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Hoaxing the Hucksters, the Strange Story of the Cardiff Giant

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

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A Giant Lie

There are frauds and there are hoaxes. And then, there’s the Cardiff Giant. In 1869, the purported petrified body of a gigantic humanoid was discovered in an upstate New York farm near Cardiff. It possessed a smooth, well formed body and a crudely chiseled face. In other words, it looked like a statue made by an amateur.

These details, however, were ignored by many including several professional scientists, politicians, and religious leaders. People from Northeastern United States flocked to the farm to pay and see this unearthed spectacle. Those who came -- including the important dignitaries --proclaimed that the Cardiff Giant was definitive evidence for the existence of a biblical race of giants.

Eventually – and ironically – the circus this spectacle created would die down when a famous showman of the time exposed the hoax. But, the story of the Cardiff Giant wouldn’t end there. The famous showman – P.T. Barnum – had other plans to let this show continue in a new format of his making. He schemed a way to hoax the hucksters and the public in order create his own Cardiff Giant extravaganza.

The story of the Cardiff Giant Hoax is not just about how a few men conned the public; it’s also about the gullibility of a public that wanted to believe that giants once roamed the Earth. This hoax didn’t discriminate; the rich, poor, educated and non-educated members of society were collectively fooled into believing a stone statue unearthed from a farm was indeed the petrified remains of the real thing.

When Giants were the Rage

The Cardiff Giant is sometimes called "America's Biggest Hoax". However, when it was "discovered" it caused a sensation. To understand how an obvious fake become such a spectacle, one has to look at the era that the Cardiff Giant story came from.

In late 1800s, giants were all the rage. The expansion of the country westward opened up new land and mysteries. And, on some of these lands there were curious, man-made mounds. Some of these mounds were designed in animal or human patterns (such as the Mound Man of Southern Wisconsin); others resembled pyramids.

Some of these mounds were excavated. Spurious claims of giant red-headed skeletons being found in some of these mounds were reported. Most, if not all, of these claims were never verified; they were explained away as a natural phenomenon or exposed as bogus claims.

[Hull's] practical joke was not cheap by any stretch. It cost Hull $2,600, which was a lot of money back then (if this was done today, it would probably come to be around $20,000)

Contrary to the sketchy evidence, the presence of giant skeletons made many religious leaders take notice. In particular, fundamentalist Christians who were claiming that Genesis 6:4 in the Old Testament of the Bible was being validated by these discoveries.

According to Hebrew tradition, the giants, known as nephilim, were supposedly the offspring of the "sons of God" and "daughters of men" before the Deluge (Great Flood) .

The mid to late 1800s had many things happen that would lead to people buying into these notions of giants. The century saw:

  • The proliferation in the belief of the paranormal such as seances, psychic power, and fairies;
  • Religious revivals, which included the founding of Mormonism and 7th Day Adventists;
  • Yellow journalism;
  • The sale of unregulated “miracle cures” and potions (i.e. snake oil).

In many respects it was a time for deception and hoaxes to flourish. And, there was always somebody to take advantage of it for their own wealth.

A Giant is Born

George Hull, a cigar manufacturer and self-proclaimed atheist, took notice of the giant craze. In addition, he was aware of Old Testament’s description of them.

According to the writers at RoadsideAmerica.com, Mr. Hull had a heated argument with a minister about the biblical passage. He wondered if the minister and others like him could be convinced that a buried statue was actually the petrified body of a giant. Whether out of frustration, revenge or pure curiosity, Hull devised a plan.

In 1868 at Fort Dodge, Iowa, he had some men secretly carve a block of gypsum into a ten feet long statue. He told the unsuspecting men that it was supposed to be for a monument in New York to honor Abraham Lincoln.

The Star Attraction of the late 1800s.

The Star Attraction of the late 1800s.

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After its completion, he had the statue buried on the land owned by William Newell (a distant cousin and co-conspirator) in Cardiff, New York.

This practical joke was not cheap by any stretch. It cost Hull $2,600, which was a lot of money back then (in today's money that would be $20,000). But, Hull – the business man – had a plan; he figured that he’d be able to make money off it.

The “Discovery”

Workers supposedly hired to dig a well on the farm discovered the giant in 1869. At first, many deemed the discovery as a hoax. However, Hull’s target audience, the fundamentalists, disregarded the skeptics and defended it as divine evidence of the existence of biblical giants such as Goliath.

As news spread, people from the neighboring city of Syracuse came out to see it. Andrew Dickens White - author, educator, diplomat and co-founder of Cornell University - lived nearby and came to observe the commotion it was causing. He described it as a carnival in which the main display was in a tent where spectators had to pay 50 cents to get in. Also, he observed the giant as a carved sculpture that lacked any artistic merit. In other words, he saw it as a laughable fake.

For the most part, the Cardiff Giant made a lot of money. In fact, according to The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s, Robert Carroll, Newell sold three-fourths of his interest to a syndicate in Syracuse for $30,000.

P.T. Barnum sees Suckers and Dollars

With that type of money in transaction, it came to no surprise that the greatest showman (and huckster) of his era, P.T. Barnum, wanted a little piece of this lucrative action.

At first, Barnum tried to strike deal with the fellow hucksters. He offered to feature it in his travelling circus. That alone would've brought a lot of money for them.

However, Newell, Hull and the Syracuse syndicate declined the offer. It's possible they believed they could be lucrative without the help of the man dubbed the "greatest showman on Earth"

Instead of admitting defeat, Barnum came up with a novel plan. If he couldn't include the Cardiff Giant in his show, he'd find is own. In his case he made his own. Essentially, forged a fake Cardiff Giant to compete against the "original" fake giant.

Originally posted at millersportupdate.com

Originally posted at millersportupdate.com

Barnum’s action proved to be the original Cardiff Giant Hoax’s undoing. It was reported that the two giants went on a tour, and, eventually, were placed on display in New York City at the same time.

According to many reports, Barnum’s fake outdrew the original giant. Also, it was about this time that the "original" giant was finally revealed to be a fraud.

The creators of the original Cardiff Giant would eventually fade into history. On the other hand, Barnum's version would flourish for a while.

Cardiff Giants are Not Forgotten

Eventually, both giants were immediately revealed as fakes by one of the scientists who came to observe it. However this didn't stop them from becoming legends. It also helped to heighten P.T. Barnum's reputation as America's greatest entertainment promoter, despite not being the originator of the hoax.

In the beginning, it endured because many people of the time truly wanted to believe it was real. Hull -- and eventually Barnum -- realized this and prospered because of it. The event that surrounded it can be viewed as absurd.Even the mere physical image of the giant would not have fooled today's public. However, legends like this one don't die easily.

Today, the Cardiff Giant is still on display in Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It is not touted as being genuine, but as a relic from a bygone era when the public wanted to believe in giants.

Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer's Museum in Coopesrtown, NY.  Originally posted at myweb.usf.edu

Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer's Museum in Coopesrtown, NY. Originally posted at myweb.usf.edu

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Dean Traylor

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