In August 1835, the first articles announced the apparent discovery of life on the moon appeared in the “New York Sun” newspaper. We now call these articles “The Great Moon Hoax.” The articles were attributed to Dr. Andrew Grant, who was described as a colleague of Sir John Herschel, a famous astronomer back then. Herschel traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, the year before, to set up an observatory with a new and powerful telescope. In the article, Grant described Herschel’s findings as evidence of life on the moon. He reported seeing fantastic animals, like unicorns, furry, winged humanoids, and two-legged beavers. The articles also gave vivid descriptions of the moon’s geography, complete with gigantic amethyst crystals, overflowing rivers, and dense foliage.
Founded in 1833, the “New York Sun” was one of the newer papers that appealed to a broader audience, with a more narrative style of journalism at a lower price. From the first day the moon hoax article was published, sales of the paper shot up significantly. It sure was exciting, and readers gobbled it up. The only problem was that it wasn’t true. The Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped its publication a few years earlier, and Grant was deemed a fabricated character. Intended as satire, they were written to poke fun at earlier speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a famous science writer. He claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.
Despite its exaggerated satire, the readers were utterly taken by the story. The obsession over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even deceived an entire committee of scientists at Yale University, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. It seemed that everyone wanted to believe in this fake story, with its marvelous descriptions of life on the moon. After the articles were sent back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, the scientists gave up and returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked. On September 16, 1835, the Sun paper revealed that the articles had been a hoax. The whole thing generally amused people, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer, even after everything had been revealed as a hoax.