The Moon-hoax

The most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the

generation with which we are numbered has known, was the so-called

"Moon-Hoax," published in the columns of the "New York Sun," in the

months of August and September, 1835. The sensation created by this

immense imposture, not only throughout the United States, but in every

part of the civilized world, and the consummate ability with which it

was written
will render it interesting so long as our language shall

endure; and, indeed, astronomical science has actually been indebted to

it for many most valuable hints--a circumstance that gives the

production a still higher claim to immortality.

At the period when the wonderful "yarn" to which I allude first

appeared, the science of astronomy was engaging particular attention,

and all works on the subject were eagerly bought up and studied by

immense masses of people. The real discoveries of the younger Herschel,

whose fame seemed destined to eclipse that of the elder sage of the same

name, and the eloquent startling works of Dr. Dick, which the Harpers

were republishing, in popular form, from the English edition, did much

to increase and keep up this peculiar mania of the time, until the whole

community at last were literally occupied with but little else than

"star-gazing." Dick's works on "The Sidereal Heavens," "Celestial

Scenery," "The improvement of Society," etc., were read with the utmost

avidity by rich and poor, old and young, in season and out of season.

They were quoted in the parlor, at the table, on the promenade, at

church, and even in the bedroom, until it absolutely seemed as though

the whole community had "Dick" upon the brain. To the highly educated

and imaginative portion of our good Gothamite population, the Doctor's

glowing periods, full of the grandest speculations as to the starry

worlds around us, their wondrous magnificence and ever-varying aspects

of beauty and happiness were inexpressibly fascinating. The author's

well-reasoned conjectures as to the majesty and beauty of their

landscapes, the fertility and diversity of their soil, and the exalted

intelligence and comeliness of their inhabitants, found hosts of

believers; and nothing else formed the staple of conversation, until the

beaux and belles, and dealers in small talk generally, began to grumble,

and openly express their wishes that the Dickens had Doctor Dick and all

his works.

It was at the very height of the furor above mentioned, that one morning

the readers of the "Sun"--at that time only twenty-five hundred in

number--were thrilled with the announcement in its columns of certain

"Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, LL.D.,

F.R.S. etc., at the Cape of Good Hope," purporting to be a republication

from a Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The heading of

the article was striking enough, yet was far from conveying any adequate

idea of its contents. When the latter became known, the excitement went

beyond all bounds, and grew until the "Sun" office was positively

besieged with crowds of people of the very first class, vehemently

applying for copies of the issue containing the wonderful details.

As the pamphlet form in which the narrative was subsequently published

is now out of print, and a copy can hardly be had in the country, I will

recall a few passages from a rare edition, for the gratification of my

friends who have never seen the original. Indeed, the whole story is

altogether too good to be lost; and it is a great pity that we can not

have a handsome reprint of it given to the world from time to time. It

is constantly in demand; and, during the year 1859, a single copy of

sixty pages, sold at the auction of Mr. Haswell's library, brought the

sum of $3,75. In that same year, a correspondent, in Wisconsin, writing

to the "Sunday Times" of this city, inquired where the book could be

procured, and was answered that he could find it at the old bookstore,

No. 85 Centre Street, if anywhere. Thus, after a search of many weeks,

the Western bibliopole succeeded in obtaining a well-thumbed specimen of

the precious work. Acting upon this chance suggestion, Mr. William

Gowans, of this city, during the same year, brought out a very neat

edition, in paper covers, illustrated with a view of the moon, as seen

through Lord Rosse's grand telescope, in 1856. But this, too, has all

been sold; and the most indefatigable book-collector might find it

difficult to purchase a single copy at the present time. I, therefore,

render the inquiring reader no slight service in culling for him some

of the flowers from this curious astronomical garden.

The opening of the narrative was in the highest Review style; and the

majestic, yet subdued, dignity of its periods, at once claimed

respectful attention; while its perfect candor, and its wealth of

accurate scientific detail exacted the homage of belief from all but

cross-grained and inexorable skeptics.

It commences thus:

"In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness to

make known to the British public, and thence to the whole civilized

world, recent discoveries in Astronomy, which will build an

imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon

the present generation of the human race a proud distinction

through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the

stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the

intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the

Zodiac around him with a loftier consciousness of his mental

superiority," etc., etc.

The writer then eloquently descanted upon the sublime achievement by

which man pierced the bounds that hemmed him in, and with sensations of

awe approached the revelations of his own genius in the far-off heavens,

and with intense dramatic effect described the younger Herschel

surpassing all that his father had ever attained; and by some stupendous

apparatus about to unvail the remotest mysteries of the sidereal space,

pausing for many hours ere the excess of his emotions would allow him to

lift the vail from his own overwhelming success.

