'The Great Moon Hoax' Is published in the 'New York Sun'

'The Great Moon Hoax' Is published in the 'New York Sun'


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On August 25, 1835, the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appears in the New York Sun newspaper.

Known collectively as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The byline was Dr. Andrew Grant, described as a colleague of Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer of the day. Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope. As Grant described it, Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid description of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.

The New York Sun, founded in 1833, was one of the new “penny press” papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price and a more narrative style of journalism. From the day the first moon hoax article was released, sales of the paper shot up considerably. It was exciting stuff, and readers lapped it up. The only problem was that none of it was true. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Intended as satire, they were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.

Readers were completely taken in by the story, however, and failed to recognize it as satire. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.

On September 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles had been a hoax. People were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer. The Sun continued operation until 1950, when it merged with the New York World-Telegram. The merger folded in 1967. A new New York Sun newspaper was founded in 2002, but it had no relation to the original.


“The Great Moon Hoax” is published in the “New York Sun”

On August 25, 1835, the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appears in the New York Sun newspaper.

Known collectively as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The byline was Dr. Andrew Grant, described as a colleague of Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer of the day. Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope. As Grant described it, Herschel had found evidence of life forms on the moon, including such fantastic animals as unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. The articles also offered vivid description of the moon’s geography, complete with massive craters, enormous amethyst crystals, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.

The New York Sun, founded in 1833, was one of the new “penny press” papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price and a more narrative style of journalism. From the day the first moon hoax article was released, sales of the paper shot up considerably. It was exciting stuff, and readers lapped it up. The only problem was that none of it was true. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Intended as satire, they were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.

Readers were completely taken in by the story, however, and failed to recognize it as satire. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.

On September 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles had been a hoax. People were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer. The Sun continued operation until 1950, when it merged with the New York World-Telegram. The merger folded in 1967. A new New York Sun newspaper was founded in 2002, but it had no relation to the original.


The Great Moon Hoax and the Christian Philosopher

180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. Why were people convinced, was it a hoax, and why was it written? Rebekah Higgitt looks at a satire that went wrong

Holy lunarians, bat-men! An illustration produced for a later edition of the New York Sun’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries”. Illustration: Wikimedia

Holy lunarians, bat-men! An illustration produced for a later edition of the New York Sun’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries”. Illustration: Wikimedia

Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 12.29 GMT

The Great Moon Hoax, as it has become known, was published in the New York Sun over several days in the summer of 1835. It claimed to describe what the astronomer John Herschel had seen through his telescope from the Cape of Good Hope. It was read and, apparently, believed by tens of thousands of people across the US and Europe.

The New York Sun was a penny newspaper with a circulation of 15,000, and rising. It usually carried local news and human-interest stories alongside fiction, poems and humour. A piece that announced “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, LL.D. F.R.S. &c. At the Cape of Good Hope [From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]” was uncommon but clearly intriguing.

It began by admitting that this was “an unusual addition to our journal” but promised it was worth reading, for there had been

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.

The first article gave little more away, simply describing Herschel’s telescope. Over the following days, however, the articles included increasingly lavish descriptions of planets, the lunar landscape, “several new specimens of animals” and, ultimately, in the last paragraph of the 6th and final part, the bat-like “Vespertilio-homo”, which appeared “scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters.”

You can read the lot online here. Two things stand out. The first is the sheer length and density of the ornate prose. Second is the fact that there is a good deal of plausible detail.

Those who knew something of scientific matters would be aware that not only was there a Sir John Herschel FRS but also that he was then at the Cape of Good Hope, observing with a large telescope. There was an Edinburgh Journal of Science too, although it had recently folded. Names of real instrument makers, opticians and astronomers were dropped, the optics of the telescope were described with convincing technical language, and what could be more likely than that the inventor consulted the Board of Longitude? (Except that it, too, had shut down.)

There has been much discussion (e.g. here, here, here and here) about the purposes of this elaborate fiction. It has been seen as prefiguring newspaper circulation wars, as demonstrating the gullibility of the public, as early science fiction (along with Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote not dissimilar newspaper pieces), and as a critique of popular science writing.

What seems certain is that many did, at least initially, believe these were genuine observations. Harriet Martineau, who was then in America, mentioned the “sensation” surrounding the story, adding “it was some time before many persons, except professors of natural philosophy, thought of doubting its truth”.

