Was the Cardiff Giant the Greatest Hoax of All Time?

Why you should care

Because if there is a sucker born every minute, there is a huckster born every hour.

You know you have a truly successful hoax on your hands when you have to tastefully obscure the figure’s giant counterfeit genitalia with a tree branch before the throngs of photographers flock to capture the spectacle. 

The so-called Cardiff Giant, unearthed 150 years ago on a farm near Cardiff, New York, was an enormous hoax in almost every sense of the term. The 10-foot-tall “petrified man” captured America’s prehistoric imaginations — and its pocketbooks — becoming one of the most legendary hoaxes in a period that was filled with stories of the bogus and the bizarre.

Cardiff_giant_exhumed_1869

The Cardiff Giant being exhumed in 1869.

In the Gilded Age that followed the Civil War, Americans grew increasingly fascinated by (but not particularly knowledgeable about) natural science, fossils, evolution and the prehistoric worlds of long ago. And a new generation of hucksters grew up to give them exactly what they wanted. Petrified humans, especially giants, started to be harvested all over the country. In a spoof of the phenomenon, Mark Twain once boasted of a fictional discovery, “[a] skillful assayer has analyzed a small portion of dirt found under the nail of the great toe and pronounces the man to have been a native of the Kingdom of New Jersey.”

THERE’S A SUCKER BORN EVERY MINUTe …

David hannum

It should not have come as a shock then when two workers digging a well in October 1869 on the farm of William Newell hit a large stone three feet down. “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here,” one reportedly observed when they had unearthed a giant foot. It was a remarkable, but extremely well-engineered, discovery. The well diggers were, of course, only digging where their boss, Newell, had instructed them to, knowing that he and his cousin, a Binghamton cigar maker named George Hull, had planted the giant stone statue there a year before.

As news of the discovery spread, thousands flocked to see the 3,000-pound figure with nails, nostrils, ribs, a serene expression, and the aforementioned bulge, and Newell and Hull were ready for them. They erected a tent and started charging 50 cents a head. As Andrew White, the first president of Cornell University — and an early visitor — described the scene: “The roads were crowded with buggies, carriages … and with lumber wagons from the farms — all laden with passengers.” The New York Daily Tribune ran a front-page story about the giant and soon newspapers across the country followed suit.

Profit was but one motive for the fraud: Hull, an atheist, had gotten into a heated argument with a Methodist minister about the Bible and whether giants had once walked the Earth (“there were giants in the Earth in those days” according to Genesis 6:4), and decided to strike it rich while making a giant theological point about biblical literalism. To pull off the hoax, Hull had an 11-foot-long block of gypsum shipped all the way from Iowa to his cousin’s farm (informing its shippers it was for a monument of Abraham Lincoln). All told, the trick took two and a half years and about $2,600 to construct.

But it was worth it. People bought into it. And a group of local businessmen led by David Hannum actually bought it from Hull a week after its discovery for more than $20,000. Word of the attraction even made it to perhaps the greatest showman (and huckster) of his age, P.T. Barnum. “Barnum made a fortune and a national reputation as ‘the prince of humbugs,’” says Michael Pettit, a professor of history at York University in Toronto, “before becoming more respectable with his circus.”

And when he couldn’t buy the Cardiff Giant for himself, Barnum had an exact replica made and started charging admission to that. It was while observing thousands paying to see Barnum’s knock-off that Hannum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But when Hannum and the other owners of the giant sued to stop Barnum, the dubious judge hearing the case pronounced: “[B]ring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrification, you shall have the injunction you ask for.” 

Shortly after, the press caught on that the whole thing had been a hoax. Hull decamped to Colorado, where in 1877 he made another giant (this one with a four-inch tail) and had it buried and “discovered” as well. As for the Cardiff Giant, he’s now comfortably ensconced in a museum in Cooperstown, New York.

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