Fire-Wielding Beavers and Man-Bats, Oh My!
June 24, 2008 11:12 PM   Subscribe

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. During the last week of August 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part article about the discovery - purportedly by renowned astronomer Sir John Herschel - of fantastical life on the moon, including herds of bison, blue unicorns, "a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding biped beavers, and a race of winged humans living in pastoral harmony around a mysterious, golden-roofed temple." The public's reaction was a mix of credulity and skepticism. Read the full text of the serialized articles: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
posted by amyms (36 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting.

looks like it took place in 1835 though.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:24 PM on June 24, 2008

1835, not 1935.

Cleanup in aisle three!
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:24 PM on June 24, 2008

Interestingly enough, the modern-day New York Sun, est. 2002 and presumably unrelated, is also regarded as somewhat of a crackpot (right-wing style) publication.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:28 PM on June 24, 2008

looks like it took place in 1835 though.

Oops, thanks for pointing that out! I'll email the admins and see if they can correct my typo.
posted by amyms at 11:30 PM on June 24, 2008

fixed the year for ya.
posted by mathowie at 11:36 PM on June 24, 2008

Thanks Matt!
posted by amyms at 11:39 PM on June 24, 2008

Now that's service!
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:40 PM on June 24, 2008

and the tags?
posted by polyglot at 12:16 AM on June 25, 2008

I just corrected the tag for the year, thanks polyglot!
posted by amyms at 12:18 AM on June 25, 2008

I was glad to see Ali G clear up the controversy about the Moon in his interview with Buzz Aldrin.
posted by mullingitover at 12:26 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Obviously a modern audience wouldn't fall for something this outlandish (or by Welles's War Of The Worlds).

But what does the group think would be likely to fool us? (no IraqWMDfilter please)
posted by imperium at 12:58 AM on June 25, 2008

I love the fact that the accepted standard for a hoax of this sort was basically to say "we're prestigious astronomers - and we've got this telescope - and let me tell you about this stuff we saw through it".
posted by rongorongo at 1:32 AM on June 25, 2008

But what does the group think would be likely to fool us? (no IraqWMDfilter please)

Evolution doesn't exist, the world is 4000 years old and dinosaur bones were planted by Satan to test our faith.

posted by stavrogin at 2:35 AM on June 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

it's not much worse or more improbable than the neocon bullshit the Sun is peddling these days
posted by matteo at 3:47 AM on June 25, 2008

MetaFilter: The reaction was a mix of credulity and skepticism

Beavers on the moon. I love old takes on life on other planets. Old science fiction stories are always finding life that "hasn't progressed past the reptile stage" or whatever. It seems so obvious now that life on another planet does not necessarily have to have anything directly comparable to a "reptile" or "beaver".

Also, it wasn't that long ago that we didn't even know there wasn't air or water on the moon, let alone life.
posted by DU at 4:27 AM on June 25, 2008

I like the beavers - actually strange creatures, 'beaver' just being the nearest approximate description of their overall form. I can't say I've come across castorimorphic aliens before, though my reading of old SF is admittedly limited. I thought they were a relatively good imaginative effort, anyway - better than 'Star Trek', where nearly all aliens are exactly the same size and shape as humans, except with some plastic excrescences stuck on their heads.
posted by Phanx at 5:02 AM on June 25, 2008

In 1838 Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, presented to the public as the authentic journals of a seaman who discovers the South Pole. Most people didn't buy into its authenticity but some did. I wonder if Poe was influenced by the Moon Hoax.
posted by stbalbach at 6:06 AM on June 25, 2008

I knew I remembered the story on MeFi before, but it was cryptic and the link is dead, so this is a welcome improvement.

the modern-day New York Sun, est. 2002 and presumably unrelated

Unrelated in that it's not under the same ownership or anything, but it was created in explicit homage to the earlier paper, and its first issue carried the solution to the crossword in the last (January 4, 1950) issue of the old Sun—the only clever and worthwhile thing the new version has ever done.
posted by languagehat at 6:26 AM on June 25, 2008

Were there any whalers on the moon?
posted by SpiffyRob at 6:49 AM on June 25, 2008

I don't believe this article was ever published anywhere. I smell a metahoax. Further, it smells a little gingery.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:59 AM on June 25, 2008


That sounds plausible.
posted by lukemeister at 7:01 AM on June 25, 2008

lukemesister, ahh yeah "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" is more accurate, Arthur Gordon Pym came later. For some reason there were a lot of hoax stories being written in the 1830s, I wonder what historical forces were at work to make the public so fascinated. I know with Orson Wells War of the Worlds 1938 radio broadcast it was partly because so many people had radios and the real-time developing news story was a new phenomenon.
posted by stbalbach at 7:38 AM on June 25, 2008

In 2002, SW Ruskin of the University of Notre Dame reported that a hitherto unknown letter by Herschel regarding this hoax had been uncovered. [2 page pdf]


To the Editor of the Athenaeum.

