The Great Moon Hoax
The Moon Hoax you've probably never heard of.
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADEBY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.At the Cape of Good Hope
On the 25th August 1835, The Sun published the first of six articles announcing the discovery of life on the moon. Purportedly written by Dr. Andrew Grant about his friend Sir John Herschel's discoveries, they took the world by storm.
The first article goes into rigorous detail about Sir Herschel's telescope and it's abilities. It's... something of a dry read, despite Grant's obvious enthusiasm. From the second article, however, things start to get good. Through Sir Herschel's wonderous telescope, they discover deep blue ocean lush and verdant forests across the moon. They also discover the local wildlife; bos grunniens (yaks), goats, tail-less beavers, unicorns and grey pelicans.
But that's not all.
Dr. Andrew Grant's articles go on to describe the discovery of the Vespertilio-homo. The residents of the moon. These are a bat-like winged humanoid who'd not only built temples but also had a defined civilisation.
They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the top of their shoulders to the calves of their legs. The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orang outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression, and having a much greater expansion of forehead.
Truly, the discovery of a generation.
I don't really need to say this was a complete hoax, but clearly, readers at the time needed to be told. It took several weeks before the hoax was officially 'outed'. Even then, The Sun never issued a retraction, leaving the myth to circulate.
Perhaps the unfortunate part is that Sir John Herschel was, in fact, a real scientist. He was initially amused by the articles, saying his own observation would never be so exciting. However, he later became frustrated by the continued questions from people believing it to be true.
It wasn't unusual in the 1800s to appropriate real people into your fiction. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle described Sherlock Holmes to be descendant from the painter Johannes Vermee. Vermee was a real painter, though he had no relation to the famous (and fictional) detective. Obviously.
Aftermath of the Moon Hoax
Richard Adams Locke
Eventually, in 1840, Richard Adams Locke, a reporter who was working for The Sun at the time, admitted to being the author. Locke's intentions were purely satirical. He was poking fun at contemporary astronomical theories. Specifically, Reverend Thomas Dick, who had declared the Solar System to contain 21.9 trillion inhabitants and the moon to contain 4,200,000,000 inhabitants.
And of course, Locke likely wrote them because it made The Sun a lot of money.
Unlike another sci-fi hoax, I will be writing about in October, there was no real fallout from this. Though most accepted it in the spirit it had been intended, I imagine there were more than a few shamed faces.
Edgar Allan Poe
The final weird twist to this story is that Edgar Allan Poe claimed that Locke had plagiarised this story from him.
In June 1835, Poe's story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall and was published under the headline: Lunar Discoveries, Extraordinary Aerial Voyage by Baron Hans Pfaall. It describes how Hans Pfaall arrives on the surface of the moon in a hot air balloon in order to negotiate a pardon from Burgomaster for several murders he committed. Because of reasons.
Why was Edgar Allan Poe convinced that Locke had stolen a lot of his material in his own moon hoax article? His editor on the story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall was Locke.
Whether this is a case of dodgy journalism, misunderstood satire or plagiarism, it's still a wonderful story. There's an innocence about it - people once took this at face value. There's also an irony. Normal, rational people once believed in a lunar civilisation, versus the alarming number of people today who still believe the Apollo 11 Moon landing was a hoax. Funny how the world works.
It seems as though the truth will always come second to a good story.