The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York

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On August 26, 1835, a series of six articles in a fledgling newspaper reported the existence of life on the moon-including unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats. In a matter of weeks it was the most widely circulated newspaper story of the era, and the New York Sun, a working-class upstart, became the most widely read paper in the world. An exhilarating narrative history of a divided city on the cusp of greatness and a crew of writers, editors, and charlatans who ...

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The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteen

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Overview

On August 26, 1835, a series of six articles in a fledgling newspaper reported the existence of life on the moon-including unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs, and four-foot-tall flying man-bats. In a matter of weeks it was the most widely circulated newspaper story of the era, and the New York Sun, a working-class upstart, became the most widely read paper in the world. An exhilarating narrative history of a divided city on the cusp of greatness and a crew of writers, editors, and charlatans who stumbled on a new kind of journalism, The Sun and the Moon tells the surprisingly true story of the penny papers that made America a nation of newspaper readers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Goodman offers a highly atmospheric account of a hoax that he says reflects the birth of tabloid journalism and New York City's emergence as a city with worldwide influence. In August 1835, New York Sun editor Richard Adams Locke wrote and published a hoax about a newfangled telescope that revealed fantastic images of the moon, including poppy fields, waterfalls and blue skies. Animals from unicorns to horned bears inhabited the moon, but most astonishing were the four-foot-tall "man-bats" who talked, built temples and fornicated in public. The sensational moon hoax was reprinted across America and Europe. Edgar Allan Poe grumbled that the tale had been cribbed from one of his short stories; Sun owner Benjamin Day saw his paper become the most widely read in the world; and a pre-eminent British astronomer complained that his good name had been linked to those "incoherent ravings." Goodman (Jewish Food) offers a richly detailed and engrossing glimpse of the birth of tabloid journalism in an antebellum New York divided by class, ethnicity and such polarizing issues as slavery, religion and intellectual freedom. B&w illus. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The focus of this work concerns a series of 1835 New York Sun articles that convinced many of that newspaper's readers that the moon was inhabited. Goodman (Jewish Food: The World at Table) gives the context of the time while also providing a look at the life of Richard Adams Locke, who wrote and published these stories, and such figures as P.T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe. Malcolm Hillgartner (The Reagan I Knew) reads with great energy and enthusiasm. Public libraries may wish to consider this one. [Audio clip available through www.blackstoneaudio.com; the Basic Books hc was described as more likely to appeal "to the general reader than to the academic," LJ9/15/08.-Ed.]
—Michael T. Fein

Kirkus Reviews
A delightful recounting of "the most successful hoax in the history of American journalism."The moon, it turns out, is covered with poppy fields, grassy plains, forests and lakes, and populated by assorted shellfish, single-horned goats, bi-ped beavers, miniature zebras and four-foot-tall, simian, winged creatures-so-called "man-bats"-capable of conversation and religious worship. Or so wrote Richard Adams Locke in his sensational 1835 series for New York's Sun. Intended as a satire of those who would make science the handmaiden of religion, Locke's Great Astronomical Discoveries mixed just enough real-life names, genuine science and plausible technological advances to be believable. Reprinted and debated in competing papers, the series helped turn the Sun, the first of the penny papers, into the world's largest-selling newspaper. Although Goodman (Jewish Food, 2005, etc.) focuses on the anatomy of Locke's brilliant deception, he also surveys New York's newspaper scene at a time when the dailies were becoming something more than a compilation of commercial information, currency-conversion tables and reprints of outdated foreign news. The trend toward local, preferably sensational, news was led by the Sun's publisher Benjamin Day who, in addition to setting the penny price, practically invented the idea of newsboys to hawk his paper and lithographs to illustrate the stories. The true appeal of Goodman's story, though, lies in his skillful interweaving of "an elaborate series of deceptions and exposures" in the air near the time of Locke's creation: P.T. Barnum's exhibition of Joice Heth, the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe's faked account of Monck Mason'sballoon flight across the Atlantic and the shady story of religious con man Mathias the Prophet, whose gullible disciples included Sojourner Truth. Goodman consistently entertains with his tale of press manipulation, hucksterism and the seemingly bottomless capacity for people to believe the most outrageous things. Absolutely charming. Agent: Henry Dunow/Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
The Barnes & Noble Review
If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, says Jesus in Luke 11:11, "will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?" The question is, we assume, rhetorical -- an assurance that our heavenly Father is a square dealer -- but the family of the great P. T. Barnum might have answered it cheerfully in the affirmative. Yes, they might have said, indeed a father will give his son a stone. And a serpent too, by God, if he feels like it! Barnum, as a boy, was told that upon reaching the age of 21 he would receive a marvelous inheritance: a place called Ivy Island, a most valuable parcel of land. Never quite sure exactly what Ivy Island was, or where it might be, he was constantly assured by his family and neighbors that it was bountiful beyond all imagination. And one day, when the boy was 12, the moment came -- it was time to visit Ivy Island. He followed his father deep into the Connecticut countryside, toiling through bogs and getting stung by hornets, panting with anticipation. His father paused at last on the edge of a gloomy creek and extended his arm: behold! The boy stared. He saw before him a dismal, unworkable stump of ground in the middle of a marsh, home to a few sullen snakes and not much else. Ivy Island was...an island covered with ivy.

