Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that your friends should know about, but they probably don’t.
I’m your host this week, Jenn, and with me is (introduce each host and their blurb)
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that the difference between being an awesome extreme sports star, or an idiot with a 4 wheeler who had it coming, is sticking the landing.
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that the opposite of formaldehyde is casualdejekyll.
Steve was a man, oh so bold
Who isn’t here today because of the cold
Or maybe his back, he’s all out of whack
Either way he is just so damn old.
M-O-O-N, that spells ‘hoax’. (This is actually a Steve joke, but I love it so much I’m using it. Thanks, Steve and Stephen King.) This week I am bringing you the story of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Before Orson Welles freaked the hell out of his listening radio audience with his take on the H. G Wells classic War of the Worlds, a different media medium sent its followers into a tailspin from a fantastical story.
It’s something I first read about in the 1981 edition of Reader’s Digest Strange Stories, Amazing Facts that my dad’s mom left me when she passed away (along with the entire series of the Time-Life crazy paranormal books and all kinds of kooky stuff. It was great until I think my mom got rid of the books bc she thought they were devil-y.)
So yes, The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 began on the 25th of August in (surprisingly) 1835. Side note: August 25th is also the always delightful Big Gay Jim’s birthday (as well as my dad’s and Sean Connery’s. It’s quite the date.). It was on this day that New York magazine The Sun published the first of 6 articles by astronomer Dr. Andrew Grant, a self-stated associate of actual-for-real-honest-to-goodness-famous astronomer Sir John Herschel.
Alright, before I get into the articles themselves, here’s a little backstory on some of the players. First off, the Sun newspaper: it was founded in 1833 and was considered a ‘penny press’, an inexpensive and popular style of journalism with the working-class folk. Lots of illustrations and stories aimed at sensationalism, lots of true crime, and the like, often told in a narrative style. As the name suggests, it cost a penny which would be 26 cents in 2018. To break it down, it was cheap and titillating and exactly what the masses tend to crave and would definitely now be called a tabloid. It is perhaps today best known as the paper that printed the editorial that became ‘Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus’ and the film ‘A Miracle on 34th St.’ It ceased publication in 1950 when it merged with another paper.
Next big player, Sir John Herschel, the astronomer whose name gave the articles what gravitas they had. He was known for all kinds of awesome science-y shit such as: chemistry, experimental photography, botany, and mathematics. He invented the blueprint, named 7 moons of Saturn and 4 moons of Uranus, investigated colorblindness, and studied the chemical power of ultraviolet rays. But his main claim to fame was his work in astronomy. In fact, just the year before (January of 1834) he had traveled to Capetown, South Africa to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope and study the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. It was this event that led to the articles, but I’ll get there in just a minute.
Now, unlike today when we are living in the time of some of the greatest scientific advances in human history, carry computers in our pockets more powerful than what sent man into space and still have climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, and flat earthers, the people of the early 19th century generally were impressed by science. As literacy among the general populations throughout Western society grew, so did the interest in scientific explorations and discoveries. Journals and reports of expeditions and advancements were very popular, which is all great. Unfortunately, much like today, there was the problem of…FAKE NEWS… And they did not have Google or Snopes or Bill Nye, and encyclopedias had only been gaining traction in English speaking countries in the last 50 years or so.
Back to August 25, 1835, now that we have a little more context: The 6-part story was written as a first-person narrative of the astronomer assisting Sir Herschel, Dr. Andrew Grant, with contributions and credits due to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. (Spoiler alert: there was no Dr. Andrew Grant and the EJS had been out of production for years by this point. Seeing as how the title of this story is The Great Moon Hoax, hopefully, that does not come as too big of a shock.)
The opening paragraph truly sets the tone, so here goes:
“In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.”
First off, so tabloids were obviously of a higher reading level than those of more modern times. Secondly, it’s pretty light-hearted for something that could potentially turn many religious faiths on their head. Finally, it’s honestly the goddamned worst at burying the lede. It literally takes PAGES of telescope explanations, Sir Herschel and his father’s achievements, how Newtonian physics affects planets… OH MY GOD SHUT UP AND GIVE ME MOON PEOPLE! Sentences like
“Sir John Herschel then conceived the stupendous fabric of his present telescope. The power of his father’s instrument would still leave his distant from his favorite planet nearly forty miles, and he resolved to attempt a greater magnifier. Money, the wings of science as the sinews of war, seemed the only requisite, and even the acquisition of this, which is often more difficult than the task of Sisyphus, he determined to achieve.” really dampen the excitement buildup.
So, I will NOT commit that same sin and get to the good stuff, what the heck did they see with their big ass telescope? Well, for starters the flora of the moon sounds like OZ. They first spy a “basaltic shelf” …
“profusely covered with a dark red flower, “precisely similar,” says Dr. Grant, “to the Papaver Rhoeas, or rose-poppy of our sublunary cornfields; and this was the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.”
They see mountains, woodlands, lakes and coves and inland seas (which seems like an oxymoron?) and eventually are able to focus on their “discovery of animated beings”.
There are less interesting things like water birds (hunting for “lunar fish”), sheep, mini-zebras, bison-like cow things (which surely the folk of the 19th century couldn’t wait to get to slaughter till nearly extinct.). YAAAWN… But wait! There’re also unicorns! Some of which are BLUE (only the males had horns bc that scope was so impressive it could sex the animals). He named this area the Valley of the Unicorn, and at this point I would have been bought and sold and ready for a moon trip.
