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In the golden age of hoaxes, petrified men came to life

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Mark Twain parodied petrifaction hoaxes with his account of the discovery of one, which some newspapers took as a true story. He also aimed his humor at the Cardiff Giant.

Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols are nowhere listed among the heroes of American archaeology, but the discovery they made on October 16, 1869, captured the nation's imagination. Digging a well on the farm of William "Stub" Newell in the hamlet of Cardiff, New York, they hit stone three feet down. Clearing the soil, they recognized the shape of a foot, and one of them uttered the immortal words, "I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!"

Soon they had unearthed a colossal stone figure more than 10 feet from head to toe. What Emmons and Nichols didn't know was the stone man was the creation of Binghamton cigar maker George Hull, who was Newell's cousin, and that Hull and Newell had planted it there nearly a year before. Hundreds of people flocked to see the marvel. Newell set up a tent over it and started charging 25c a head. Business was so brisk that he increased it to 50c two days later.

Andrew White, first president of Cornell University, later described his visit: "The roads were crowded with buggies, carriages, and even omnibuses from the city, and with lumber-wagons from the farms--all laden with passengers." The giant was an impressive sight. "Lying in its grave," wrote White, "with the subdued light from the roof of the tent falling upon it, and with the limbs contorted as if in a death struggle, it produced a most weird effect. An air of great solemnity pervaded the place. Visitors hardly spoke above a whisper."

White nonetheless recognized immediately that the giant was a hoax: it was obviously a statue, and not a very good one, and there was no reason for the two laborers to have been digging a well at the spot they found it. Even so, White overheard "a very excellent doctor of divinity, pastor of one of the largest churches in Syracuse" declare that, "Is it not strange that any human being, after seeing this wonderfully preserved figure, can deny the evidence of his senses, and refuse to believe, what is so evidently the fact, that we have here a fossilized human being, perhaps one of the giants mentioned in Scripture?"

"Therefore it was," recalled White, "that, in spite of all scientific reasons to the contrary, the work was very generally accepted as a petrified human being of colossal size, and became known as 'the Cardiff Giant.'"

Evidence of giants in America was nothing new. The Massachusetts Puritan Cotton Mather believed that mastodon fossils found near Albany, New York, in 1705 were those of giants who had perished in Noah's flood. "The Giants that once groaned under the waters," he wrote, "are now under the Earth, and their Dead Bones are lively Proofs of the Mosaic history." Nearly a century later, when Connecticut farmer Pliny Moody discovered foot-long three-toed tracks in a sandstone ridge on his land, his pastor identified them as from Noah's raven, which had "rested on that ledge and probably slept there before resuming the dangerous journey back to the Ark." The same cleric later deduced that dinosaur bones found to the south were "probably the remains of giant humans."

Thomas Jefferson had his own interest in fossils, and in 1804 he even set aside a room in the White House for his collection of extinct elephant, giant ground sloth, and bison bones, teeth, and tusks. Earlier, he had convinced Yale College president Ezra Stiles that such remains were of animals rather than giants. Fascinated by an immense claw of a ground sloth, Jefferson wrote to a friend, "I cannot...help believing that this animal, as well as the mammoth, are still existing."

For Josiah Priest, writing in his American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West, ancient North America had been crowded with Egyptians, Romans, Lost Tribes of Israel, "Hindoos," and others. And giants? Priest cites Scripture on giants and notes, "There are those who imagine that the first inhabitants of the globe, or the antediluvians, were much larger than our race at the present time." And he reports discoveries such as one in Indiana of "several sculls, legs and thigh bones, which plainly show that their possessors were persons of gigantic stature." Laughable today, American Antiquities was a bestseller when it appeared in 1835, going through five editions and 22,000 copies.

At midcentury, Charles Darwin's ideas of natural selection would challenge the idea that species were never-changing and undermine the biblical account of Noah's flood and the belief that fossils (including those of "giants") were evidence of life forms obliterated by that flood. Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in November 1859, almost exactly a decade before the discovery of the Cardiff Giant. But what impact did it have on the general public? Publisher John Murray, fearing a financial fiasco, had balked at the 500-page manuscript, and initially asked that Darwin cut it down and focus the work on pigeons because "everybody is interested in pigeons." Murray's fears proved unfounded, and the book went into a second edition in 1860, but it was handily outsold by Samuel Smiles' Self-Help.

George Hull is one person who might have read Darwin. In 1866, Hull was in Ackley, Iowa, looking into why his brother-in-law was late paying for a consignment of 10,000 cigars. While there, Hull, an atheist, got into a heated argument with Rev. Mr. Turk, a Methodist revivalist. Hull later recalled spending the night "wondering about 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."