The Sun itself did nothing to disabuse them, which seems strange if the story was intended as a hoax. The point a hoax is usually to convince and then confess, revealing the foolishness of readers and the skill of the hoaxer. Yet when the writer was outed by a rival newspaper, he repeatedly denied authorship.

All becomes clear when we learn that the story was intended as satire rather than hoax. Richard Adams Locke, an apparently well-educated recent British immigrant who wrote for the Sun, eventually came clean in a letter to another newspaper (although this did not end speculation). It was, he said, “an abortive satire” he was “self-hoaxed” because his mimicry was too accurate to be spotted as parody.

Locke’s target was the widespread and uncritical belief in extra-terrestrial life among men of science. In particular, he took aim at Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister, teacher and author, whose faith in the existence of other worlds appeared throughout his writings. Suffused with natural theology, this books were achieving enormous popularity.

It was this popularity that undid Locke’s satire. People were well prepared to hear that men had been found on the Moon, and the heightened style was familiar to readers of Dick’s bestselling Christian Philosopher (1823). This presented astronomy as standing “in an intimate relation to religion”, and described how the sun “gradually ascends the vault of heaven”, the moon “presents a round full-enlightened face”, stars are “twinkling orbs”, and the mind is “elevate[d] … to the contemplation of an Invisible Power”. Much of it was, indeed, beyond parody.

But Dick was not merely popular. Many men of science shared his views on extra-terrestrial life, from John Herschel’s father William to David Brewster, who endorsed his book. Dick himself published in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, of which he was later made a fellow. His was the approved rhetoric of much popular science of the period the equivalent to the millions of light years, awe and wonder in popular astronomy today.

Not everyone likes “awe” now, and Locke did not like sweeping rhetoric and speculation then. Some see the Hoax as a case of science versus religion, but this is too simple. Quite obviously Dick saw himself as standing for religion and science, while Locke, although probably a political radical, disliked the “crude speculation and cant” because it was dangerous to “rational religion” as well as “inductive science”.

For years Locke stayed quiet about his failed satire because it signally failed to alleviate that danger. Herschel himself took the story as “innocent” and an “amusement”, but his friend Augustus De Morgan told him in 1842 that it still had currency. Meanwhile, Thomas Dick’s books remained immensely popular and influential throughout the century on both sides of the Atlantic.


New genre

Locke’s lunar paradise hoodwinked a global readership because of expectations raised in the popular imagination by Dick’s “outrage upon science”, which prepared them “to swallow any thing however absurd … recommended by this peculiar stamp”.

Though not destroying Dick’s reputation, the hoax challenged his prioritisation of belief over evidence, foreshadowing the fundamental intellectual crises of the mid-Victorian age. Nevertheless, Dick continued to popularise science and democratise access to astronomy. Dundee’s unique public observatory is a bequest from one of Dick’s devotees, John Mills.

Whether or not Dick’s speculations constituted science fiction, they inadvertently midwifed the modern genre through Locke’s parodies. The editor and owner of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, credited Locke with inventing what he called “A New Species of Writing” – “the scientific novel”.

The Dundee Moon Hoax certainly inspired the “lost Scottish father” of American sci-fi, Robert Duncan Milne who grew up in nearby Cupar in the 1840s. His own tales of astronomical discovery bear many similarities to Locke’s lunar utopia. It provided a rich context which shaped Milne’s imagination, driven by creative tensions between scientific secularism, fantastic new technologies and orthodox beliefs.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sparking a scientific narrative

What started as a joke soon blew up into a massive scientific discussion. Besides tricking their audiences into believing that they had witnessed extraterrestrial life, they had managed to whole-heartedly convince astronomers and other scientists that Herschel had spotted life on the moon. One particular group of scientists from Yale assembled to hunt down the original moon-sighting journal articles from the Edinburgh Journal of Science (which had stopped printing long before the Sun released their satirical articles). Finally deciding that the chaos had gone on for long enough, the Sun revealed in September that the articles were all fabricated, much to the dismay of the scientific community. However, their audience seemed to have a good laugh over the entire hoax.


Aug. 25, 1835: ‘Great Moon Hoax’ published, announces false discovery of life on moon

DETROIT – On Aug. 25, 1835, the New York Sun newspaper began publishing a series of articles describing the supposed discovery of life on the moon.

Known as "The Great Moon Hoax," the series of six articles were supposedly reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.

The article was attributed to Dr. Andrew Grant, described as a colleague of a famous astronomer, Sir. John Herschel, who traveled to Capetown in 1834 to set up an observatory with a new telescope.

