This Day in History – August 25th, 1835

Moon Hoax 4

In 1835, the most well known and respected astronomer of the time was Sir John Herschel, and starting on August 25th the New York Sun published a series of six articles that were supposedly written by him. In the series Herschel shared his recent observations of the Moon in which he had witnessed and documented an entire civilization of “bat people” (Vespertilio-homo) living there along with various animals such as unicorns and bipedal tail-less beavers. The articles were a hit and dramatically increased circulation of the paper, even after the series was over, and even after it was revealed that the articles were nothing more than a satirical hoax. 

Moon Hoax 1

The story was advertised on August 21, 1835, as an upcoming feature allegedly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant; it was not until several weeks after the series’s publication that it was discovered to be fictional, but even then The Sun offered no retraction or apology. Richard Adams Locke is believed to have been the author behind the hoax, but he never publicly admitted it. Despite being initially amused by the hoax made in his name, Herschel soon grew annoyed by the subsequent questions from people who believed that there really were people on the moon.

Moon Hoax 2Earlier that same year, in late June, Edgar Allan Poe had published his own Moon hoax in the Southern Literary Messengerentitled “Hans Phaall – A Tale,” later republished as “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.” The story was reprinted in the New York Transcript on September 2–5, 1835, under the headline “Lunar Discoveries, Extraordinary Aerial Voyage by Baron Hans Pfaall.” The story is regarded as one of the first science fiction stories. Poe described a voyage to the Moon in a hot-air balloon, using a factually plausible scenario: Pfaall lives for five years on the Moon with lunarians and sends back a lunarian to earth. The Poe Moon hoax was less successful because of the satiric and comical tone of the account. Locke was able to upstage Poe and to steal his thunder. In 1846, Poe would write a biographical sketch of Locke as part of his series “The Literati of New York City” which appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book.

 

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