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Great Moon Hoax

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A lithograph of the hoax's "ruby amphitheater", as printed in The Sun

The "Great Moon Hoax", also known as the "Great Moon Hoax of 1835" was a series of six articles published in The Sun (a New York newspaper), beginning on August 25, 1835, about the supposed discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. The discoveries were falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel and his fictitious companion Andrew Grant.[1]

The story was advertised on August 21, 1835, as an upcoming feature allegedly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant.[2] The first in a series of six was published four days later on August 25. These articles were never retracted, however on September 16, 1835, The Sun admitted the articles were in fact fabricated.[3]


Portrait of a man-bat ("Vespertilio-homo"), from an edition of the Moon series published in Naples

The headline read:

[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science.]

The articles described animals on the Moon, including bison, single-horned goats, mini zebras, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids ("Vespertilio-homo") who built temples.[4] There were trees, oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle". The telescope - transported to South Africa from New England - was said to be many times larger than any other telescope in the world. The lens measured "24 feet in diameter and 7 tons in weight".[4]

"Vespertilio-homo" can be translated from Latin as man-bat, bat-man, or man-bats.[5][6][7]

A reprinted edition of 1836 added a second type named the Vespertiliones or the bat-men.[8] The author of the narrative was ostensibly Dr. Andrew Grant, the travelling companion and amanuensis of Sir John Herschel, but Grant was fictitious.

Eventually, the authors announced that the observations had been terminated by the destruction of the telescope, by means of the Sun causing the lens to act as a "burning glass", setting fire to the observatory.[9]


View of the Moon Hoax
The Inhabitants of the Moon, 1836, Welsh edition

The writer of the article was at first not known to the public. Initially, authorship of the article has been attributed to Richard Adams Locke (1800–1871),[10][11] a reporter who, in August 1835, was working for The Sun. Eventually, Locke publicly admitted to being the author in 1840, in a letter to the weekly paper New World.[12] Despite Locke's claims, rumours persisted that others were involved in the articles' creation.

Two other men have been noted in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet,[10] a French astronomer travelling in America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the Moon-hoax issues appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of The Knickerbocker, a literary magazine. However, there is no good evidence to indicate that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.

Assuming that Richard A. Locke was the author, his intentions were probably, first, to create a sensational story which would increase sales of The Sun, and, second, to ridicule some of the more extravagant astronomical theories that had recently been published. Locke had meant for the hoax to act of a satire to show how science can be and is influenced by the thoughts of religion.[4] For instance, in 1824, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, professor of astronomy at Munich University, had published a paper titled "Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings". One theory is that this paper is responsible for inspiring the articles written by Locke.[13]

In his paper, Gruithuisen claimed to have observed various shades of color on the lunar surface, which he correlated with climate and vegetation zones. He also observed lines and geometrical shapes, which he felt indicated the existence of walls, roads, fortifications, and cities. However, a more direct object of Locke's satire was Rev. Thomas Dick, who was known as "The Christian Philosopher" after the title of his first book.[14] Dick had computed that the Solar System contained 21,891,974,404,480 (21.9 trillion) inhabitants. In fact, the Moon alone, by his count, would contain 4,200,000,000 inhabitants.[15] His writings were very popular in America; intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of his fans.[16]


Newsboy showing a copy of the hoax
Moon Hoax 1859 NY William Gowans, Richard Adams Locke

According to legend, The Sun's circulation increased dramatically because of the hoax and remained permanently greater than before, thereby establishing The Sun as a successful paper. It brought the journal to international fame, and the hoax resembled crime reports that allowed the readers to play detective, trying to discover the truth.[17][18]

However, the degree to which the hoax increased the paper's circulation has certainly been exaggerated in popular accounts of the event. It was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.[19]

Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. He later became annoyed when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.[20]

Edgar Allan Poe claimed the story was a plagiarism of his earlier work "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," and "Hans Phaall – A Tale", published in the Southern Literary Messenger. His editor at the time was Richard Adams Locke. He later published "The Balloon-Hoax" in the same newspaper.[21]As well as "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall". The story was reprinted in the New York Transcript on September 2–5, 1835, under the headline "Lunar Discoveries, Extraordinary Aerial Voyage by Baron Hans Pfaall".[22]

Poe described a voyage to the Moon in a balloon, in which Pfaall lives for five years on the Moon with lunarians and sends back a lunarian to Earth. The Poe Moon hoax was less successful because of the satiric and comical tone of the account. Locke was able to upstage Poe and to steal his thunder. In 1846, Poe would write a biographical sketch of Locke as part of his series "The Literati of New York City" which appeared in Godey's Lady's Book.[22]


The sensational reports of Richard Adams Locke were not out of place in the context of the mass proliferation of penny press newspapers such as the New York Sun which received much of their income from advertisements,[23][24] a business practice made sustainable by large numbers of viewers. The Sun was a pioneer when it came to producing shocking and often sensationalist journalism, being the first New York newspaper to report on murders, suicides, personal events, and divorces,[25] and it was because of stories such as these that the Sun thrived in attracting viewers to their articles and advertisements.

The success of such sensational stories as the "Great Moon Hoax" can be partly attributed to the influence of contemporary speculative science. Figures like the Reverend Thomas Dick, who claimed that the moon was inhabited by billions of beings, had captured the public's imagination in the early 19th century. Locke’s hoax played on these popular beliefs, presenting them as the latest scientific findings from the well-respected astronomer Sir John Herschel, which lent the story credibility.[26][27]


Great Moon Hoax, Edinburgh Journal of Science, by Lilith de Thierry Freres

The hoax is featured in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History.[28]

The Moon Trilogy - a series of fantasy novels by the Polish author Jerzy Żuławski, published in 1903–1911. The series consists of the following novels: On the Silver Globe. Manuscript from the Moon, The Conqueror and Old Earth.