Grant claimed Herschel found evidence of life forms on the moon, including the discovery of unicorns, two-legged beavers, winged humanoids, rushing rivers and lush vegetation.

They claimed to have made these discoveries using "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."

The only problem was Grant was not a real person.

New York Sun publishes fictitious story

Founded in 1833, the Sun was one of the "penny press" papers that brought a broader appeal to audiences with cheaper prices and different perspectives.

Sales for the paper skyrocketed after the hoax was published, despite the fact that none of it was true.

The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publishing years earlier. The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter who enjoyed satire.

Sun readers failed to recognize it as satire. The story spread fast, even tricking a committee of Yale scientists - who traveled to New York in search of the journals.

The paper's circulation soared to more than 19,000 -- more than any daily paper in the world. Rival papers started reprinting the stories themselves.

The New York Transcript even published accounts from an "exclusive correspondent" who claimed to be present during the discovery.

What Hoax claimed to find on moon

The first articles touched on the findings of elaborate basaltic rock formations and fields of blood-red poppy flowers.

"The first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men."

They also described the finding of blue-tinted unicorns with goat beards and an orb-shaped amphibian.

The third article touched on erupting volcanoes and crystal formations. Miniature zebras that wandered the green hillsides, and woods filled with horned bears and roving herds of elk.

Most fantastical was the "biped beaver," a tailless, upright-walking creature that carried its young and used fire.

The final three articles detailed the findings of a species of winged humanoids that soared through the skies. They supposedly stood 4 feet tall, and "were covered, except on the face, with short and flossy copper-colored hair."

"We scientifically denominated them a Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat,” the story’s author wrote, “and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures."

The series of six articles were published between August 25 and August 31.

Sun comes clean

On Aug. 31, 1835 - the New York Herald published "The Astronomical Hoax Explained," which attempted to debunk the Sun's story, even claiming Locke confessed to one of its reporters while drunk in a bar.

On Sept. 16, 1835, the Sun admitted the articles were untrue. Readers weren't generally upset with the admission, but more so amused by it all - and paper sales continue to be strong.

The Sun continued operation until 1950, until it merged with the New York World-Telegram.

The paper never issued a true retraction on the hoax.

How Hoax came to be

The stories supposed author was a real astronomer, Sir John Herschel, and he really did visit South Africa with his new telescope.

But the magical world he was said to have discovered was not accurate.

When Herschel heard of the stories, he was not thrilled. In an 1837 letter, he wrote:

"I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English, French, Italian & German!!"

The true author, Richard Adams Locke, had penned satire of the early 19th century astronomical community, attacking them for making claims about alien life.

His target was Thomas Dick -- a Scottish author, who wrote on theories of the moon and the universe -- once claiming the solar system was home to exactly 21,894,974,404,480 inhabitants.

Locke later admitted that he was hoping to lampoon Dick's followers by making equally absurd claims.

“The credulity was general,” newsman Asa Greene later remembered. “All New York rang with the wonderful discoveries of Sir John Herschel…There were, indeed, a few skeptics but to venture to express a doubt of the genuineness of the great lunar discoveries, was considered almost as heinous a sin as to question the truth of revelation.”

One of the first doubters was writer Edgar Allan Poe, who accused the Sun of plagiarizing his story “Hans Phaal, a Tale,” a would-be literary hoax about a Dutchman traveling to the moon in a hot air balloon.


The Great Moon Hoax!

“In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note. Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.

The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.” • Jackie Mansky – Smithsonianmag.com

A Trip To The Moon by Georges Méliès • Wikipedia

“One instance of fake news was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The New York Sun published articles about a real-life astronomer and a made-up colleague who, according to the hoax, had observed bizarre life on the moon.” • Wikipedia

“A lithograph of the hoax's "ruby amphitheater", as printed in The Sun.” • Wikipedia

“Few people today remember that in 1835, men first walked on the moon. That year, however, it was all anyone could talk about. Reports in the Sun, the New York newspaper founded just a couple of years before, described sightings of men with bat wings, unicorns, and bipedal beavers on the moon’s surface, leading to much speculation and vast newspaper sales in New York and in the rest of the relatively new nation. All the city’s papers printed extracts or rebuttals every outlet had to weigh in. The news of life on the moon spread like riots had the previous year, when mobs of white New Yorkers hit the streets looking for blacks, abolitionists, and “amalgamators”—the name given to those whom they feared were in favor of race-mixing—to intimidate, beat up, or worse.” • Kevin Young – The New Yorker

