NBC News had a list of the “Greatest Hoaxes of All Time” the other day. It was CLEARLY biased to the 20th century, but they did mention one that intrigued me – the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Curiosity piqued, I did a little investigation. I found Historybuff.com, which has a great recounting with a lot of detail from the actual articles.
If you think journalists go too far to attract readers today, this is a doozy. In 1835, the New York Sun published a series of six articles describing the discoveries of Sir John Herschel (an eminent British astronomer of the time) using a new type of very powerful telescope. According to the articles, Herschel had seen an array of spectacular things on the Moon, including forests, oceans, buildings, and best of all, winged batlike men!
The Sun claimed that the articles came from the (actually defunct) Edinburgh Journal of Science but were in fact entirely fabricated having no relation to the actual Herschel. As the articles came out, Sun readership soared, so other newspapers began reprinting the stories claiming to have their own copies of the original sources – sources that the Sun refused to show anyone, including a team from Yale who came down from New Haven to investigate their authenticity. The killer is how the Sun closed the story, by claiming in the last article that the telescope was left out all day, and sunlight, focused backwards through the telescope, burned down a wall of the observatory. Alright, NOW it’s getting ridiculous. When the editor of the Sun finally admitted the hoax, rather than being indignant, the public found it amusing and the Sun retained its ill-gotten readership. It’s nice to know that the American public at least used to have a sense of humor.
Museum of Hoaxes has the full articles, if you are interested in the loony <rimshot!> details.