Also, horned bears and giant, bipedal, tailless beavers that appear to be sentient. With some cavalier superiority and casual racism,
“It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire.”
We have moved from OZ to Narnia and I now need a beaver-only Quest For Fire made IMMEDIATELY.
Finally, the greatest of the discoveries: Man-Bats. (Or more technically People-Bats as whoever did the illustrations for the paper was very happy to draw bats boobies on far more than half of the bat folk. Seriously, the gender ratio is like that of Ponyville.) From the original article:
“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 their 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 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…
“Whilst passing across the canvas, and whenever we afterwards saw them, these creatures were evidently engaged in conversation; their gesticulation, more particularly the varied action of their hands and arms, appeared impassioned and emphatic. We hence inferred that they were rational beings, and although not perhaps of so high an order as others which we discovered the next month on the shores of the Bay of Rainbows, they were capable of producing works of art and contrivance. The next view we obtained of them was still more favorable. It was on the borders of a little lake, or expanded stream, which we then for the first time perceived running down the valley to a large lake, and having on its eastern margin a small wood.
“Some of these creatures had crossed this water and were lying like spread eagles on the skirts of the wood. We could then perceive that they possessed wings of great expansion, and were similar in structure to this of the bat, being a semi-transparent membrane… But what astonished us very much was the circumstance of this membrane being continued, from the shoulders to the legs, united all the way down, though gradually decreasing in width. The wings seemed completely under the command of volition, for those of the creatures whom we saw bathing in the water, spread them instantly to their full width, waved them as ducks do their to shake off the water, and then as instantly closed them again in a compact form. … We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”
Translation, the man-bats were getting it on by the lake.
Now, I want to point out that all of this is covered in the FIRST article. But I think it covers the highlights. So this and the follow-ups caused the Sun to sell out copies almost immediately and created the need for larger print runs and more editions. From History.com:
“Contemporary accounts suggest most people believed it, at least at first. At Yale, for instance, faculty and students eagerly awaited the next installment. Other papers shamelessly copied the story. Meanwhile, ardent missionaries tried to figure out how to get Bibles to the lunar man-bats.” (We can’t get too smug about it, we have people he think Newtown didn’t happen.)
One of my favorite parts is that a group of Yale scientists traveled to New York to get ahold of the ‘supporting’ Edinburgh Journals. The Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, and the scientists returned to Connecticut without realizing they had been tricked.
It didn’t take very long before skeptics had to ruin the fun. But honestly, even people just casually interested in science could spot some serious flaws. It took a few months, but the Sun (sorta/kinda) admitted it was fake. To this day, no one has taken credit for writing it but it’s generally accepted that the-then editor-in-chief, Richard Adams Locke, was the author. He vehemently denied it while still making it still sound very likely he was the culprit. He was a REALLY good tabloid guy.
Finally, a funny additional note: most literary historians chalk the stories up to a satirical take on the (at the time) very popular theory of a plurality of worlds. People such as church minister-scientist Thomas Dick (hee hee) were big advocates because they were early Ken Hamms. Anyhow, the basic premise of the theory is that there were trillions of inhabitants of the universe, with 4 billion alone on the Moon, all created by the Christian god. Unfortunately, Locke was so good at his satire (or bad?) that it failed and, for at least a little, while English-speakers throughout the world were excited to think of blue unicorns and Man-Bats made by Jesus in the sky.
Enter anything unique to this week’s show here.
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This week’s patreon story … is a hoax.
Thank you, good night.
But really, I was going to do the story of how Finland isn’t real until I checked my unplayed podcasts. Thanks, Citation Needed.
So I started looking for other crypto-geos.
Turns out Wyoming isn’t real. We’re a deep-state fake. That’s true.
Also, Australia isn’t real.
We know this because in 2006 the Flat Earth Society discovered that under the Earth there be monsters… and not just drop bears. Then in 2017, a Reddit user explained that a zanny land of poisonous everything and giant hoppy, boxing, mice is clearly made up. According to Floryd, who lives in Stockholm – a real place – Australia was invented by Britain as the magical place they sent all those criminals they actually murdelated. Floryd has 20,000 followers. They fervently believe that the entire island was fabricated to hide the execution of 162,000 prisoners. A con continued to this day through the employment of fake airline pilots, and zainy actors with obviously fake, cartoonish accents.
Others in the Flat Earth movement have since become woke to the anti-Auzie truth, user Rogherio wrote:
“Australia does exist just not where you were taught it was by Round Earth science.”
The Dragon Reborn said:
“Who could ever believe Australia exists? Anyone who cares to look would realise it’s all propaganda. Thankfully, Masterchief was quick enough to notice it. I can only pray there are others that have realised this truth.”
“I thought that would have been obvious. The fact that the government puts so much effort into covering it up is just more proof that the Australia Conspiracy is much bigger than the Flat Earth Conspiracy.”
So there you have it, all the world’s governments conspired to make up another world government so that some old-Zeelander’s AI could name their musical operatives after seagulls. That’s right Shelley, we’re on to you and your not… being… real… hmm.
I’m Jenn, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
We’d like to extend a special thanks to our newest patrons, Jeff, Lord Caitiff, and welcome back Freethinker—you thought we weren’t gonna thank you, but we did ha!
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The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms. All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.
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