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1835 – The Great Moon Hoax


Beginning August 25, 1835 news of sensational discoveries rocked both the general population and the scientific world. Prominent astronomer John Herschel was reported to have built the largest telescope of the day with a lens measuring 24 feet in diameter and weighting nearly 7 tons. The instrument was 6 times larger than anything previously made with a magnifying power of 42,000 times and innovative by delivering an image through a “hydro-oxygen microscope,” that projected the final view upon a canvas screen. This effectively eliminated any dimming qualities of high magnification.

The telescope was constructed in England and sent to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where the elevated plains and lucid atmosphere was free from mountainous obstructions. It was at this location the great lens was turned to the starry sky for the advancement of science.

Astronomer John Herschel
Astronomer John Herschel

So, it was that first of six entrancing articles were publish in ” The Sun”, a New York daily newspaper by Herschel’s understudy and traveling companion the fictitious Dr. Andrew Grant. On the evening of January 10, 1835 the mighty optic was trained upon the moon. The first object distinguished was a Basaltic rock formation profusely covered with a dark red flower. This clearly affirmed the notice of life on a different world.

Herschel's Telescope at the Cape of Good Hope
Herschel’s Great Telescope at the Cape of Good Hope, S. Africa

After determining  that the moon contained vegetation, the next question would be whether the moon likewise bolstered creature life. There were reports of birds and horned animals in the forests. The scientists saw” crowds of chestnut quadrupeds like buffalo, a goat of a pale blue lead shading, and a bizarre land or water capable animal, of a round shape, which moved with awesome speed over the pebbly shoreline”.

By the third article a depiction of more geographical developments, oval-molded mountains and wiped out volcanoes were announced. Dr. Grant categorized  of the assortment of lunar verdure seen by the observers  up to that point: 38 types of trees, twice this number of plants, nine types of mammals, and five varieties egg laying animals.  Nonetheless, the highlight was the revelation of the main indication of shrewd, however primitive, lunar life — the biped beaver. These unprecedented beavers strolled on two feet and bore their young in their arms. They lived in cabins “constructed better and higher over those of numerous tribes of human savages.” And indications of smoke over the cottages of the beavers showed that these mysterious creatures had even aced the utilization of flame.

Bat-winged humanoid

Perhaps the most exciting news came in the forth installment article. The astronomers depict winged-bat like humanoids that could glide from cliffs and walk upright being just four foot tall. The creatures  live within a complex of red hills coined the “Ruby Coliseum”. They congregated in numbers and appeared to interact with one another within reason. Grant states: “that they are 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.” The faces of these creatures being of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orange outing.” Herschel defined the species as “Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat.”

Moon Hoax Sapphire Temple
Moon Hoax Sapphire Temple

In the remaining  installments Grant tells of a abandoned temple constructed of a polished sapphire with a sphere on its top surrounded by flames. The last article dated August 31, 1835, reports that another group of Vespertilio-homo  within close proximity of the temple, were of a larger physical stature, and of an improved species. That day after observations, the telescope disastrously and by accident  caught the sun and focused the rays on the observatory wall, which burned down due to the overwhelming intensity of the heat. Thus any further lunar study ended and the series of newspaper articles too.

The NY Sun’s circulation exploded to over 26,000 copies and drew praise and criticism from their patrons. Eventually to further capitalize on the matter  a series of pamphlets were published reaching about 60,000 in circulation. Within a month news of the claims had reached Europe; as other major papers covered the purported tales of Dr. Grant and John Herschel. At some point the story was dismissed a fake  or debunked and the true writer of the series was much later identified as Richard Adams Locke, a British reporter who became editor of the Sun newspaper during the height of all of this.


For several years Locke did not admit to the story however was often thought of as the main suspect. Finally on May 13, 1840 Locke wrote of his part of Moon Hoax, in a letter that was published by the New Era news.

This was the first run through in history such a significant hoax propagated the media, and surprisingly huge numbers of their rivals did not reprimand the Sun for such deception. Locke went on to describe his story as a parody, or satire, and died February  16, 1871. The Sun ran the following obituary:

“Richard Adams Locke died on Staten Island on Thursday, in his 71st year. Mr. Locke was the author of the ‘Moon Hoax,’ the most successful scientific joke ever published, which originally appeared in The Sun. The story was told with a minuteness of detail and dexterous use of technical phrases that not only imposed upon the ordinary reader, but deceived and puzzled men of science to an astonishing degree.” (NY Sun, Feb. 18, 1871: 1)



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