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The Infamous "Great Moon Hoax" Of 1835 Is As Weird As It Sounds

Hairy bat people on the moon. Image credit: The New York Sun, 1835, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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You've probably heard of the infamous 1938 airing of H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds, in which Orson Welles adapted the book for radio as if it was a news bulletin, causing countless Americans to believe that aliens were actually invading Earth (New Jersey to be precise) and absolutely slaughtering us in large numbers.

The team behind it hadn't anticipated that people would be so taken in by the adaption, believing the story to be too silly for anyone to mistake it for real news, and were somewhat taken aback when the following day they were at the center of national news.

A previous hoax could have clued them in to the reaction they might get, and it's one that doesn't get the attention it deserves.

In 1835, Richard Adams Locke created the Great Moon Hoax, six articles printed in the New York Sun claiming to be real observations of extraterrestrial activity on the Moon.

The articles were printed in the paper under the byline Dr Andrew Grant, describing the "discoveries" by Sir John Herschel – a real astronomer – from an observatory in Capetown, South Africa.

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The articles, not flagged as satire, began with a detailed explanation of how Herschel had managed to improve the telescope to the point that it had a magnifying power of 42,000 times by applying a microscope to the end of a telescope. This should have been a bit of a red flag, but remember science education wasn't too hot at the time, and even astronomers of the day were claiming they had seen signs of artificial roads on the Moon, so let's not be too judgemental.

A bigger red flag, however, came the next day when they reported that they had found vegetation, woods and several pyramids made of crystals apparently created by the "Lunarians". Then came the galloping bison.

"Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence," the account read.

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"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."

The bison-like creatures were the first of many.

"The next animal perceived would be classed on earth as a monster," the story goes on. "It was of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular."

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As well as Moon unicorns, the newspaper articles told tales of creatures from birds to shellfish, vast rivers, and lakes, before going full pelt and introducing intelligent human-like bat people.

"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," one article read.

Also bear people. Bat people and bear people, just vibing. Image credit: New York Sun, 1835 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The incredibly hairy bat people were described as walking upright in a dignified manner. The species, which they dubbed Vespertilio-homo (bat-man), lived mainly on Moon fruit and held banquets of red cucumber-like foods that they sucked the juice out of. 

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After observing all these strange creatures, all living in harmony with no signs of carnivores or predators, wouldn't you know it, the telescope went and burned down, taking with it the only proof that could be offered.

The work was likely intended as a satire of people at the time who genuinely did believe there was an abundance of life on the Moon. Nevertheless, people did believe the tales, partly because the paper went out of their way to deny the series was fictitious. They didn't retract the story, nor make any reference to it being false, merely stating in one issue "there are unicorns on the Moon" and leaving it at that.

Herschel, having been named as the astronomer who made the discoveries, got caught up in the hoax himself. At first, he found it quite funny and made light of how his observations of the Moon were nowhere near as fun. However, he was a serious astronomer and eventually became quite annoyed that people kept asking him about the discoveries.

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It's got to grate on you when people are overjoyed to meet the man who discovered bat people flying around on the Moon, only to have to tell them that, at best, you've seen some rocks.

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