Presenting Nonsense As News

“Yellow journalism and the yellow press are American terms for journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.” • Wikipedia

The Yellow Kid*, published by both New York World and New York Journal • Wikimedia Commons

“Joseph Campbell describes yellow press newspapers as having daily multi-column front-page headlines covering a variety of topics, such as sports and scandal, using bold layouts (with large illustrations and perhaps color), heavy reliance on unnamed sources, and unabashed self-promotion. The term was extensively used to describe certain major New York City* newspapers around 1900 as they battled for circulation.*”

“Frank Luther Mott* identifies yellow journalism based on five characteristics:*

scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news

lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings

use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience*, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts


The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

On September 16, 1835, the New York Sun concedes that her serial article about the sensational discoveries of astronomer Sir John Herschel about the Moon was only a hoax to increase their circulation. In the history of newspaper this scandal is referred to as ‘The Great Moon Hoax of 1835‘.

“GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
LATELY MADE
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope”
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

The Hoax

The six articles, starting on August 25, 1835 consisted of stories about fantastic creatures living on the moon. They were compared with goats, unicorns and bisons with wings and also human like body parts. The articles described an imaginative world full of trees and beaches. To justify the sudden results, the New York Sun wrote about a new method to built and use telescopes, which was used in this example. It was said that famous astronomer John Herschel [5] built this telescope in order to research “even the entomology of the moon, in case she contained insects upon her surface.” [1] According to the text, this telescope measured over 7 metres in diameter and contained a powerful second lense, being the “hydro-oxygen microscope” which magnified, illuminated and projected the image on another screen.

In the second article, the authors really went into detail, describing the flowers and animal herds found on the moon. On the next day, the newspaper published more information on geological formations and the biped beaver, the first “sign” of intelligent life on the moon. It was even said, that these animals were able to make fire and built small houses. On the following day, the readers were taken to a world with human like creatures, which 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.” During the following two days, the New York Sun described the discovery of an abandoned temple made of sapphire and a higher order of human-like life.

Portrait of a man-bat (“Vespertilio-homo”), from an edition of the Moon series published in Naples

The Aftermath

The article series generated a huge excitement throughout the population, even though there were large debates whether the stories were true or not. Many newspapers in New York and beyond then started reprinting the news and soon even Europe caught up on it. During this period, The Sun made a great profit from the series and caused the first so called mass media event. The wide distribution of the paper was possible with the newly available steam-powered printing press and the first large recruitment of newsboys, shouting the headlines through the streets and selling copies.

John Herschel, whose research work was somewhat altered, was amused about the hoax, but got annoyed later on when people still believed it to be real. Edgar Allan Poe claimed the story was a plagiarism of his earlier work “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.” His editor at the time was Richard Adams Locke. He later published “The Balloon-Hoax” in the same newspaper. The hoax itself emphasized the general concern about mass media being able to distribute anything and making it believable. After the hoax was revealed, many were going to find out the amount of people, who actually believed in the findings. William Griggs published an analysis of the hoax in 1852 and noticed that the public encountered the series with “voracious credulity”. In the media, the case popularized and part of the skeptics were for instance the New York Herald or the New York Evening Post, while the New York Times and the New Yorker belonged to the believer side. Fascinating however is the fact that The Sun was not widely criticized for the hoax, but often admired for being able to draw a great story line like this.

At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy a video interview with Neil Postman and his media criticism “Are we amusing ourselves to death?” from 1985.


The Great Moon Hoax

Jake and Charlie sell newspapers. Based on how well they do each day, they chose a place to sleep, varying from alleyways to boarding houses. Often the headlines determine how well the newspapers sell. When the paper starts printing stories about a telescope that allows the moon to be seen, the boys start doing really well. Each day the newspaper carried an article about the fantastic things that were being seen on the moon. But could Jake&aposs and Charlie&aposs good fortune last?

I find this book very Jake and Charlie sell newspapers. Based on how well they do each day, they chose a place to sleep, varying from alleyways to boarding houses. Often the headlines determine how well the newspapers sell. When the paper starts printing stories about a telescope that allows the moon to be seen, the boys start doing really well. Each day the newspaper carried an article about the fantastic things that were being seen on the moon. But could Jake's and Charlie's good fortune last?

