The seed for what would become one of the 19th century’s most elaborate hoaxes first planted itself in George Hull’s mind in 1867. A cigar maker by trade, Hull was also a staunch atheist and skeptic, and during a business trip to Iowa, he became locked in a theological debate with a revivalist preacher. Hull later claimed he was flabbergasted by the preacher’s literalist reading of the Bible, in particular a passage from the Book of Genesis that states “there were giants in the earth in those days.” As he lay in bed later that night, Hull wondered if it might be possible to dupe the faithful by making a stone giant “and passing it off as a petrified man.” If done right, he mused, the scam would allow him to strike a blow against religion and make a pretty penny along the way.

Over the next two years, Hull spent nearly $3,000 bringing his phony giant to life. He began by traveling to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he secured a 5-ton block of gypsum by claiming it would be used for a statue of the late Abraham Lincoln. Hull then shipped the slab to a Chicago marble dealer who had agreed to help with the scheme in exchange for a piece of the profits. With Hull posing as a model, a pair of sculptors spent the late summer of 1868 fashioning the gypsum into an artificial anthropological wonder. The statue took the form of a naked man lying on his back with his right arm grasping at his stomach, one leg crossed over the other and a face with a mysterious half-smile. The workers doused the exterior with sulfuric acid to give an aged, eroded look, and Hull even drove pins into the body to replicate skin pores. When finished, the sham colossus stood more than 10 feet tall and weighed nearly 3,000 pounds.

Excavation of the Cardiff Giant, 1869
Excavation of the Cardiff Giant, 1869

Hull needed a place to bury his giant, and he eventually settled on Cardiff, New York, a small valley town that also happened to be the home of a distant relative and farmer named William “Stub” Newell. After cutting Newell in on the deal and swearing him to secrecy, Hull shipped the giant to his property in an iron-sealed box. On a chilly night in November 1868, the men buried the behemoth near Newell’s barn, wedging it under roots to create the illusion that it had rested beneath the dirt for centuries. Hull then returned to his home in nearby Binghamton and busied himself with his cigar business. Nearly a year would pass before he finally wrote Newell and instructed him to resurrect the giant. On October 16, 1869, Newell put the plan into action by hiring a pair of unsuspecting workers to dig a well near his barn. The men didn’t have to dig far before their shovels hit what appeared to be a stone foot. In a matter of minutes, the stunned laborers had excavated the body of a massive, supine man. “I declare,” one of the men supposedly said. “Some old Indian has been buried here!”

It didn’t take long for news of the discovery to spread through Cardiff. “Men left their work,” the Syracuse Journal later wrote, “women caught up their babies, and children in numbers, all hurried to the scene where the interest of that little community centered.” Since Cardiff was already known its fossils deposits, many surmised that the body was an ancient man that had been petrified by the waters of a nearby swamp. While early examinations appeared to confirm this theory, a Syracuse-based science lecturer later declared the giant was not a man, but rather a statue possibly carved by French Jesuits centuries earlier. As the speculation mounted, Stub Newell played the part of the humble farmer with aplomb. He even vowed to re-bury the giant and forget about it until his neighbors “convinced” him that the discovery might have some historical value.

cardiff giant children
Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Cardiff’s prehistoric man made a splash the likes of which had never been seen in rural New York. “A NEW WONDER,” read the headline in the Syracuse Daily Standard. Another paper hailed the find as “a singular discovery.” When the crowds continued to grow, Newell covered the giant with a white tent and began charging 50 cents for admission. Some 2,500 people came during the exhibition’s first week alone. Newell brushed off offers to buy the giant until George Hull arrived in Cardiff a few days later. After a brief powwow, the conspirators agreed it was time to cash in. When a syndicate of businessmen offered $30,000 for a three-fourths stake, Newell sold.

Over the next few weeks, more experts converged on Cardiff to inspect the “new wonder.” New York State Geologist James Hall and Rochester University professor Henry Ward were among the many to throw their weight behind the statue theory, with Hall christening it, “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country.” Another camp still clung to the petrified man hypothesis, yet some were beginning to grow suspicious of the discovery’s authenticity. Locals remembered seeing George Hull transport a massive crate through Cardiff a year earlier, and reporters learned that Newell had transferred a large amount of cash to Hull immediately after selling the giant. Questions continued piling up that November, when the giant’s new owners took it on the road and exhibited it to thousands of spectators in Syracuse and Albany. A mining engineer caused a stir when he noted that gypsum would have deteriorated quickly in the soggy soil of Newell’s farm, and an even more crucial blow came courtesy of famed Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who only needed a passing glance at the giant to pronounce it “of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.”

P. T.  Barnum (Credit: Henry Guttman/Getty Images)
Henry Guttman/Getty Images
P. T. Barnum

Still, where some saw a fraud, others saw dollar signs. Only a day after Marsh’s inspection, the famed circus impresario and showman P.T. Barnum viewed the giant in Syracuse and tried to buy it. When the owners turned him down, he commissioned a sculptor to build an exact replica and began displaying it at a Manhattan museum as the real thing. “What is it?” asked the ads for Barnum’s exhibition. “Is it a Statue? Is it a Petrification? Is it a Stupendous Fraud? Is it the Remains of a former Race?” Barnum’s giant drew huge crowds, even outselling the original when it finally arrived in New York that December. The man who built Barnum’s forgery soon made several other copies, and by the end of the year, a half-dozen Cardiff Giants were being exhibited around the country. “It is rather rich,” quipped the Philadelphia Inquirer, “that we should be victimized by such a fraud upon a fraud.”

By early 1870, the Cardiff Giant had turned from a subject of fascination into one of ridicule. Some people still argued for its antiquity, but new exposés were cropping up all the time, and even George Hull began publically bragging about having engineered a hoax. The ruse finally crumbled that February, when newspapers printed confessions from the Chicago sculptors who had first chiseled the giant into being. The “American Goliath’s” proprietors continued exhibiting it for a few years to ever-decreasing crowds, but by 1880 it had been condemned to storage in a barn in Massachusetts. The giant eventually passed between various owners and toured the carnival circuit before being sold to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Having cleared around $20,000 with the Cardiff Giant scheme, George Hull would later attempt to continue his new career as a flimflam man. In 1877, he tried to “humbug” the masses once again by building a 7-foot-tall giant with a tail and burying it in Colorado. The hoax was quickly exposed, however, and Hull lost a great deal of money. He died in obscurity in 1902, supposedly still proud of once “fooling the world” with the Cardiff Giant.