This appalling little parable, so potent in its bathos as to suggest the existence of an entire and hitherto unsuspected tradition of anti-wisdom, is but one of the many stories related by Matthew Goodman in The Sun and the Moon. Goodman's book is a compendious, beautifully written account of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, a sequence of events and pseudo-events that would come to comprise a complete epoch in the imaginative life of New York City. Barnum was not the hoax's architect -- that distinction belongs to Richard Adams Locke, editor of the mettlesome daily The New York Sun -- but he was, as it were, its psychic enabler, and 30 years after it happened he would salute it in his book Humbugs of the World as "the most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the generation with which we are numbered has known."

To the hoax itself. On August 25, 1835, the Sun inaugurated a series of articles by a Dr. Grant, entitled "Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D., F.R.S., &c. at the Cape of Good Hope." An eminent astronomer by the name of Sir John Herschel did indeed exist, and he was indeed pursuing his research at the Cape of Good Hope, but his observations bore no relation to the wild celestial tableaux about to be unveiled by the Sun. According to Dr. Grant, Sir John had trained his super-powerful "hydro-oxygen telescope" upon the moon's surface and been rewarded with some incredible sights: first, a field of lunar poppies (which should have given the game away but didn't) and then -- single-horned goats, beavers that walked on two legs, and finally winged moon-men, the latter in particular exhibiting a free-and-easy lifestyle that incurred Dr. Grant's mild anthropological censure. "They are doubtless innocent and happy creatures," he wrote, "notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum."

New York was already in a fever of credulity. Two weeks earlier, in his first grand act as a showman/huckster, Barnum had introduced the city to Joice Heth -- an African-American slave woman whom he advertised, sensationally, as being 161 years old and a former wet nurse to George Washington. The geriatric Heth did her part, crooning hymns and gamely anecdotalizing about her "little George," and the exhibit (at Niblo's Garden) was the talk of the town. In the Sun, Locke pronounced it "the most precious humbug of modern times."

But Barnum's miracle of longevity was quickly eclipsed, and by Locke himself. There was, of course, no Dr. Grant -- there was only Richard Adams Locke, pseudonymously electrifying the Sun's readers with bravura imaginative prose and meticulous pseudo-science. His moon series was a smash, a runaway success, the hula hoop or Beatlemania of its day. And with the real Sir John Herschel conveniently incommunicado on the Cape of Good Hope, months passed before the inevitable debunking.

Why did Locke do it? He was a newspaperman, of course, and the Sun's circulation obliged him by going through the roof, but there was more to it than that. Locke wasn't a born trickster like Barnum -- he was a social reformer and philosophe, and in explaining his complex and ultimately self-defeating motives, The Sun and the Moon transcends the merely colorful and becomes a serious, innovative work of intellectual history.

Imagine a version of Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York where the central currency is not violence but ideas. Goodman doesn't wear his research lightly -- rather he is splendidly laden down with it, encrusting himself wherever possible with further textures, trinkets, and glittering subplots. (Watch for the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe, traversing the narrative like a gloomy comet.) His 1830s Gotham is a volatile, infatuated place, both realer and more illusory than its 21st-century successor. And his writing, archly appreciative of fine humbug, is dead-on. "Some of the creatures entered the lake to bathe, and in returning to the shore spread their wings to shake off the water, much as ducks do.... Several of the creatures were observed making emphatic gestures with their hands and arms, clearly engaged in conversation." What a magical chunk of rock that must have been. What a pale and sky-high Ivy Island. --James Parker

James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press) and a correspondent for The Atlantic.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465019007
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2010
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Man on the Moon 1

Part 1 The Sun

1 Benjamin Day's Whistling Boy 17

2 The News of the City 33

3 Bearer of the Falcon Crest 49

4 The Atrocious Impositions of Matthias 65

5 "The Evil Spirit of the Times" 83

6 The Prince of Ivy Island 97

7 Strange Attractions 115

Part 2 The Moon

8 Celestial Discoveries 131

9 A Passage to the Moon 147

10 "If This Account Is True, It Is Most Enormously Wonderful" 165

11 The Picturesque Beauty of the Moon 185

12 "The Astronomical Hoax Explained" 199

13 Moonshine 217

14 Monck Mason's Flying Machine 233

15 "Joice Heth Is Not Dead" 251

16 The Best Self-Hoaxed Man in New York 265

Epilogue That Tyranny Shall Be No Longer 283

Acknowledgments 299

Notes 301

Selected Bibliography 327

Index 335

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