I find this book very unusual, first because of the idea that such stories were believed, and second, the strangeness of the stories being told. The illustrations are rather strange in and of themselves, which I think matches the strangeness of the stories the newspaper printed. Unfortunately, I don't think the illustrations will appeal to many children, although children's tastes can be very surprising. The strength of this book though is the idea it presents of telling lies to make money. This fits in perfectly with teaching children about media literacy and learning to question what one reads. The illustrations could very easily turn into a discussion of what illustrations are designed to do and the abstractness of art. These themes would lead me to use this book with older students, I think it might confuse younger children. . more


The real history of fake news

I n an 1807 letter to John Norvell, a young go-getter who had asked how to best run a newspaper, Thomas Jefferson penned what today would make for a fiery Medium post condemning fake news.

&ldquoIt is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood,&rdquo the sitting president wrote. &ldquoNothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.&rdquo

That vehicle grew into a commercial powerhouse in the 19th century and a self-reverential political institution, &ldquothe media,&rdquo by the mid-20th. But the pollution has been described in increasingly dire terms in recent months. PolitiFact named fake news its 2016 &ldquoLie of the Year,&rdquo while chagrined Democrats have warned about its threat to an honest public debate. The pope compared consumption of fake news to eating feces. And many of the wise men and women of journalism have chimed in almost uniformly: Come to us for the real stuff.

&ldquoWhatever its other cultural and social merits, our digital ecosystem seems to have evolved into a near-perfect environment for fake news to thrive,&rdquo New York Times CEO Mark Thompson said in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club on Monday.

The broader issue driving the paranoia is the tardy realization among mainstream media that they no longer hold the sole power to shape and drive the news agenda.

A little bit of brake-tapping may be in order: It&rsquos worth remembering, in the middle of the great fake news panic of 2016, America&rsquos very long tradition of news-related hoaxes. A thumbnail history shows marked similarities to today&rsquos fakery in editorial motive or public gullibility, not to mention the blurred lines between deliberate and accidental flimflam. It also suggests that the recent fixation on fake news has more to do with macro-level trends than any new brand of faux content.

Macedonian teenagers who earn extra scratch by concocting conspiracies are indeed new entrants to the American information diet. Social networks allow smut to hurtle through the public imagination–and into pizza parlors–at breakneck speed. People at or near the top of the incoming administration have shared fake news casually. And it&rsquos appearing in news organizations&rsquo own programmatic ads.

But put aside the immediate election-related PTSD and the rampant self-loathing by journalists, which has led to cravings for a third-party, perhaps Russian-speaking, fall guy. The broader issue driving the paranoia is the tardy realization among mainstream media that they no longer hold the sole power to shape and drive the news agenda. Broadsides against fake news amount to a rearguard action from an industry fending off competitors who don&rsquot play by the same rules, or maybe don&rsquot even know they exist.

&ldquoThe existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is an historical anomaly,&rdquo Georgetown Professor Jonathan Ladd wrote in his 2011 book, Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters. &ldquoPrior to the twentieth century, such an institution had never existed in American history.&rdquo Fake news is but one symptom of that shift back to historical norms, and recent hyperventilating mimics reactions from eras past.

Take Jefferson&rsquos generation. Our country&rsquos earliest political combat played out in the pages of competing partisan publications often subsidized by government printing contracts and typically unbothered by reporting as we know it. Innuendo and character assassination were standard, and it was difficult to discern content solely meant to deceive from political bomb-throwing that served deception as a side dish. Then, like now, the greybeards grumbled about how the media actually inhibited the fact-based debate it was supposed to lead.

&ldquoI will add,&rdquo Jefferson continued in 1807, &ldquothat the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.&rdquo

Decades later, when Alexis de Tocqueville penned his seminal political analysis, Democracy in America, he also assailed the day&rsquos content producers as men &ldquowith a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind&rdquo who played on readers&rsquo passions. &ldquoWhat [citizens] seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts,&rdquo de Tocqueville wrote, &ldquoand it is only by altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.&rdquo His concerns weren&rsquot for passive failures of journalism, but active manipulation of the truth for political ends.

While circulation in those days was relatively low&mdashhigh publishing costs, low literacy rates&mdashproliferation of multiple titles in each major city provided a menu of worldviews that&rsquos similar to today. The infant republic nevertheless managed to survive the fake news scourge of early 19th-century newspapermen. &ldquoThe large number of news outlets, the heterogeneity of the coverage, the low public esteem toward the press, and the obvious partisan leanings of publishers limited the power of the press to be influential,&rdquo political scientist Darrell M. West wrote in his 2001 book, The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment.