Secrecy was critical to his plan, so Hull decided to make the petrified man far from New York. Back in Iowa in June 1868, he found suitable stone near Fort Dodge and hired men to quarry out an 11-foot-long block of gypsum. Fearful of a leak, Hull told them that the stone was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. Shipped by train to Chicago, the block was carved by a German stone cutter, who was sworn to silence. The finished giant, weighing almost 3,000 pounds, went by rail to a station near Binghamton, and from there went to Cardiff in November 1868. It was duly excavated there the following October by Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, who were directed to the spot by Newell. After the discovery, Hull found out that Newell had told others about the hoax. The secret wouldn't last long, so he sold the giant to a syndicate of businessmen led by a David Hannum, receiving altogether $23,000. Hull's timing was impeccable. On November 5, the syndicate had the giant dug up and shipped to Syracuse, later taking it on the road, heading toward New York City. But there was trouble on the horizon in the form of P.T. Barnum.

A ruthless competitor, Barnum capitalized on the Cardiff hoax in a masterful fashion, as told in his Funny Stories (1890): "One thing was certain--it was a great attraction, visited by hundreds of people daily, and I thought that so great a curiosity should be exhibited under proper management in New York city. I therefore approached the proprietors, and said, 'I will give you fifty thousand dollars for your Cardiff Giant, as it is.'"

When they declined the offer, Barnum decided to make an exact copy of the giant. He sent an undercover agent to the exhibition who covertly modeled the giant's shape in a lump of wax. Creating a plaster replica based on the model and the giant's measurements, taken from advertisements, was easy. Barnum arranged for his copy to be shown at a museum in New York, where it was, he wrote, "a considerable attraction, and drew crowds of visitors, while the original was lumbering along down the North [Hudson] River, stopping at towns on the way."

Commenting on those who paid to see Barnum's fake giant, Hannum remarked, "There's a sucker born every minute." The syndicate sought an injunction against Barnum, but the judge told them, "Bring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrifaction, you shall have the injunction you ask for."

The courtroom loss was just one of several setbacks. On November 25, Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh wrote a scathing denunciation of the Cardiff Giant: "It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.... I am surprised that any scientific observers should not have at once detected the unmistakable evidence against its antiquity." Then, on December 10, Hull confessed all in the press.

Hull was not, in fact, the originator of the petrifaction idea. There was a petrifaction spoof in the newspaper Alta California in 1858. Written as a letter from a bogus German scholar, Friederich Lichtenberger, M.D., it tells of an unfortunate prospector named Ernest Flucterspiegel, who drank a half-pint of fluid he found inside a geode. Returning to camp, he had pains in the "epigastric" and "left hypochondriac" regions. He was soon dead, inflexible, and stone. Dissecting the corpse with a hatchet, the scientific Lichtenberger found the heart "strongly resembled a piece of red jasper."

Better known is Mark Twain's parody of the discovery of a petrified man published in the Territorial Enterprise in October 1862. It began with a deadpan: "A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner." If the wooden leg wasn't enough of a tip-off, Twain described the seated petrifaction as thumbing his nose. Surprisingly, eight of the twelve newspapers that picked up the story gave no indication that it was a spoof, intended to make fun of other petrifaction stories then current. Twain followed this with a brief update a month later: "Mr. Herr Weisnicht [know-nothing] has just arrived in Virginia City.... He brings with him the head and one foot of the petrified man, lately found in the mountains near Gravelly Ford. A skillful assayer has analyzed a small portion of dirt found under the nail of the great toe and pronounces the man to have been a native of the Kingdom of New Jersey."

In 1870, Twain took on the Cardiff Giant in "A Ghost Story," set in a hotel room in Manhattan into which barges a large and clumsy phantom--the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. The sad-sack spook wants to be reburied on Newell's farm, but is confused and is mistakenly haunting Barnum's museum. "Why you poor blundering old fossil," exclaims the hotel guest. "You have had all your troubles for nothing--you have been haunting a plaster cast of yourself--the real Cardiff Giant is in Albany! Confound it, don't you know your own remains?"

The Cardiff Giant gave rise to at least a dozen similar hoaxes. Ticket sales and the possibility of a quick sell for big money seem to have been the motives for most. One such was "The Solid Muldoon." Found near Beulah, Colorado, in 1876, it was probably named for William Muldoon, the strongman and boxer. Muldoon's petrified namesake was exhibited at 50c a ticket, and whether he did or not, it was claimed that P.T. Barnum offered $20,000 for the petrifaction, lending it the great showman's approbation. A disgruntled insider revealed that the perpetrator was none other than George Hull, creator of the Cardiff Giant, assisted by William Conant, a former Barnum employee. The Muldoon was solid, made of a mixture of rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood, and meat that was kiln fired for days. Yale's Othniel Marsh reprised his Cardiff role, examining the hoax and consigning it to scientific oblivion. One giveaway was the fact that Muldoon had a tail, perhaps a nod by the atheist Hull to Darwin.

