The world of the strange has always held a certain draw. The pull of a mystery, the intrigue of a natural obscurity or the exciting twists of the unexplained. This was a market that was heavily seized upon in typical bombastic fashion in America during the 19th Century when the art of the humbug was refined, polished and displayed on a grande stage by the likes of P. T. Barnham and his museum of magic, conjuring and social, cultural and natural oddities. In 1869, a new chapter in the pantheon of the strange was freshly penned with the discovery of a 10 foot tall petrified human giant on a farm in Cardiff, New York. As one might expect, all was most definitely not, what met the eye and the saga would, if nothing else, slot right in as suitably bizarre.
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The Cardiff Giant & The Great American Humbug
The world of the strange has always held a certain draw. The pull of a mystery, the intrigue of a natural obscurity or the exciting twists of the unexplained. This was a market that was heavily seized upon in typical bombastic fashion in America during the 19th Century when the art of the humbug was refined, polished and displayed on a grande stage by the likes of P. T. Barnham and his museum of magic, conjuring and social, cultural and natural oddities. In 1869, a new chapter in the pantheon of the strange was freshly penned with the discovery of a 10 foot tall petrified human giant on a farm in Cardiff, New York. As one might expect, all was most definitely not, what met the eye and the saga would, if nothing else, slot right in as suitably bizarre. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Darwin, Fundamentalists & The American Humbug
The 19th Century was a rough time for the Bible in America. It was a century that saw great change in belief systems and spiritual philosophies, brought about by the equally rapid and largely advancing leaps in the natural sciences that challenged intellectual thought and social behaviours. New academic fields in Geology and Archaeology posed refreshed questions on the age of the Earth, sparking debate on the content of the Biblical book of Genesis. In the latter half of the Century, Charles Darwin spearheaded the public’s perception of themselves as humans, as the theory of evolution was introduced, expanded upon and then exploded into the public sphere on a wider scale with the publication and subsequent promotion of his work on evolution “On the Origin of Species.” Upon its publication on November 24th, 1859, whilst not being a great shock amongst the educated classes who had debated much of the content for the previous half-century, it was still a barrier bending text in many circles, not least the American, religious rural communities that could not avoid the book’s bestseller status. Darwin’s book sold out editions routinely before they were even printed and totalled over 100,000 sales by the end of the century.
In America specifically, the Civil-War had been the start of a bleak period for a nation dealing with fresh divisions. In the post-war period, newspapers were filled with stories of Assassinated presidents, economic decline and depression and great migratory upheaval as cities prospered in the wake of the industrial revolution, whilst rural communities found their populations diminishing, their feelings of being cut off, left behind and irrelevant in a strange new world growing exponentially.
If this wasn’t difficult enough, religion itself began turning against its own teachings, as modernists began reinterpreting and recategorizing the biblical word in order to have it jive in the emerging world. Some modernists sought to go even further, by revising and discarding entire passages central to Biblical history in their teachings. In retaliation, other Biblical scholars took it upon themselves to declare the inspiration for the bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God. Groups like the Millenarians and the Adventist movement sprang fresh roots, teaching the truth of the second coming and too saw themselves grow in popularity as those seeking to push back against the rapid change latched onto the coat-tails of the loudest on their own side of the argument.
Whilst Darwin himself hated religious controversy and many esteemed men of science and academia of the day were deeply religious, it was a time of great contradictions and juxtapositions, if nothing else. To the rural communities, Darwinism, political shock and the new natural sciences threatened the older ways of thinking, whilst the industrial revolution and economic hardships physically challenged the older ways of living and being. On a grander scale, the entire American view of life was undergoing a hard tilt in a new direction and there were those who were on board for the ride, but many many more who looked only to reinforce their memories of a world that was drifting over the horizon behind them.
