The Cardiff Giant was one of the most famous and entertaining hoaxes of the 19th century. The purported discovery of an ancient “petrified giant” on a farm in New York State captivated the public in late 1869.
Newspaper accounts and quickly published booklets touted the “Wonderful Scientific Discovery” said to be an ancient man who would have stood more than 10 feet tall when alive. A scientific debate played out in the newspapers over whether the buried object was an ancient statue or a “petrifaction.”
In the language of the day, the giant was really a “humbug.” And deep skepticism about the statue is part of what made it so appealing.
A booklet purporting to be the authorized account of its discovery even featured a detailed letter by “one of the most scientific men in America” denouncing it as a hoax. Other letters in the book offered the opposite opinion as well as some entertaining theories of what the discovery could mean for the history of humanity.
Awash with facts, opinions, and unhinged theories, people wanted nothing more than to pay 50 cents and view the Cardiff Giant with their own eyes.
Crowds swarming to see the peculiar artifact were so enthusiastic that Phineas T. Barnum, the legendary promoter of General Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind, and dozens of other attractions, tried to buy the giant. When his offer was refused, he obtained a plaster replica of the stone giant an artist had created.
In a scenario only Barnum could have engineered, he began to exhibit his own counterfeit of the famous hoax.
Before long the mania waned as the real story came out: the weird statue had been carved only a year earlier. And it had been buried by a prankster on the farm of his relative in upstate New York, where it could be conveniently “discovered” by workmen.
The Discovery of the Cardiff Giant
The enormous stone man was encountered by two workmen digging a well on the farm of William "Stub" Newell near the village of Cardiff, New York, on October 16, 1869.
According to the story that quickly circulated, they thought at first they had discovered the grave of an Indian. And they were stunned when they uncovered the entire object. The “petrified man,” who was resting on one side as if asleep, was gigantic.
Word immediately spread about the strange find, and Newell, after putting a large tent over the excavation in his meadow, began to charge admission to view the stone giant. Word spread quickly, and within days a prominent scientist and expert on fossils, Dr. John F. Boynton, arrived to examine the artifact.
On October 21, 1869, a week after the discovery, a Philadelphia newspaper published two articles providing completely different perspectives on the stone figure.
The first article, headlined “Petrified,” purported to be a letter from a man who lived not far from Newell's farm:
It has been visited today by hundreds from the surrounding country and examined by physicians, and they assert positively that it must have been once a living giant. The veins, eyeballs, muscles, tendons of the heel, and cords of the neck are all very fully exhibited. Many theories are advanced as to where he lived and how he came there.
Mr. Newell proposes now to allow it to rest as found until examined by scientific men. It certainly is one of the connecting links between the past and present races, and of great value.
A second article was a dispatch reprinted from the Syracuse Standard of October 18, 1869. It was headlined, “The Giant Pronounced a Statue,” and it referred to Dr. Boynton and his inspection of the giant:
The doctor made a most thorough examination of the discovery, digging under it in order to examine its back, and after mature deliberation pronounced it to be a statue of a Caucasian. The features are finely cut and are in perfect harmony.
A 32-page booklet published quickly by the Syracuse Journal contained the entire text of a letter Boynton wrote to a professor at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Boynton correctly assessed that the figure had been carved of gypsum. And he said it was “absurd” to consider it a “fossil man.”
Dr. Boynton was wrong in one regard: he believed the statue had been buried hundreds of years earlier, and he speculated that the ancient people who had buried it must have been hiding it from enemies. The truth was that the statue had only spent about one year in the ground.
Controversy and Public Fascination
Fiery debates in the newspapers over the giant's origin only made it more attractive to the public. Geologists and professors lined up to express skepticism. But a handful of ministers who viewed the giant pronounced it a marvel from ancient times, an actual Old Testament giant as mentioned in the Book of Genesis.
Anyone wanting to make up their own mind could pay a 50-cent admission to see it. And business was good.
After the giant was hoisted out of the hole on Newell's farm, it was hauled on a wagon to be displayed in East Coast cities. When Phineas T. Barnum began to exhibit his own fake version of the giant, a rival showman who was managing the tour of the original giant tried to take him to court. A judge refused to hear the case.
Wherever the Giant, or Barnum's facsimile, happened to appear, crowds gathered. One report said the noted author Ralph Waldo Emerson saw the giant in Boston and called it “astonishing” and “undoubtedly ancient.”
There had been notable hoaxes before, such as the rappings heard by the Fox Sisters, which had started a spiritualism craze. And Barnum's Ameican Museum in New York had always displayed fake artifacts, such as the famous "Fiji Mermaid."
But the mania over the Cardiff Giant was like nothing ever before seen. At one point railroads even scheduled extra trains to accommodate the crowds flocking to see it. But in early 1870 interest suddenly waned as the obviousness of the hoax was widely accepted.
The Details of the Hoax
While the public lost interest in paying to see the odd statue, newspapers sought to discover the truth, and it was learned that a man named George Hull had masterminded the scheme.
Hull, who was skeptical of religion, apparently conceived the hoax as a showing that people could be made to believe anything. He traveled to Iowa in 1868 and bought a large block of gypsum at a quarry. To avoid suspicion, he told quarry workers the gypsum block, which was 12 feet long and four feet wide, was intended for a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
The gypsum was transported to Chicago, where stonecutters, acting under Hull's eccentric direction, fashioned the statue of the sleeping giant. Hull treated the gypsum with acid and roughed up the surface to make it appear ancient.
After months of work, the statue was transported, in a large crate labeled “farm machinery,” to the farm of Hull's relative, Stub Newell, near Cardiff, New York. The statue was buried sometime in 1868, and dug up a year later.
The scientists who denounced it as a hoax at the outset had been mostly correct. The "petrified giant" had no scientific importance.
The Cardiff Giant was not a person who had lived at the time of the Old Testament, or even a relic with religious significance from some earlier civilization. But it had been a very good humbug.