The Brief, Lucrative Afterlife of the Cardiff Giant

In the latter half of the 1800s, a giant was found in rural New York. It fooled nearly no one, for nearly no amount of time, but it is one of the more famous hoaxes in history. It served as an annoyance for most, and a business opportunity for some.

In 1869, a New York state tobacconist named George Hull was having a tiff with a local minister. Hull was arguing with a Reverend about whether or not the Bible should be taken literally. (Considering Hull was an atheist, and didn't even take the Bible figuratively, it seems that the two should have just exchanged pleasantries about the weather, but people will bicker.) As an example of a passage that showed that the Bible had to be interpreted through metaphor, Hull pointed to a passage which read, "there were giants in the earth in those day." The Reverend didn't back down. And so Hull resorted to the sort of methods that everybody used before they could vent their frustrations on an internet message board: sculpting massive people out of gypsum.

The Brief, Lucrative Afterlife of the Cardiff Giant

He buried the ten foot tall stone giant in the ground in a nearby field of his friend, a farmer named William Newell. After a few months, Newell hired men to dig a well. On October 16, 1869, they hit thigh, and uncovered the giant. People from all around flocked to see the giant. Many were interested enough to pay fifty cents for the privilege. Few actually believed. Although people were happy to hype it for interest and to sell papers, it took four months for a paleontologist to make the trip out to Cardiff to see this famous giant. Considering the paleontologist was Othniel Marsh, who is famous for being one of the most icily competitive people ever to grace academia, the four months it took for the public to prod him into going says something about how seriously most people took the giant.

Once on the grounds - and presumably fifty cents poorer - Marsh took one look at the giant and dismissed it. In writing of his find, he dryly remarked that, if it had been in the ground since Biblical times, the chisel marks would have worn off. But fame, and not authenticity, makes money. The conspirators had already made enough of a splash that a group of businessmen had bought their giant (which had cost them just under three thousand dollars to make) for $37,500. The businessmen had to have known what they were buying, and had to have hoped that the hoax would have been definitively disproved a little later. They were happy to find that the Cardiff Giant continued to be popular, even after people already knew it had been declared false.

PT Barnum, who never said that there was a sucker born every minute but did have an eye for a bargain, found a way to squeeze in on the notoriety even if he couldn't secure the giant itself. He had a copy of the Cardiff Giant made, and it traveled with his show as he went from town to town.

Via The Museum of Hoaxes and About.com