The moon-hoax.

The most stupendous scientific imposition upon the public that the generation with which we are numbered has known, was the so-called “Moon-Hoax,” published in the columns of the New York Sun, in the months of August and September, 1835. The sensation created by this immense imposture, not only throughout the United States, but in every part of the civilized world, and the consummate ability with which it was written, will render it interesting so long as our language shall endure; and, indeed, astronomical science has actually been indebted to it for many most valuable hints⁠—a circumstance that gives the production a still higher claim to immortality.

At the period when the wonderful “yarn” to which I allude first appeared, the science of astronomy was engaging particular attention, and all works on the subject were eagerly bought up and studied by immense masses of people. The real discoveries of the younger Herschel, whose fame seemed destined to eclipse that of the elder sage of the same name, and the eloquent startling works of Dr. Dick, which the Harpers were republishing, in popular form, from the English edition, did much to increase and keep up this peculiar mania of the time, until the whole community at last were literally occupied with but little else than “stargazing.” Dick’s works on “The Sidereal Heavens,” “Celestial Scenery,” “The improvement of Society,” etc., were read with the utmost avidity by rich and poor, old and young, in season and out of season. They were quoted in the parlor, at the table, on the promenade, at church, and even in the bedroom, until it absolutely seemed as though the whole community had “Dick” upon the brain. To the highly educated and imaginative portion of our good Gothamite population, the Doctor’s glowing periods, full of the grandest speculations as to the starry worlds around us, their wondrous magnificence and ever-varying aspects of beauty and happiness were inexpressibly fascinating. The author’s well-reasoned conjectures as to the majesty and beauty of their landscapes, the fertility and diversity of their soil, and the exalted intelligence and comeliness of their inhabitants, found hosts of believers; and nothing else formed the staple of conversation, until the beaux and belles, and dealers in small talk generally, began to grumble, and openly express their wishes that the Dickens had Doctor Dick and all his works.

It was at the very height of the furor above mentioned, that one morning the readers of the Sun⁠—at that time only twenty-five hundred in number⁠—were thrilled with the announcement in its columns of certain “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, LL.D., F.R.S. etc., at the Cape of Good Hope,” purporting to be a republication from a Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The heading of the article was striking enough, yet was far from conveying any adequate idea of its contents. When the latter became known, the excitement went beyond all bounds, and grew until the Sun office was positively besieged with crowds of people of the very first class, vehemently applying for copies of the issue containing the wonderful details.

As the pamphlet form in which the narrative was subsequently published is now out of print, and a copy can hardly be had in the country, I will recall a few passages from a rare edition, for the gratification of my friends who have never seen the original. Indeed, the whole story is altogether too good to be lost; and it is a great pity that we can not have a handsome reprint of it given to the world from time to time. It is constantly in demand; and, during the year 1859, a single copy of sixty pages, sold at the auction of Mr. Haswell’s library, brought the sum of $3.75. In that same year, a correspondent, in Wisconsin, writing to the Sunday Times of this city, inquired where the book could be procured, and was answered that he could find it at the old bookstore, No. 85 Center Street, if anywhere. Thus, after a search of many weeks, the Western bibliopole succeeded in obtaining a well-thumbed specimen of the precious work. Acting upon this chance suggestion, Mr. William Gowans, of this city, during the same year, brought out a very neat edition, in paper covers, illustrated with a view of the moon, as seen through Lord Rosse’s grand telescope, in 1856. But this, too, has all been sold; and the most indefatigable book-collector might find it difficult to purchase a single copy at the present time. I, therefore, render the inquiring reader no slight service in culling for him some of the flowers from this curious astronomical garden.

The opening of the narrative was in the highest Review style; and the majestic, yet subdued, dignity of its periods, at once claimed respectful attention; while its perfect candor, and its wealth of accurate scientific detail exacted the homage of belief from all but cross-grained and inexorable skeptics.

It commences thus:

“In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness to make known to the British public, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy, which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiac around him with a loftier consciousness of his mental superiority,” etc., etc.

The writer then eloquently descanted upon the sublime achievement by which man pierced the bounds that hemmed him in, and with sensations of awe approached the revelations of his own genius in the far-off heavens, and with intense dramatic effect described the younger Herschel surpassing all that his father had ever attained; and by some stupendous apparatus about to unveil the remotest mysteries of the sidereal space, pausing for many hours ere the excess of his emotions would allow him to lift the veil from his own overwhelming success.

