The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

Article written: 1 Apr , 2011
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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Say the words “Moon Hoax” these days, and everyone thinks you are talking about the people who don’t believe the Apollo astronauts ever went to the Moon. But back in 1835 there was the original Moon hoax that thousands of people fell for, despite the tall tale being complete fiction. A series of articles were published in the New York Sun newspaper reporting incredible new astronomical observations of the Moon supposedly made by astronomer Sir John Herschel during an observing run at the Cape of Good Hope with his powerful new telescope. Detailed descriptions of winged beings, plants, animals and a sapphire temple increased sales and subscriptions to the fledgling newspaper.

Here’s a selection from one of the articles:

“We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood… Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified… About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas; but of all the others we had perfectly distinct and deliberate view. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of the shoulders to the calves of their legs.”

The descriptions were allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science, and only several weeks after the articles were published did questions arise about the truth of these tales. The newspaper did not issue a retraction back then, and now, even over 175 years later has not issued a full retraction of it, either.

It is said that Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. But he became annoyed later when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.

To be honest, I had not heard of this hoax until it was discussed by professor Rob Knop in today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. He does a great job telling the story, so it is definitely worth a listen.

Sources: 365 Days of Astronomy, HistoryBuff, Wikipedia

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12 Responses

  1. Member
    IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

    […]. The [New York Sun] did not issue a retraction back then, and now, even over 175 years later has not issued a full retraction of it, either.

    Its British namesake, The Sun, is just as bad!

  2. qraal says

    Jules Verne mentions it in “From the Earth to the Moon”, which I read when I was 12. Was only 30 years prior to his novel and would’ve been in living memory.

  3. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    The Ancient Greek writers, like Plutarch, were the first to speculate on the inhabitation of the Moon and this remained as such. From the time of Galileo and the telescope was used to observe the heavens, observers thought that the Moon had an atmosphere (probably caused by the aberrations by the quality of the telescopes.) Speculation of the possibility of lunar life started with Bernard de Fountenelle in 1686 in his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations of the Plurality of Worlds) [French and English versions at Goggle Books.] This was followed by Huygens in 1698, who published some comments in his Kosmotheoron

    The origin of the modern suspicions of life on the Moon for this story can be traced back to Sir William Herschel (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 66 (1785)), who wrote;

    “While man walks upon the ground, the birds fly in the air, and fishes swim in water, we can certainly not object to the conveniences afforded by the moon, if those that are to inhabit its regions are fitted to their conditions as well as we on this globe arc to ours. An absolute or total sameness seems rather to denote imperfections, such as nature never exposes to our view; and, on this account, I believe the analogies that have been mentioned fully sufficient to establish the high probability of the moon’s being inhabited like the earth.”

    Another even earlier one was made Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) (“Life on Other Planets” (1729) [in Latin.] This was later highlighted after 1835 Hoax, reprinting his works of as an authority; “On the Earths in our Solar System, by Swedenborg”. London, 1840. p. 59.;

    “That there are inhabitants in the moon is well known to spirits and angels, and in like manner that there are inhabitants in the moons or satellites which revolve about Jupiter and Saturn. They who have not seen and discoursed with spirits coming from those moons still entertain no doubt but there are men inhabiting them, because they are earths alike with the planets, and wherever an earth is, there are men inhabitants; for man is the end for which every earth was created, and nothing was made by the great Creator without an end.”

    Another translation appears from Gutenberg “Earths In Our Solar System Which Are Called Planets, and Earths In The Starry Heaven Their Inhabitants, And The Spirits And Angels There”* (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16044);

    “It is known to spirits and angels, that there are inhabitants even in the Moon, and likewise in the moons or satellites which are about the earth Jupiter and the earth Saturn. Even those who have not seen spirits who are from them, and spoken with them, entertain no doubt that there are human beings upon them, for they, too, are earths, and where there is an earth, there is man; for man is the end for the sake of which an earth exists, and nothing has been made by the Supreme Creator without an end. It may be evident to anyone who thinks from reason in any degree enlightened that the end of creation is the human race, in order that there may exist a heaven from it.”

