Beavers and Bat People: The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

A lithograph of "ruby amphitheater," as it was printed in The Sun.
A lithograph of "ruby amphitheater," as it was printed in The Sun.
Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On August 25, 1835, readers who stopped in front of the bellowing newsboys and produced a penny for a copy of New York's The Sun newspaper received a lot to take in. Three-quarters of the front page were devoted to what the newspaper claimed was an excerpt from the credible-sounding Edinburgh Journal of Science. In deepest South Africa, a renowned astronomer named John Herschel had made a fantastic discovery: There was life on the moon. A lot of it. Plants. Beavers that stood on their hind legs. One-horned goats. And bat-people.

Over the next five days, readers were transfixed by a breathless account of Herschel’s peerless (but not peer-reviewed) examination of the moon’s populated surface, using a seven-ton telescope that he had recently constructed. Sweeping his gaze across the lunar environment, Herschel took note of colorful flowers, soul-enriching temples, and humanoids who could fly.

While it seemed too spectacular to be true, Herschel was a real scientist, and a well-respected one; he had previously been quoted pondering life on the moon. He was also known to be in South Africa. The Edinburgh Journal of Science was legitimate, too. Who was anyone to call him a liar?

This “stupendous discovery,” as the paper dubbed it, was to be celebrated. And if discovering life on the moon wasn’t enough, Herschel had also “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.”

The reports captivated the city, spreading to other papers and inviting discussion over their plausibility. Who were these bipedal beavers and moon people? And had they found religion?

 

Founded by editor Benjamin Day in 1833, The Sun was a pioneering newspaper in several ways. Utilizing a steam-powered printing press, it could rattle off tens of thousands of copies in a relatively short period of time; selling for a penny, it was much cheaper than New York’s six-cent alternatives. It was also the first paper in history to make use of newsboys, who would stand on busy streets barking headlines at passersby. At a bargain price, The Sun needed to maintain and bolster its circulation of 15,000 readers in order to attract advertisers.

What they didn’t necessarily need was accuracy. Unlike the later papers of record and their staunch commitments to journalistic integrity, The Sun and other news sources of the era weren’t expected to tell the truth all the time. Items could be satirical or factual; readers might sometimes conflate the two. Before radio, newspapers were perceived as the catch-all entertainment of the day. While not quite as bombastic as the tabloids of the following century, some creative license was expected.

Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

It was under this hazy climate that the paper began to run a startling account of astronomer John Herschel’s work. (His father, William, had discovered Uranus in 1781.) On August 21, The Sun printed what was essentially a teaser, promising readers a glimpse of “astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description.” Four days later, the first of six parts appeared, most of it devoted to a detailed explanation of how Herschel had been able to bear witness to such marvels.

Owing to a “hydro-oxygen microscope” element added to a gigantic telescopic lens, Herschel was able to illuminate a view from great distances. The 24-foot optical device was forged by expert glassmakers. With the power of 42,000x magnification, the report explained, he had hoped to observe possible insect life on the moon from his work base 35 miles from Cape Town, South Africa.

As the series unfolded, it was clear he had far exceeded those expectations. Astonished readers discovered on day two of the series that after training his telescope on the moon, Herschel had caught sight of a dark red flower sprouting from basaltic rock, as well as water and trees. Animals similar to bison roamed the grounds. A bluish single-horned goat trotted in full view of the scope.

On day three, Andrew Grant, the purported author of the articles and a declared associate of Herschel’s, described their most wondrous finding yet:

“… the biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion.”

These sophisticated beavers, Grant reported, had built huts more impressive “than those of many tribes of human savages,” with smoke emanating from their tops. They had apparently mastered the concept of fire.

 

Toasty beaver homes would be hard to top, but Grant had more up his sleeve. On day four, readers learned the men had witnessed “large winged creatures” that were “certainly ... like human beings” and “engaged in conversation.” (The discovery pre-dated the Weekly World News's reveal of Bat Boy by well over a century.)

Portrait of a man-bat from an edition of the Moon series published in Naples.Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Day five brought a description of a temple-like construct that may have indicated these creatures were prone to worship an unknown religion; day six brought mention of a larger variety of the bat-people, who ate fruit in a “rather uncouth” manner.

The final entry in the series also offered an unfortunate postscript of sorts. According to Grant, Herschel’s daily examination of the moon ended abruptly when his telescope had been left in an unfavorable position, absorbing the sun’s rays and sending his observatory into flames. The high-powered device had been damaged and needed to be repaired.

 

The story of life on the moon quickly spread, not only to other New York publications but into other eastern states and then Europe. The New Yorker apparently professed its support for the account; Baptist missionaries reportedly contemplated whether the bat-people might need donations or the teachings of the gospel. The scientific community didn't immediately declare The Sun's reporting fraudulent—after all, they had so little information about the moon, no one could unequivocally state that there wasn’t life there.

James Gordon Bennett was another story. As the editor of the New York Herald, a competing paper, Bennett took to his pages on August 31, immediately after the serial had wrapped, and accused The Sun of perpetuating a hoax upon the public. While the Edinburgh Journal of Science was a real publication, Bennett wrote, it had merged with another two years prior and, effectively, didn’t exist. He pointed his finger specifically at Richard Adams Locke, who had recently arrived at The Sun as editor, and had met Bennett briefly during a criminal trial and expressed an interest in astronomy. Locke had also enjoyed success selling his collected newspaper work in pamphlet form—exactly whatThe Sun had done with the moon story, moving 60,000 copies in a month.

Locke denied it; the two sparred back and forth in their respective papers. Even after mail arriving from Europe in September confirmed the hoax as fiction, Locke refused to budge. Finally, after leaving The Sun in 1836, Locke began to use “author of the moon hoax” as part of his byline. In 1840, he went into more detail, saying he intended the piece to be satire and a commentary on theologians and Christian pundits like Thomas Dick, a science writer who trumpeted the idea of life on other planets without any scientific basis for doing so.

Surprisingly, readers held no grudge against The Sun. Once the hoax was revealed, most found it to be a fun, clever method of raising awareness—and circulation—of the newspaper, which boasted of 30,000 readers two years later. Even Herschel was initially amused, finding it an innocent bit of comedy.

The only curmudgeon seems to have been Edgar Allan Poe: The writer had written a similarly absurd story about a manned balloon flight to the moon in the Southern Literary Messenger two months prior that received relatively little attention at the time. He accused Locke of stealing his idea; Locke, who died in 1871, never acknowledged Poe as an influence.

The Sun remained in business until 1916, dealing mostly in human interest stories and local New York news (after a series of mergers, it continued publishing under various names until the 1960s). Although there’s no evidence they reported any further on the moon’s inhabitants, they never printed a retraction, either.

This story has been updated for 2020.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Remembering the Deadly London Beer Flood of 1814

London's Horseshoe Brewery
London's Horseshoe Brewery
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1814, one of history's most bizarre disasters befell London when a 15-foot wave of beer flooded an entire neighborhood and left eight people dead.

The Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in London boasted a massive 22-foot-tall vat that held some 160,000 gallons of dark porter. On October 17, 1814, one of the metal hoops meant to secure it snapped, and the wooden vat succumbed to the immense pressure of all that fermenting brew. The gushing beer smashed open the brewery's other vats, resulting in a raging sea of beer that burst forth from the building.

Over 1 million liters of beer flooded out onto the road and raced through the St. Giles neighborhood. The area was crammed with crowded slums, and many inhabitants couldn't escape in time. According to The Independent: "Hannah Banfield, a little girl, was taking tea with her mother, Mary, at their house in New Street when the deluge hit. Both were swept away in the current, and perished."

Others who were gathered in a cellar for a wake were caught by surprise by the flood and drowned in beer. A wall of a nearby pub crumbled and crushed a 14-year-old girl who was standing next to it. In total, eight people perished in the accident.

Unsubstantiated rumors persist that rowdy locals brought pots and pans to the river of beer in an attempt to round up free drinks. In reality though, the citizens of St. Giles were lauded in the press for their help with the rescue efforts, keeping quiet in the aftermath in order to help listen for the screams of their trapped neighbors.

This story has been updated for 2020.