leisure 04.9.18

The Great Moon Hoax
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Real fake news: In the summer of 1835—Tuesday, August 25—on the front page of the New York Sun, was the start of a series describing a revolutionary new telescope developed by British astronomer Sir John Herschel. The next day, the Sun announced Herschel's sensational discoveries of highly developed life on the moon.

The astronomer described seeing dozens of lilac-hued pyramids made of amethysts, temples with golden roofs, biped beavers that lived in huts, seas, forests, mountains, all described in plentiful detail. Friday's installment revealed the existence of winged human beings, four feet tall, covered in copper-colored hair, chatting with each other. New Yorkers were riveted.

And so it went until the following Monday when, the Sun reported, Sir John had neglected to store his telescope correctly one night and, after sunrise, the lens concentrated the rays of the sun back into the observatory, causing a fire. End of series.

As you can imagine, the series was the talk of the town and the Sun's circulation soared (though some historians dispute this). The real Sir John Herschel only later learned about his "discoveries;" the authorship of the articles is generally assumed to be Richard Adams Locke, a reporter on the Sun staff. On September 16, the Sun published an article that said that maybe the story was a hoax, but it didn't go further than that. It was never established whether the Sun editors were complicit in the deception, but here's a guess: yes.

Full text of the series

The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York

The images used today are hand-tinted lithographs by Leopoldo Galluzzo created the year following the Hoax


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