The Cardiff Giant, sometimes referred to as “America’s Biggest Hoax,” is a 10-foot-long stone figure that was touted as a petrified giant. It was created during the 1860s by George Hull, a businessman from Binghamton, New York, and briefly captured the imaginations and pocketbooks of thousands of Americans.
Paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh declared that it was a fake and on February 2, 1870, the Chicago Tribute published an exposé that included confessions from the masons who had worked on the giant. Hull walked away from the encounter with between $15,000 and $20,000, a small fortune at the time. Today, the Cardiff Giant can be seen at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Hoaxes were common during the 19th century, according to Michael Pettit’s essay in the journal Isis, "'The Joy in Believing': The Cardiff Giant, Commercial Deceptions, and Styles of Observation in Gilded Age America." The Industrial Revolution was expanding the middle class, especially in the North, which had prospered during the Civil War. In the wake of the war, many Americans were more open to ideas they associated with progress, including natural science. It was the beginning of the Gilded Age, which was characterized by optimism, materialism and individuality.
Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859, had ignited an interest in fossils and evolution. Its conflict with established religious beliefs further enticed the public, though most Americans still held Christian beliefs. But, in the journal New York History article, “The Cardiff Giant: A Hundred Year Old Hoax,” Barbara Franco writes that "people were interested in the new sciences without really understanding them. The nineteenth century public often failed to make a distinction between popular and serious studies of subjects. They heard lectures, attended theaters, went to curiosity museums, the circus and revival meetings with much the same enthusiasm.”
This was a culture ripe for hoaxes, and no one epitomized them better than P.T. Barnum. According to James W. Cook in “The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum” (Harvard, 2001), Barnum, the self-proclaimed Prince of Humbugs, mixed real and fake artifacts in his New York City American Museum. Viewers were invited to actively participate in making judgments about the artifacts. Were they real or not? What did the viewer’s individual senses and knowledge tell him or her about the object or person on display? The Cardiff Giant offered an opportunity for similar engagement. This focus on individual interpretation was a form of entertainment that also exemplified the increased autonomy of the time, as well as the country’s (or at least the North’s) pride in democracy after the Civil War. Spectacles like Barnum’s troubled the normally firm lines of truth, religion, class, race in a way that appealed to American mass audiences in the wake of the war.
Inspiration of biblical proportions
Though the Cardiff Giant appealed to a wide range of viewers, George Hull’s primary impetus for creating it was to demonstrate the gullibility of religious believers. Hull was an atheist, which, even in a time of increased interest in science, put him in a tiny minority and made him something of an outcast, according to Scott Tribble, author of “A Colossal Hoax: The Giant from Cardiff That Fooled America” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), who spoke to Live Science about the Cardiff Giant.
Hull worked as a tobacconist in Binghamton, New York. In 1867, he went to Ackley, Iowa, for business and, while there, had a long discussion with a traveling Methodist revivalist preacher called Reverend Turk. They argued over the biblical passage, “there were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4). The preacher argued that everything in the Bible, even that phrase, should be taken literally. Hull disagreed, but the preacher’s assertion got him thinking. According to Jim Murphy’s “The Giant and How He Humbugged America” (Scholastic, 2013), Hull stated that he lay in bed that night “wondering why people would believe those remarkable stories in the Bible about giants when suddenly I thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as a petrified man.”
His trick would illustrate what he considered the ridiculousness of literal belief in such Bible stories. Hull knew about hoaxes and the successes of people like Barnum, and thought he could also make money. “Hull had been something of a social outcast, partly due to his atheism. The Cardiff Giant was his chance to stick it to his enemies and make them look foolish in a very public way,” Tribble told Live Science.
Hull couldn’t get the idea of making a stone giant hoax out of his head. He sold his business and set about making the giant a reality.
Creating the Cardiff Giant
It took Hull more than two and a half years and about $2,600 to make the Cardiff Giant. He visited several states searching for the right natural materials. “Hull eventually found his stuff of giants in Fort Dodge, Iowa,” Tribble said. “He quarried a 5-ton [4.5 metric tons] block of gypsum and, at the height of summer, personally conveyed it by wagon to the nearest rail station, more than 40 miles [64 kilometers] away.
"Hull then shipped the block east to Chicago, where he already had secured a partner and a couple of stone workers for hire," Tribble continued. "Over the course of several weeks, Hull and his team fashioned the 10-foot, 3,000-lb. [3 meters, 1,361 kilograms] giant down to every last detail, including tiny pores on the giant’s surface.”
The giant had details like nails, nostrils and an Adam’s apple, clearly visible ribs, and even a hint of muscle definition. Its left leg was twisted over the right and its hand seemed to be holding its stomach in pain, though the facial expression was serene. Later, visitors would remark upon its “benevolent smile,” according to Franco. The giant originally had hair and a beard, but were removed when Hull learned that hair would not petrify. Workers applied sulfuric acid and other liquids that left it with a dark, dingy, aged hue.
The giant’s gravesite
Hull toured several states looking for the right “burial” location for the giant. Eventually, he settled on Cardiff, New York, about 60 miles (96 km) north of Hull’s home in Binghamton. Hull’s cousin, William C. “Stub” Newell had a farm there that Hull could use for a burial spot. Several fish fossils had been found in a lake nearby. Cardiff was also an advantageous location because, writes Tribble, that area of upstate New York had a long history of hosting religious revivals and movements. Cardiff is near the infamous burned-over district, where revivalists preached hellfire and redemption during the Second Great Awakening. Additionally, several religious leaders claimed that God had appeared in the area. The most famous of these claims came from Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. That a giant from biblical times would have been buried in Cardiff was hardly an out of place idea.
