The New York Sun was a low-rent “penny paper” that typically dealt in sensationalist fare about murders and tenement fires, but beginning on August 25, 1835, it briefly became the world’s premier scientific authority. The transformation began with the publication of “Great Astronomical Discoveries,” a six-part series that claimed to recount the earth-shattering findings astronomer Sir John Herschel had made while observing the heavens in South Africa. According to the Sun’s editors, the stories were culled from articles that had originally appeared in the Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. They promised to describe “celestial discoveries of higher and more universal interest than any, in any science yet known to the human race.”
The first article introduced readers to Herschel, who was credited as having “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy” during a recent expedition to the Cape of Good Hope. It also offered a lengthy, jargon-heavy account of his revolutionary new telescope, an instrument “of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle” that was said to have a magnifying power of 42,000 times. The following day’s entry revealed what happened when Sir John aimed his super-telescope at the moon. Upon bringing an image of the lunar surface into focus, he and his fellow scientists saw elaborate basaltic rock formations and fields of blood-red poppy flowers—“the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.” Further observations revealed green forests and shimmering blue seas, as well as brown quadrupeds that resembled small bison. The astronomers were also stunned to find blue-tinted unicorns with goat beards and an orb-shaped amphibian that “rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach.”
Day three treated readers to descriptions of even more lunar curiosities including erupting volcanoes and cliffs of quartz crystal. Miniature zebras wandered the green hillsides, and the woods were filled with horned bears and roving herds of reindeer and elk. Most wondrous of all was the so-called “biped beaver,” a tailless, upright-walking creature that carried its young in its arms like a person, used fire and lived in wooden dwellings.
The last three entries dropped the real bombshell. While scanning a grouping of ruby red hills, the scientists were said to have spied a species of winged humanoids that soared through the lunar skies just as easily as they walked on two legs. The article claimed the creatures stood 4 feet tall, had orangutan-like features and “were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair.” They appeared to live a life of leisure and were observed to engage in conversation—a sure sign of sentience. “We scientifically denominated them a Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat,” the story’s author wrote, “and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures.”
By the time Vespertilio-homo was revealed to the world on August 28, the “Great Astronomical Discoveries” series was a runaway success. Spellbound readers mobbed the Sun’s offices to buy the latest installments, and the paper’s circulation soared to over 19,000—more than any daily on the globe. Rival newspapers commented on the story relentlessly and began reprinting it themselves. The New York Transcript even published accounts from an exclusive correspondent who they claimed had also been present for the observations. As the hysteria grew, Sun owner Benjamin Day started peddling a pamphlet version of the accounts along with a 25-cent lithograph that depicted the man-bats and other “Lunarian” species. Both became huge sellers.
The media circus would have been justified if not for a simple fact: the moon stories were a fraud. Sir John Herschel was a real astronomer, and he really was observing the heavens in South Africa, but the accounts of his new telescope and the majestic creatures it had found were a piece of science fiction. Its author was Richard Adams Locke, the Sun’s British-born editor. A science enthusiast, Locke had penned the stories as satire of the early 19th century astronomical community and its penchant for making half-baked claims about alien life. His chief target was Thomas Dick, a Scottish reverend and bestselling author who, among other bizarre theories, had once alleged that the solar system was home to exactly 21,894,974,404,480 inhabitants.
Locke later admitted that he’d hoped to lampoon Dick and his supporters by making equally absurd claims and passing them off as science, yet most readers failed to pick up on his satire. “The credulity was general,” newsman Asa Greene later remembered. “All New York rang with the wonderful discoveries of Sir John Herschel…There were, indeed, a few skeptics; but to venture to express a doubt of the genuineness of the great lunar discoveries, was considered almost as heinous a sin as to question the truth of revelation.”
One of the most prominent doubters was the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Only a few weeks before the Sun’s moon stories made their debut, he had written “Hans Phaall, a Tale,” a would-be literary hoax that claimed to recount a foreign news report about a Dutchman traveling to the moon in a hot air balloon. Poe considered the Sun account a plagiarism of his story, but even he couldn’t help but marvel at the popular sensation it caused. He would later note that, for a time, “not one person in ten discredited it.”
It wasn’t until the skeptics began digging a little deeper that cracks began to appear in the moon story. On August 31—the same day the Sun accounts wrapped up with a description of another species of Vespertilio-homo—the New York Herald published an article titled “The Astronomical Hoax Explained.” It pointed out many inconsistencies in the reports, including that the Edinburgh Journal of Science had been defunct for several years. Even more damning, the Herald singled out Richard Adams Locke as the tales’ true author. Other accusations soon followed courtesy of the Journal of Commerce, which claimed Locke had confessed to one of its reporters while drunk in a saloon.
The Sun denied the charges and engaged in a public feud with the Herald, but when months passed with no official confirmation of lunar beavers or man-bats, it became clear the stories had been a scam. Locke finally came clean five years later in a lengthy letter to the New World newspaper. While he said he regretted writing the articles, he blamed their response on Reverend Dick and other sensationalist scientists whose wrongheaded theories had “prepared the public to swallow anything however absurd.”
Unlike Locke, the Sun never confessed or issued a retraction for what became known as the “Great Moon Hoax,” but its sales still continued to boom long after the stories had faded from view. Rather than being scandalized, most people simply regarded the series as a clever trick. Showman P.T. Barnum, who knew a thing or two about hoaxes, even called it “the most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the generation with which we are numbered has known.”
Sir John Herschel was less impressed. The venerable astronomer finally received news of the stories in late-1835, and he soon grew tired of the constant questioning he received from ignorant readers. In an 1837 letter, he complained, “I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English, French, Italian & German!!” Herschel had good reason to be upset. Even after the ruse was exposed, the moon stories continued to circulate in foreign newspapers across the globe. According to some accounts, they were still being published—and believed—well into the 1850s.