With the growth of the penny press in the 1830s, some newspapers adopted advertising-centric business models that required much larger audiences than highbrow partisan opinions would attract. So the motivation to mislead shifted slightly more toward commercially minded sensationalism, spurring some of the most memorable media fakes in American history.

In 1835, The New York Sun ran a six-part series, &ldquoGreat Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,&rdquo which detailed the supposed discovery of life on the Moon. The hoax landed in part because the Sun&rsquos circulation was huge by standards of the day, and the too-good-to-be-true story supposedly enticed many new readers to fork over their pennies as well.

Top: The front page of The New York Sun from August 25, 1835, the day the paper launched its six-part hoax. Bottom: A teaser for the series published four days earlier. (Courtesy: The Museum of Hoaxes)

Edgar Allan Poe, who weeks before had published his own moon hoax in the Southern Literary Messenger, quickly criticized the Sun story&rsquos unbelievability&mdashand the public&rsquos gullibility. &ldquoNot one person in 10 discredited it,&rdquo Poe recounted years later. He went on to chastise the Sun&rsquos fake news story for what he saw as low production value:

Immediately upon completion of the &lsquoMoon story&rsquo…I wrote an examination of its claims to credit, showing distinctly its fictitious character, but was astonished at finding that I could obtain few listeners, so really eager were all to be deceived, so magical were the charms of a style that served as a vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention&hellip.Indeed, however rich the imagination displayed in this fiction, it wanted much of the force that might have been given to it by a more scrupulous attention to analogy and fact.

Many other newspapers were skeptical of the Sun&rsquos moon story. But public backlash was muted in part because of the lack of widely accepted standards for the content appearing in readers&rsquo news feeds, not unlike today. Objective journalism had yet to settle in, and there were no clear dividing lines between reporting, opinions, and nonsense. The public&rsquos credulity&mdashpotentially embellished by Poe and other contemporaneous accounts&mdashbecame part of the legend, particularly given elites&rsquo apprehension of Jacksonian populism.

A print depicting one of the scenes described in the moon hoax, date unknown (Courtesy: The Museum of Hoaxes)

These historic purveyors of fake news were by no means obscure publications from the 19th-century equivalent of the digital gutter. In 1874, the widely read New York Herald published a more than 10,000-word account of how animals had broken out of the Central Park Zoo, rampaged through Manhattan, and killed dozens. The Herald reported that many of the escaped animals were still at large as of press time, and the city&rsquos mayor had installed a strict curfew until they could be corralled. A disclaimer, tucked away at the bottom of the story, admitted that &ldquothe entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true.&rdquo

“Another Awful Calamity. The Intellectual Department of The New York Herald Let Loose Upon the Public.” 1874 cartoon by A. B. Frost satirizing the Herald’s zoo hoax. (Wikimedia)

Many readers must have missed it. The hoax quickly spread through real-life social networks, as historian Hampton Sides described in his 2014 book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette:

Alarmed citizens made for the city&rsquos piers in hopes of escaping by small boat or ferry. Many thousands of people, heeding the mayor&rsquos &lsquoproclamation,&rsquo stayed inside all day, awaiting word that the crisis had passed. Still others loaded their rifles and marched into the park to hunt for rogue animals.

An 1893 Harper’s Weekly illustration that accompanied an article about the zoo hoax. (Courtesy: The Museum of Hoaxes)

Even as the late-19th and early-20th centuries saw the early stages of the shift toward a more professionalized media, corruption of the information that reached readers remained common. In his 1897 book critiquing American news coverage of the Cuban War of Independence, Facts and Fakes about Cuba, George Bronson Rea outlined the stages of embellishment between minor news events outside of Havana to seemingly fictionalized front-page stories in New York. Cuban sources wanted to turn public opinion against Spain, while American correspondents were eager to sell newspapers.

&ldquoBut the truth is a hard thing to suppress,&rdquo Rea wrote, &ldquoand will sooner or later come to light to act as a boomerang on the perpetrators of such outrageous &lsquofakes,&rsquo whose only aim is to draw this country into a war with Spain to attain their own selfish ends.&rdquo

There are fewer glaring examples of fake news stretching toward the mid-20th century, as journalistic norms&mdashas we conceive of them today&mdashbegan to emerge. Commercial monopolies, coupled with lack of political partisanship, gave news organizations daylight to professionalize and police themselves. But that&rsquos not to say this golden era was free from myths.