    It is interesting to see that the lunar atmosphere was still considered as feasible in 1835, and few had discounted or proven it false. The continuation of this fiction was mostly due to the reported visual observations of a lunar atmosphere by the German Johann Schroter several decades before the hoax.
    [An excellent discussion appears within William Sheehan’s book “Planets & Perception: Telescopic Views and Interpretations, 1609-1909” in Chapter 4 “To complete the Analogy pg.27-37 (1988). Some historical works by British amateur astronomer Richard Baum are useful as well.)

    * Note: This book is much referenced by astrologers and is “authoritative” on astrological radiations.

  4. Uncle Fred says

    Salacious;

    Are you sure you’re quoting Guttenburg? Angels and demons, creatures on the Moon, supreme god, sounds word-for-word like the same unintelligible gibberish from many of our resident trolls.

  5. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    “The descriptions were allegedly reprinted from the nonexistent Edinburgh Journal of Science.”

    Actually. The Journal oncedid existed, but the article did not. The joke was that it was discontinued in 1829 and absorbed into “The Philosophical Magazine.” Many were fooled if they were unaware of the name of the journal had changed! According to Wikipedia;

    “In 1814, the Philosophical Magazine merged with the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, otherwise known as Nicholson’s Journal, to form The Philosophical Magazine and Journal. Further mergers with the Annals of Philosophy and The Edinburgh Journal of Science led to the retitling of the journal in 1840, to “The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science”! In 1949, the title reverted to The Philosophical Magazine, for ease of reference.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_Magazine

    Funny. I even once accessed some information on this Journal.

  6. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed features on Mars which were later “confirmed” by other observers. Schiaparelli called these features canali, translated as “canals.” Schiaparelli extrapolated some cuspy parts of the dark features into lines, which other did as well. Percieval Lowell furthered this illusion with ideas of Martians who engineered these canals, which lead to a host of Martian fantasies. HG Wells took advantage of this, combined with the fear over the rise of Germany, in his epic “War of the Worlds.” That novel is a boiler plate or template for thousands of other novels and screen plays to follow.

    The one thing we humans are very good at doing is projecting ourselves onto the world, either in fictional characters and narratives, gods, or with beings that live on other planets. We continue to get UFO reports, and these tend to increase when there is some big Hollywood production about aliens.

    LC

    • HeadAroundU says

      Hey, LC. How old are you? What’s your education? Do you believe in god? How many inteligent species are in our galaxy right now? Do you have some “LC” equation for that? 😀

      • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

        Well, we have the equation of “imp-dance” of the LC circuit, as 1st April fairies moves around it:

        Z = j w L + 1/jwC.

        Summing all dance moves over the circuit charge (e), time (t) and current (i), we have Zeti = int (ei (jwL + 1/jwC)) dt = [whole period: w dt = 2pi] = 2ep i^2 (LC +1)/C^2 = [ LC -> 0, t -> oo : everyone dies] ~ 2ep (i/C)^2 [canceling 2’s, i/C = u over the capacitance] = peu.

        If you are french, this means there are a few (peu) intelligent species (zeti) around. If you are another nationality, count the french out.

        [With 1st April Fools day apologies to a certain nation, who has done its share to propagate intelligent civilization, and then some.]

      • wjwbudro says

        Finally, some math stuff I can understand!

  7. Robert says

    This hoax brought to mind a book I read when I was a kid (about 1963?) by Arthur Adamski. He had made claims of traveling with aliens around the solar system in their various types of spacecraft. I basically swallowed his tale until he talked about seeing creatures living on the terminator line on the moon to avoid extremes of temperature. Even as a kid I knew instantly he was lying. The obvious conclusion then was if he lied about that, nothing he wrote could be believed. I then reviewed the story and found other dubious claims that decided I should have been more skeptical of earlier. The killer was when I took a look at the appendix(?) where he described what amounted to a camp similar to something a cult might have set up to promote his hogwash / rip off scheme.

  8. Member
    platomica says

    wait… are you saying… there is NO human bats on the moon??? and they really DID fly these funny tin cans there???

    you crush all my tabloid historical education! 🙁

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