The Great Moon hoax


THE so called silly season in the summer newspapers is not a modern phenomenon. It was alive and thriving in the 1830s when the celebrated English astronomer, Sir John Herschel, went to South Africa to study aspects of the heavens that could not be viewed from Europe. In May, 1836, he received a letter from an American colleague that contained the following disturbing information:

"In August last there appeared in a newspaper called The Sun, published in New York but not held by the inhabitants of that city in high repute, an account of some discoveries on the Moon alleged to have been recently made by yourself, which was considered by the reflecting part of the community as an unwarrantable and unjustifiable use of your name." And, of course, it was an unwarrantable and unjustifiable use of Herschel's name: it has come to be remembered as "The Great Moon Hoax".

It began with an article in The Sin on August 25th, 1835, by Richard Adams Locke under the headline "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope". It went on to inform readers that Herschel had invented a new type of telescope, powerful enough to allow him to examine the surface of the Moon in great detail. Over the next six days successive articles reported Herschel's "discoveries" in detail.

He had seen, for example, "a lofty chain of 30 to 40 obelisk shaped pyramids", and hoards of Lunar Quadrupeds, "having all the external characteristics of a bison but more diminutive". And most exciting of all, "We were thrilled with astonishment to perceive successive flocks of large winged creatures, that were like human beings when their wings had disappeared. They averaged four feet in height, their attitude on walking was both correct and dignified, and they were covered, except for the face, with short and glossy copper coloured hair."

Locke included just enough scientific terminology to make his reports believable. Moreover, with Herschel himself on the other side of the world, and communications slow, there was little fear of authoritative contradiction. Sales of The Sun soared for several weeks; the collected articles were published in pamphlet form and sold more than 60,000 copies; the New York Times gravely pronounced the new discoveries "both probable and plausible"; and the New Yorker enthusiastically welcomed "a new era in astronomy and in science generally". And then on September 16th The Sun confessed its innocent duplicity, and the silly season was over for another year.