Segment from Fit to Print?

The Great Moon Hoax

Ed talks to writer Matthew Goodman about why Americans believed fantastical stories of life on the moon published by the New York Sun in 1835. They also explore how the “Great Moon Hoax” changed American journalism.


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ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

NATHAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that brings you the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman. If you’re new to the show, Ed, Nathan, and I are all historians. Each week, we’ll take a story from the news and look at that topic across American history. Because, of course, what’s in the news is rarely new.

ED: This is the first, in the continuing series on BackStory, looking at the history of the media.

NATHAN: We’ll begin today’s show on August 25th, 1835. On that date, the New York Sun broke an astonishing story.

ED: Life had been discovered on the moon. This is writer Matthew Goodman.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Including sheep and hairy bison. And as these articles went along, the creatures that were discovered became ever stranger and more remarkable. So it turns out that unicorns were discovered on the moon and biped beavers, beavers who walk on their hind legs and had discovered the secret of fire.

And most remarkable of all, kind of the crowning glory of the series, were these lunar man-bats, four-foot tall man-bats, who talked and flew and built temples and did art and apparently fornicated in public, although that was something the Sun didn’t go into too many details about.


JOANNE: I just want to say the word “man-bat,” I mean, all by itself. All by itself, the word “man-bat” is not something I’ve ever uttered before. And it’s a great word. I can see how it would be good press.

ED: Now you’ve probably figured out by now that this story contains what might be called alternative facts. In other words, they were made up and made to look like a credible news story. You know, fake news? And in the past few months, fake news has been, well, all over the news.

MALE SPEAKER: Three months before the 2016 presidential election, articles with fake news, from fake sources, were shared at a higher rate than real news.

MALE SPEAKER: Fake news is now on the verge of getting someone killed. That’s what almost happened this weekend in Washington at a pizza restaurant.

MALE SPEAKER: Donald Trump tweeted this, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN ABC–”

JOANNE: Today, on BackStory, we’ll look at the history of fake news. These are widely circulated news stories that are inaccurate, misleading, or completely made up. Because even though fake news is a relatively new term, the concept most definitely is not.

NATHAN: Tabloid headlines about space aliens and Elvis Presley sightings have been around for decades. And it’s in the late 19th century, newspaper editors actually encouraged reporters to spice up their stories, with fake facts, just to boost circulation. Actually, fabricated stories go back to the very beginning of the Republic.

ED: The fact that fake news has been around for so long got us wondering, do fabricated stories tend to flourish in certain moments or circumstances? Are Americans, today, more gullible than previous generations? And what the heck are man-bats?

NATHAN: But first, let’s go back to 1835 and those weird stories in the New York Sun about the man-bats, biped beavers, and the unicorns on the moon. These headlines arrived at a pivotal moment in American journalism. The Sun, for instance, had only recently burst on the scene and was part of a very new breed of newspapers.

Before the 1830s, most papers consisted of partisan editorials, dry articles about international finance and commodity price charts. These newspapers catered to the nation’s merchant class. They were poor reading. And they cost a pretty penny– six pennies in fact.

JOANNE: You said, boring, with such zest there, Nathan. I like reading those newspapers. They have all kinds of snazzy politics in them. But I will admit that the Sun, by contrast, targeted the city’s booming working class. It was a different kind of paper. Its pages were filled with local gossip, crime, sports, and, yes, stories of fantastical life on the moon, all this for a mere penny.

Other newspapers sensed a promising business model and followed suit. And before long, an entire new industry emerged. It was known, logically enough, as the penny press. And perhaps more than any story, the great moon hoax helped launch the penny press.

ED: When I interviewed him a few years back, Matthew Goodman told me this story was never meant to be taken seriously. The story, in fact, was cooked up by the Sun’s editor, Richard Adams Locke. Locke was an ardent abolitionist and all-around political radical. He was frustrated by religious astronomers, who claimed there was life on the sun, the moon, and the stars, because, why else would God have created these heavenly bodies if not to populate them?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Locke thought this was nonsense. He thought this was religion masquerading as science. And he set out to write a satire of these ideas. And he said, well, if you believe in an inhabited moon, I’ll give you an inhabited moon. And if you believe that the creatures on the moon are Christians, I will give you lunar man-bats, who build lunar temples, and garb it all in this sort of high-flown language used by the religious astronomers and, in so doing, expose it for the humbug that it is.

But what he hadn’t anticipated– and this is really the crux of the story– is that people had been so schooled in the ideas of these religious astronomers that, when the articles appeared, they simply believed them. Some people, at the time, claimed it was 9 out of 10 New Yorkers believe this.

