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The Cardiff Giant: Great American Hoax

In 1869, in the tiny town of Cardiff, New York, two men were digging a new water well on some farmland owned by a Mr. William Newell. As is not unusual in Upstate New York, large stones impeded their progress as they dug deeper. But one exceptionally large rock had these men stumped. Panting and sweating heavily despite the cool autumn weather, they could not make this stone budge. They decided to expand their digging efforts and enlarge the hole. This was some stone! Before long, the two men had dug an area over five feet wide and still the stone had not moved. Peering closer at what appeared to be a human figure under the dirt, they stood back and exclaimed, “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”

A team of men were called to Newell’s farm to unearth what was proclaimed as a giant man. His size was shocking: he was over 10 feet tall; he weighed over 2,990 pounds; his foot was measured as almost two feet long. He was proclaimed to be an ancient ancestor who had sunk in the mud long ago, and was now petrified. News exploded across the state, across the nation, and across the world of a petrified man unearthed in Upstate NY! Crowds of farmers, businessmen, mothers, scientists, scholars, and merchants flocked to see this amazingly preserved giant of old. It was “The Cardiff Giant.”

It was also to become known as the greatest hoax in America (although I think the Piltdown Man has surpassed it, now).

A year before this “discovery,” a young man named George Hull had purchased a solid block of gypsum in Iowa, and then hired a German stonecutter– under the strictest secrecy– to carve out a human figure from the stone. Chemicals and acids were poured on the stone to create a weathered look, and the stone was stabbed with sharp implements to simulate skin pores. In November 1868, Hull quietly transported his giant to be buried at his cousin’s farm in Upstate New York. His cousin was William Newell.

Newell (and Hull, in the sidelines) immediately saw the financial benefits of this discovery. He spread the news, set up a tent on his farm, and invited visitors to see the giant– for a fee of 25 cents, of course. Seeing the crowds that swelled as news spread, he upped his fee the next day, to 50 cents.

Cardiff_giant_exhumed_1869

Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, wrote in his autobiography about seeing the giant:

In about two hours we arrived at the Newell farm and found a gathering which at first sight seemed like a county fair. In the midst was a tent, and a crowd was pressing for admission. Entering, we saw a large pit or grave, and, at the bottom of it, perhaps five feet below the surface, an enormous figure, apparently of Onondaga gray limestone. It was a stone giant, with massive features, the whole body nude, the limbs contracted as if in agony. It had a color as if it had lain long in the earth, and over its surface were minute punctures, like pores. An especial appearance of great age was given it by deep grooves and channels in its under side, apparently worn by the water which flowed in streams through the earth and along the rock on which the figure rested. Lying in its grave, with the 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. Visitors hardly spoke above a whisper.

Upon closer inspection, White wondered if the giant was a hoax. Looking closely, one could see the crude anatomical errors, the mechanical punctures in the stone, and the acid washes. White also questioned why a farmer would be digging a well in the middle of his farmland, especially when the farm already had a suitable well closer to the house and a stream near the property. His doubts were drowned out by the farmer’s family’s willingness to say, under oath, that they had not placed the giant there nor known of its presence. White’s doubts were also challenged by the stone itself– this man was not carved from the native Onondaga stone typical of this area of New York State. This was a foreign stone, much too large to have been transported without notice. Believers in the giant said that the only reasonable explanation for it was that this was truly a petrified man.

Within a week after the discovery, full-blown statements appeared to the effect that the neighboring Indians had abundant traditions of giants who formerly roamed over the hills of Onondaga; and, finally, the circumstantial story was evolved that an Onondaga squaw had declared, “in an impressive manner,” that the statue “is undoubtedly the petrified body of a gigantic Indian prophet who flourished many centuries ago and foretold the coming of the palefaces, [and] who, just before his own death, said to those about him that their descendants would see him again.”

…The current of belief ran more and more strongly, and soon embraced a large number of really thoughtful people… including especially Dr. Woolworth, the secretary, a man of large educational experience, and no less a personage in the scientific world than Dr. James Hall, the State geologist, perhaps the most eminent American paleontologist of that period.

While some did not believe that the giant was an actual petrified man, they did believe that perhaps the giant was an archaeological artifact from ancient times, or a work of art by the French Jesuit missionaries two hundred years before. “Just so” stories of vivid imagination popped up:

“Was [the giant] not… some one from that French colony,… someone with a righteous soul sighing over the lost civilization of Europe, weary of swamp and forest and fort, who, finding this block by the side of the stream, solaced the weary days of exile with pouring out his thought upon the stone?”