One rather unlikely consequence of all of this was the imagining of the great American humbug. Popular in Europe, the exhibition of absurdities, freaks and oddities for entertainment and passed off as a challenge to the public’s perception, saw itself reimagined on a new, American scale, and always with an element of fantastical and manipulative marketing, if not just simple, straightforward fraud. As the market for humbuggery opened its doors, plenty of people willingly stepped through to make a buck from those who would pay to reinforce a long held, but confidence stricken worldview. In the same way that fundamentalism was flourishing in a void of security, the humbug found itself a hungry new demographic.
A Giant Discovery
Founded unceremoniously by John F. Card when he built his general store on old Onondagan land in 1835, Cardiff was situated in Onondaga County, New York, laying around 12 miles directly south of the city of Syracuse not far from the Northern border of the great lakes. Springing out from vast swathes of forested hillsides, a smattering of farmhouses popped up in the open expanses of green fields. Despite its small population, its proximity to Syracuse and its position on the state road, meant that business had been good in the small town and it had grown exponentially to line the main road that scored through the middle of the farmlands and marked the hamlet on the map. Between 1850 and 1860, the sparse offering of buildings had grown to include two stores as well as a blacksmith, cider shop, hotel, medical practice and photographic studio that people passing through on the way to Syracuse could visit, to spend some money and have their image taken in front of a variety of backdrops and shabby props. The Peoples Store, built by Robert Parks in 1835 and owned by the Card family was the main hub for the locals dry goods, groceries, shoes, paints, oils, drugs and medicines, though just about everything in the store was sold at such a premium, that locals would often make the trip to Syracuse themselves, in order to buy at more amenable prices. The store owner, one of four Card brothers who each ran the business, would himself travel to Syracuse every day to bring back the papers to sell to the farmers and local American Indian population in the nearby reservation.
The morning of Saturday 16th October, 1869 was crisp and cool. The state of New York had been enjoying a relatively pleasant autumn, with average temperatures for the past week around 55F, 12C. After sunrise, Henry Nichols had woken, got dressed and left his house to walk up to Newells Farm, a small farmhouse owned by William Newell in the small hamlet of Cardiff, where he worked on occasion as a laborer.
On his way to the farm, Nichols stopped off to meet up with Giddeon Emmons. Emmons was an old, civil war vet who had lost his arm on the battlefield and now found himself scratching around for manual work where he could find it, usually when someone took pity on him and had work that wasn’t too physically demanding. Today the pair had been employed by William Newells to dig a new well on his farm, where they arrived shortly before 8am. They greeted the Newell family in the farm house, William Newell, his wife lydia and their young son William Junior and then William took them round the back of the main barn to a large, open expanse of marshland where he planned to have them dig his new well, picked out a good spot and suggested they dig about four feet down to hit a good supply of water. Nochols commenced digging, whilst emmons, not much of a digger with his one arm, went about collecting the stone from the adjacent fields to line the well. Newell left the men to the task and went back to the farmhouse to meet up with John Parker, another laborer who had come to help with the build, and the pair began carting stone down to the site. Later that morning a fourth laborer, Smith Woodmansee, arrived to chip in with the backbreaking work.
As noon approached, the well was coming along and Nichols had dug out around 2 and a half feet of damp earth when the head of his shovel hit something in the ground. As he foraged around in the slushy mush pit by his feet, he saw what looked to be a human foot appear from beneath the marshy soil. Instinctively, he called out to the nearby workers, calling them over to what he’d found. Calling back to the history of the land, he declared that he’d found an old indian buried in the soil. The whole area, centering on nearby Syracuse, had once belonged to the Onondaga tribe, one of the five nations of the Iroquois that had populated the area until Americans settled in the area in the 18th Century. Anything buried that deep in the ground, reasoned Nichols, must surely be as old as the Indians. If newell had wanted to keep the potentially problematic find quiet, he was quickly ridden over, as Woodmansee, spying a passerby in a horse and cart called out “THey’ve found a man’s foot down there!”