I must quote a line or two of this passage, for it capped the climax of public curiosity:

“Well might he pause! He was about to become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscious preeminence above every individual of his species who then lived or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket that contained it.”

Was not this introduction enough to stimulate the wonder bump of all the stargazers, until

“Each particular hair did stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine?”

At all events, such was the effect, and it was impossible at first to supply the frantic demand, even of the city, not to mention the country readers.

I may very briefly sum up the outline of the discoveries alleged to have been made, in a few paragraphs, so as not to protract the suspense of my readers too long.

It was claimed that the Edinburgh Journal was indebted for its information to Doctor Andrew Grant⁠—a savant of celebrity, who had, for very many years, been the scientific companion, first of the elder and subsequently of the younger Herschel, and had gone with the latter in September, 1834, to the Cape of Good Hope, whither he had been sent by the British Government, acting in conjunction with the Governments of France and Austria, to observe the transit of Mercury over the disc of the sun⁠—an astronomical point of great importance to the lunar observations of longitude, and consequently to the navigation of the world. This transit was not calculated to occur before the 7th of November, 1835 (the year in which the hoax was printed;) but Sir John Herschel set out nearly a year in advance, for the purpose of thoroughly testing a new and stupendous telescope devised by himself under this peculiar inspiration, and infinitely surpassing anything of the kind ever before attempted by mortal man. It has been discovered by previous astronomers and among others, by Herschel’s illustrious father, that the sidereal object becomes dim in proportion as it is magnified, and that, beyond a certain limit, the magnifying power is consequently rendered almost useless. Thus, an impassable barrier seemed to lie in the way of future close observation, unless some means could be devised to illuminate the object to the eye. By intense research and the application of all recent improvements in optics, Sir John had succeeded in securing a beautiful and perfectly lighted image of the moon with a magnifying power that increased its apparent size in the heavens six thousand times. Dividing the distance of the moon from the Earth, viz.: 240,000 miles, by six thousand, we have forty miles as the distance at which she would then seem to be seen; and as the elder Herschel, with a magnifying power, only one thousand, had calculated that he could distinguish an object on the moon’s surface not more than 122 yards in diameter, it was clear that his son, with six times the power, could see an object there only twenty-two yards in diameter. But, for any further advance in power and light, the way seemed insuperably closed until a profound conversation with the great savant and optician, Sir David Brewster, led Herschel to suggest to the latter the idea of the readoption of the old fashioned telescopes, without tubes, which threw their images upon reflectors in a dark apartment, and then the illumination of these images by the intense hydro-oxygen light used in the ordinary illuminated microscope. At this suggestion, Brewster is represented by the veracious chronicler as leaping with enthusiasm from his chair, exclaiming in rapture to Herschel:

“Thou art the man!”

The suggestion, thus happily approved, was immediately acted upon, and a subscription, headed by that liberal patron of science, the Duke of Sussex, with £10,000, was backed by the reigning King of England with his royal word for any sum that might be needed to make up £70,000, the amount required. No time was lost; and, after one or two failures, in January 1833, the house of Hartley & Grant, at Dumbarton, succeeded in casting the huge object-glass of the new apparatus, measuring twenty-four feet (or six times that of the elder Herschel’s glass) in diameter; weighing 14,826 pounds, or nearly seven tons, after being polished, and possessing a magnifying power of 42,000 times!⁠—a perfectly pure, spotless, achromatic lens, without a material bubble or flaw!