As I perceive by an Advertisement in one of the London Newspapers now before me that the nonsense alluded to in the heading of this letter after running the round of the American and French journals has at last found a London Editor, it appears to me high time to disclaim all knowledge of or participation in the incoherent ravings under the name of discoveries which have been attributed to me. I feel confident that you will oblige me therefore by inserting this my disclaimer in your widely circulated and well conducted paper, not because I have the smallest fear that any person possessing the first elements of optical Science (to say nothing of Common Sense) could for a moment be misled into believing such extravagancies, but because I consider the precedent a bad one that the absurdity of a story should ensure its freedom from contradiction when universally repeated in so many quarters and in such a variety of forms.

Dr. Johnson Indeed used to say that there was nothing, however absurd or impossible which if seriously told a man every morning at breakfast for 365 days he would not end in believing — and it was a maxim of Napoleon that the most effective figure in Rhetoric is Repetition. Now I should be sorry, for my own sake as well as for that of truth, that the world or even the most credulous part of it, should be brought to believe in my personal acquaintance with the man in the moon — well knowing that I should soon be pestered to death for private anecdotes of himself and his family, and having little intention and less inclination to humour the hoax, should come to be looked on as a very morose and uncommunicative sort of person when it was found that I could or would say no more about him than what is already known to all the world — vis that he

“drinks claret”
“Eats powdered beef turnip & carrot”
and that “a cup of old Malaya Sack”
“Will fire the pack at his back.”

I am Sir
your obedient
John F. Wm Herschel
Near Wynberg C. G. H. } Aug 21 1836
posted by peacay at 8:33 AM on June 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

What a delightful letter Peacay, thanks.

Richard Locke is an interesting cat, somewhere in my desk I have samples of an unpublished short graphic novel about him that I was never able to get in touch with the author about or get anyone else in the house to take an interest in.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:43 AM on June 25, 2008

The Great Moon Hoax


Damn it. This totally fucks up my plans to corner the market on imported exotic animals. What the hell am I supposed to do with all these Blue Lunacorn flyers?
posted by quin at 8:47 AM on June 25, 2008

Too bad the pics are so small. Looks neato.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:27 AM on June 25, 2008

Obviously a modern audience wouldn't fall for something this outlandish

The arrival of the year 2000 will implode our computers and trigger total social collapse!
posted by Miko at 9:38 AM on June 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not as compelling as Doctor Doolittle in the Moon by a long shot.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:56 AM on June 25, 2008

posted by mazola at 10:08 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

1) Metafilter: a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding biped beavers

2) "a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding biped beavers" is so the name of my next blog/band.
posted by quonsar at 1:04 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

How odd. Last night I just read a passing reference to these same moon beavers in a short story, "The Clockwork Horror" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre. I had no idea what was being referred to; it was quite bizarre and seemed like an utterly random non-sequitur. The story is based in 1835, so now I am pleased to understand.
posted by Lou Stuells at 4:08 PM on June 25, 2008

The Mormon founder Joseph Smith was apparently one of those who repeated fantastic moon men claims to his flock, as his own divine observation, speaking as one who claimed to be a prophet in unknown matters. The controversy lingers for Mormons to this day, with no thanks to Brigham Young, who expounded on them.
posted by Brian B. at 5:16 PM on June 25, 2008

Wow, the article from 1835 could be the whole premise of the Mighty Boosh movie! Someone should get a copy of this to Julian and Noel immediately!
posted by Mael Oui at 9:26 PM on June 25, 2008

Great post. It fits in nicely with what I'm currently reading-- Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I highly recommend to anyone.
posted by jokeefe at 10:37 PM on June 25, 2008


Too bad PTHDFWBB is a bit unwieldy as a band name!
posted by lukemeister at 6:57 AM on June 26, 2008

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