Cardiff Giant Hoax of 1869 in Cardiff, New York

Although the Berners Street hoax of 1810 may be one of the great hoaxes in England, the Cardiff Giant, a “petrified man” uncovered in Cardiff, New York, was one of the greatest hoaxes in American history. The giant was found behind William C. “Stub” Newell’s barn on 16 October 1869 as workers were digging a well and it quickly became front page news.

Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant. Author’s collection.

In the 1800s, many people believed the Bible held revelations from God and contained the literal truth. Because Genesis 6:4 stated, “there were giants in the earth in those days” along with several other references to “the valley of the giants,” nineteenth century people tended to believe giants existed at some point. Furthermore, evidence about finds related to giants, along with discoveries of giant fossils, seemed to verify the statements about giants made in the Bible.

Unsurprisingly during these times stories about giants also circulated in newspapers. For instance, in the Cecil Whig in 1842 there was an article titled “Accounts of Giants.” It provided a history of the various giants found across the earth having been discovered from ancient times into the 1700s. There was also a one-line item in 1856 from a Buffalo, New York, paper that stated “A late traveller informs us that a race of giants have just been discovered in Central Asia, of such size that they eat a friendly elephant for breakfast.”[1] Closer to home in Indiana there was a claim in 1867 that “the skeleton of an Indian giant was recently discovered near Anderson.”[2]

Talk of giants and their existence was further sparked when on 16 October 1869 a petrified man of gigantic proportions was discovered at Newell’s farm. It was a Saturday when the unexpected discovery was made. It happened after Newell sent two workmen to dig a well about twenty feet back from his barn in a ravine known as Bear Mountain next to the Onondaga Creek that he used to water his stock. According to The New York Herald:

“On last Saturday forenoon … the intention was [by Newell] to dig the well about five feet deep; a stone layer was present to complete it as soon as the excavation was made, and the stone had been drawn for that purpose. The excavation had progressed about two feet nine inches when the shovel of one of the diggers struck a hard substance. He at first attempted to pry it out, but failed; but in so doing exposed the whole foot to view. The men became alarmed, and Mr. Newell, who was present, ordered the men to cover it up and say nothing about the matter, and selected a new site for his well; but the discovery exerted the interest of some of the persons present, and one of them, seeing the direction in which the body lay, immediately seized a shovel and began digging, until he soon exposed the whole body to view.”[3]

As the giant was being uncover, the spot where he rested continued to fill with water and had to be bailed out. Of course, there was also much excitement as the work progressed. Word about the find quickly drew curious onlookers from Newell’s household and the surrounding neighborhood:

“As the intelligence of the wonderful discovery spread through the surrounding country hundreds of people hurried to verify the stories they had heard. Men left their work; women caught up their babies and children in numbers; all hurried to the scene with interest.”[4]

Those that flocked to Newell’s farm were amazed by what they saw. They could not believe their eyes and soon offers were pouring in requesting that Newell sell his discovery that was being called the “Cardiff Giant” or the “Goliath of Cardiff.” Perhaps part of the reason for all the offers was that Madame Tussaud’s giant in her wax museum in London was only eight feet five inches tall with his thigh bone measuring twenty six inches and his tibia, twenty-two. In comparison, the Cardiff Giant was gargantuan weighing 2990 pounds, being over 10 feet tall, having 3 feet wide shoulders, and sporting 21 inch feet.

Newspaper article from the New York Herald on the Cardiff Giant. Author’s collection.

People quickly realized the value of the Cardiff Giant and incoming proposals to buy him were stunning. Some men were willing to gift Newell their farms and thousands of dollars were also offered. Nonetheless, Newell had his own ideas as to what to do with his newly found giant, which among them was to give up farming.

“[H]e, seeing money in it, considered it was as good to him as to them, and so wisely held on to his treasure like a miser to his stores. One offer of $10,000 was made by an ex-showman, and alike refused. Up to Sunday evening the hundreds of people had been allowed to inspect the wonder without price; but the owner then began to look at the matter in a cooler light, and the result was on Monday morning a canvas tent was erected over the place of discovery, the trench enlarged and made regular, a pump sunk for pumping out the water, guards posted over the valuable relic, money takers placed at the door of the tent and the moderate sum of fifty cents demanded from each visitor.”[5]

The Cardiff Giant had suddenly become big business to local industries in Cardiff. Curiosity grew with each passing day and there was such a surge of sightseers that the two small hotels in town could not handle them. Moreover, everyone seemed to be profiting from the influx of curiosity seekers, some of whom were able to take advantage of the local railroad’s regular 10-minute stops for a quick visit to see the petrified giant. Because of the hundreds of daily visitors, Newell was also making a handsome sum. In fact, one of Newell’s relatives later reported:

