Take a look at the headlining photo, what do you see? Something that looks like it belongs in a science fiction novel, that is the usual consensus. Actually, it’s an artist’s depiction of a moon civilization that was brought to light by several articles published in an 1835 newspaper the New York Sun. The paper was not a completely satirical publication however it was a penny paper (in this time newspapers were either 1 cent or 6 cents) meaning it was published with people of a lower social and educational class in mind. The Sun was groundbreaking in its content, with being the first newspaper to report crimes and personal events such as suicides, deaths, and divorces. The paper was credited with the first newspaper account of a suicide. This story was significant because it was the first about an ordinary person. It changed journalism forever, making the newspaper an integral part of the community and the lives of the readers. Prior to this, all stories in newspapers were about politics or reviews of books or the theater. The Sun was the first to hire reporters to go out and collect stories. Prior to this, newspapers relied on readers sending in items, and on pirating stories from other newspapers.

Pirating the news is actually where our story seems to begin. on August 25, 1835, the Sun printed the first of six articles that were claimed to be reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant a Scotland based newspaper.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel
Sir John Frederick William Herschel

Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) was one of the most renowned astronomers of his time, he was also a polymath, mathematician, astronomer, chemist, inventor, and experimental photographer, he is also credited with originating the use of the Julian day system in astronomy. Herschel also named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus. He made many contributions to the science of photography. This gave Herschel more than enough credentials for people of America to believe he actually made the discoveries claimed in the articles. However, at the time Herschel was in the Amazon working on other discoveries and theories. Herschel was initially amused by the hoax, noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting. He became annoyed later when he had to answer questions from people who believed the hoax was serious.

The first images to resolve themselves onto the wall of Herschel’s observatory were of basaltic rock, and then, tellingly enough, a poppy field. The telescope next swept over lunar forests, populated by what looked like massive yew trees, by beaches of “brilliant white sand, girt with wild castellated rocks, apparently of green marble,” and clusters of resplendent crystalline spires and pyramids, lilac in hue. Finally, it came to rest on an oval valley, surrounded by crystallized hills of “purest vermilion,” with cascading waterfalls pouring from their cliffs, where they discovered, nestled in among its lush trees and vegetation, a herd of diminutive lunar bison. These sported a hairy, veiled appendage that—common to many lunar species soon to be discovered—it used to protect its eyes from the “great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.” Here also were waterfowl who fed upon some sort of shellfish or amphibian, and spritely, single-horned goats that bounded about the glades of the woods, nibbling on vegetation. They concluded their first night’s observations by dubbing this “the Valley of the Unicorn.”

This story became an instant success and The Sun saw a large increase in subscriptions as the story progressed in the weeks to come. As the story spread across the country in what we would now call a viral fashion. Because remember this was 1836, readers had no way to fact check the paper and had to just accept whatever they read like truth.

Over the course of successive nights, the scientists discovered ever more complex and fantastic life forms, including a race of bipedal beavers that lived in huts, built fires, and carried its young in its arms. There were also, for some reason, sheep—just, regular sheep. It was in an amphitheater-like formation dubbed the “Ruby Colosseum,” however, those first sightings were made of the iconic lunar man-bat:

Artist depiction of the Bat people seen on the Moon.

Vespertilio-homo, as they were classified, stood erect and dignified, and could be witnessed gesturing with their hands and arms, evidently engaged in animated conversations. These were rational beings, albeit of a low order. In Dr. Grant’s words, they were “doubtless happy and innocent creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.” On this point, he declined to elaborate, noting merely that they were “of both sexes.”

The story may also have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write and publish “The Balloon-Hoax” in the same newspaper on April 13, 1844. Poe had published his own Moon hoax in late June 1835, two months before the similar Locke Moon hoax, in the Southern Literary Messenger entitled “Hans Phaall – A Tale,” later republished as “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.” The story was reprinted in the New York Transcript on September 2–5, 1835, under the headline “Lunar Discoveries, Extraordinary Aerial Voyage by Baron Hans Pfaall.” Poe described a voyage to the Moon in a hot-air balloon, using a factually plausible scenario: Pfaall lives for five years on the Moon with Lunarians and sends back a Lunarian to earth. The Poe Moon hoax was less successful because of the satiric and comical tone of the account. Locke was able to upstage Poe and to steal his thunder. In 1846, Poe would write a biographical sketch of Locke as part of his series “The Literati of New York City” which appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book

Authorship of the article has been attributed to Richard Adams Locke,a Cambridge-educated reporter who, in August 1835, was working for The Sun. Locke never publicly admitted to being the author, while rumors persisted that others were involved. Two other men have been noted in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer traveling in America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York when the Moon hoax issues appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of The Knickerbocker, a literary magazine. However, there is no good evidence to indicate that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.

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