Of course, after so elaborate a description of so astounding a result as this, the Edinburg Scientific Journal (i.e., the writer in the “New York Sun”) could not avoid being equally precise in reference to subsequent details, and he proceeded to explain that Sir JohnHerschel and his amazing apparatus having been selected by the Board of Longitude to observe the transit of Mercury, the Cape of Good Hope was chosen because, upon the former expedition to Peru, acting in conjunction with one to Lapland, which was sent out for the same purpose in the eighteenth century, it had been noticed that the attraction of the mountainous regions deflected the plumb-line of the large instruments seven or eight seconds from the perpendicular, and, consequently, greatly impaired the enterprise. At the Cape, on the contrary, there was a magnificent tableland of vast expanse, where this difficulty could not occur. Accordingly, on the 4th of September, 1834, with a design to become perfectly familiar with the working of his new gigantic apparatus, and with the Southern Constellations, before the period of his observations of Mercury, Sir John Herschel sailed from London, accompanied by Doctor Grant (the supposed informant,) Lieutenant Drummond, of the Royal Engineers, F.R.A.S., and a large party of the best English workmen. On their arrival at the Cape, the apparatus was conveyed, in four days’ time, to the great elevated plain, thirty-five miles to the N.E. of Cape Town, on trains drawn by two relief-teams of oxen, eighteen to a team, the ascent aided by gangs of Dutch boors. For the details of the huge fabric in which the lens and its reflectors were set up, I must refer the curious reader to the pamphlet itself⁠—not that the presence of the “Dutch boors” alarms me at all, since we have plenty of boors at home, and one gets used to them in the course of time, but because the elaborate scientific description of the structure would make most readers see “stars” in broad daylight before they get through.

I shall only go on to say that, by the 10th of January, everything was complete, even to the two pillars “one hundred and fifty feet high!” that sustained the lens. Operations then commenced forthwith, and so, too, did the “special wonder” of the readers. It is a matter of congratulation to mankind that the writer of the hoax, with an apology (Heaven save the mark!) spared us Herschel’s notes of “the Moon’s tropical, sidereal, and synodic revolutions,” and the “phenomena of the syzygies,” and proceeded at once to the pith of the subject. Here came in his grand stroke, informing the world of complete success in obtaining a distinct view of objects in the moon “fully equal to that which the unaided eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards, affirmatively settling the question whether the satellite be inhabited, and by what order of beings,” “firmly establishing a new theory of cometary phenomena,” etc., etc. This announcement alone was enough to take one’s breath away, but when the green marble shores of the Mare Nubium; the mountains shaped like pyramids, and of the purest and most dazzling crystalized, wine-colored amethyst, dotting green valleys skirted by “round-breasted hills;” summits of the purest vermilion fringed with arching cascades and buttresses of white marble glistening in the sun⁠—when these began to be revealed, the delight of our Lunatics knew no bounds⁠—and the whole town went moon-mad! But even these immense pictures were surpassed by the “lunatic” animals discovered. First came the “herds of brown quadrupeds” very like a⁠—no! not a whale, but a bison, and “with a tail resembling that of the bos grunniens”⁠—the reader probably understands what kind of a “bos” that is, if he’s apprenticed to a theatre in midsummer with musicians on a strike; then a creature, which the hoax-man naively declared “would be classed on Earth as a monster”⁠—I rather think it would!⁠—“of a bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and a beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from, the perpendicular”⁠—it is clear that if this goat was cut down to a single horn, other people were not! I could not but fully appreciate the exquisite distinction accorded by the writer to the female of this lunar animal⁠—for she, while deprived of horn and beard, he explicitly tells us, “had a much larger tail!” When the astronomers put their fingers on the beard of this “beautiful” little creature (on the reflector, mind you!) it would skip away in high dudgeon, which, considering that 240,000 miles intervened, was something to show its delicacy of feeling.

Next in the procession of discovery, among other animals of less note, was presented “a quadruped with an amazingly long neck, head like a sheep, bearing two long spiral horns, white as polished ivory, and standing in perpendiculars parallel to each other. Its body was like that of a deer, but its forelegs were most disproportionately long, and its tail, which was very bushy and of a snowy whiteness, curled high over its rump and hung two or three feet by its side. Its colors were bright bay and white, brindled in patches, but of no regular form.” This is probably the animal known to us on Earth, and particularly along the Mississippi River, as the “guyascutus,” to which I may particularly refer in a future article.

But all these beings faded into insignificance compared with the first sight of the genuine Lunatics, or men in the moon, “four feet high, covered, except in the face, with short, glossy, copper-colored hair,” and “with wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs,” “with faces of a yellowish flesh-color⁠—a slight improvement on the large orangutan.” Complimentary for the Lunatics! But, says the chronicler, Lieutenant Drummond declared that “but for their long wings, they would look as well on a parade-ground as some of the cockney militia!” A little rough, my friend the reader will exclaim, for the aforesaid militia.