“Crowds were flocking to the grave from all parts of the country, and Newell was making a small fortune charging 50 cents a head to see the wonder. One day he took in $220, and in all must have realized about $7,000 before the giant was taken from his grave.”[6]

The Cardiff Giant was lucrative business and it was making a big economic impact in the area. It also enticed an offer from circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum, who had also made an offer in 1844 to buy Madame Tussaud’s wax business. Unfortunately for Barnum, Newell turned him down but that did not stop Barnum from seizing on a plan to make money off the giant. He then created his own plaster duplicate, billed it as the “real” thing, and obtained higher revenues for his plaster creation than those achieved by Newell for his Cardiff Giant.

Because so much money was at stake, locals soon became fearful that Newell might take his petrified find elsewhere or sell it. Therefore, a consortium of Syracuse businessmen proposed an offer to him that he couldn’t refuse. One week after the Cardiff Giant’s discovery, on 23 October, the consortium shelled out $30,000 for three-fourths interest in the giant, which by today’s standards is over a half a million dollars. Their purchase would ensure the giant would stay in the area, continue to help the local economy, and put a good deal of profits into their hands. In addition, interest in the Cardiff Giant seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds and with no signs of a slowdown, the investors couldn’t have been happier:

“After continuing to exhibit the giant on the Newell farm for nearly two weeks (and already having made back $12,000 of the investment [between 23 October and 5 November]), they decided to raise the giant up out of his place of discovery and transport him to Syracuse, where they felt they could make even more money more quickly. Though the owners seemed to have come up with a pretty good business model, they could not foresee a significant problem: Stub Newell had a big mouth and began spouting off about the great joke he had pulled off with a decidedly fake archaeological specimen. Apparently, it was Stub’s inability to keep a secret that led to a full confession by his co-conspirator, the real brains behind the hoax, Newell’s cousin George Hull.”[7]

Cardiff Giant being hoisted for move

Hoisting the Cardiff Giant in preparation for the move to Syracuse. Author’s collection.

Reports then began to litter newspapers claiming that Newell had admitted to relatives the Cardiff Giant was a fake. A local resident Daniel Luce also remembered hauling a heavy load about a year earlier to Cardiff and speculation was that it was the Cardiff Giant he had been hauling. Furthermore, numerous scientists who traveled to the area to see the amazing petrified giant, quickly dismissed it as a fraud with the celebrated Dr. J.F. Boynton writing on 18 October:

“I spent most of yesterday and to-day, at the location of the so-called ‘Fossil Man,’ and made a survey of the surroundings of the place where this wonderful curiosity was found. One a careful examination, I am convinced that it is not a fossil, but was cut from a piece of stratified sulphate of lime, (known as the Onondaga Gypsum.) … It is positively absurd to consider this a ‘fossil man.’ It has none of the indications that would designate it as such, when examined by a practical chemist, geologist, or naturalist.”[8]

Although Boynton knew it was a fake, he thought it might be an historical artifact and therefore declared it “one of the greatest curiosities of the early history of Onondaga county.”[9] His idea that it was an artifact was reinforced when a famous sculptor named Eratus Dow Palmer examined the giant and pointed out distinct tools marks that a sculptor would use. However, when the Cardiff Giant was raised, Boynton thought that it might not be an artifact because he noted fresh plant material mixed in with the soil.

Perhaps, the most important skeptic of the Cardiff Giant was Othniel C. Marsh. He was a paleontology professor at Yale University and extremely well-regarded, if not the most famous paleontologist of his time. When Marsh examined the find, he, like Boynton, noted that it was created from the sedimentary rock gypsum and saw the tool marks. Marsh reported on 24 November:

“By especial permission of the proprietors I was allowed to make a more careful examination of the statue than is permitted to most visitors, and a very few minutes sufficed to satisfy me that my first suspicions in regard to it were correct, viz that is a of a very recent origin, and a most described humbug.”[10]

Despite the findings of experts and the rumors floating around, people still believed the Cardiff Giant to be real and flocked to see it. Clergymen and religious followers were sure that Newell had made an important Biblical discovery. Yet, despite such support for the giant, Hull decided to unburden himself and tell the truth. Apparently, he was an atheist and had gotten tired of clergyman claiming Bible stories were true. He maintained that only the most gullible people would believe in such far-fetched stories and therefore he decided to create a fake giant:

“I lay awake wondering why people would believe those remarkable stories in the Bible about giants, when I suddenly thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as petrified man. … After a while I found a suitable kind of stone near Fort Dodge, on the river bank. It was a gray stone, something resembling gypsum, with dark colored bluish streaks, which afterward passed for veins of a human body. I found a mass of this rock cropping out about 160 feet from the river, and bought an acre of this land. Then I went to work with a force of men, and in three weeks I had a block ready to take away. It was about 11 feet 4 inches in length 3 feet 6 inches wide, and over 2 feet thick. This I transported by land to the nearest railroad station … shipped it to Chicago … hired a [German] stone cutter and cautioned him to secrecy.”[11]  

Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant. Author’s collection.