Promptly the driver of the horse and cart pulled over to investigate. The traveller was a man named John Haynes, a local who was on his way to the fair in Syracuse, but spying a much more interesting situation at the bottom of the well, he opted instead to jump into the pit and begin helping Nichols to dig out the body. Meanwhile, Newell had his own, private concerns. When he had bought the farm, the old owner had told him a story of finding a straight edge razor, tucked away inside a hollow tree stump in the same field. He hadn’t given it a great deal of thought at the time, but now it came back to suggest the very real possibility that it had been a murder weapon and they were potentially uncovering a very dark moment of local history indeed.
Due to the fair in Syracuse, the road that passed by the farm was busy that Saturday and it didn’t take long for the discovery to draw a crowd as more and more people chose to pull over and see what the commotion was about rather than passing by. By the early afternoon, a sizable crowd had gathered round the hole that had now widened to reveal what was clearly the shape of a human body. This body, however, had some pretty unusual features. Primarily, it was far larger than an average man. As they dug round the body, the true size became evident and as it became obvious that it lay around 10 feet in length, excitement stirred the ever expanding group of onlookers. As the men continued to dig, muddy water slopped around their feet inside the pit and it became clear to Newell that the situation was far from ideal. He began making plans to remove the body of the giant man but soon realised time was not on his side. As dusk fell over the farm, he opted instead to stand guard over the pit for the night and deal with the mysterious contents under the fresh light of the morning sun. Clear that no more was going to be uncovered for the day, the crowds slowly drifted away, but before heading home, many members stopped over in hotels and inns and spread the word about what they had seen that afternoon. Word of the Giant began spreading fast and this was considerably rushed along when Silas Forbes paid a visit to the offices of the local newspaper, the Syracuse Daily Standard, to clue them in on the find.
The next morning, as Newell, dishevelled and tired pulled himself up from the pit after a long night of standing guard, the usually quiet farmhouse saw itself inundated with locals who had either been on the farm the day before, or heard of the stories as they passed through the local establishments. People from the local villages and towns of Lafayette and Tully were quick to show up soon after and by that afternoon, visitors from as far away as Syracuse were arriving at the farm, keen to confirm the stories they’d heard that bounded through the local population. Hearing of the news on the local reservation, members of the Onondaga tribe also showed up to see what was happening. They had heard the rumours that the giant was an old indian and referring back to the mythological tribal folklore of the stone coats, a giant of Iroquois legend with a skin of rock that could repel weapons, wanted to see for themselves. They quickly distanced themselves from the find though,a s one pointed out that the man in the hole was clearly of caucasian appearance. That afternoon too saw the first visit to the farm from local doctors. Eugene Cuykendall, Elizah Park, Henry Dana and Miron McDonald all showed up to offer their expert opinion on the origins of the man and climbing down into the wet pit, they each took a casual glance over the filth covered rock-like form, half steeped in muddy water and agreed that the giant was most certainly the petrified remains of a Giant man. This was enough to cause a stir from the onlookers, not least because the man was naked and therefore, quite undignified. An improvised covering was placed over the giant’s genital-free groin and a level of calm restored. The doctor’s confirmation, however, was quite something. If the stone was that of a giant human, where had he come from? For many, their only experience of the concept of giants came from the book of Genesis. One did not need to have read too far into the Bible to have discovered the Nephilim, “The Mighty ones of old times”, a result of angels breeding with human women who had roamed the land before the great flood had wiped out everything that Noah had not bothered to rescue on his boat. It was, therefore, a logical leap to assume that if the giant was not of Indian origin, he may well have been from an ancient race and just as likely, from Biblical times. As the doctors pulled themselves from the pit and theories and conjecture began to swirl through the crowd, two reporters from Syracuse, acting on the story that had come from Silas Forbes the night before, showed up at the farm to snag the story for themselves. At around the same time, local Doctor, Prospector and inventor John Boynton also showed up offering to give his own opinion on the giant. Boynton