Episode 9: Stubs The Soapy Giant

Jun 26, 2020

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Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast where I make at least two men shut up and let me tell them a story.

I’m your host this week, Jenn, and with me are (introduce each host and their blurb)

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that barn owls were super excited when humans finally invented barns.

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that most of us are constantly surrounded by ancient giants… but no one cares because trees are boring.

A Most Decided Humbug

It’s time for another installment in WEIRD HISTORY…EEE…EEE…eee…

Setting: Random farmstead in late 1860’s upper New York state. Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols are laborers, digging a well for the farm owner, William ‘Stub’ Newell. It’s October, 1869, and the workers are a bit confused about the well digging, because they actually had dug Stub a well a few years before that was still working as a well should, with water and stuff.

Stub directs the men to dig a fair piece away from the farm, near a tree, which makes digging a bit more difficult. Stub was not to be naysayed (“if there’re roots there, there’s water there”)and the men get work, with the invitation to ‘help themselves to some water from the other well’ if they wished.

It didn’t take very long before they hit a snag, and it wasn’t a root. About 3 feet down they uncover a huge stone foot, attached to a very big stone man. “I declare,” one of the men supposedly said.

“Some old Indian has been buried here!”

In fact it was a 10ft tall giant, made of stone, lying in a weirdly contorted manner, but with a serene expression on his big ole face.

Despite looking like a first-timer’s practice sculpture, people were very bored in those days and word traveled quickly. After it was fully excavated people began to flock to the farm for a view. From history.com, the Syracuse Journal later wrote:

“Men left their work, women caught up their babies, and children in numbers, all hurried to the scene where the interest of that little community centered.”

Since Cardiff was already known for its fossil deposits, many surmised that the body was an ancient man that had been petrified by the waters of a nearby swamp. While early examinations appeared to confirm this theory, a Syracuse-based science lecturer later declared the giant was not a man, but rather a statue possibly carved by French Jesuits centuries earlier. As the speculation mounted, Stub Newell played the part of the humble farmer with aplomb. He even vowed to re-bury the giant and forget about it until his neighbors “convinced” him that the discovery might have some historical value.”

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Yes, Stub made a spectacle of being reticent about housing the giant, but he pretty quickly had a big tent set up over the hole and began charging $0.25 per view.

In addition to thinking he may be a fossilized person, Biblical literalists were thrilled with the idea of real giants, proving that the verse in Genesis that references giants is real and true and good. (The verse that states “there were giants in the earth in those days.”)

With the numbers of thrill-seekers growing and the price per head ballooning to $0.50, it didn’t take very long before entertainment folks started sniffing around. Stub decided to sell his stake in the giant for $23,000 to a group headed by David Hannum, who then moved the big guy to Syracuse, NY.

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Of course, who could have a 19th century freaky discovery without alerting the big top showman himself, PT Barnum. Smelling the potential for profit, Barnum offered the Syracuse group $50,000 (a stupidly huge amount of money at the time), that was surprisingly turned down. Of course, knowing PT, he packed up his bag, said ‘thanks, anyway!’ and went home.

Ha! Whatever!

Barnum instead pulls a switcheroo, creates his own goofy and poorly sculpted stone giant, which he begins to to market in NYC as the ‘orignal Cardiff giant’. Hannum decides to sue, Barnum laughs really loudly all the way to the bank. (In fact, he laughed all the way through history: Hannum, in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s version of the giant, was quoted in one newspaper as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”. But who is that quote always attributed to…?)

Taking a quick step back from the showmen making their money off gullible people and no one understanding how fossils work, let’s go back to 1867 and introduce George Hull, a man that really can’t let an argument go. Like at all. It was this year that the contrarian tobacconist got involved in a heated argument with a Methodist revivalist preacher. Hull, an avowed atheist, was really not dealing well with having a long talk with a biblical literalist and left the conversation ready to make a monkey out of them all.

Hull travels to Iowa and begins his plan. From legendsofhistory.com “He purchased an acre of land along Gypsum Creek. Then he hired men in Fort Dodge to carve out a 12 foot long, by 4 foot wide, block of gypsum that was 2 feet thick. Telling the local men it was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln, he then had the block shipped to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to secretly carve it into the likeness of a man.

