- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

By Matthew Goodman
Basic Books, $26, 350 pages, illus.

One sultry summer day in 1835, a struggling New York newspaper named the Sun began publishing an astounding series of articles claiming that eminent British astronomer Sir John Herschel had managed to make a detailed examination of the surface of the moon. What he found was a “fantastic landscape” of lunar forests, waterfalls, inland seas, poppy fields over which ranged an array of animals including unicorns, elk, horned bears, biped beavers that walked on their hind legs, and most important, 4-foot-tall flying “man-bats.”

The articles purported to be the work of Andrew Grant, a correspondent for the Edinburgh Journal of Science, who claimed to have visited the astronomer’s observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. The Sun kept the pieces going throughout August; they ultimately totaled 11,000 words. An illustrator eventually contributed imaginative drawings based on the astronomer’s “observations.”

The whole affair, of course, was a glorious hoax - and one that was swallowed whole by a majority of the New Yorkers who read them. They were the work of an imaginative English journalist named Richard Adam Locke, who had found refuge in the United States because of political problems back home. The delightful story is told by Matthew Goodman in “The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York.”

I found Mr. Goodman’s book absolutely fascinating both as a former newspaperman and as a person who has been known to stage a hoax or two over the years. (My longest-playing gag was liberal use of letterheads I found here and there, that I used for personal correspondence. My theory was that friends would prefer to receive a letter on the stationery of the Office of Strategic Services, or from a hotel in Katanga, rather than stuff you buy at Office Depot. Adult supervision eventually set me straight.)

In the 1830s, New York boasted 11 newspapers, all aimed at the upper-crust merchant class rather than average citizens. They had a combined circulation of 26,500, although Manhattan had a population of a quarter of a million, with thousands more in the close-by suburbs. The going price was six cents.

Benjamin Day, a first-class printer aged 23 years, set out to change things. Several papers for which he had worked had tried lower prices and failed. Thus the city was surprised to see the declaration PRICE ONE PENNY emblazoned on the front page of the Sun in September 1833. The pages measured a mere 8 by 11 inches (later expanded to 11 by 18 inches).

Day chose to eschew the other papers’ diet of commercial news and articles picked up from the London press. In essence, he gave birth to the tabloid mentality that survives today. He and whatever staff he had scoured the police courts and came up with the sort of writing he felt would appeal to a low-scale audience. For instance: “John Evans, brought up for exercising the muscles of his right arm by pounding John Nixon on the head with his fist….” A man given the choice of either marrying a woman he had beaten or going to prison “cast a sheep’s eye towards the girl” and concluded he “might as well marry the critter.” He offered readers accounts of what went on in the Five Points vice district: “seats of vice, hot beds of debauchery, wretchedness…. such as few eyes have witnessed.”

The Sun contained a good deal of harmless hokum even before the moon story. The very first issue featured on the front page a story about a Vermont lad who whistled even as he slept. Later came a story about a four-foot snake lured from a sailor’s stomach with the aid of a bowl of warm milk.

But the moon story brought hordes of buyers to the Sun’s office in lower Manhattan. Many newspapers denounced the series as a hoax. Even more of them reprinted the series to capitalize on Day’s commercial success - the Sun’s circulation skyrocketed to 27,000 copies within a year, more than 5,000 greater than the combined circulation of the city’s 11 six-penny journals. Thousands of copies of reprints were marketed.

Locke was eventually identified as the author of the hoax, his inspiration coming from his avid reading of scientific literature. Given that the putative source was in far-away South Africa, he did not fear immediate exposure. British papers quickly determined that the Edinburgh journal from which the article was “reprinted” had another name and had published no such account. As Mr. Goodman writes, his series was “intended as a satire of the religious astronomers of the day who believed that there must be intelligent life on all the heavenly bodies, for God would not create these worlds without creating intelligent beings to populate them.”

Ironically, Locke later played a key role in exposing a scam being run by P. T. Barnum, who was displaying a black woman named Joyce Heth, said to be 161 years old and a nanny to the infant George Washington.

Publisher Horace Greeley, whose paper competed with the Sun, took the hoax with admirable grace, writing, “For our own part - frankly admitting that we were taken in on the full account - we can feel no uncharitableness towards the perpetrator of the hoax. On the contrary, we advise all who have not read the whole story to buy a copy of the pamphlet, which costs but a shilling. … We shall not trumpet his name to the general ear … but we can say plumply that if the operator nets a few hundred by his ingenuity, we shall find a gratification.”

To be sure, fakery has been around since the birth of journalism. The 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson, during his hack-writer days on “Grub Street,” concocted accounts of Parliamentary debates he never witnessed, writing speeches that ensured that the side he favored always won. Occasional frauds continue. During my tenure at the Dallas News in the 1950s, a leading columnist for the paper, in the space of three months, attributed the wry statement “I’m just a little old man sparing for my chili” both to a West Texas cowboy and a used book dealer in Forth Worth. A decade later, a spurious wedding account in the Philadelphia Inquirer - Italian groom, Greek bride - used names for the participants that are more commonly found in medical textbooks on sex than in the phone book.

Indeed, reading of the successful moon hoax gives me some ideas. Editors, beware!

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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