They&rsquore neat and tidy, easy to remember, fun to tell, and media centric,&rdquo Campbell says in an interview. &ldquoThey serve to elevate media actors. There is an aspirational component to these myths that help keep them alive.

Indeed, many uncorrected stories concern the news media itself, which could provide clues as to why today&rsquos notion of fake news seems to have so much cultural currency. As American University Professor W. Joseph Campbell debunks in his book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, a remark by Walter Cronkite wasn&rsquot actually the first domino to fall en route to ending the Vietnam War. The Washington Post didn&rsquot really bring down Nixon. (Media coverage and public opinion toward the war had already gone south Nixon was felled by subpoena-wielding authorities and a wide array of other constitutional processes.)

&ldquoThey&rsquore neat and tidy, easy to remember, fun to tell, and media centric,&rdquo Campbell says in an interview. &ldquoThey serve to elevate media actors. There is an aspirational component to these myths that help keep them alive.&rdquo

The opposite force could be at play in today&rsquos fake news debate. Public trust of the media has been in decline for decades, though the situation now feels particularly cataclysmic with the atomization of media consumption, partisan criticism from all corners, and the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House. Just as Watergate gave the media a bright story to tell about itself, fake news provides a catchall symbol–and a scapegoat–for journalists grappling with their diminished institutional power.

It&rsquos telling that the most compelling reporting on fake news has focused on distribution networks&mdashwhat&rsquos new&mdasheven if those stories have yet to prove they&rsquove exacerbated the problem en masse. In the meantime, let&rsquos retire the dreaded moniker in favor of more precise choices: misinformation, deception, lies. Just as the media has employed &ldquofake news&rdquo to discredit competitors for public attention, political celebrities and partisan publications have used it to discredit the press wholesale. As hard as it is to admit, that&rsquos an increasingly unfair fight.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.

TOP IMAGE: Composing room of the New York Herald (no date recorded) (Photo: Library of Congress)


The Moon Hoax of 1835: Great Astronomical Discoveries

During this week in 1835, an incredible story broke in the Sun Newspaper, New York City, which reported that the famed astronomer Sir John Herschel had made Great Astronomical Discoveries. While cataloging and mapping nebulae in the night sky at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, Herschel trained his reportedly hyper powerful telescope on the Moon. The specifics of the telescope was covered in the first day’s article.

The second day’s article took the reader to the Moon, as it detailed that much to his amazement, Herschel discovered that the Moon was a geological marvel of greenish-brown basaltic (volcanic) rock. Continuing his ocular journey, Herschel found vegetation, which proved that the Moon did indeed have an atmosphere, and could in theory support animal life. The basaltic rock eventually gave way to lunar forests and plains then to crystal clear lakes nestled among mountains. After removing all the enhancing magnifying lenses, Herschel made a broad visual sweep of the Moon’s surface to discover crystalline formations of purple amethyst and what appeared to be obelisks made of this same material, which were lilac in hue and rolling hills of radiant red crystals vermilion or scarlet in coloration.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel

Moving his telescope across the lunar landscape, Herschel happened upon a lush meadow filled with yellow flowers. Much to his amazement he also came upon signs of animal life, the first of which appeared was a brown ox like animal with a singular circular horn, humped shoulders, long shaggy hair, and an appendage over its eyes to protect it from the extremities of light and dark experienced on the lunar surface. Soon after, he discovered other animal life including birds of all varieties, including cranes, and a monstrous blue goat like animal with the male of the species having a singular horn. When Herschel attempted to touch the projected image of the strange creature, as it danced across the walls of his observatory, the animal darted away seemingly aware of the gaze of the telescope. With the Moon descending before his eyes, Herschel ended his first night of lunar observation.

The story was an immediate sensational success, which continued to run throughout the week, with the final article published on August 31. The circulation of the Sun went through the roof and by some accounts made the paper the most widely circulated newspaper in the world, at the time. The story gained a life of its own and was reprinted in newspapers throughout the US and Europe and was continuously republished throughout the 19th century. While the guise of the story was one of scientific truth, as discovered by Sir John Herschel and reported in a supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science, in reality the story was written by one Richard Adams Locke a writer for the Sun Newspaper who had grand hopes for his ingenious work.

Join us as we explore how the story unfolded and what was the true motivation behind the Great Moon Hoax.