Today in History: The Cardiff Giant and CNY’s Biggest Hoax

This Month in History: The Cardiff Giant

On October 16th, 1869, a 10-foot tall, 3000 pound “petrified giant” was discovered on the farm of William Newell in Cardiff, New York, just south of Syracuse by some men hired to dig a well on the farm. Newell covered the giant with a tent and charged people to view it. The giant attracted large crowds paying as much as 50 cents each and drew national attention. A substantial offer by Entertainer P.T. Barnum for the giant was turned down so he made one of his own. Both were declared frauds shortly after. The original Cardiff Giant is now on display at the New York Historical Society’s Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY.

More information via The Museum of Hoaxes:

The Cardiff Giant, a gigantic ten-foot tall stone man, emerged out of the ground and into American life on October 16, 1869, when he was discovered by some workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. Word of his presence quickly spread, and soon thousands of people were making the journey out to Stub Newell’s farm to see the colossus. Even when Newell began charging fifty cents a head to have a look at it, people still kept coming.

Speculation ran rampant over what the giant might be. The central debate was between those who thought it was a petrified man and those who believed it to be an ancient statue. The ‘petrifactionists’ theorized that it was one of the giants mentioned in the Bible, Genesis 6:4, where it says, “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Those who promoted the statue theory followed the lead of Dr. John F. Boynton, who speculated that a Jesuit missionary had carved it sometime during the seventeenth century to impress the local indians.

The truth was somewhat more prosaic. It was actually the creation of an enterprising New York tobacconist named George Hull. The idea of burying a stone giant in the ground occurred to him after he got into an argument with a methodist Reverend about whether the Bible should be taken literally. Hull, an atheist, didn’t think it should. But the Reverend disagreed. The Reverend insisted that even the passage where it says ‘there were giants in the earth in those days’ should be read as a literal fact. According to Hull, after this discussion he immediately “thought of making a stone, and passing it off as a petrified man.” He figured he could not only use the fake giant to poke fun at Biblical literalists, but also make some money.

Hull’s idea turned out to be a stroke of genius. The entire venture cost him over $2,600 (all done with the collusion of the farmer Newell and the stonecutters who carved the giant), but the gamble paid off when a group of businessmen paid $37,500 to buy the giant and move it to Syracuse, where it could be more prominently exhibited.

In Syracuse the giant came under closer scrutiny. Othniel C. Marsh, a paleontologist from Yale, paid it a visit and declared it to be a clumsy fake. He pointed out that chisel marks were still plainly visible on it. These should have worn away if the giant had been in the ground for any appreciable length of time. Sensing that the game was up (and having already cashed out), Hull confessed. But the public didn’t seem to care that it was fake. They kept coming to see it anyway. They even began referring to it affectionately as ‘Old Hoaxey.’

Recognizing the giant’s popularity, the great showman P.T. Barnum offered the new owners $60,000 for a three-month lease of it. When his offer was refused, he paid an artist to build an exact plaster replica of it, which he then put on display in his museum in New York City. Soon the replica was drawing larger crowds than the original. This competition prompted the owners of the giant to file a lawsuit against Barnum, but the judge refused to hear their case unless the ‘genuineness’ of the orignal could be proven. Sheepishly they dropped their charges. What is believed to be Barnum’s replica of the giant is currently on display in Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, located outside of Detroit. (Note: Marvin’s Museum is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Detroit area. It also hosts an amazing collection of coin-operated mechanical oddities).

Many have declared the Cardiff Giant to be the greatest hoax of all time. Whether or not this is the case, its huge size and mysterious presence certainly tapped into some strange element of the post-Civil War American psyche. Although the massive public interest in the giant gradually died down, it remained popular. Even today people still make the journey to visit it at its permanent home in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York (down the road from the Baseball Hall of Fame).