Today I am celebrating a brilliant hoax. The Cardiff Giant was unearthed on this day in 1869, on a farm in Cardiff, New York. The ten foot high human figure was claimed to be the body of a petrified giant from ancient times. But in fact, he had been buried there only eleven months previously. It was the work of a cigar salesman named George Hull.
His idea stemmed from an argument he had with a Methodist Minister who believed that giants had once roamed the earth. It was true because it said so in the Bible. There had been giants, but they were all washed away by Noah’s flood. The science of palaeontology was still relatively new and there were still many people who believed that the fossilized bones of dinosaurs were evidence of this lost race. Also in 1858 a bogus letter had been published in a newspaper called Alta California, claiming that a prospector had been turned to stone after drinking the liquid from the middle of a geode. All this seems a bit far-fetched in the 21st century but it explains why, in the late nineteenth century, people were prepared to believe in fossilized giants.
Hull hired men in far away Iowa to cut him a huge block of gypsum for his giant. In order to avert later suspicion he told them that it was going to be made into a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He then had it shipped to Chicago. There, he hired a stonecutter called Edward Burghardt to carve it into the likeness of a giant man and swore him to secrecy. Stains were added to the surface to make it look old and it was beaten with knitting needles to make it seem as if the skin had pores. In November 1868 he had it transported by rail to his cousin’s farm and buried there. Hull’s hoax had cost him $2,600 dollars.
The following October his cousin, William Newell, hired two men to dig a well for him and, surprise, surprise, they dug up the giant. Newell immediately put up a tent around his giant and started charging people 25c a time to come and look at it. When they started arriving in cartloads, he put the price up to 50c. Although people flocked to the farm in their hundreds to see the marvel, archaeologists spotted straight away that it was a fake. Geologist realised that it wasn’t a good place to dig a well anyway and Hull found out that his cousin had shared their secret with others. He knew his ruse wouldn’t last long. He quickly sold his giant to a syndicate for $23,000 and they had it shipped to Syracuse, New York and on by road to New York City.
Meanwhile P T Barnum heard of their giant and offered them $50,000 for it, which they refused. It was a mistake. Barnum employed someone to secretly make a wax copy of the giant. As the statue travelled to New York, stopping in many places along the way Barnum was having the wax model scaled up, using measurements taken from newspaper articles, into a plaster copy. By the time the stone giant arrived in New York City, Barnum was already displaying his own Cardiff Giant. He claimed his was the real one and their’s was the copy. The case went to court. The judge had a hard time trying to decide which of the two giants was the most real and suggested that perhaps the giant could come to court and identify himself. In the end, Hull had to admit his hoax and both giants were officially declared to be fakes. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
The Cardiff Giant was not the only giant to discovered in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was not even the only one that was made by George Hull. In 1877 another petrified giant turned up in Beulah, Colorado. This time he had been a bit more modest in his ambitions. The giant, which became known as Solid Muldoon, was only seven feet six inches tall. He had got a bit more creative with his materials though. This time he used a mixture of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. He also gave it a tail. The giant duly went on display and it was rumoured that P T Barnum had offered $20,000 dollars for it. However, it was soon to revealed to be another hoax and that the perpetrators were none other than George Hull and a disgruntled ex-employee of P T Barnum, William Conant.
Mark Twain wrote a lovely parody of the Cardiff Giant in which the giant tries to haunt his own body in the hope of persuading someone to rebury him. Unfortunately he winds up trying to haunt P T Barnum’s plaster cast instead. If you wanted another ghost story today, you could hear it here.