Beavers on the Moon: The Great Astronomy Hoax of 1835
On August 25, 1835, readers who stopped in front of the bellowing newsboys and produced a penny for a copy of New York's Sun 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Over the following five days, readers were transfixed by a breathless account of Herschel’s peerless (but not peer-reviewed) examination of the moon’s populated surface, using a seven-ton telescope that he had recently constructed.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 of 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.
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 reveal of Batboy by well over a century.)
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. Editor of a competing penny paper, the New York Herald, 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 what the 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.