I must quote a line or two of this passage, for it capped the climax of

public curiosity:

"Well might he pause! He was about to become the sole depository of

wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that

had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself

with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscious

preeminence above every individual of his species who then lived or

who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused

ere he broke the seal of the casket that contained it."

Was not this introduction enough to stimulate the wonder bump of all the

star-gazers, until

"Each particular hair did stand on end,

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine?"

At all events, such was the effect, and it was impossible at first to

supply the frantic demand, even of the city, not to mention the country


I may very briefly sum up the outline of the discoveries alleged to have

been made, in a few paragraphs, so as not to protract the suspense of my

readers too long.

It was claimed that the "Edinburgh Journal" was indebted for its

information to Doctor Andrew Grant--a savant of celebrity, who had, for

very many years, been the scientific companion, first of the elder and

subsequently of the younger Herschel, and had gone with the latter in

September, 1834, to the Cape of Good Hope, whither he had been sent by

the British Government, acting in conjunction with the Governments of

France and Austria, to observe the transit of Mercury over the disc of

the sun--an astronomical point of great importance to the lunar

observations of longitude, and consequently to the navigation of the

world. This transit was not calculated to occur before the 7th of

November, 1835 (the year in which the hoax was printed;) but Sir John

Herschel set out nearly a year in advance, for the purpose of thoroughly

testing a new and stupendous telescope devised by himself under this

peculiar inspiration, and infinitely surpassing anything of the kind

ever before attempted by mortal man. It has been discovered by previous

astronomers and among others, by Herschel's illustrious father, that the

sidereal object becomes dim in proportion as it is magnified, and that,

beyond a certain limit, the magnifying power is consequently rendered

almost useless. Thus, an impassable barrier seemed to lie in the way of

future close observation, unless some means could be devised to

illuminate the object to the eye. By intense research and the

application of all recent improvements in optics, Sir John had succeeded

in securing a beautiful and perfectly lighted image of the moon with a

magnifying power that increased its apparent size in the heavens six

thousand times. Dividing the distance of the moon from the earth, viz.:

240,000 miles, by six thousand, we we have forty miles as the distance

at which she would then seem to be seen; and as the elder Herschel, with

a magnifying power, only one thousand, had calculated that he could

distinguish an object on the moon's surface not more than 122 yards in

diameter, it was clear that his son, with six times the power, could see

an object there only twenty-two yards in diameter. But, for any further

advance in power and light, the way seemed insuperably closed until a

profound conversation with the great savant and optician, Sir David

Brewster, led Herschel to suggest to the latter the idea of the

readoption of the old fashioned telescopes, without tubes, which threw

their images upon reflectors in a dark apartment, and then the

illumination of these images by the intense hydro-oxygen light used in

the ordinary illuminated microscope. At this suggestion, Brewster is

represented by the veracious chronicler as leaping with enthusiasm from

his chair, exclaiming in rapture to Herschel:

"Thou art the man!"