The giant had details like nails, nostrils and an Adam’s apple, clearly visible ribs, and even a hint of muscle definition. Its left leg was twisted over the right and its hand seemed to be holding its stomach in pain, though the facial expression was serene. Later, visitors would remark upon its “benevolent smile,”. The giant originally had hair and a beard, but were removed when Hull learned that hair would not petrify. Workers applied sulfuric acid and other liquids that left it with a dark, dingy, aged hue.

After they were finished, Hull then secretly shipped the carved block to Cardiff, New York, where it was put into a pit and buried on land owned by his cousin William ‘Stub’ Newell. Hull’s total cost in setting his plan in motion was $2,600, which would equate to over $42,000 in 2016.”

About a year later, Stub sets the second part of the plan into motion by digging a second well. And here we are.

Hannum has decided to sue Barnum for disparaging his big, weird stone lump but when taken to court the judge had no time for these shenanigans.

From history.com:

“The judge hearing the case just said “Bring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrification, you shall have the injunction you ask for.” In other words: You can’t really have a fake of a fake.”

It turns out nothing really ever worked out well for poor Hannum. By the time the lawsuit was at the point of ‘you show me your giant, I’ll show you mine’, it was pretty much understood that the Cardill giant was a big ole fakey fake.

To finish it up, from livescience.com: “Paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh declared that it was a fake and on February 2, 1870, the Chicago Tribute published an exposé that included confessions from the masons who had worked on the giant. Hull walked away from the encounter with between $15,000 and $20,000, a small fortune at the time. Today, the Cardiff Giant can be seen at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.”

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The Solid Muldoon and more Giants

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While the Cardiff Giant will remain one of the nations greatest hoaxes of all time, it was not the only giant found in the US. Almost ten years after the Cardiff giant was unearthed a similarly large body was found at a spot now known as Muldoon Hill, near Beulah, Colorado (southern CO). The Solid Muldoon was a supposedly prehistoric “petrified human body” unearthed in 1877.

The Solid Muldoon is approximately seven feet, six inches tall, and lies on his back, with one arm crossed over his chest and his other hand resting upon his leg. His appearance was described by one contemporary account as “Asiatic … a cross between an ancient Egyptian and an American Indian”. Aside from his height, the figure has several other unusual characteristics; each arm is nearly fifty inches long, and his feet are long, flat and slim. The end of the backbone protrudes outwards some two or three inches in the manner of a tail, which was seen as “strongly suggestive of the truth of the Darwinian theory”

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It was “discovered” by William Conant, who reportedly visited the area often to hunt for fossils. He claimed that while eating his lunch, he had spotted an unusual stone that resembled a human foot, and upon digging away at the surrounding earth, discovered a seven-foot human form lying beneath the ground. The entire figure, according to Conant, was embedded in hard clay which required the use of a pick-axe to remove, and entangled in the roots of a cedar tree. He eventually unearthed it, however, and took it to Pueblo, where it was placed on display. Closer examination quickly dispelled the notion that the Solid Muldoon was a “petrified man”; instead, it was taken to be an ancient work of art, sculpted by an unknown primitive race. The Denver Daily Times dismissed the possibility of a hoax, asserting that “there can be no question about the genuineness of this piece of statuary”.

Following the successful Colorado exhibition, the Solid Muldoon went on the road, attracting crowds all the way to New York City. The well-known showman P.T. Barnum was rumored to have offered $20,000 for the body. The hoax was eventually revealed to the New York Times as a man-made figure of modern origin. With the gig being up it was later discovered that the Solid Muldoon was a creation by George Hull in 1877, seven years after his infamous Cardiff Giant hoax. It was made of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. It was kiln-fired for several days and buried near Mace’s Hole in Beulah, Colorado, only to be discovered by Conant later. After the hoax was revealed Muldoon faded from public view.

Also in Colorado, con man Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith buried and found “McGinty” in Willow Creek and then charged $1 to look at him on display at his saloon, the Orleans Club, in Creede. When a scientist came to authenticate the giant, it had conveniently disappeared. Soapy soon followed suit.

To get a leg up on his competition, Cataract House, the owner of Lake Cayuga, New York’s Taughannock House hired a foundry worker in 1877 to blend together a petrified man and then planted it for workers widening the hotel’s road to find. His prank proved to be a wonderful promotion—drawing huge crowds—until someone who helped bury the fake drunkenly let the truth slip at a bar and the iron filings used in the creature’s mix began rusting.

Outro

I’m Jenn, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

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Music for this episode, Retro, was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

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