August 25, 2012 - The Great Moon Hoax

– 1835

Did you know that the best known astronomer of his time, Sir John Herschel, discovered life on the Moon? And I'm talking really obvious life: creatures that looked a lot like bison, goats, unicorns, beavers without tails, and humanoids with giant bat wings. And buildings that looked a lot like temples here on Earth.

Of course, you know already that Herschel made no such discovery! But did an esteemed scientist hoax everybody?

No, no he did not.

The six articles detailing the exciting (but false) “discovery,” which were printed beginning on this date in 1835 in the New York Sun, were supposed to be written by the traveling companion and assistant of Herschel, a man named Dr. Andrew Grant. However, there was no such person. All available evidence points instead to the articles being written by Richard A. Locke, who worked for the newspaper.

This story sold a lot of newspapers, apparently. Several weeks after publication, it had been established that the story wasn't true—but the newspaper never issued a retraction. In other words, they never said in print, “Sorry, guys, those articles were not true.” And Locke never admitted writing the articles.

At first Herschel was a bit amused by the hoax. When asked about it by others, he remarked that his real observations of the moon could never be as exciting. But as more and more people asked him about his “discoveries”—and he realized that they still believed the stories to be true—Herschel became annoyed. I bet he wished that the paper used as many inches debunking the story as it did telling the tall tale in the first place!

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