The suggestion, thus happily approved, was immediately acted upon, and a

subscription, headed by that liberal patron of science, the Duke of

Sussex, with L10,000, was backed by the reigning King of England with

his royal word for any sum that might be needed to make up L70,000, the

amount required. No time was lost; and, after one or two failures, in

January 1833, the house of Hartley & Grant, at Dumbarton, succeeded in

casting the huge object-glass of the new apparatus, measuring

twenty-four feet (or six times that of the elder Herschel's glass) in

diameter; weighing 14,826 pounds, or nearly seven tons, after being

polished, and possessing a magnifying power of 42,000 times!--a

perfectly pure, spotless, achromatic lens, without a material bubble or


Of course, after so elaborate a description of so astounding a result as

this, the "Edinburg Scientific Journal" (i. e., the writer in the "New

York Sun") could not avoid being equally precise in reference to

subsequent details, and he proceeded to explain that Sir John Herschel

and his amazing apparatus having been selected by the Board of Longitude

to observe the transit of Mercury, the Cape of Good Hope was chosen

because, upon the former expedition to Peru, acting in conjunction with

one to Lapland, which was sent out for the same purpose in the

eighteenth century, it had been noticed that the attraction of the

mountainous regions deflected the plumb-line of the large instruments

seven or eight seconds from the perpendicular, and, consequently,

greatly impaired the enterprise. At the Cape, on the contrary, there was

a magnificent table-land of vast expanse, where this difficulty could

not occur. Accordingly, on the 4th of September, 1834, with a design to

become perfectly familiar with the working of his new gigantic

apparatus, and with the Southern Constellations, before the period of

his observations of Mercury, Sir John Herschel sailed from London,

accompanied by Doctor Grant (the supposed informant,) Lieutenant

Drummond, of the Royal Engineers, F.R.A.S., and a large party of the

best English workmen. On their arrival at the Cape, the apparatus was

conveyed, in four days' time, to the great elevated plain, thirty-five

miles to the N.E. of Cape Town, on trains drawn by two relief-teams of

oxen, eighteen to a team, the ascent aided by gangs of Dutch boors. For

the details of the huge fabric in which the lens and its reflectors were

set up, I must refer the curious reader to the pamphlet itself--not that

the presence of the "Dutch boors" alarms me at all, since we have plenty

of boors at home, and one gets used to them in the course of time, but

because the elaborate scientific description of the structure would

make most readers see "stars" in broad daylight before they get through.

I shall only go on to say that, by the 10th of January, everything was

complete, even to the two pillars "one hundred and fifty feet high!"

that sustained the lens. Operations then commenced forthwith, and so,

too, did the "special wonder" of the readers. It is a matter of

congratulation to mankind that the writer of the hoax, with an apology

(Heaven save the mark!) spared us Herschel's notes of "the Moon's

tropical, sidereal, and synodic revolutions," and the "phenomena of the

syzygies," and proceeded at once to the pith of the subject. Here came

in his grand stroke, informing the world of complete success in

obtaining a distinct view of objects in the moon "fully equal to that

which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of

a hundred yards, affirmatively settling the question whether the

satellite be inhabited, and by what order of beings," "firmly

establishing a new theory of cometary phenomena," etc., etc. This

announcement alone was enough to take one's breath away, but when the

green marble shores of the Mare Nubium; the mountains shaped like

pyramids, and of the purest and most dazzling crystalized, wine-colored

amethyst, dotting green valleys skirted by "round-breasted hills;"

summits of the purest vermilion fringed with arching cascades and

buttresses of white marble glistening in the sun--when these began to be

revealed, the delight of our Luna-tics knew no bounds--and the whole

town went moon-mad! But even these immense pictures were surpassed by

the "lunatic" animals discovered. First came the "herds of brown

quadrupeds" very like a--no! not a whale, but a bison, and "with a tail

resembling that of the bos grunniens"--the reader probably understands

what kind of a "bos" that is, if he's apprenticed to a theatre in

midsummer with musicians on a strike; then a creature, which the

hoax-man naively declared "would be classed on earth as a monster"--I

rather think it would!--"of a bluish lead color, about the size of a

goat, with a head and a beard like him, and a single horn, slightly

inclined forward from, the perpendicular"--it is clear that if this goat

was cut down to a single horn, other people were not! I could not but

fully appreciate the exquisite distinction accorded by the writer to the

female of this lunar animal--for she, while deprived of horn and beard,

he explicitly tells us, "had a much larger tail!" When the astronomers

put their fingers on the beard of this "beautiful" little creature (on

the reflector, mind you!) it would skip away in high dudgeon, which,

considering that 240,000 miles intervened, was something to show its

delicacy of feeling.

Next in the procession of discovery, among other animals of less note,

was presented "a quadruped with an amazingly long neck, head like a

sheep, bearing two long spiral horns, white as polished ivory, and

standing in perpendiculars parallel to each other. Its body was like

that of a deer, but its forelegs were most disproportionately long, and

its tail, which was very bushy and of a snowy whiteness, curled high

over its rump and hung two or three feet by its side. Its colors were

bright bay and white, brindled in patches, but of no regular form."

This is probably the animal known to us on earth, and particularly along

the Mississippi River, as the "guyascutus," to which I may particularly

refer in a future article.

But all these beings faded into insignificance compared with the first

sight of the genuine Lunatics, or men in the moon, "four feet high,

covered, except in the face, with short, glossy, copper-colored hair,"

and "with wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly

upon their backs from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their

legs," "with faces of a yellowish flesh-color--a slight improvement on

the large ourang-outang." Complimentary for the Lunatics! But, says the

chronicler, Lieutenant Drummond declared that "but for their long wings,

they would look as well on a parade-ground as some of the cockney

militia!" A little rough, my friend the reader will exclaim, for the

aforesaid militia.

