On this day in 1870, the Cardiff Giant, billed as an enormous petrified man, was revealed as a hoax. This pretend relic was produced by a Mr George Hall, a tobacconist from Binghamton, New York. He had acquired a big block of gypsum from a quarry in the Fort Dodge area of Iowa—telling the miners that it was intended for an Abraham Lincoln monument in New York City—and had it shipped to Chicago, Illinois. Once arrived there, in 1868, the gypsum was carved into the form of a colossal human figure, standing 10 feet tall. Finally, it was interred under the soil of William C. Newell’s farm on the outskirts of Cardiff, New York. In 1869, Hall ordered a couple of well diggers to dig a well behind the barn—knowing, of course, that they would uncover the buried giant—and so the Cardiff Giant was “discovered.”
George Hall claimed that the Cardiff Giant was a petrified man. Although he himself was an atheist, he was inspired by an argument at a Methodist revival meeting he had attended, revolving around a Bible passage, Genesis 6:4, suggesting that once upon a time there were giants living on the Earth. Thus his stone man was supposed to have been a prehistoric giant, the first of its kind ever found.
George Hall had spent $2,600 on his hoax—an extraordinary sum at the time—so it was a serious investment, and not a throwaway prank. After the discovery, his collaborator William C. Newell erected a tent above the Cardiff Giant and started charging the public to come and see it; the price started at a quarter, and after two days increased to two quarters. A vast number of people came to visit. However, soon after the attraction opened, the esteemed Yale palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh pronounced the giant as a fake, deriding it as “a most decided humbug.” Also, some geologists noted that there was no real reason to dig a well there. Despite all this, George Hall eventually sold his share of the Cardiff Giant to a group of five investors for the princely sum of $23,000—an impressive profit.
The tobacconist-turned-sculptor had invested a lot of his wealth into a make-believe petrified prehistoric giant, and his gamble had paid off handsomely. However, in the face of increasing accusations of a hoax, he confessed the truth to the press on 10 December 1869. Finally, on 2 February 1870, it was proved to be a hoax in a court of law.
Photo Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS
Photo Caption: The burial of the Cardiff Giant at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York.