Of course, it is impossible, in a sketch like the present, to do more than give a glimpse of this rare combination of astronomical realities and the vagaries of mere fancy, and I must omit the Golden-fringed Mountains, the Vale of the Triads, with their splendid triangular temples, etc., but I positively cannot pass by the glowing mention of the inhabitants of this wonderful valley⁠—a superior race of Lunatics, as beautiful and as happy as angels, “spread like eagles” on the grass, eating yellow gourds and red cucumbers, and played with by snow-white stags, with jet-black horns! The description here is positively delightful, and I even now remember my poignant sigh of regret when, at the conclusion, I read that these innocent and happy beings, although evidently “creatures of order and subordination,” and “very polite,” were seen indulging in amusements which would not be deemed “within the bounds of strict propriety” on this degenerate ball. The story wound up rather abruptly by referring the reader to an extended work on the subject by Herschel, which has not yet appeared.

One can laugh very heartily, now, at all this; but nearly everybody, the gravest and the wisest, too, was completely taken in at the time: and the Sun, then established at the corner of Spruce Street, where the Tribune office now stands, reaped an increase of more than fifty thousand to its circulation⁠—in fact, there gained the foundation of its subsequent prolonged success. Its proprietors sold no less than $25,000 worth of the “Moon Hoax” over the counter, even exhausting an edition of sixty thousand in pamphlet form. And who was the author? A literary gentleman, who has devoted very many years of his life to mathematical and astronomical studies, and was at the time connected as an editor with the Sun⁠—one whose name has since been widely known in literature and politics⁠—Richard Adams Locke, Esq., then in his youth, and now in the decline of years. Mr. Locke, who still survives, is a native of the British Isles, and, at the time of his first connection with the New York press, was the only shorthand reporter in this city, where he laid the basis of a competency he now enjoys. Mr. Locke declares that his original object in writing the Moon story was to satirize some of the extravagances of Doctor Dick, and to make some astronomical suggestions which he felt diffident about offering seriously.

Whatever may have been his object, his hit was unrivaled; and for months the press of Christendom, but far more in Europe than here, teemed with it, until Sir John Herschel was actually compelled to come out with a denial over his own signature. In the meantime, it was printed and published in many languages, with superb illustrations. Mr. Endicott, the celebrated lithographer, some years ago had in his possession a splendid series of engravings, of extra folio size, got up in Italy, in the highest style of art, and illustrating the “Moon Hoax.”

Here, in New York, the public were, for a long time, divided on the subject, the vast majority believing, and a few grumpy customers rejecting the story. One day, Mr. Locke was introduced by a mutual friend at the door of the Sun office to a very grave old orthodox Quaker, who, in the calmest manner, went on to tell him all about the embarkation of Herschel’s apparatus at London, where he had seen it with his own eyes. Of course, Locke’s optics expanded somewhat while he listened to this remarkable statement, but he wisely kept his own counsel.

The discussions of the press were very rich; the Sun, of course, defending the affair as genuine, and others doubting it. The Mercantile Advertiser, the Albany Daily Advertiser, the New York Commercial Advertiser, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New York Spirit of ’76, the Sunday News, the United States Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and hosts of other papers came out with the most solemn acceptance and admiration of these “wonderful discoveries,” and were eclipsed in their approval only by the scientific journals abroad. The Evening Post, however, was decidedly skeptical, and took up the matter in this irreverent way:

“It is quite proper that the Sun should be the means of shedding so much light on the Moon. That there should be winged people in the moon does not strike us as more wonderful than the existence of such a race of beings on the Earth; and that there does still exist such a race, rests on the evidence of that most veracious of voyagers and circumstantial of chroniclers, Peter Wilkins, whose celebrated work not only gives an account of the general appearance and habits of a most interesting tribe of flying Indians; but, also, of all those more delicate and engaging traits which the author was enabled to discover by reason of the conjugal relations he entered into with one of the females of the winged tribe.”

The moon-hoax had its day, and some of its glory still survives. Mr. Locke, its author, is now quietly residing in the beautiful little home of a friend on the Clove Road, Staten Island, and no doubt, as he gazes up at the evening luminary, often fancies that he sees a broad grin on the countenance of its only well-authenticated tenant, “the hoary solitary whom the criminal code of the nursery has banished thither for collecting fuel on the Sabbath-day.”