times zoom, the surface of the Moon could be viewed only with a resolution of 10 kilometers, so the alleged telescope wouldn’t be able to observe any animals, beasts or birds.
The total silence of John Herschel was also accepted as completely normal, since he was dealing with astronomical observations in South Africa at the time, and wasn’t able to confirm or deny the articles in the newspaper.
In 1835, there were no mobile phones, or even the slightest internet connection, and a modern-day reader wouldn’t be able to understand how people lived back then, communicating only by way of horse-drawn carriages or ships. For that reason, communication between continents at that time was very slow.
So the hoax that was blown out of proportions had no problem spreading throughout all of America without worry that it would quickly be exposed as a lie.
Articles from the Sun were reprinted by numerous local and regional medias, and the sales of the newspaper were sky-high – reaching 60 000 copies, which was quite incredible for that time.
Edgar Allen Poe’s discontent with the newspaper was also ignored, even though he stated that the newspaper was stealing ideas from his novel, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”, which was published 3 weeks before the article in the Southern Literary Messenger magazine, where similar lunar civilization was also described.
Subsequently, Poe changed the end of his novel where he had mentioned the “lunar footcloth” of the newspaper – he significantly softened his accusation of plagiarism, and discredited the hoax articles in the newspaper point by point.
But there was no need for that because by that time John Herschel had received a copy of the newspaper with his “discoveries” from a passing-by ship, and had immediately sent out angry accusations – the newspaper’s lie crumbled beneath universal disappointment.