The Great Moon Hoax
In the summer of 1835, excitement gripped America as a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. In a series of six articles, beginning on August 25th, the newspaper described how Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of the Moon’s surface. What he saw astonished him, and upended all human knowledge to date.
The astronomer’s accomplishments were truly stunning. “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Sir John Herschel had discovered planets in other solar system, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“. All of that was just a tip of the iceberg: Herschel had discovered life on the Moon.
According to The Sun, Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon was teeming with life. From his observatory in the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. A variety of animals roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffalos, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures with bat wings who built houses and temples.
As detailed by The Sun in a 17,000 word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science, Herschel had travelled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First, were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and a string of pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came blue goats, that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment.
The biggest shocker came in the fourth installment, which announced the discovery of hominids, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings. “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when the mounting excitement grew into a fever pitch.
It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility: the articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. But they ended up being taken as gospel truth. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass, which started a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the astronomical discoveries attributed to him, nor had he made any such lunar observations.