I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In October 1869, workers were digging a well behind a barn belonging to William “Stub” Newell in the town of Cardiff, New York, south of Syracuse.
A shovel or pickax hit something solid. Expecting to find a rock that needed lifting, the workers instead uncovered a huge human figure, more than 10 feet tall and with similar gigantic dimensions in all its features.
Writing in the November/December 2005 issue of Archaeology Mark Rose records that one of the diggers “uttered the immortal words, ‘I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!’ ”
The Legend of the Cardiff Giant
Word spread about the strange discovery and, says The Museum of Hoaxes, soon “thousands of people were making the journey out to Stub Newell’s farm to see the colossus.” That good old Yankee entrepreneurial streak kicked in and the farmer started charging fifty cents to view the giant; and still the crowds came.
Andrew White, first president of Cornell University, wrote about his visit to the site: “The roads were crowded with buggies, carriages, and even omnibuses from the city, and with lumber-wagons from the farms―all laden with passengers. In about two hours we arrived at the Newell farm and found a gathering which at first sight seemed like a county fair.”
The great showman Phineas T. Barnum, sniffing profit, offered $60,000 just to lease the giant for three months. When he was turned down he had a replica made for display in his museum in New York.
Lying in its grave with a subdued light from the roof of the tent falling upon it, and with the limbs contorted as if in a death struggle, it produced a most weird effect. An air of great solemnity pervaded the place and visitors hardly spoke above a whisper.”
Andrew D. White
Theologians Declare Figure to be Biblical Giant
White wrote that he heard a doctor of divinity declare that the petrified man must be one of those referred to in the Book of Genesis 6: 4, which states “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
The pastor posed a question: “Is it not strange that any human being, after seeing this wonderfully preserved figure, can deny the evidence of his senses, and refuse to believe, what is so evidently the fact, that we have here a fossilized human being, perhaps one of the giants mentioned in Scripture?”
A team of scientists from Britain made the Atlantic crossing to examine the “ancient remains.”
Exposed as a Fraud
Alas for the good reverend, the Cardiff Giant was not of ancient origin at all, he was a modern creation from the mischievous mind of a New York tobacconist named George Hull.
In his 2001 book Frauds, Mysteries and Myths, Kenneth L. Feder notes that experts in science rather than theology recognized the object as “an impossibility, a statue, a clumsy fraud, and just plain silly.”
A leading paleontologist of the time, Othniel Charles Marsh, made a brief examination and declared the Cardiff Giant to be “of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.”
Soon, locals recalled seeing Hull and Newell hauling a large crate onto the latter's farm. The sculptors came forward and the two pranksters admitted to their trickery, whose origin dated back a couple of years.
According to Mark Rose, Hull, an atheist, “got into a heated argument with Rev. Mr. Turk, a Methodist revivalist. Hull later recalled spending the night ‘wondering about why people would believe those remarkable stories in the Bible about giants, when suddenly I thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as a petrified man.’ ”
As History.com reports, Hull mused “If done right … the scam would allow him to strike a blow against religion and make a pretty penny along the way.”
Creation of the Cardiff Giant
Hull went to a great deal of trouble and expense to embarrass the clergy. He travelled to Fort Dodge, Iowa and bought an acre of land where there was a deposit of gypsum. He hired some local quarrymen with the instruction to cut out as large a block of gypsum as they could. They obliged with a piece that weighed about five tons and measured 12 feet long, by four feet wide, and a little under two feet thick.
The men were told the slab of rock was going to be carved into a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The gypsum was shipped to a Chicago marble dealer who was in on the scheme. With George Hull acting as a model, three sculptors chiselled away at the rock until something like a human form appeared. The finished item was then “aged” by being hit with a mallet that had needles embedded in it, before getting a wash in sulphuric acid.
Finally, the masterpiece was shipped to upstate New York and buried on the Newell farm, he being a cousin of Hull's.
A year later, the giant was discovered by the two labourers who innocently thought they were digging a well.
In its July 1959 issue Popular Sciencereported that, “The result was one of the most successful scientific hoaxes in history. On a total investment that probably didn’t top $4,000, Hull netted a profit estimated at $30,000 to $60,000―a small fortune in those days.” Not a bad fortune today; a little over $1 million in current money.
The giant changed hands several times and was taken on tour through the Midwest and California. Although knowing it was a swindle, folks still parted with their coin to see it.
And, the Cardiff Giant continues to earn its keep. The original is on display at the Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Admission $12, although that includes much more than a peek at the giant. The P.T. Barnum replica can be seen at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Unlike Barnum, Marvin Yagoda does not charge people to view the fake of the fake.
- George Hull and Stub Newell were sharp enough to recognize their deception was going to be unmasked so they sold their giant to a consortium of businessmen for $30,000.
- P.T. Barnum’s forged Cardiff Giant drew bigger crowds than the “real” giant when both were put on exhibition in New York City.
- In 1877, George Hull tried to pull off a repeat of his Cardiff Giant scam. He organized the burial of a smaller giant, just seven feet tall but with a tail attached, in Colorado. But nobody fell for the same stunt a second time. Their skepticism was later echoed by former U.S. President George W. Bush who said in his own inimitable way “… fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”
- “When Giants Roamed the Earth.” Mark Rose, Archaeology, November/December 2005
- “Frauds, Mysteries and Myths.” Kenneth L. Feder, McGraw-Hill, July 2001.
- “The Cardiff Giant Fools the Nation, 145 Years Ago.” Evan Andrews, History.com, October 16, 2014.
- “Fort Dodge - The Hoax of the Cardiff Giant.” National Gypsum, undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor