home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

a colossal hoax

4 march 2009

I have visited Cooperstown NY several times, and somehow have never made it to any of the village's museums except, naturally, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now I'm kicking myself, because as I have learned by reading Scott Tribble's fascinating book A Colossal Hoax, the Farmers' Museum is the home of the Cardiff Giant, America's most notable fake petrified prehistoric gargantuan. Surely I could have taken a little time out from revering Tinker, Evers, and Chance to go hang out with a ten-foot man of gypsum.

The Cardiff Giant came to light in 1869 on the upstate New York farmstead of a certain Stub Newell. A short while earlier, Newell had watched his crony George Hull bury the big guy. Hull had had the colossus sculpted in Chicago from a block of Iowa gypsum, and had then schlepped it to Cardiff NY in what became notorious as the "ironbound box." (Querulous quibble: where is Cardiff NY? Near Syracuse, but what if you only have a minimal idea of where Syracuse is? A Colossal Hoax is fully illustrated; would it have killed Rowman & Littlefield to have printed a map?)

Naturally all sorts of people observed Hull bringing an enormous heavy object to Cardiff. Some of them remembered this when Newell's hired men unearthed the Giant. But there is a sucker born at a far greater rate than every minute, and for a few heady months, these suckers were smitten with the ten-foot man of stone. The general public who paid 50 cents apiece for a look at the Giant in a tent erected on the Newell property were hardly the biggest rubes. Caught with far more egg on their faces were journalists, religious leaders, and scientists who opined that the Giant was everything from a relic of a lost Caucasian civilization to the remains of the slaughtered Abel, son of Adam.

The first trained observer to clamber into the Giant's pit was a certain John Boynton, a local lecture-circuit celebrity whose initial WAG was that the Giant had been carved by 17th-century missionaries. He was off by a bit – the age of the Giant could be measured in weeks, not centuries – but at least Boynton identified the Giant as a modern sculpture. Others, increasingly clueless, read the big rock fellow as either a living plus-size person turned somehow to stone, or as the handiwork of a pre-Indian culture.

The wild theories that got floated as to the Giant's provenance make for astonishing examples of the fallacy of generalizing from a single data point. Nothing like the Giant had ever turned up before, but all kinds of opinions were advanced that saw the Giant as proving the existence of one or other fanciful connection between this or that ancient society (Egyptians? Norsemen?) and the North American continent. From a stray assertion in Genesis ("There were giants in the earth in those days"), observers spun out madder and madder antecedents for the large gypsum gentleman.

Of course, the fact that he was made of gypsum ought to have gotten some folks musing. Gypsum is excellent stuff if you want to make a quickie mammoth carving. But if you've ever walked among gypsum strata, you know that it's as friable as chalk and as soluble as table salt. The Giant could not have lain in the moist upstate New York earth for centuries and preserved any detail at all.

Besides, how could a single unparalleled artifact offer any evidence of an ancient civilization? As one of the rare skeptics, pioneer anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, pointed out:

It is wholly impossible that this effigy was the work of a people in this State anterior to our own of the European epoch. Had any people lived in this State, or in the United States east of the Mississippi, capable of sculpting this stature, they would have left stone walls and building sculptures as well upon the surface of the land, equally indestructible witnesses of their existence. (143)
Well, that opinion smacked too much of common sense for the public. On the other hand, once the sculptors and other witnesses to Hull's fraud began to surface, it didn't take long for America to lose patience with its favorite giant. P.T. Barnum commissioned a replica Giant so that he could cut into the real fake's proceeds. As other imitation fake replica frauds came into circulation, the New York Daily Tribune commented, with positively Baudrillardian postmodernism:
It makes no difference. An imitation hoax is just as good as a real one, especially if you can't tell them apart. (172)
When the bottom finally fell out of the market for stone colossi, the Giant spent a few years in warehouses, and then did a spell in the living room of a collector named Mike Cowles. (Tribble prints a curious photo from the Cowles sojourn, of a young woman sitting on the Giant's enormous anatomically correct groin.) In 1947, the Giant took up his current lodging in the Farmers' Museum.

The trouble with Tribble's book, which is mostly deeply absorbing, is his penchant for painting extraneous contexts. He tries to work the Giant into more general remarks on the Gilded Age, or the controversy over Negro suffrage, but much of this material just isn't relevant. There's enough core narrative here, though, to keep one both edified and entertained. The Giant was a big phony, but author Scott Tribble is the real thing.

Tribble, Scott. A Colossal Hoax: The giant from Cardiff that fooled America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.