“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that” Genesis 6:4 King James
In 1867 staunch atheist George Hull had a conversation with a bible literalist who said he believed that the bible confirmed that there were once giants. This conversation would inspire Hull to later fund and set up one of the most fascinating American Hoaxes, The Cardiff Giant.
Once he had his plan, Hull traveled to Iowa to purchase a gypsum block for the giant to be made out of. He said that it would be used for a statue of Lincoln to try to throw off anyone that might dig into the purchase. He then hired two sculptors to fashion the gypsum into the form a giant man, naked, lying on his back, with one arm over his stomach. To give the appearance of age, they doused it with acid and even drove pins into it over and over to look like pores. This process cost Hull nearly $3,000, which was an astounding amount for the time, especially considering it was all for a hoax.
Hull then had his giant buried in Cardiff New York. He had a distant relative named “Stub” Newell, who had a farm. They buried the giant by the barn, making sure to get it under roots so that when it was “discovered,” it would look at though it had been buried for centuries. Newell did his part and simply waited for Hull to contact him when it was time. It took almost a year, but finally, Null was ready. Newell hired two men to dig a well near his barn, and they came across a miraculous discovery, The Cardiff Giant.
Newell helped to add to the belief that he was a farmer that just happened upon the giant by playing up his lack of interest. He even had to “be convinced” that the giant was something special and that they shouldn’t just rebury and ignore it. It also helped that Cardiff had already had several fossils discovered there, so people simply believed that it was a petrified body due to the nearby swamps.
Instantly people were curious about the giant, and it was even talked about as one of the new wonders of the world. Newell set up a tent around it and would charge people to come to see the Cardiff Giant. In just a week, they were able to attract over 2000 people to come. Newell and Hull actually rather quickly brought another investor on board and ended up having the giant travel around, something that was good for them and the money they were trying to make, but eventually ended the entire scheme. It is also worth noting that although he did not end up with the original Cardiff Giant, P.T. Barnum was actually among those interested in buying the giant (and was involved in more than a few other hoaxes as well).
But as primed as people were to believe in The Cardiff Giant, this hoax actually didn’t have the same legs as many others, and doubts came in rather quickly. Again Hull did a lot of the purchasing and transportation of materials himself, so while he said he was working on a statue of Lincoln, there were records of him buying materials, and he was actually seen with the large crate near Cardiff. Beyond that, he was not exactly quiet about it, and the sculptors started talking fairly early on.
A few experts did back the claims that it was either a petrified man or a statue from long ago. One theory was that Indigenous Americans had made the statue, and while it didn’t support there being giants like the theories that it was a petrified man, people still thought the size of the statue might have reflected real people.
However, experts that could spot it for what it was, a complete fake, were also among those discussing it. A Yale Paleontologist, Charles Marsh, hardly needed to examine it before he could say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the giant was made and buried recently. An engineer who only went to visit, was not even there to give an opinion, also at one point publicly, and correctly, identified the giant as being made from gypsum.
By 1870 it was pretty well accepted that The Cardiff Giant was a fake. Despite the fact that there were questions even early on, as well as a short period before it was declared a hoax, people were still fascinated by The Cardiff Giant and, more importantly, willing to believe.
Historians actually refer to this era as the golden age of hoaxes sometimes, because there were many, and it was not that hard to get your hoax out there, make money, then cut and run. Even after things were discovered to be hoaxes, people were still interested and would show up. Even though P.T. Barnum was unable to secure The Cardiff Giant, he had his own similar sculpture made, and in advertising, for it, he even suggested that one of the possibilities was that it was nothing, and people still paid money to see it.
There was a fascination with oddities, and due to recent scientists such as Charles Darwin, people started having more questions about the nature of what makes us human, our origins, and what else may have existed. You suggest you might have the petrified remains a giant, or that it might be fake, and people are still going to show up.
Hull actually managed to make an estimated $20,000 before he was forced to call it quits on the giant. It was a pretty impressive sum of money for such a short-lived scheme, and I am sure he delighted in what he thought was making fools of those that took Genesis 6:4 seriously. Even after that, it would occasionally be bought by a new owner who found a way to display it for a little money before selling it off to the next person.
Hull attempted yet another scheme of the same nature, but due to The Cardiff Giant people were on to him rather quickly, and his second attempt never took off. The giant is still on display as well as replicas of both it and Barnum’s “fake of a fake” as it is often called.
It is hard to sum up what would be considered a successful hoax because how do you measure it? By how long it is believed? In that case, The Cardiff Giant was a bit of a failure. By how much money it made? For being so short-lived, it did manage to bring in a decent amount of money. Or by how much it resonates, fascinates, and keeps people coming back? By that standard, The Cardiff Giant was a massive success. With little effort, people were flocking to see the giant. And once again, even after being revealed to be a hoax, there was still an audience for it, and still is one now. Among those interested in that part of history, The Cardiff Giant stands out and will likely never be forgotten.
Hull for better or worse managed to completely fake something that is now permanently etched in American history and our consciousness.