If The Sun and the Moon’s elaborate sub-title doesn’t pique reader interest what would? In detailing 1830s hoaxers, showmen, and dueling journalists, author Matthew Goodman gives an impressive survey of old New York and a fascinating literary hoax that swept the town during the sweltering summer of 1835.
Although literary hoaxes are as old as Cuneiformed clay, few match the audacity and hoodwinking success as the moon hoax, which ran in New York penny paper the Sun under the unassuming title “Celestial Discoveries.” According to the Sun, telescopic breakthroughs gave noted astronomer Sir John Herschel a close-up view of the moon that unexpectedly revealed bison with “fleshy appendage” eyes, unicorn goats, and intelligent life in the form of simian “man-bats” that stood four feet tall. The bogus article, which skillfully appropriated the grandiloquent scientific language of the time, even gave the “man-bats” the Latin name Vespertilio-Homo.
Outlandish today, the hoax was swallowed whole by many readers. The gag rapidly took on a life of its own and was reprinted and circulated in both national and international papers. Goodman examines these peculiar events with consideration to both social and literary history. In revealing how and why so many caught the humbug, a larger story is told. The first hints of today’s pop media and New York’s rise as a world metropolis are to be found between the lines of newsprint.
The moon hoax would not have caught on if the newspaper medium itself was not in a period of important change. The Sun, founded by the scrappy young printer Benjamin Day, revolutionized papers in price and presentation. At a time when newspapers sold for six cents a copy, Day sold his for a penny. Prior to the penny papers, a newspaper was a luxury item and featured mostly political content and merchant information. Day’s paper gave readers the fun stuff: crime, humor, and tall tales. In addition to being cheaper, the Sun paper was smaller and more portable.
As demand for papers grew, distribution methods adapted. The Sun hired newspaper boys to push papers on the streets, creating the archetypal street-savvy hustlers that became a symbol of the era. While the Sun’s low brow approach presaged tabloids and celebrity news, the paper did adopt a strong pro-abolitionist agenda, leading Goodman to summarize the paper’s style as “equal parts crusade and carnival.”
The man behind the hoax was Englishman Richard Adams Locke (great-great-great-grandnephew of philosopher John Locke) who landed in New York after failing as a writer in England. The pro-abolitionist, pro-democratic, highly-rational writer scraped by as a court reporter for a rival penny paper before becoming editor of the Sun. A well respected man of letters, Locke had been disfigured by smallpox and didn’t pursue publicity like many newspapermen of the age. Locke would die in obscurity and if he is remembered today, it is due to his moon hoax.
When examining Locke’s lunar hoax today, the most difficult issue is how readers so easily believed the moon was inhabited. Religion, which held great sway over society as a whole, set the stage for the credulous acceptance of the tale. Pluralism, a speculative theology concerned with extraterrestrial life, was a familiar topic. Books on the eternal salvation of extraterrestrial beings sold well and religious thinkers debated whether aliens were sacred. Richard Locke, who desired a strict division between science and religion, used the moon hoax to satirize Pluralism and scientific theology. Satire in 1835, today the moon hoax story serves as an early example of both “Bat Child” tabloid journalism and science fiction.
As the moon hoax reached more readers it entered the semi-paranoid orbit of writer Edgar Allan Poe. Poe became convinced that the hoax was borrowed from his story “Hans Phaall-A Tale.” In Poe’s tale, a hot air balloonist, or aeronaut as they were then known, reaches the moon and finds it inhabited. Poe’s umbrage becomes ironic, as entire sections of his story were taken from other sources. Coincidentally, Poe would later profile Locke in a series of essays on New York writers. Poe would conclude that Locke had never read “Hans Phaall-A Tale.”
The moon hoax’s celestial menagerie was a stroke of great imagination that holds a mirror to the first half of the nineteenth century. While it certainly sold plenty of papers, Locke’s impetus was to slyly mock woolly religious debates. Naturally, he was surprised when his satire of Pluralism became a popular obsession. These incredible events occurred during a great democratization of media, with affordable news for all and the seeds of pop culture beginning to take root.
To read The Sun and the Moon is to enter a world of aeronauts, automaton chess players, and glorious lunar temples. It is the old New York of P.T. Barnum brought into incredible focus and Goodman’s research couldn’t be more comprehensive. While the concluding chapters on the fallout from the moon hoax aren’t as revelatory as his detailed look that the hoax and early publishing; Goodman’s work balances social, literary, biographical, and theological perspectives. It’s a charming and multilayered tale.