August 25, 1835: The perplexing “Great Moon Hoax” appeared in the New York Sun
Have you ever heard of a little thing called yellow journalism? This exaggerated form of journalism began in the 1800s as a dirty effort to improve newspaper sales through wild headlines, bizarre features, and fantastical stories…many of which lacked any legitimacy, research, and proof. While many publications are definitely still guilty of this practice today, there is one incredible and influential series of false journalism that trumps all others: “The Great Moon Hoax.”
Tricking a perplexed public
Back when there wasn’t any Facebook or Twitter, people got their news from one, primary source: newspapers. Since this form of communication was so highly regarded when it came to the spread of information, many people truly believed everything that they read was true. One paper’s attempt at a satirical article about life on the moon proved just how naive that people could be. In 1835, the New York Sun decided that they wanted to produce a few comical, fictional articles making fun of astronomers who had made wild claims about extraterrestrial life. The narrative-style newspaper didn’t realize how much their story would blow up…and how their superb satire would be mistaken as truth.
A series of satirical articles
The articles, bylined by a non-existent doctor named Andrew Grant and “reprinted” from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, followed a fascinating narrative of Sir John Herschel, a renowned astronomer from the 19th century. According to Grant, Herschel had taken a trip down to Capetown, South Africa in the name of research, planning on using a super-telescope to examine outer space. What he supposedly found through his telescope is what hooked readers into the hoax that the Sun created. Herschel’s space exploration supposedly turned up stunning examples of life on the moon, including winged-people, unicorns, and other non-existent creatures. While this sounds like a load of baloney (and sensible people could have read right through the satire), everyone seemed eager to eat up more of the perplexing news. As The Sun released more articles on the fake subject, they began to stir up a major conversation in the scientific community.
Sparking a scientific narrative
What started as a joke soon blew up into a massive scientific discussion. Besides tricking their audiences into believing that they had witnessed extraterrestrial life, they had managed to whole-heartedly convince astronomers and other scientists that Herschel had spotted life on the moon. One particular group of scientists from Yale assembled to hunt down the original moon-sighting journal articles from the Edinburgh Journal of Science (which had stopped printing long before the Sun released their satirical articles). Finally deciding that the chaos had gone on for long enough, the Sun revealed in September that the articles were all fabricated, much to the dismay of the scientific community. However, their audience seemed to have a good laugh over the entire hoax.