Of course, it is impossible, in a sketch like the present, to do more

than give a glimpse of this rare combination of astronomical realities

and the vagaries of mere fancy, and I must omit the Golden-fringed

Mountains, the Vale of the Triads, with their splendid triangular

temples, etc., but I positively cannot pass by the glowing mention of

the inhabitants of this wonderful valley--a superior race of Lunatics,

as beautiful and as happy as angels, "spread like eagles" on the grass,

eating yellow gourds and red cucumbers, and played with by snow-white

stags, with jet-black horns! The description here is positively

delightful, and I even now remember my poignant sigh of regret when, at

the conclusion, I read that these innocent and happy beings, although

evidently "creatures of order and subordination," and "very polite,"

were seen indulging in amusements which would not be deemed "within the

bounds of strict propriety" on this degenerate ball. The story wound up

rather abruptly by referring the reader to an extended work on the

subject by Herschel, which has not yet appeared.

One can laugh very heartily, now, at all this; but nearly everybody, the

gravest and the wisest, too, was completely taken in at the time: and

the "Sun," then established at the corner of Spruce street, where the

"Tribune" office now stands, reaped an increase of more than fifty

thousand to its circulation--in fact, there gained the foundation of its

subsequent prolonged success. Its proprietors sold no less than $25,000

worth of the "Moon Hoax" over the counter, even exhausting an edition of

sixty thousand in pamphlet form. And who was the author? A literary

gentleman, who has devoted very many years of his life to mathematical

and astronomical studies, and was at the time connected as an editor

with the "Sun"--one whose name has since been widely known in literature

and politics--Richard Adams Locke, Esq., then in his youth, and now in

the decline of years. Mr. Locke, who still survives, is a native of the

British Isles, and, at the time of his first connection with the New

York press, was the only short-hand reporter in this city, where he laid

the basis of a competency he now enjoys. Mr. Locke declares that his

original object in writing the Moon story was to satirize some of the

extravagances of Doctor Dick, and to make some astronomical suggestions

which he felt diffident about offering seriously.

Whatever may have been his object, his hit was unrivaled; and for months

the press of Christendom, but far more in Europe than here, teemed with

it, until Sir John Herschel was actually compelled to come out with a

denial over his own signature. In the meantime, it was printed and

published in many languages, with superb illustrations. Mr. Endicott,

the celebrated lithographer, some years ago had in his possession a

splendid series of engravings, of extra folio size, got up in Italy, in

the highest style of art, and illustrating the "Moon Hoax."

Here, in New York, the public were, for a long time, divided on the

subject, the vast majority believing, and a few grumpy customers

rejecting the story. One day, Mr. Locke was introduced by a mutual

friend at the door of the "Sun" office to a very grave old orthodox

Quaker, who, in the calmest manner, went on to tell him all about the

embarkation of Herschel's apparatus at London, where he had seen it with

his own eyes. Of course, Locke's optics expanded somewhat while he

listened to this remarkable statement, but he wisely kept his own


The discussions of the press were very rich; the "Sun," of course,

defending the affair as genuine, and others doubting it. The "Mercantile

Advertiser," the "Albany Daily Advertiser," the "New York Commercial

Advertiser," the "New York Times," the "New Yorker," the "New York

Spirit of '76," the "Sunday News," the "United States Gazette," the

"Philadelphia Inquirer," and hosts of other papers came out with the

most solemn acceptance and admiration of these "wonderful discoveries,"

and were eclipsed in their approval only by the scientific journals

abroad. The "Evening Post," however, was decidedly skeptical, and took

up the matter in this irreverent way:

"It is quite proper that the "Sun" should be the means of shedding

so much light on the Moon. That there should be winged people in

the moon does not strike us as more wonderful than the existence of

such a race of beings on the earth; and that there does still exist

such a race, rests on the evidence of that most veracious of

voyagers and circumstantial of chroniclers, Peter Wilkins, whose

celebrated work not only gives an account of the general appearance

and habits of a most interesting tribe of flying Indians; but,

also, of all those more delicate and engaging traits which the

author was enabled to discover by reason of the conjugal relations

he entered into with one of the females of the winged tribe."

The moon-hoax had its day, and some of its glory still survives. Mr.

Locke, its author, is now quietly residing in the beautiful little home

of a friend on the Clove Road, Staten Island, and no doubt, as he gazes

up at the evening luminary, often fancies that he sees a broad grin on

the countenance of its only well-authenticated tenant, "the hoary

solitary whom the criminal code of the nursery has banished thither for

collecting fuel on the Sabbath-day."