The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“A Remarkable Deception”: The Cardiff Giant Hoax

In the autumn of 1869 the peaceful valley of Onondaga, in central New York, was in commotion from one end to the other. Strange reports echoed from farm to farm. It was noised abroad that a great stone statue or petrified giant had been dug up near the little hamlet of Cardiff, almost at the southern extremity of the valley; and soon, despite the fact that the crops were not yet gathered and the elections not yet over, men, women, and children were hurrying from Syracuse and from the farm-houses along the valley to the scene of the great discovery.

So begins Andrew D. White in a 1902 article for The Century titled “The Cardiff Giant: The True Story of a Remarkable Deception.” Thus, he sets the scene for his bizarre – yet true – story about a very fake giant.

 

 

I came across White’s article in a scrapbook of clippings in our collections, illuminating the events and deceptions surrounding the once-famed Cardiff Giant. While the compiler of clippings in this scrapbook is unknown, this person had enough interest to collect published material and neatly title the scrapbook in black ink, “The Cardiff Giant.” On the first page, a note from the November 1902 meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society recognizes “one of our distinguished Corresponding Members,” Andrew D. White, for his “minute description of the attempt to cheat the public.”  

On 16 October 1869, workers who were hired to dig a well on the property of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York, unearthed what became known as the Cardiff Giant. The bewildered well diggers were hired by Newell, who knew the figure had been deliberately planted almost a year earlier by his cousin, George Hull. While in Iowa in 1866, Hull was reportedly inspired to create a stone giant and pass it off as a petrified man after he argued with a Methodist revivalist, Rev. Mr. Turk, and wondered why so many believed the remarkable stories in the Bible about giants. Two years later, Hull hired men to quarry out an eleven-foot block of gypsum near Fort Dodge, Iowa, which he shipped by train to Chicago to be sculpted into the giant. The finished 3,000-pound figure was shipped again to Cardiff and buried to await its debut. Once it was uncovered, Newell set up a tent to display the nearly ten-foot-five colossus, and hundreds flocked to his Cardiff hamlet for a twenty-five-cent viewing of what many believed to be a petrified man (Newell raised the price to fifty cents after two days). Following the discovery, Hull sold the giant to David Hannum for $23,000, who shipped it to Syracuse and began a road tour toward New York City. Noting the public’s remarkable interest in the giant, P.T. Barnum offered to purchase it for $50,000. Though his offer was declined, Barnum covertly made an exact copy of the giant and charged visitors to view it.

While much of the public and even some professionals were fooled, others saw through the deceit, partially or fully. An article in the 3 November 1869 edition of the Worcester Daily Spy includes a testimony from Professor James Hall, “the state geologist of New York, a scholar of a good American reputation.” Hall states, “It is certainly a great curiosity, and, as it now presents itself, the most remarkable archaological [sic] discovery ever made in this country, and entirely unlike any other relics of a past age yet known to us.” While Hall did not believe it to be a petrified human, he thought it a unique object related to “the race or people of the past formerly inhabiting that part of the country.” Another article includes a letter dated 24 November 1869, in which Professor O. C. Marsh concludes, “Altogether, the work is well calculated to impose upon the general public; but I am surprised that any scientific observers should not have at once detected the unmistakable evidence against its antiquity.” He posits evidence for the deliberate and relatively recent burial of the figure, namely an analysis of the gypsum from which it was cut and the estimated erosion timeline that both support the “humbug” conclusion.

 

 

It struck me while reading George Hull’s obituary in the Boston Journal that the notice is hardly about Hull. Less of an obituary and more of a sensational article, the heading reads “Cardiff Giant” and within the article, “Hull Proud of It.” I presume it’s safe to say Hull wouldn’t have minded – the obituary notes, “Hull was very proud of the affair, and he never tired of talking about it.” According to the Boston Journal, Hull accumulated a fortune from his hoax but died in poverty. Whoever assembled this scrapbook of clippings also included an obituary next to Hull’s, printed just fifteen days later for “the last survivor of the famous ‘Cardiff Giant’ humbug,” sculptor John J. Sampson of Chicago.

The tale of the Cardiff Giant sparked the imaginations of authors Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum, and the giant even found his way into a Nancy Drew mystery. Today you can find him on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

If you would like to explore this topic further, visit the library to see what else you can uncover about the Cardiff Giant, its public reception and famed deception.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

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