Academic journal article Journalism History

A Series of Fortunate Events: Why People Believed Richard Adams Locke's "Moon Hoax"

Academic journal article Journalism History

A Series of Fortunate Events: Why People Believed Richard Adams Locke's "Moon Hoax"

Article excerpt

In August 1835, the New York Sun published a series that came to define for media historians the sensational nature of penny-press news when Richard Adams Locke's story of the discovery of life on the moon captured national attention. What seems to contemporary readers as an obvious fabrication was accepted at the time as factual because the Moon Hoax was a series based in the contemporary wisdom of the age. Everyone believed intelligent life existed on other planets, and Locke used this wisdom along with some fortunate events-the return of Halley's Comet, astronomist John Herschel's trip to South Africa, and the demise of the Edinburgh Journal of Science-to create a series that initially fooled everyone. It built upon what had appeared in newspapers, almanacs, books, journals, and religious commentary for centuries.

The story is well known, so well known, in fact, that one need only mention its moniker and nearly every media history student in the nation could describe its details. On August 21, 1835, a blurb on the second page of the New York Sun remarked that "some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description" had been uncovered by the English astronomer John Herschel. With that line by writer Richard Adams Locke, the most famous of newspaper hoaxes in American history was born. Before the Sun finished its series on August 31, it revealed that Herschel, with his massive telescope in South Africa, had uncovered "lunar vegetation . . . of great beauty" including a "lunar forest" and a "lunar plain" more than a one-half mile wide. He observed animals, too, one with "an amazingly long neck, head like a sheep, bearing two long spiral horns, white as polished ivory" and others that looked liked "a small kind of rein-deer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear, and the biped beaver." His ultimate discovery, though, was moon creatures who "were like human beings" and "averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on their face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane."1

The Suns revelations, reportedly taken from a supplement of the Edinburgh Journal of Science, would take on a life of their own in the following weeks and come to provide instructors of the history of the press with the perfect story to describe the penny press. It was, as Edgar Allan Poe would later write, "the greatest hit in the way of sensation-of merely popular sensation-ever made by any similar fiction either in America or in Europe."2

The Moon Hoax is recounted in every American media history textbook as well as whenever someone discusses tall tales, hoaxes, or sensationalism and the media,3 and it has been the subject of numerous journal articles.4 But why did so many believe the story? One writer noted "everyone believed it at first, and everyone bought the Sun to read about it." This led the New-York Daily Advertiser to remark, "No article has appeared for years that will command so general a perusal and publication," and it said Herschel had "added a stock of knowledge to the present age that will immortalize his name, and place it high on the page of science."5 Several scholars from Yale University even paid a visit to the Sun's office to obtain a copy of the fictitious Edinburgh Journal of Science article, "Great Astronomical Discoveries," since they could not find the supplement-which the Sun "reprinted"-in the college's library. Though they returned to New Haven empty handed after a day of futile searching, they still concluded in a college debate that Herschel's observations were, indeed, plausible.6 They were not the only scientists who were completely deceived by the Sun's astonishing stories.7 In addition, Philip Hone, New York City's former mayor, its wealthiest citizen, and a benefactor of the mercantile library, called the news in the Sun "enormously wonderful."8

Scholars have recounted the elements of the hoax,9 it ethics,10 its historiography," its sensational nature,12 its use as contemporary satire,13 and its implications for the Sun's circulation and news content. …

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