was a well respected figure in the community. An early leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, though by now excommunicated by the group and the inventor of the soda fountain, portable fire extinguishers and various other electrical household items, he had worked for the government as both a scientist, where he helped to invent torpedo technology and as a Geological Surveyor in California. After his government duties were over, he had extensively toured the United States, lecturing on Natural History and Geology. Having the opinion of such an esteemed scientist on his side was a bit of a coup for Newell, who by now was fielding several offers from local businessmen looking to buy the giant from him, so he naturally jumped at the chance for Boynton to get involved. The crowd watched on with baited breath as he jumped down into the hole, bent over the stone man and licked its face. Ever an eccentric, he was a man of action, but it wasn’t without some scientific purpose and after he slopped about in the pit for a further few minutes, touching and sniffing the exterior of the find, he declared confidently that the giant was not the remains of a petrified human at all, it was, he had decided, a man-made statue, carved from local limestone. The crowds who had stood and watched his odd behaviour, licking and sniffing what they were by now, convinced was a dead, ancient, giant human, gave his conclusion a short-shrift. Science be damned, they knew what they could see with their own eyes and they didn’t need a cranky Latter Day Saint to tell them otherwise. Despite having been kicked out long ago, his association with the group was still a stain against his reputation for many. Boynton took Newell aside and asked if he could have the statue. As a man of science, he reasoned, he would be interested in and capable of finding out, all about its origins. Newell wasn’t likely to just give the Giant away, but holding his cards close to his chest, he chaired the offer and Boynton agreed to return the next day to fence the pit off in order to protect it from the ever growing crowd that were eager to catch a glimpse of the ancient giant.
The next day was Monday and with the new day came the first of what was to become a long saga of stories in the local papers concerning the giant. The headline that sat on the front page of the paper boldly stated “A New Wonder! Petrified Giant.” The story was quickly picked up by all the local papers and those that had failed to send their own reporters relied on the words of the men and women who had made up the crowds from that weekend,
“This forenoon I visited a farm near Cardiff to obtain from personal inspection all that would be of any use to you relating to the petrified giant which has been discovered there. The fossil was found about three feet below the surface, while digging for a well. The soil is a sort of bluish clay, mixed with quicksand and black laom, and contains body specimens of organic remains. The giant lies in a very easy and natural position, horizontal, partly on the right side, with the right hand placed on the bowels, the left as though once lying on the hip and afterwards falling off by his back. Everything so far as discovered is in a complete state and entire – The petrified substance seems to be silicate of lime, the crystals being beautifully arranged. The dimensions that I took are viz: Crown of head to hollow of foot, 10 foot 2 and a half inches; crown of head to tip of chin, 1 foot 9 inches; length of nose, 6 inches; width of nostrils, 3 and a half inches; width of mouth, 4 inches; point to point of shoulder. 3 feet; point of hip to knee joint, 3 feet; diameter of calf leg, 9 and a half inches; diameter of thigh, 1 foot; length of foot, 1 foot 7 and a half inches; width of palm, 7 inches; diameter of wrist, 5 inches. It has been visited today by hundreds from the surrounding country and examined by physicians, and they assert positively that it must have been once a living giant. The veins, eyeballs, muscle, tendons of the heel and cords of the neck are all very fully exhibited…. It certainly is one of the connecting links between the past and the present races, and of great value.”
One thing was for sure, the article had not been wrong concerning the value of the find. Newell, sniffing out a winner, was quick to cotton on to this idea too. He hired his neighbours to help him further dig out the hole around the giant, install a pump to dispose of the muddy water that soaked up around it, erect a large tent over the top of the whole thing and he then employed local store keep Billy Houghton as a guide to entertain visitors with the story of the discovery. He set the entrance fee at 50 cents and on that first day, pulled in over 400 excited customers.
By Tuesday, the headlines on the giant had gone national. Papers as far away as San Francisco ran stories with headlines such as “The Onondaga Giant”, “The Lafayette Wonder” and some even went as far as declaring it the 8th wonder of the world.