People –laymen and scholars alike– were perplexed and greatly divided. Most believed the giant was real. White lamented:

Although the most eminent sculptor in the State has utterly refused to pronounce the figure anything beyond a poor piece of carving, these strains of admiration and adoration continued. There was evidently a “joy in believing” in the marvel, and this was increased by the peculiarly American superstition that the correctness of a belief is decided by the number of people who can be induced to adopt it–that truth is a matter of majorities. The current of credulity seemed irresistible.

The giant was becoming too popular to remain on a little Upstate New York farm. The “petrified man” was “exhumed” and carted across the state for everyone to see. It was shipped to Syracuse, then New York City, and Albany. PT Barnum, that greatest showman on earth, wanted to buy the Cardiff Giant, but was refused. He crafted his own giant instead, putting it on display in New York City as the real Cardiff Giant, and the other one (the real fake one, lol) was a fake. Barnum was sued for claiming the Cardiff giant was a fake and his fake reproduction as real. (uh, got that?)

Photo courtesy of http://flickr.com/photos/johnandketurah/993555048/ by John and Keturah.

In the meantime, someone had managed to chop off a chunk of the Cardiff Giant (the real fake one), and discovered the material to be gypsum, from Iowa. And reports came in that William Newell had transmitted several thousand dollars to his cousin, George Hull. Stonecutters in Iowa admitted that they had cut out a large block of gypsum for George Hull in 1868. Admissions about the German stonecutter, the transport to New York State, and even Hull’s own boasting were aired. The hoax came crashing down. Finally Hull himself, seeing the end was near, confessed on December 10th of that year that the giant was a big joke; its fabrication a way to get revenge on a cleryman who had argued with him about giants of old in the Scripture. The financial gain was a pleasant by-product.

White was neither amused nor entertained by Hull and his “joke.” He wrote:

Up to this time, Hull’s remarkable cunning had never availed him much. He had made various petty inventions, but had realized very little from them; he had then made some combinations as regarded the internal-revenue laws referring to the manufacture and sale of tobacco, and these had only brought him into trouble with the courts; but now, when the boundless resources of human credulity were suddenly revealed to him by the revivalist, he determined to exploit them. This evolution of his ideas strikingly resembles that through which the mind of a worthless, shiftless, tricky creature in western New York–Joseph Smith–must have passed forty years before, when he dug up “the golden plates” of the “Book of Mormon,” and found plenty of excellent people who rejoiced in believing that the Rev. Mr. Spalding’s biblical novel was a new revelation from the Almighty.

On February 2, 1870 both giants were revealed as fakes in court. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.

And believe it or not, Hull didn’t end there. White concludes:

One man emerged from this chapter in the history of human folly supremely happy: this was Hull, the inventor of the “giant.” He had at last made some money, had gained a reputation for “smartness,” and, what probably pleased him best of all, had revenged himself upon the Rev. Mr. Turk of Ackley, Iowa, who by lungpower had worsted him in the argument as to the giants mentioned in Scripture.

So elate was he that he shortly set about devising another “petrified man” which would defy the world. It was of clay baked in a furnace, contained human bones, and was provided with “a tail and legs of the ape type”; and this he caused to be buried and discovered in Colorado. This time he claimed to have the aid of one of his former foes–the great Barnum; and all went well until his old enemy, Professor Marsh of Yale, appeared and blasted the whole enterprise by a few minutes of scientific observation and common-sense discourse.

And what happened to the Cardiff Giant? It still exists! It appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, but attendance was weak. It was purchased by an Iowa man to be used as a coffee table until 1947, when the Farmer’s Museum of Cooperstown, NY, bought it. It remains on display there. I’ve have seen the Cardiff Giant a few times myself, and I remain absolutely baffled how people ever convinced themselves that this was a real petrified man.

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (8)

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  1. Dori says:

    I love this post. Please stop by my blog when you get the chance. I have an award for you. 🙂

  2. vulcanhammer says:

    Great story! Life is stranger than fiction:)

  3. I am sorry this is off-topic, but I wanted to thank you for your kind words today.

  4. Karen says:

    LOL This is so funny. I had to read some of the lines a couple of times to make sure I was reading “fake reproduction” correctly. LOL Doesn’t take much to confuse me.

  5. Thomas says:

    I just finished the book American Goliath by Harvey Jacobs. It is a fictionalized account of the creation of the Cardiff Giant and the people around it. A decent, interesting read.

  6. I’m glad you found the story entertaining. 🙂

    Daisy, you are welcome. Please take care. We love you. 🙂

  7. This hoax is entertaining, but does put real discoveries in question.

  8. Emily says:

    About 40 years ago I attended an exhibition in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. There was a huge mummified female on display for a fee of ten cents. I paid mu dime and mounted the stairs to see this exhibit. I have seen mummies in museums before and this looked authentic to me. with the remains of wrappings etc. It was about ten or more feet in length. There was hair on the head which was very large, about two feet in length. My family doctor arrived beside me to have a look. His opinion was that it was authentic.