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Hoaxing the Hucksters, the Strange Story of the Cardiff Giant

Updated on January 19, 2018
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

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There are frauds and there are hoaxes. And then, there’s the Cardiff Giant. In 1869, the purported petrified body of a gigantic humanoid was discovered in an upstate New York farm near Cardiff. It possessed a smooth, well formed body and a crudely chiseled face. In other words, it looked like a statue made by an amateur.

These details, however, were ignored by many including several professional scientists, politicians, and religious leaders. People from Northeastern United States flocked to the farm to pay and see this unearthed spectacle. Those who came -- including the important dignitaries --proclaimed that the Cardiff Giant was definitive evidence for the existence of a biblical race of giants.

Eventually – and ironically – the circus this spectacle created would die down when a famous showman of the time exposed the hoax. But, the story of the Cardiff Giant wouldn’t end there. The famous showman – P.T. Barnum – had other plans to let this show continue n a new format of his making. He schemed a way to hoax the hucksters and the public in order create his own Cardiff Giant extravaganza.

The story of the Cardiff Giant Hoax is not just about how a few men conned the public; it’s also about the gullibility of a public that wanted to believe that giants once roamed the Earth. This hoax didn’t discriminate; the rich, poor, educated and non-educated members of society were collectively fooled into believing a stone statue unearthed from a farm was indeed the petrified remains of the real thing.

When Giants were the Rage

To understand how an obvious fake become such a spectacle, one has to look at the era that the Cardiff Giant story came from. In late 1800s, giants were all the rage. The expansion of the country westward opened up new land and mysteries. And, on some of these lands there were curious, man-made mounds. Some of these mounds were designed in animal or human patterns (such as the Mound Man of Southern Wisconsin); others resembled pyramids.

Some of these mounds were excavated. Spurious claims of giant red-headed skeletons being found in some of these mounds were reported. Most, if not all, of these claims were never verified; they were explained away as a natural phenomenon or exposed as bogus claims. However, despite the sketchy evidence, the presence of giant skeletons made many religious leaders take notice. In particular, fundamentalist Christians who were claiming that "Genesis 6:4" in the Old Testament of the Bible described actual “giants in the earth.”

According to Hebrew tradition, the giants, known as nephilim, were supposedly the offspring of the "sons of God" and "daughters of men" before the Deluge (Great Flood) (Wikipedia, 2013). These discoveries were the proof they needed to validate their faith.

[Hull's] practical joke was not cheap by any stretch. It cost Hull $2,600, which was a lot of money back then (if this was done today, it would probably come to be around $20,000)

A Giant is Born

George Hull, a cigar manufacturer and self-proclaimed atheist, also took notice of the giant craze and the Old Testament’s description of them. According to the writers at RoadsideAmerica.com, Mr. Hull had a heated argument with a minister about the biblical passage. Whether out of frustration, revenge or pure curiosity, Hull wondered if the minister and others like him could be convinced that a buried statue was actually the petrified body of a giant.

In 1868 at Fort Dodge, Iowa, he had some men secretly carve a block of gypsum into a ten feet long statue. He told the unsuspecting men that it was supposed to be for a monument in New York to honor Abraham Lincoln. After its completion, he had the statue buried on the land owned by William Newell (a distant cousin and co-conspirator) in Cardiff, New York.

This practical joke was not cheap by any stretch. It cost Hull $2,600, which was a lot of money back then (if this was done today, it would probably come to be around $20,000). But, Hull – the business man – had a plan; he figured that he’d be able to make money off it.

The Star Attraction of the late 1800s.
The Star Attraction of the late 1800s.

The “Discovery”

Workers supposedly hired to dig a well on the farm discovered the giant in 1869. At first, many deemed the discovery as a hoax. However, Hull’s target audience, the fundamentalists, disregarded the skeptics and defended it as divine evidence of the existence of biblical giants such as Goliath.

As news spread, people from the neighboring city of Syracuse came out to see it. Andrew Dickens White - author, educator, diplomat and co-founder of Cornell University - lived nearby and came to observe the commotion it was causing. He described it as a carnival in which the main display was in a tent where spectators had to pay 50 cents to get in. Also, he observed the giant as a carved sculpture that lacked any artistic merit. In other words, he saw it as a laughable fake.

For the most part, the Cardiff Giant made a lot of money. In fact, according to The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s, Robert Carroll, Newell sold three-fourths of his interest to a syndicate in Syracuse for $30,000.

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P.T. Barnum sees Suckers and Dollars

With that type of money in transaction, it came to no surprise that the greatest showman (and huckster) of his era, P.T. Barnum, wanted a little piece of this lucrative action. First, he offered to feature it in his travelling circus. However, Newell, Hull and the Syracuse syndicate declined the offer. Instead of admitting defeat, Barnum devised his own plan; he had a fake Cardiff Giant made.

Barnum’s action would prove to be the original Cardiff Giant Hoax’s undoing. It was reported that the two giants went on a tour, and, eventually, were placed on display in New York City at the same time. According to many reports, Barnum’s fake outdrew the original giant. Also, it was about this time that the "original" giant was finally revealed to be a fraud.

The creators of the original Cardiff Giant would eventually fade into history. On the other hand, Barnum's version would flourish for a while.

Cardiff Giants is Not Forgotten

Eventually, both giants were immediately identified by one of the scientists who came to observe it. However this didn't stop it from becoming a legend. It also helped to heighten P.T. Barnum's reputation as America's greatest entertainment promoter, despite not being the originator of the hoax.

In the beginning, it endured because many people of the time truly wanted to believe it was real. Hull -- and eventually Barnum -- realized this and prospered because of it. The event that surrounded it can be viewed as absurd.Even the mere physical image of the giant would not have fooled today's public. However, legends like this one don't die easily.

Today, the Cardiff Giant is still on display in Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It is not touted as being genuine, but as a relic from a bygone era when the public wanted to believe in giants.

Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer's Museum in Coopesrtown, NY.  Originally posted at myweb.usf.edu
Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer's Museum in Coopesrtown, NY. Originally posted at myweb.usf.edu

© 2016 Dean Traylor

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