Hull then provided more details about his deception and the creation of his Cardiff Giant:

“I first made the model of a man in clay. It lay on its back and was just the shape which the Cardiff giant assumed as the work of cutting it out progressed. On the under side of the body I cut away some pieces, as I did not wish to have the giant too perfect … I then made a tool with bundles of darning needles … and with this tool went over inch of the body, making millions of little holes … Scientific men afterward viewed them with magnifying glasses and thought they were pores of the giant’s skin. In order to give the giant the appearance of age, I procured two gallons of sulphric acid and swabbed the figure with it. … The acid gave the stone a dingy brown color and an appearance of great antiquity. Then I put the giant in an iron-bound box and shipped it to … N.Y … Onondaga Hollow is near Tully … It is a marked depression in the ground and there is a hill on each side. Geologists say it was at one time a lake, and many petrified fish and reptiles have been found there. In this hollow is situated the cross-roads hamlet called Cardiff, and I had determined it was just the place to bury my giant. There lived … a relative named ‘Stubb’ Newell whom I took into my confidence. … We took the giant in this big box across country to Cardiff, arrived at Newell’s farm at midnight in a pouring rain. We put the box back in the barn and covered it with hay … and two weeks later we went back and buried it in a grave five feet deep. The interment took place at dead of night, … Indeed, it was no small job to remove all trace of the midnight burial. I returned to Binghamton and waited one year less two weeks. … I didn’t go near the spot for two or three days after it was dug up, and was first told of the great find by several people on the street. I professed to believe it was a sell. When I did go crowds were flocking to the grave from all parts of the country.”[12]

Hull reported that the truth came out because Newell was “puffed up” and could not “contain himself.” He therefore spilled his secret to relatives and friends bragging about the hoax he and Hull had perpetrated. Hull stated that once he realized his secret leaked out, he knew he would soon be exposed. He therefore decided to admit the truth, which would also discredit the clergyman whom he disliked so much and whom he claimed were trying to perpetrate a hoax on the public by declaring the Bible stories to be literal and true.

After Hull’s confession the fall out was quick. Obviously, those who believed in the Bible and still thought giants were real, worried how Hull’s story of the fake Cardiff Giant might damage their reputations and bring criticism against them and the Bible. The consortium of men who had purchased the giant were also unhappy with Hull’s confession. They knew it would affect their profits and so they initially tried to squelch his story and even claimed that Hull was lying and had been put up to it by jealous townspeople in other cities. However, people soon realized the truth.

The famous Cardiff Giant was a giant fraud. That only became more obvious once people began to closely examine the overwhelming evidence. There were reports that the giant was fake by geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists; Hull’s confession was plastered in newspapers and too detailed and reasonable to be ignored; and several sculptors verified Hull’s story that the giant had been recently carved.

Realizing the Cardiff Giant was fake put an end to Newell’s and the consortium’s profits in 1869 and also brought an end to the public rushing to visit the petrified Cardiff Giant, who was claimed to have once lived. However, the massive stone figure created by Hull has remained of interest and can still be viewed today. The consortium sold him, and he passed through several hand before he was eventually purchased by the New York Historical Association in 1947. Now he can be viewed in repose and resting in the main building at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Cardiff Giant on display today.

Cardiff Giant on display today. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, January 24, 1856, p. 4.
  • [2] The Plymouth Democrat, “State Items,” November 7, 1867, p. 1.
  • [3] The New York Herald, “The Petrified Giant,” October 25, 1869, p. 17.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] 1 January 1898, “The Man Who Made the Cardiff Giant,” p. 5.
  • [7] K. L. Feder, Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2010), p. 54.
  • [8] The American Goliah (Syracuse, 1869), p. 5.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [10] Buffalo Courier, “The Cardiff Giant a Humbug,” November 29, 1869, p. 2.
  • [11] 1 January 1898, p. 5.
  • [12] Ibid.

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