Our archive largely collects the papers and materials of the University of Saskatchewan’s researchers and professors and because of this we come to possess materials on topics that may surprise you. One such fascinating example is John Edward Kennedy’s papers on the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. This collection of papers includes research materials and photocopied and typed copies of the original articles.
In August 1835, a New York newspaper called The Sun ran a series of six articles describing in detail the new and groundbreaking observations of the moon, made astronomer Sir John Hershel. The first article which was published on August 25th described the new and powerful telescope that Herschel had created, “24 feet in diameter”.1 Tantalizing mentions of what Herschel then saw with the use of his telescope were hinted at, but not revealed to readers in this first installment.
The second article, printed on the 26th, begins to describe the wonderful discoveries Hershel has made – plant and animal life! They describe dark red flowers, trees, a lake, and other stunning geographic features. They then spot “herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive”.2 They also describe seeing a blue goat-like creature, with a single horn, as well as varieties of birds and fish.
On August 27th they speak more on the geology and fauna of the moon, and describe in detail the charming lunar biped beaver. From the article:
… resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire.3
August 28th is the pièce de ré·sis·tance of this set of astronomical discoveries, in which they describe human-like creatures who “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 their shoulders to the calves of their legs.”4 They name this species Vespertilio-Homo.
Day five describes a mysterious temple, “built of polished sapphire, or of some resplendent blue stone”.5 The article ends with these cliff-hanging bits of speculation, sure to draw in readers for the finale:
Had the devotees of these temples gone the way of all living, or were the latter merely historical monuments? What did the ingenious builders mean by the globe surrounded by flames? Did they by this record any past calamity of their world, or predict any future one of ours?6
The last article describes a higher order of Vespertilio-Homo, which “were of larger stature than the former specimens, less dark in color, and in every respect an improved variety of the race.” They are described as “eminently happy and polite” and the journalist describes “their happy hours in collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing, and loitering about on the summits of precipices”.7
As you may have guessed from the title of this blog (oops, spoilers) that of course none of this was true. Sir John Hershel was a real astronomer, but he did not create a new and intensely powerful telescope that allowed him to view life on the moon, and in fact knew nothing of these articles until after they were published. It is widely assumed that the author of the Moon Hoax was the new editor of The Sun, Richard Adams Locke. At first Locke denied that it was a hoax, then denied he wrote the hoax, after the hoax was confirmed. He eventually confessed, but said that he had intended it as satire, not a hoax. Other possible authors have been also been theorized though Locke remains the most likely candidate. (He did confess – sort of – eventually!)
The fact that it is referred to as a hoax suggested that people fell for it – and by many accounts they did. Edgar Allen Poe is quoted as having said “not one person in ten discredited it”.8 It was reprinted in newspapers across the country, and thus the hoax was spread and believed to varying extents, across the country. It was the War of the Worlds of it day – though with less panic.
This is a fascinating piece of history, of a time before journalistic standards had become a thing, and we see the early ancestor of those supermarket tabloids which announce to the world, “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave!”9
1 The Sun: Aug 25th, 1835. J.E. Kennedy fonds (University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections)
2 The Sun: Aug 26th, 1835., ibid.
3 The Sun: Aug 27th, 1835., ibid.
4 The Sun: Aug 28th, 1835., ibid.
5 The Sun: Aug 29th, 1835., ibid.
7 The Sun: Aug 30th, 1835., ibid.
8 Boese, Alex. “The Great Moon Hoax“. Hoax Museum. c. 2015.
9 “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave!” by Bill Creighton, Weekly World News, June 23, 1992, pp 46–47. Reprinted July 16, 1999, pp. 46–47. Reprinted June 20, 2005 pp. 58–59
Also check out the Missed in History podcasts on the topic if you are interesting in hearing more about the moon hoax.