October 16, 1869: One More Giant for Mankind

In 1869, George Hull, a New York tobacconist, and his cousin, William Newell, a farmer, hired two men to dig a well on Newell’s farm. As theycardiff_ were digging, one of the men suddenly shouted: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” ‘I declare’ is a tad short of ‘Eureka!’ but it got the point across; what the two men had discovered was, according to Hull, a perfectly preserved ten-foot-plus petrified giant.

Noting the incredible scientific implications of this discovery, Hull and Newell immediately did the scientific thing. They set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later, thanks to public demand, the price doubled to 50 cents. And the crowds doubled along with the price. Everyone wanted to see the amazing, colossal Cardiff Giant, as the stony corpse had come to be called.

Archaeological scholars stood at the back of the throngs shouting “fake, fake” but folks ignored them (folks generally ignore archaeologists). And they ignored the geologists who said there was no earthly reason to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. A Yale palaeontologist, getting really worked up, called it “a most decided humbug.” Some Christian fundamentalists and preachers, came to the giant’s defense, however, citing some positive reviews in Genesis.  And we all know there were some mighty big people in the Bible.

Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest for $23,000 (close to half a million today) to a syndicate in Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant continued to draw amazing crowds, so much so that P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate turned him down, he hired an unscrupulous sculptor to create a plaster replica. Barnum put his giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the true giant, and that the Cardiff Giant was an impostor.

Then in December, Hull confessed to the press that he had faked the Cardiff Giant (he already had his $23,000). It had been carved out of a block of gypsum then treated with stains and acids to make the giant appear to be old and weathered.  (It had been whacked with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores.) And the following February, both giants were declared fakes in court.

Epilogue: An Iowa publisher later bought the Cardiff Giant to use as a conversation piece in his basement rumpus room. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display.

 

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