If it is clear tonight you will see the familiar sight of the Moon in the sky, but on this day 180 years ago there were some amazing stories about the Moon appearing in American newspapers.
On August 25th 1835, the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appeared in the New York Sun newspaper.
Known collectively as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science by Dr Andrew Grant. It was said that Sir John Herschel, a famous British astronomer of the day and son of Sir William Herschel who had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 had made some amazing discoveries about the Moon.
Herschel travelled to Cape Town, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope and map the southern skies. His father had catalogued the northern hemisphere and he wanted to complete the full sky survey by studying the southern sky.
The Sun said that Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid description of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.
These hoaxes were made when communications were very slow and information between continents only moved at the speed of sailing ships as they travelled around the world. It would take weeks for a ship to travel from South Africa to North America. Herschel of course was completely unaware of these stories. Herschel returned to England in 1838.
The New York Sun, founded in 1833 was one of the new “penny press” papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price. From the day the first moon hoax article was released, sales of the paper shot up considerably. It was exciting stuff, and readers lapped it up. The only problem was that none of it was true. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University.
Readers were completely taken in by the story, and believed the hoax. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who travelled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.
On September 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles had been a hoax. Readers were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer.
When Herschel heard of the hoax he laughed and said he "feared the actual results of his telescopic observations at the Cape would be very humble, in popular estimation, at least, in comparison with those ascribed to him in the American account."
The Sun continued operation until 1950, when it merged with the New York World-Telegram. The merger folded in 1967. A new New York Sun newspaper was founded in 2002, but it has no relation to the original.