Giants also had value as marketing gimmicks. In the mid 1870s, there was a mortal struggle between Taughannock House and Cataract House, two hotels at Lake Cayuga, New York. In 1877, the Taughannock's owner hired a local foundry worker to cook up a petrified man, then had it planted where laborers widening the hotel's road would find it. They did, and the giant drew crowds to Taughannock House. But the hotel's newfound prosperity was only temporary. One of those who helped bury the giant spilled the beans while drunk in a bar. P.T. Barnum's agent was supposedly among those present and promptly left town. Worse, iron filings were one of the giant's main ingredients, and on exposure to air it began rusting.

Petrified men continued to be moneymakers, but the game was wearing thin. In 1892, drawn by the silver boom, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith moved to Creede, Colorado. A con man, Soapy soon ruled over Creede's vice industry, pickpockets, and riffraff. He played the petrified-man hoax for a quick kill. His concrete giant, nicknamed McGinty, was buried and then found at nearby Willow Creek and displayed in his saloon, the Orleans Club, for an exorbitant $1 a head. There was no attempt to maintain the hoax in the face of scientific inquiry. By the time an expert arrived to examine the petrifaction, it had disappeared. Soapy later disappeared from Creede himself, ending up in Skagway, Alaska, where he was gunned down in 1898.

But just when a subject seems exhausted, someone takes it to a higher level, winning a jaded audience and overcoming growing skepticism by making the story more incredible than ever. That is what happened in 1899, when a petrified man was found near Fort Benton, Montana. Local newspapers marveled at its "neatly trimmed sideburns and mustache" and features "so perfect that a person who knew the dead man in life could not fail to recognize him now." Eventually, he was identified, as reported in the Bozeman Chronicle: it was General Thomas Meagher. An Irish and Civil War hero, Meagher had been named territorial acting governor for Montana, but proved to be unstable. Paranoid, he believed that there was a conspiracy against him, and he drank too much. On the night of July 1, 1867, he fell off a steamboat into the Missouri near Fort Benton and drowned. An alternative identification--"Liver Eating Johnson" thought he recognized his old partner, "Antelope Charlie"--was rejected.

"General Meagher" headed through Chicago to New York, where he was the headline story in the World's Sunday supplement. But times were changing. Placed prominently on page one was a box titled "Proved by X-Ray to Be a Genuine Petrified Man." According to one Edwin S. Kellogg, M.D., the bones were in place, even though the brain was "atrophied through petrifaction." Businessman Arthur Miles, Meagher's owner, said he would consult with the Smithsonian on whether his man was genuine, but somehow never did.

Skepticism and a flooded market led to the devaluation of petrified men. Where Barnum admitted offering $50,000 for the Cardiff Giant in 1869, his supposed offer for the Solid Muldoon seven years later was only $20,000. By the 1890s, petrified men were cheap: one found at Wind Cave, South Dakota, went for $2,000 and another, found near Fresno and exhibited in the Popular Drug Store there, sold for $1,000. Arthur Miles was told by his father in 1899 that he knew of one for sale at "a dollar six bits." Petrified men had lost their financial punch. The game was over.

Relegated to a barn in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the Cardiff Giant made an appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, but it was a flop and attracted little attention. A Des Moines, Iowa, publisher bought it, but in 1947 he sold it to the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, where it is now displayed beneath a tent that duplicates the one under which it was exhibited at Stub Newell's farm in October 1869.

Why had the petrified men succeeded at all? The belief in giants and search for evidence of them had a long history. Andrew White, who witnessed crowds at Cardiff, wrote, "There seemed no possibility even of suspending the judgment of the great majority who saw the statue. As a rule, they insisted on believing it a 'petrified giant.'" There was, he noted, a "joy in believing" that was "increased by the peculiarly American superstition that the correctness of a belief is decided by the number of people who can be induced to adopt it." White could have been writing of Mary L. Day Arms, who recorded her impressions of the Solid Muldoon in The World As I Have Found It (1878): "throngs of wonder-seekers were irresistibly drawn, all of whom, as if entering the presence chamber of the King of Terrors, seemed awed by this silent 'representative of the dead past,' and with hushed voices and bated breath, lingered over the lineaments of one, which, if it had been known at that time was not a real petrifaction, would perhaps have excited only feelings of ridicule and words of derision. We were willing to be humbugged with the rest."

Ken Feder, author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries (2001), says, "The most obvious explanation is that the Cardiff Giant confirmed biblical stories of giants. Then there were folks who probably knew better, the smart businessmen in Syracuse--they saw that people were coming in to see the giant, using hotel space and buying food." Another possibility, he says, is that it is like reading the National Enquirer today. People didn't really believe it, but were willing to pay 50c to see the Cardiff Giant because they thought it was interesting. Feder's own experience at the Farmer's Museum is also enlightening, if discouraging. "They have the giant in a tent with a sign outside saying 'World's Greatest Hoax' along with displays inside explaining it. A couple came in and walked around the giant. As they left the wife turned to her husband and said, 'So is that real?' And the husband shrugged and said, 'I guess so.'"

Somewhere, George Hull and P.T. Barnum must still be laughing about the Cardiff Giant, and perhaps David Hannum is thinking, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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