And people, you know, swarmed around the Sun offices waiting for the next installment of the papers. And really, I guess the best indication of how popular the series was, was that, by the time the series was over, the Sun, which was this young paper– it was less than two years old– had become the most widely read newspaper in the entire world.

ED: Wow. Now, it’s interesting that this is the exact same moment and place where P.T. Barnum emerges and–

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right.

ED: –flourishes. So what is it about America and New York in the 1830s that we’re suddenly seeing this appearance, of what would then– we would now think of as sort of characteristically American gullibility, perhaps, but also fascination with the strange? And Edgar Allan Poe is up there hanging around, too, right?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right. That’s right. This was really the age of hoaxes. As you mentioned, P.T. Barnum shows up in New York that very same month, with his own hoax in tow. An elderly African-American woman named, Joice Heth, whom he claims is 161 years old, and the former nursemaid of George Washington, back in Virginia.

So yes, people loved hoaxes back then. Barnum would, very quickly, become rich and, arguably, the most famous American in the world on the back of his hoaxes.

And after people discovered that the Sun series was a hoax, they didn’t turn against the Sun as we might suspect that they did, and as many of the Sun’s rivals of the time predicted that they would They simply tipped their hats to the Sun. They said, job well done.

ED: Do it again.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Do it again. Or see if you can do it again.

ED: Right.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: We dare you to try to do it again. Because part of what was going on– and I guess this is, in some sense, an answer to your question– this was really a democratizing era. You know Andrew Jackson was in the White House at the time.

You we’re beginning to see the falling away of a lot of the venerable traditions of the old world. You know cartmen didn’t doff their hats to their employers anymore. People called each other mister rather than sir. Shaking hands instead of bowing became much more widely in use.

So this really was a democratizing time. And I think part of the appeal of hoaxes, at that time, was that people were beginning to understand their own right of judgment, their own right of determining what was true and what was not true.

And as Barnum said, when you pay your quarter and you get to the top of the stairs, you can decide what is true. And it became kind of an implicit competition between the hoaxer and the patron to try to see if he can fool them. And if they were successfully fooled, they felt not cheated. They felt entertained.

ED: I see. So I’m a big fan of democracy. And actually, I like popular culture a lot, back then and today and everything. But isn’t this a little scary, that you have democratization, and it immediately leads to lunar man-bats? I mean does this suggest a sort of lowering of standards or a weaving in of gullibility into American culture?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: I think there were good things about it. And I think there were bad things about it. Yes, you could argue that there were some diminishing of standards, perhaps. But at the same time, you began to see a far more literate public, a public that was far more able to understand what was going on, in the society around them, as a result of these newspapers.

I mean these newspapers, the penny papers like the Sun– and by the way, very quickly after the Sun, you began to see the appearance of other penny papers in cities around the country. The New Orleans Times-Picayune began at that time.

ED: Where the word “picayune” comes from, if I’m not mistaken, why we think if something as picayune–

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right.

ED: –is because it was cheap, right?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: It was just one. It was the coin of the time, exactly. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, all of which continue to publish today, all got their start in the wake of the success of the Sun. So these papers were really quite good in a lot of ways.

They had very good, strong local coverage, which was something that had never been done before. And really, within about 15 or 20 years, you really see the end of the old line merchant newspapers, the six penny papers had virtually disappeared by the 1850s.

ED: Well that’s pretty amazing. And that raises a question I have. I’m sorry, I can hear that you were getting ready to say something else there. If you’d like to go ahead.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Well, I think it probably was the same point you were about to make, which is that, in a way, it’s somewhat analogous to the situation that we see today. This was a moment where a new kind of journalism, much more affordable, much faster, and kind of snappy, took over from the old-style of journalism.

And it really only took about 15 years before the old style had disappeared entirely. We might now be on the cusp of another period like that, where the old-style of journalism, meaning print journalism, is very quickly being replaced, for good or for ill, by a different kind of journalism, internet journalism. So we may be witnessing the end of that type of journalism right before our very eyes.

ED: Well it’s a very interesting counterpoint that you’ve laid out for us here, Matthew. And the book is fascinating. And I do think it’s one of these instances where the past really does kind of give us a glimmer, reflected off the moon, almost as it were, of what the future might be.

And I’m really grateful, both the book and for your time talking with us today.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Oh, thank you. It was really fun. I appreciate it. [MUSIC PLAYING] ED: Matthew Goodman is an author of The Sun and The Moon, The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showman, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats– there you go Joanne– in Nineteenth Century New York.