A Great American Hoax-The Cardiff Giant
“This is a case in which the mystery is not who did it but why this particular brand of American humbug was so successful.” Steven Williams.
Background of the Hoax
A New York tobacconist who, an atheist, had an argument with a Methodist minister at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4 which said there were once giants on Earth. As a result he decided to create a giant. There had been previous stories of petrified people whether or not that influenced Hull it is hard to say.
He approached the project with a certain amount of secrecy, First he employed men in Fort Dodge, Iowa to carve out a block of gypsum 10-foot long and told them it was for a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York. He had the block shipped to Chicago where he hired a stonecutter to carve the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy.
It was “aged” with stains and acids and the surface was beaten with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores. He then sent the giant by train to his cousin William Newell’s farm.
He waited a year and hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a well and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant One of the men reportedly exclaimed “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” from Wikipedia article.
My sources for this hub are:
Fantastic Archaeology-the Wild Side of North American Prehistory by Steven Williams.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White
Wikipedia article on The Cardiff Giant
- The Cardiff Giant
A 10 foot high giant was unearthed in 1869 in New York State. Andrew White observed the events of this classic hoax.
Discovery creates a sensation
The local papers loved the story, a tent was set up and crowds came. The crowds were fascinated. It was a fossil man of huge proportions. It did not bother most that it was turned to stone. They rationalized that anything was possible. There were non-believers who claimed it was a statue. Locally four doctors said it was a fossil man. Controversy raged and business in the town of Cardiff had never been better, according to William’s book Hull and Newell did very well from selling pamphlets, admission tickets, food and drink
Andrew Dickson White, diplomat author, educator and Co-founder of Cornell University was traveling in the area noted that the area “was in commotion from one end to the other.” Word of a giant being discovered near the hamlet of Cardiff the entire population seemed to be heading there despite crops needing to be harvested and election not over.
Whites opinion on the giant
On the way to the scene he reports passing roads crowded with buggies, carriages and buses from the city as well as lumber wagons full of passengers. He said it appeared like a county fair.
When someone asked his opinion he said the whole thing was obviously a hoax”. There was no reason why a farmer should dig a well in the spot where the figure was found; that it was inconvenient neither to the house nor the barn.” and there was already an ample water supply. He said the figure could not have been carved by a prehistoric race, as it had none of the characteristics of such works.
Defense of the discovery
According to William’s book “post-Civil War America seems to have been ready for fantastic discoveries—the Cardiff Giant was big, unexpected, and pretty mysterious. That was enough.”
White relates that the argument for authenticity included that the farmer could not have the ability to devise such a fraud; he didn’t have the means that the family had been long time resident and would swear under oath that they had never seen it until it was dug up. Somebody would have noticed if such a thing had been brought in and buried.
An interesting observation is the evolution of myth and legend. Within a week statements appeared that neighboring Indians had abundant traditions of giants and “the circumstantial that an Onondaga squaw declared,’ in an impressive manner,’ that the statue is ‘ undoubtedly the petrified body of a gigantic Indian prophet who flourished many centuries ago and foretold the coming of the palefaces, and who said, just before his own death’ that the descendents would see him again.
Even prominent and educated people were defending the find.
“Never in my life have I ever been more discouraged as regards the possibility if making right reason prevail among men.” White said.
White said there was seemingly a “joy in believing” in what was marvelous and an American superstition that if enough people belief it than it must be true.
The statue was taken to Syracuse and various other cities. In New York City as in other places it was exhibited as a show.
Professor Marsh of Yale was an imminent paleontologist who did not go along with some others who had affirmed the authenticity of the find. He concluded it was of very recent origin and a ‘decided humbug.” The evidence, he said, was unavoidable.
Neighbors started getting suspicious when it was fount that farmer Newell had sent money to a man named Hull some place in the west. They started to notice visits to Newell from a man who turned out to be his brother-in-law. Somebody remembered seeing Hull at a tavern with a big box in his wagon, which he claimed was farm machinery.
Although skepticism was building vested interests had developed and many people had taken stock in the new enterprise and didn’t welcome anything to discredit their dream.
have you heard of the Cardiff Giant?
P. T. Barnum
Only publication of things favorable became welcome. Adverse testimony was excluded. P.T. Barnum the famous showman became interested. He attempted to buy the statue but unsuccessfully. In his typical manner he created one of his own. It as also shown as “the Cardiff giant” and hard to tell from the original. Credibility of the discovery faded.
Soon affidavits from responsible people in Iowa and Illinois established that a figure was made at Fort Dodge, Iowa Hull acknowledged the hoax, partly because his goal was to make a fool of certain clergy.
It seems, according to Wikipedia, that the term associated with P.T.Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute” was in reference to people paying to see Barnum’s giant. It was made by David Hannum but now attributed to Barnum.
This case was discussed in my anthropology class in 1957 along with stories of big foot and other interesting but unproved phenomena.