Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nerd History: The Cardiff Giant

There are few things I enjoy quite as much as a good hoax. My first memory of a hoax that stuck with me was going to one of the many New England theme parks, one of which had a shed with a window to view a red bat. Apparently, the bat was super-rare, etc etc - you look into the shed, and it's a baseball bat suspended via strings.

While I'm not a huge huge proponent of the Barnum-attributed ideal of a sucker being born every minute (in fact, that phrase originates from the exhibition of the Cardiff Giant), a recent blog posting from the American Antiquarian Society (which is located about 15 minutes from my house), reminded me of how gullible the human race can often be. Beyond the jump is the story of one of my favorite hoaxes, the Cardiff Giant...

For whatever reason, in the late 1850s, petrified humans were a bit of a craze. Reports of petrified people were popping up all over the place for reasons I can't exactly figure out. In 1859, in Cardiff, NY, the whole thing became, er, huge. A farmer, purportedly attempting to dig a well, had dug up a 10 foot tall petrified giant. While an early observer was fairly certain it was a hoax from the start, people were taken by its positioning, by the stories they had been hearing, and perhaps even by religious fervor, given the Bible verse that discusses giants.

As with any good hoax, the farmer immediately started charging admission to view the petrified giant, and it quickly became a massive tourist attraction. PT Barnum himself made an attempt to purchase the giant outright, later simply creating his own version. The Giant eventually made its way around to a few fairs, and currently resides in the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

What's fascinating about this hoax in particular is the roots of its creation. The person who conceived of the Giant, George Hull, was an atheist who wanted to essentially poke at the Methodists he associated with who were quoting the Book of Genesis. He spent well over $2500 on the hoax to make it happen - over $42000 in today's dollars. The Giant remained "real" until 1870, when Hull had to declare it a fake in court after a legal battle between the farmer and Barnum.

I always find this sort of thing interesting, since hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant are pretty much the Bigfoot and UFO hoaxes of today for us. You wonder why, after all this time, we still don't know better, but hey - every minute, right?

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