A delightful recounting of “the most successful hoax in the history of American journalism.”
The moon, it turns out, is covered with poppy fields, grassy plains, forests and lakes, and populated by assorted shellfish, single-horned goats, bi-ped beavers, miniature zebras and four-foot-tall, simian, winged creatures—so-called “man-bats”—capable of conversation and religious worship. Or so wrote Richard Adams Locke in his sensational 1835 series for New York’s Sun. Intended as a satire of those who would make science the handmaiden of religion, Locke’s Great Astronomical Discoveries mixed just enough real-life names, genuine science and plausible technological advances to be believable. Reprinted and debated in competing papers, the series helped turn the Sun, the first of the penny papers, into the world’s largest-selling newspaper. Although Goodman (Jewish Food, 2005, etc.) focuses on the anatomy of Locke’s brilliant deception, he also surveys New York’s newspaper scene at a time when the dailies were becoming something more than a compilation of commercial information, currency-conversion tables and reprints of outdated foreign news. The trend toward local, preferably sensational, news was led by the Sun’s publisher Benjamin Day who, in addition to setting the penny price, practically invented the idea of newsboys to hawk his paper and lithographs to illustrate the stories. The true appeal of Goodman’s story, though, lies in his skillful interweaving of “an elaborate series of deceptions and exposures” in the air near the time of Locke’s creation: P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth, the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe’s faked account of Monck Mason’s balloon flight across the Atlantic and the shady story of religious con man Mathias the Prophet, whose gullible disciples included Sojourner Truth. Goodman consistently entertains with his tale of press manipulation, hucksterism and the seemingly bottomless capacity for people to believe the most outrageous things.