Clash of the [Fake] Titans
Updated: May 11
One of the greatest hoaxes in American history arose from a religious argument at a kitchen table on a farm in the middle of Iowa. It would pit religion against science. And, behind it, some of history’s biggest con artists were shoveling in profits from the debate. The country’s leading theologians and scientists would weigh in as the country was being hornswoggled, bamboozled, hoodwinked, humbugged, and boondoggled into a philosophical frenzy.
The 1860s were a time of great foment in the nation. The Civil War had ended, technology was booming, the telegraph and railroads were bridging the nation, electricity and engines were developed, and in 1859 Darwin had published his shocking Origin of the Species, based on the theory of evolution. The emerging sciences of archeology and geology and the study of fossils seemed to also challenge Biblical teachings. Change was afoot and the worlds of religion and science crashed into each other like tectonic plates in an earthquake, shattering notions of the truth. The Gilded Age, too, was a time of P.T. Barnum and fantastic spectacle, fed by the burgeoning media industry of newspapers cropping up in every frontier town and city. The public hungered for news and for spectacle and hoaxes planted by unscrupulous capitalists sprouted like weeds.
George Hull, a Binghampton, New York cigar maker was such a capitalist. He was a big man—6’3” tall with an ego to match his stature and the slick countenance of a Victorian villain: pomaded hair, a sharp mustache and piercing eyes. He already had a reputation for flaunting Victorian propriety. He had married his niece, who was 16 at the time!
According to his own account, Hull masterminded the hoaxing 1866 when visiting his wife’s sister and family in Ackley, Iowa, a small farming community. While there, Hull engaged in a heated debate with a boarder, Reverend Henry Turk, a traveling Methodist revivalist minister. In the debate, Hull, an iconoclast and atheist, parried back and forth over literal interpretations of the Bible. As fate would have it, they focused on one particular verse-- Genesis 6:4: "There were giants in the earth in those days." Reverend Turk steadfastly defended the literal interpretation, Hull took the opposite view. Hull could not shake Turk’s faith, but a mischievous notion took root in his head that he thought with relish would make religious believers look foolish and might even bring in some profits for him to boot.
Hull’s idea was not completely his own invention. In 1858, the Alta California newspaper had published a letter claiming that a prospector had become petrified after drinking liquid from inside a geode. A crop of other newspaper articles then jumped on the bandwagon and reported other cases of petrified people.
Hull had also heard of gypsum mines not far from Ackley in Fort Dodge. The richest deposits of gypsum in North America had been discovered there just fourteen years before. Although not gold or silver, the deposits were valuable commodities for a growing nation, as gypsum was a main ingredient for plaster, wallboard, cement and soil treatments for farmland. Massive chunks of gypsum pulled from the earth were also easily carved and therein was the seed of Hull’s idea flourished.
Hull offered to pay two men a barrel of beer to dig up a chunk of gypsum out of the earth on the outskirts of Fort Dodge. The chunk was 12 feet long, 4-feet wide and about 2-feet deep and weighed about five tons. Hull told them it was to be made into a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Then Hull had it shipped to Chicago to a marble cutter named Edward Burkhardt. Hull supervised the sculpting and when the finished goliath looked too new, the gypsum goliath was poked and pocked with darning needles, then smeared with chemicals, including sulfuric acid, to age his “skin.”
The colossus was eventually shipped by train to Cardiff, New York, shrouded in secrecy, where Hull’s cousin “Stub” Newell owned a farm. There, it was buried deep in the dark of night. Then Hull and his farmer cousin waited. Nearly a year later, Newell decided to hire well diggers to excavate for a well and they unearthed the ten-foot fossil of an ancient man. News of the discover flashed across the nation in frontpage headlines: The Cardiff Giant! The Goliath of Cardiff! The Onondaga Giant! The Lafayette Wonder!
Theologians and evangelists declared the colossus was proof of the Biblical giants, the Nephilim. Others echoed the story of David and Goliath and called the behemoth the Champion of the Philistines. Professors from Cornell University, Yale University, and Rochester University, as well as the New York State Geologist flocked to the site to examine the magnificent specimen with mixed verdicts.