“From Chicago, the giant was moved by rail to the Binghamton area, and then brought to Newell’s farm under the cover of night,” Tribble said. “Hull promised to let Newell know when the time was right to ‘discover’ the giant. That time would come almost a year later, on October 16, 1869.”
On the determined Saturday, Hull and Newell hired two workers to dig a well at the burial site. About 3 feet (1 m) down, they hit the giant’s foot. “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” proclaimed one of the men, according to the journal Archaeology.
Word of the giant spread quickly and by that afternoon a small crowd had gathered on the farm. By Sunday evening, it was estimated that 10,000 people had heard of the giant through word of mouth alone, Tribble said.
On Monday, Newell raised a tent over the giant and began charging visitors 50 cents a head for a 15-minute viewing (about the price of a movie ticket today). Newell averaged 300 to 500 visitors a day for a few weeks, with one Sunday bringing nearly 3,000, according to Franco. Though Newell owned the farm, Hull managed the giant business.
On Tuesday, the New York Daily Tribune ran a front-page story about the giant. This brought the giant national attention, and within days the giant was a leading story in papers across the country, Tribble said.
Fame and theories
Hull decided to make a profit as quickly as possible before the hoax was revealed. On October 23, 1869, a group of local businessmen bought a 75 percent interest in the giant for $30,000, according to Franco. They moved the giant to Syracuse, New York, where its popularity continued. Train companies revised their schedules to allow longer stops in town, hotels and local businesses prospered and in local elections, “Cardiff Giant” received several votes for senator.
“Nearly every day, newspapers would publish the latest theories as to the giant’s origin,” Tribble said. “It didn’t matter whether you were an eminent scientist or a common laborer. Everyone had an opinion on the Cardiff Giant, and Americans were willing to both travel and pay to see it.”
The early Tribune article referred to the giant as a fossil and noted that petrification was the predominant hypothesis of its origins. Petrification became a leading theory about the giant. According to the Farmers’ Museum, some people immediately knew it was a fake. Others were convinced it was a statue of some kind. Dr. John F. Boynton proposed that it was a statue made by a 17th-century Jesuit priest to impress the American Indian tribes. State Geologist James Hall believed it was an ancient statue.
“People saw in the Cardiff Giant what they wanted to see." Tribble said. "For religious believers, the giant was proof of the literal word of the Bible. For scientists, whether the giant was an ancient statue or (less so) a petrified man, it was a monumental discovery. The common thread among believers was that the Cardiff Giant pointed to a new prehistory of the American continent. Depending on what you believed, the giant either connected America to the biblical past or to a heretofore-unknown Greco-Roman-styled civilization.”
A fake of a fake
Not long after the giant was moved to Syracuse, P.T. Barnum offered to buy a quarter share of the giant for $50,000. The Syracuse investors turned him down, but, undeterred, Barnum created his own fake giant and displayed it New York City, according to Archaeology. He ran deceptive ads that implied his was the Cardiff Giant. Barnum’s giant was immensely popular, more so than the original. Some historians theorize that, upon learning about the success of Barnum’s giant, David Hannum, one of the Syracuse investors, coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
In December 1869, the owners, including Hannum, requested a court injunction against Barnum’s exhibition, but the request was denied. Eventually, the Cardiff Giant was moved to New York. Barnum’s giant continued to make more money, and, with two “petrified giants” displayed just a few blocks from each other, it became difficult for anyone to take either giant seriously, according to Franco.
On November 25, 1869, well-regarded paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh penned a scathing rebuke of the Cardiff Giant. “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug,” he wrote. One major sign of its fakery was the fact that gypsum is water-soluble. According to Tribble, this meant the giant could not have survived more than a few years in ground of Newell’s farm, which had several underground streams.
Though there had been skeptics from the beginning, Marsh’s words made an impact. Then, on February 2, 1870, the Chicago Tribune published an expose on the giant, which included confessions from the stone workers. Many considered these confessions the nail in the coffin — the Cardiff Giant was a fake.
Despite the controversy, Hull, Hannum and the other new owners, as well as Barnum, were able to keep their money and continue displaying their giants. In fact, the truth did little to dampen the public’s fascination with the giant. They continued to visit and, according to the Museum of Hoaxes, the public began referring to the Cardiff Giant as “Old Hoaxey.”
Eventually, however, interest waned. Other fake petrified men were “discovered” in subsequent years and by the end of the 1800s an oversaturated market and increased skepticism led to public indifference, according to Archaeology. In 1876, George Hull helped create another fake petrified man called The Solid Muldoon, which was again debunked.
According to Archaeology, the Cardiff Giant spent time in Massachusetts, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo — where it flopped — and Iowa before being sold to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown in 1948, where it now lies.
Tribble described the importance of the Cardiff Giant thusly:
“More than anything, the Cardiff Giant hoax became an important cautionary tale for science. The Giant affair embarrassed a number of well-known scientists, who let their irrational exuberance and speculation get the best of them. The hoax would serve as an important reminder of the value of the scientific method. At the same time, the Cardiff Giant would hasten the emergence of archaeology as a professional discipline in the United States. Within a few decades, amateur artifact hunters and armchair theorists would yield to credentialed scholars trained in archaeological methodology. Carefully practiced and applied, this methodology would make life a lot harder going forward for the George Hulls of the world.”
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Jessie Szalay is a contributing writer to FSR Magazine. Prior to writing for Live Science, she was an editor at Living Social. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from George Mason University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Kenyon College.