Jewish World Review August 31, 2011 / 1 Elul, 5771
It was only a paper moon , but a legendary hoax
By John Kass
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Of all the hoaxes in American history, my favorite involves the first "scientific" proof of life on the moon: The winged humanoids called Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat, written 176 years ago this month in the New York Sun.
The Vespertilio-homo had copper-colored hair. They prayed in a sapphire temple. And when they weren't flying high above the lunar surface, they gorged on fruit that looked like red cucumbers.
They shared the moon with other creatures, great white stags with ebony antlers, horned bears, blue unicorns and beavers without tails. As there were no meat eaters among them, they lived together peacefully.
It was all published as scientific fact in a six-part series that began in the Sun on Aug. 25, 1835. And if you've ever watched TV news during sweeps weeks and had the good fortune to see reports like "Killer High Heels," then you know what was behind the bat men. And it wasn't science.
The amazing findings were possible because of the giant telescope built by the famous and distinguished (and all too real) astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel.
There was just one thing wrong with the story. It wasn't true. Sir John didn't know about it. But that didn't bother the editors of the Sun.
What intrigued me about the series , besides the cool stuff about the creatures and their habits , was the religious nature of the bat men.
Did they keep records in their temples detailing the collapse of past bat-man civilizations? And could these learned texts help us earthlings predict the future down here?
If only the Vespertilio-homo knew we were watching, perhaps they'd look up, wave at the big telescope and, with hopeful smiles and rude sign language, begin to share their secrets.
Actually, I didn't read that sign language part in the series. I just made it up.
But here's what the Sun did report: When they weren't praying or flying, great posses of Verspertilio-homo would relax and sit alongside huge piles of the juicy red cucumbers, eating them "with a rather uncouth voracity, throwing away the rind."
And "they spend their happy hours in collecting various fruits … eating, flying, bathing and loitering about the summits of precipices."
Clearly, there must have been beautiful female bat babes, too, but there is precious little mentioned about them.
Ulf Jonas Bjork is a professor of journalism at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He's studied the New York Sun's great moon hoax, so we called him.
"This was obviously very sensational," said professor Bjork. "Some of the other papers bought into this, some said it was implausible."
The professor noted the public fascination with science in that era, and said the Sun had previously printed a wood carving of creatures found in a drop of water as seen under a microscope. That stuff wasn't fantasy, of course, because amoeba and paramecia can be found in pond water, as any sixth-grader will tell you.
"I wonder if it was about as believable as … winged creatures on the moon," said Bjork. "People were interested in weird things. We didn't know a lot. And people were fascinated by odd things."
Most newspapers were entirely devoted to policy (war and economic) and politics. They sold for six cents each. But the Sun was a penny paper, a sort of "news of the weird," running salacious crime and other stories, like bat men.
"It's not a newspaper as we would know it, necessarily," said Bjork.
Sadly, the Sun reported, the amazing telescope was destroyed. The paper never made a formal retraction. There is plenty of speculation that the series was written as satire, by a Cambridge-educated reporter fed up with clergy making fanciful statements about the number of souls in the universe.
It didn't work as satire, but the readers went crazy for it anyway. And had I been around then, I'd have gone crazy for it too.
Make no mistake. I'm not advocating journalism hoaxes. But when I was a kid I was a sucker for science fiction, from Jules Verne to Robert Heinlein. So I heard about the New York moon hoax and was fascinated. Of course, it wasn't the first tale of moon life.
Back in the second century after Christ, a guy named Lucian of Samosata , after admitting his work was all lies , went on to explain about interplanetary travel, of mushroom men and centaurs made up of clouds. Humans on the moon ate roasted frogs and "their drink is air squeezed into a cup, which produces a kind of dew."
Of course it does.
Fast forward about 1,600 years, to the early days of the New York Sun. Cultural change was tearing at America. Cyrus McCormick had invented his famous reaper, industrialization was coming, another religious revival was sweeping across the land. And publicly held Christian beliefs strengthened the abolitionist argument against slavery. That's my take on things.
Professor Bjork believes that the slavery debate swelling across the country made the moon hoax an attractive diversion. Maybe New Yorkers just needed a break.
"I'm only speculating," said Bjork, "but maybe it didn't matter to them whether it was a hoax or not, because it was fun."
And what's wrong with taking a break once in awhile? That's what science fiction is for.
Just pass the red cucumbers, will you?
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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Comments by clicking here.
© 2011, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.