Othniel C. Marsh, a well-known paleontologist at the Yale Peabody Museum, wrote a Nov. 30, 1869 letter to the Syracuse Daily Journal : “It is of very recent origin and a most decided humbug …” John Boynton, a local lecturer, theorized that the giant was a statue created by Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s to impress local Indian tribes. Professor James Hall, director of the New York State Museum and the most distinguished paleontologist of the day, examined the discovery and declared it "the most remarkable object yet brought to light in this country, and, although, perhaps, not dating from the Stone Age, is nevertheless deserving of the attention of archeologists." Leaves were placed strategically over the giant’s groin and no experts noted that his gypsum... er... jewels....were circumcised (not to mention prodigious).
P.T Barnum came to view the colossal corpse and offered the equivalent of a half million dollars, which was turned down! So he simply commissioned a sculptor to replicate the fake fossil and billed it as the real thing in a Manhattan museum. Soon Barnum’s colossus was drawing more paying spectators than the original and a clash of the titans ensued! But soon stories began to emerge from the Chicago sculptor, Barnum’s sculptor, the Fort Dodge miners who dug up the original slab of gypsum and others who were paid for their expose stories. The Philadelphia Inquirer quipped” “It is rather rich that we should be victimized by such a fraud upon a fraud.”
But the momentum of the hoax was unstoppable. The Cardiff Giant and its impostor had hit a profound chord in the American psyche. The nation was experiencing an identity crisis: a rebirth in religion called the Second Great Awakening was sweeping some of the nation, while other Americans were departing in droves from tradition Christian religions. Half the country was looking for proof of fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, the other half looking for proof of scientific evolution, fossils and geologic findings.
Complicating this intellectual landscape was another movement; social and technological change were such powerful forces, it scared many people and a strong anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-expert sentiment took hold. The public was just as likely to believe traveling show charlatans and snake-oil salesmen as professors or academics. As part of this sentiment, there was also a powerful romantic belief among Americans that an ancient white European race, the Vikings or Celts, had explored North America and built a thriving white civilization before “savages”—Native American Indians—had conquered them. So, Americans were bifurcated into two opposing camps, predisposed to regard the Cardiff Giant in either a religious or a scientific light and there was no middle ground.
Not surprisingly, Mark Twain was an early sceptic. He had just published his book, “Innocents Abroad,” that set in stark contrast the conflict between history and the modern world and the many profiteers who trivialize history for ulterior motives. He wrote a humorous essay for the Buffalo Express warning readers to view the Cardiff Giant with caution and reminded them that hucksters such as P.T. Barnum had little respect for the truth.
Soon, the Cardiff Giant inspired Twain to write a short story called a “Ghost Story” in which the ghost of the Cardiff Giant is upset that his body is being callously displayed to the public and tries to haunt it. But the Cardiff Giant’s ghost, big, bulky and clumsy, keeps knocking down furniture and is confused when he realizes he is actually haunting Barnum’s forged fake and not his own body! As Mark Twain, concluded: “The humbug had been humbugged!”
The poor giant continued to tour the country but increasingly became a target of ridicule—losing part of his penis in the process!—until in 1880, he ended up ignominiously in a Massachusetts barn. Much later the giant was purchased by an Iowa newspaper where in 1939 it was photographed in a basement by the National Geographic for an article on the Hawkeye State. Finally, it found its permanent resting place at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. It’s incredible career as a geologic giant turned fraudulent fossil, mesmerizing the nation along the way, still fascinates.
PHOTOS: (1) On October 16, 1869, the body of a ten-foot giant was dug up on the farm near Cardiff, New York when workers were excavating for a well. The discovery would set off a firestorm of media attention and a debate that spread across the country pitting religion against science. (2) New York cigar maker George Hull would later claim to be the mastermind behind the colossal hoax. (3) The giant when he was unearthed on a farm near Cardiff, New York. Soon a circus tent was set up and the farmer began charging spectators to see the curiosity. An estimated 60,000 people paid to see the incredible fossil the first six weeks after it was dug up. (4) George Hull had a five-ton chunk of gypsum dug up near Fort Dodge, Iowa, that he then shipped to Chicago to a marble cutter to be carved into a 10-foot-giant man. (5 & 6) A drawing that appeared in a 1869 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Newspaper across the nation headlined the earth-shattering discovery of the Cardiff Giant. (7, 8 & 9) P.T. Barnum offered nearly a half million dollars in 1869 currency for the Cardiff Giant, but he was turned down. So he hired a sculptor to carve a replica that he soon displayed in a Manhattan Museum as the genuine giant. Soon his forgery was making more money than the original and a clash of the titans ensued. The duel hoaxes caused fierce debates across the nation regarding the literal translation of the Bible, evolution and the battle between religion and science.
First posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on August 24, 2019
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