Bat-men and New York, 1835 July 31, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Beachcombing alluded in a recent post to the danger of misinformation in a world that had less instantaneous communications than our own.
After all, if Beachcombing flies from London to Washington DC today and asserts, on arrival, that the French island of Corsica has sunk beneath the waves a quick telephone call or even an email will show that this is not the case.
But, if he had done the same thing in 1900 it would have taken the best part of a day to undo the lie with telegraphs and cables.
Then, if he had begun to rave about Corsica going under in 1800 it would have taken weeks to put things straight, as, to be absolutely sure, someone would have had to travel to one of the European capitals and then come back: a transatlantic cable was only laid (and badly) in 1858.
This information gap gave unusual latitude to hoaxers who, in the early nineteenth century, had a couple of months to convince one side of the world of some nonsense about the other half of the world before being found out.
Enter the New York Sun rubbing its hands.
In 1835 the Sun was a fledgling New York daily trying to make a name for itself in the cut throat newspaper trade in the city. And to make a name for itself it did what modern tabloids do on a regular basis: it invented a story. However, it did so with a barefaced verve and originality that is difficult to parallel in the history of journalism.
August 25 the Sun began a series of articles on the Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D., F.R.S. etc at the Cape of Good Hope. These articles had, in fact, been published in the Edinburgh Journal of Science a copy of which had been passed on to the Sun by a ‘medical gentleman’ just returned from Scotland.
Now everything in the previous paragraph is false save the fact that the eminent astronomer John Herschel really was based in South Africa in 1835.
Yet true or false the articles, written by Sir John’s non-existent assistant, Dr Grant, explained how thanks to recent progress in optics, Sir John and his party were able not only to look at the moon, but also to examine its surface in great detail. So much so that they could see the creatures there…
In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. Its tail is like that of our bos grunniens; but in its semi-circular horns, the hump on its shoulders, and the depth of its dewlap, and the length of its shaggy hair, it closely resembled the species to which I first compared it. It had, however, one widely distinctive feature, which we afterwards found common to nearly every lunar quadruped we have discovered; namely, a remarkable fleshy appendage over the eyes, crossing the whole breadth of the forehead and united to the ears. We could most distinctly perceive this hairy veil, which was shaped like the upper front outline of a cap known to the ladies as Mary Queen of Scots’ cap, lifted and lowered by means of the ears. It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Dr. Herschel, that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.
This is convincingly written and the Sun immediately sold out. Then, in the next instalment, its readers were to learn about the man-bat, what passed for ‘human interest’ in this farrago.
But whilst gazing upon [certain crags] in a perspective of about half a mile, we were thrilled with astonishment to perceive four successive flocks of large winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds, descend with a slow, even motion from the cliffs on the western side, and alight upon the plain. They were first noticed by Dr. Herschel, who exclaimed, ‘Now, gentlemen, my theories against your proofs, which you have often found a pretty even bet, we have here something worth looking at. I was confident that if ever we found beings in human shape, it would be in this longitude, and that they would be provided by their Creator with some extraordinary powers of locomotion. First, exchange for my number D.’ This lens being soon introduced, gave us a fine half-mile distance, and we counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine, and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood near the base of the eastern precipices. Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified. Having observed them at this distance for some minutes, we introduced lens H, which brought them to the apparent proximity of eighty yards, the highest clear magnitude we possessed until the latter end of March, when we effected an improvement in the gas- burners. About half of the first party had passed beyond our canvas [where the astronomers saw the images projected]; but of all the others we had a perfectly distinct and deliberate view. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of the shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh-color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang-outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw, and by lips far more human than those of any species of the simia genus. In general symmetry of body and limbs they were infinitely superior to the orang-outang; so much so, that, but for their long wings, Lieut. Drummond said they would look as well on a parade ground as some of the old cockney militia! The hair on the head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled, but apparently not woolly, and arranged in two curious semicircles over the temples of the forehead. Their feet could only be seen as they were alternately lifted in walking; but, from what we could see of them in so transient a view, they appeared thin, and very protuberant at the heel.
Grant continues with a description of the animals’ wings and then seems to allude to their sexual practices insisting that certain of their actions be excised from the account: there are also religious, social and artistic details. Later in the series, ‘a superior species’ of the man bat is discovered, probably best read as a nod to nineteenth-century race theory.
Now what is most extraordinary about this description is not that it was written but that it was so generally believed in New York in the late summer of 1835. The Sun’s circulation rose from under ten thousand to over twenty thousand and tens of thousands of pamphlets were printed and sold before the story came undone in the autumn. Then, of course, the Sun’s circulation remained high: for as Rupert Murdoch noted after the Hitler Diaries, which his papers had printed, were proved a fake, in journalism entertainment matters more than truth. (‘After all, we are in the entertainment business’.)
The self-confessed author Richard Locke, was later to claim that his descriptions of the moon were not a hoax, but a satire and many modern academics are foolish enough to believe him: academic journals jump at the chance to publish anything about satire, whereas they are rather sniffy about vulgar hoaxes (unless, of course, backed up by Foucalt or Bakhtin or one of the other ‘greats’).
Beachcombing – grumpy old sod – doesn’t believe a word of it. Locke – who as these passages suggest was a brilliant writer, half Swift, half Wells – may have claimed in 1840 that his aim had been satire. But a quick read of the documents in question suggest rather someone who was luxuriating in an early work of science fiction and who let the moral consequences go hang.
Beachcombing’s favourite anecdote about the moon hoax – and there are many to choose from – is Sir John Herschel’s shocked expression when given a copy of the Sun’s reports by an American wit Caleb Weeks, in his hotel in South Africa. As the renowned British astronomer put it: ‘This is a most extraordinary affair!’
He would be deluged for the next years with letters in Spanish, German, French, Italian and English concerning the man bats.
Beachcombing has been disappointed at how few illustrations of the moon hoax he has found on line. If anyone can point to or scan him any others (including from later editions) he would be most grateful. drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom
Note a book that deals, among other things, with the moon hoax is Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: the Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in nineteenth-century New York (New York 2008)