And now a few words about the Cardiff Giant. Despite the profusion of rhetoric about an alleged hoax, I have seen no recent mention of that legendary Giant. Along with the Piltdown Man, the Giant is ranked highly among venerable pranks which earned enduring listings in the glossary of hoaxes. More about the Piltdown Man later, but the Giant deserves prime billing today because it is a New York story.
Named after the hamlet of Cardiff in Onondaga County, south of Syracuse, the 10-foot tall so-called “petrified man” was supposedly unearthed in 1869. So the saga goes, two hired hands, Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, were excavating a well behind the barn on the Cardiff farm of William “Stub” Newell.
Whether the workmen were collaborators on the ruse we can only guess, but they achieved a measure of fame for exhuming what was promptly described as the petrified corpse of the Giant. Newell and his cousin, George Hull, developed the scheme in the wake of various stories published around the country regarding the discovery of petrified remains.
In 1868 Hull bought a large block of gypsum in Iowa, had it shipped to Chicago, where he hired a stonecutter, Edward Burghardt, to fashion it into a human image. They made some cosmetic adjustments, adding a few scrapes and dents and some brownish flourishes to simulate decay through aging.
P.T. Barnum discovered the Giant and the rest is major hoax history.
The resulting figure was sealed in a crate and put on a train to Syracuse. On arrival there, Newell and Hull met the train, loaded the crate onto Newell’s hay-wagon, carted it to Cardiff and buried the statue behind the barn. There it reposed in obscurity until 1869 when the well-diggers entered the story.
Then P.T. Barnum discovered the Giant and the rest is major hoax history. Soon curious onlookers were paying as much as 50 cents for admission to the tent where the Giant was on display. Barnum, the master showman, planned a travel itinerary and business was so good he ordered a duplicate of the statue to be manufactured.
Was it history’s greatest hoax? Not necessarily.
In 1912 an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson was poking around in the gravel beds near the village Piltdown in the district of Sussex, England. He found what appeared to be part of a human-like skull and reported the event to Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum. Thus began a collaboration that transfixed anthropologists, historians and the general public for years. They found more bone fragments and teeth, as well as what appeared to be parts of a skull and a jawbone.
Suddenly famous, Dawson and Smith Woodward speculated that they had found the missing link between the ape and man. Although there were some skeptics, that theory was widely publicized around the world. The result: The Piltdown Man was accepted as authentic until newly-developed testing methods in the early 1950s began to cast doubt on the specimens. Investigators eventually showed that the teeth and bones had been tampered with and the fragments actually came from two sources, a man and an ape, perhaps an orangutan, native to Borneo. The conclusion: Like the Cardiff Giant, the Piltdown Man was a fake and a fraud, an elaborate hoax.
Like the Cardiff Giant, the Piltdown Man was a fake and a fraud, an elaborate hoax.
Hoax has now come into common use regarding serious issues, however the dictionaries don’t seem to take it too seriously. They explain the term as a trick, a prank, a practical joke, a fraud or a humorous deception. That was probably the definition accepted generations ago by “Stub” Newell, Charles Dawson and their accomplices, among others, folks who always enjoyed a good hoax.
Dick Hirsch is a veteran Buffalo journalist and author. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is “A new bathtub for the White House,” a collection of some of his favorite essays.
Lead image: The Cardiff Giant being exhumed during October 1869. Wikipedia – Public Domain