The Moon, in addition to being covered with vast oceans and dense forests, is home to fur-bearing bat-people that occupy a strange gilded pyramid. These are the discoveries people read about in the New York Sun 175 years ago today.
Long before the internet became a swamp of tall tales, shoddy sourcing, and general rumor-mongering, there was another medium for disseminating not-quite-truths: the Newspaper. The Great Moon Hoax, a fantastical account of extraterrestrial life on the Moon reported by the New York Sun, is perhaps the most famous newspaper untruth of all time.
It all started on August 25, 1835, 175 years ago today, with an article that bore the headline:
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
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]
That article, the first in a series of six, described several discoveries made by Sir John Herschel, perhaps the best known stargazer of his day, as first published in the Edinburgh Journal of Science. Using a "telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle," the Sun explained, Herschel had discovered that our Moon was full of inhabitants. Among them: unicorns, bison, and beavers that stood on their hind legs. The fourth installment in the series revealed the biggest discovery of all: a civilization of intelligent, bat-like humanoids dwelled on the Moon:
Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified...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 the shoulders to the calves of their legs.
Of course, none of it was true. Though Sir John Herschel was a well-known astronomer, and his travels to South America a year prior had been widely reported, he made no such discoveries while he was there. There was no incredible new telescope and there were no lunar forests or temples or bat-people. There wasn't even an Edinburgh Journal of Science at that point. It was all a hoax.
That the account was completely falsified didn't come out until September 16, when Richard Adams Locke, a Cambridge-educated Sun reporter, confessed that the account of the bat-people, and all the rest, had originated not in the pages of a British science journal but rather in the recesses of his imagination. But by that time Sun's circulation had ballooned and many rival papers had picked up and repackaged the story.
The Sun never retracted the articles nor admitted to the hoax.
And while we'd like to think that we've all smartened up a bit today—that we're more discerning in what we take as fact; that our news sources are more fastidious in their reporting—the internet is still basically a factory for this sort of fabrication, a place where falsifications are shelved right next to facts and where stories get distorted as they're picked up by each successive source, like a game of telephone. Sometimes, it can be pretty depressing. [Museum of Hoaxes and History Buff]