Nate DiMeo's historical podcast The Memory Palace dedicated a 2010 episode to the Great Moon Hoax entitled "The Moon in the Sun".[29]

The hoax inspired a three-part musical by composer Matt Dahan as part of his musical radio series Pulp Musicals.[30]

Richard Adams Locke and the Great Moon Hoax are fictionalized in chapter 14 of Félix J. Palma's 2012 novel The Map of the Sky.[citation needed]

The hoax reflected a time when readers were looking for entertainment as much as information from penny press newspapers, which would later change with the development of ethical reporting.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vida, István Kornél (2012). "The "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835". Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies. 18 (1/2): 431–441. JSTOR 43488485.
  2. ^ Maliszewski, Paul. "Paper Moon", Wilson Quarterly. Winter 2005. p. 26.
  3. ^ ""The Great Moon Hoax" is published in the "New York Sun" | August 25, 1835". HISTORY. Retrieved 2023-11-29.
  4. ^ a b c Magazine, Smithsonian; Zielinski, Sarah. "The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2023-11-20.
  5. ^ Lunar Bat-men, the Planet Vulcan and Martian Canals, Smithsonian Magazine, Erik Washam, December 2010
  6. ^ István Kornél Vida (2012). "The "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835". Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (Hjeas). 18 (1/2). Centre for Arts, Humanities and Sciences (CAHS): 434. JSTOR 43488485.
  7. ^ Dave Kindy (2022). "Great Moon Hoax of 1835 convinced the world of extraterrestrial life". WashingtonPost.
  8. ^ J L Hilton (2005). "Lucian and the Great Moon Hoax of 1835". Akroterion. 50. University of KwaZulu-Natal. doi:10.7445/50-0-78.
  9. ^ Gunn, James E.; Asimov, Isaac (1975). Alternate worlds: the illustrated history of science fiction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 51. ISBN 0-89104-049-8.
  10. ^ a b "They Formed A Pair". The Deseret Weekly. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Publishing Company. May 13, 1893. p. 665. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  11. ^ Clute, John; Eggeling, John. "Locke, Richard Adams". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  12. ^ Goodman, Matthew (2008). The Sun and the Moon. New York: Basic Books. p. 274. ISBN 978-0-465-00257-3.
  13. ^ Hall, Stephanie (November 15, 2023). "Belief, Legend, and the Great Moon Hoax | Folklife Today". Library of Congress Blogs. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  14. ^ The Christian Philosopher
  15. ^ Dick, Thomas (1845) [First published London 1837; New York 1838]. Celestial Scenery; or, The Wonders of the Planetary System Displayed: Illustrating the Perfections of Deity and a Plurality of Worlds (PDF). Philadelphia: Edward C. Biddle. pp. 276–277. Retrieved August 18, 2013.
  16. ^ Brashear, J. A. (1913). "A Visit to the Home of Dr. Thomas Dick". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 7. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 7: 23–24. Bibcode:1913JRASC...7...19B.
  17. ^ Burrows, Edwin G. (1999) Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, pp. 524–525
  18. ^ Goodman, Matthew (2008). The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York, Basic Books [ISBN missing]
  19. ^ Falk, Doris V. "Thomas Low Nichols, Poe, and the 'Balloon Hoax'" collected in Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 2. December 1972. p. 48.
  20. ^ Steven, Ruskin (2002). "A Newly-Discovered Letter of J.F.W Herschel concerning the "Great Moon Hox"". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 33 (110): 71–74. Bibcode:2002JHA....33...71R. doi:10.1177/002182860203300108. S2CID 117016279. Retrieved 15 November 2023.
  21. ^ "'The Great Moon Hoax' is published in the 'New York Sun'". History.com.
  22. ^ a b Hall, Stephanie (August 26, 2014). "Belief, Legend, and the Great Moon Hoax". Library of Congress Blogs. Retrieved November 20, 2023.
  23. ^ Spencer, David Ralph (2007-01-23). The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America's Emergence as a World Power. Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-8101-2331-1.
  24. ^ "The Sun (New York City)", Wikipedia, 2024-03-29, retrieved 2024-05-28
  25. ^ "The Sun (New York [N.Y.]) 1833-1916". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2024-05-28.
  26. ^ "The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 Was Sci-Fi Passed Off as News | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2024-05-28.
  27. ^ ""The Great Moon Hoax" is published in the "New York Sun" | August 25, 1835". HISTORY. Retrieved 2024-05-28.
  28. ^ Burrows, Edwin G. (1999) Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, pp. 524–525
  29. ^ DiMeo, Nate (January 13, 2010). "Episode 24: The Moon in the Sun". The Memory Palace (Podcast). WordPress. Archived from the original on March 9, 2013. Retrieved May 20, 2013.
  30. ^ Cristi, A. A. "Pulp Musicals Sets Sights On The Moon With New Radio-Style Musical 'The Great Moon Hoax'". BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved 2021-11-16.
  31. ^ In Defense of Vespertilio-homo: Finding the Truth in the 1835 Moon Hoax, James Eric Black, Georgia State University.

Further reading[edit]

  • Evans, David S., "The Great Moon Hoax", Sky & Telescope, 196 (September 1981) and 308 (October 1981).
  • Goodman, Matthew, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York: Basic Books, 2008) ISBN 978-0-465-00257-3

External links[edit]