For Newell, the press fervor threw his farm under a very welcome spotlight. He employed Houghton to take over the running of the hastily put together exhibit on his farm whilst he spent the week in meetings, fielding offers that reportedly went into the tens of thousands of dollars for a share in what was now becoming known unequivocally as “The Cardiff GIant”. Even the famous P. T. Barnum, America’s most famous showman and entrepreneur of the day, who, after finding limited success with his Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre, stunned the country with the Barnum American Museum in New York City. Always the grandest of showman, Barnum furnished the roof of the building with a roof garden that overlooked the city and installed a lighthouse lamp to shine out and promote its existence on the flocking public who visited daily to jump in the hot air balloon rides that launched from the roof and to see the endlessly curious exhibits of freaks, natural oddities and live magic acts. In 1842, he stepped his game up with his lease and exhibiting of the Feejee Mermaid, a taxidermy creature with the body and head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Another of his infamous and well loved exhibits at the time was that of “General Tom Thumb: The smallest person that ever walked alone”, a young 5 year old he had coached to smoke cigars and drink wine, dressed in the clothes of Napoleon. The price was either too rich for Barnum however, or the rumours of his interest were just simply not true, but it is a testament to the level of infamy the giant had gained to even be mentioned in the same breath as Barnum, even amongst rumour.
By the end of the week, there were two syndicates and a wealthy business owner all bidding against one another for ownership of the giant. Eventually, the two syndicates decided to team up their bids against the businessman and split shares in the giant and Newell found the deal for a three-quarter share of the giant, which included a $10,000 down payment, with the promise of a further $20,000 paid from profits taken from the exhibition, to be perfectly amicable. Newell also retained the final one fourth share in the giant for himself. The amount of money paid out for the curious stone man might seem absurd, but the final take for that first week had already amounted to a profit of over $1,200 for Newell as people continued to read about the giant in the press, the stories spread far and wide and scores of visitors continued to flock to the farm to see the fabled creature for themselves.
Under new ownership, the giant really couldn’t stay at the bottom of a muddy pit on the farm forever, covered by a shabby tent, with visitors given the spiel by a local shopkeep and so, one of the syndicates first steps was to give the farm a bit more jazz. They hired Joseph H Wood, owner of the Randolph Street Museum in Chicago and Philadelphia, who specialised in exhibiting exotic taxidermy, to replace Houghton as the tour guide. They also invested heavily in aggrandizing the entire layout on the farm, buying a larger tent, a shinier fence and a massive American flag to fly by the entrance. They also set up new rules for visitors, including a maximum viewing period of 15 minutes, to aid in the churn of visitors, which by Sunday 24th October, were numbering over 2300 per day. They published a 32 page pamphlet on the exhibition to sell as a souvenir entitled “An American Goliah: A Wonderful Geological Discovery” that talked up the original excavation with new, flowery speech and bombastic drama. It was an exciting time for Cardiff and it wasn’t just the giant owners who were profiting from the previously insignificant hamlets newfound fame. Two taverns were hastily erected within a stone’s throw from Newells farm, the first named ‘The Giant Saloon,’ the second ‘The Goliath House.’
Until now, no one had entertained, nor even suggested the idea that the statue could have been a hoax. For the most part, people were on board with the concept that it was a true fossil of a petrified giant. The closest person to have voiced skepticism on the find had been Boynton, who had been quickly shrugged off and now, he was back in the press, giving his opinion, only with a few, subtle differences. Whilst he still remained convinced that the giant was a statue, carved from local rock. He now seemed to be authenticating it as at least an ancient relic of great importance. For the press, by and large, they staked their place in the ground, with several calling Boynton out as unqualified to comment, and concluding articles with such statements as,
“Let the people who own the giant keep up the excitement and increase the price of admission!”
In fact, Boynton theories were probably more welcome to some than the press gave them credit for. He offered up a second narrative for those that were not quite willing to get on board with the Biblical GIant theory and still reinforced the belief in an ancient Western Civilisation had once roamed the plains of America, potentially redefining the history of the nation wholesale.
Still though, there were some voices of clear dissent and on Monday 25th October, a letter was published in the Daily Herald that was headlined “The Petrified Giant. A stupendous Hoax!” The letter included witness testimony from one Thomas B. Ellis, a resident of Syracuse who claimed to know the whole sordid story behind the giant’s creation as a hoax.
“One year ago, about the time of the burning of Jules Garaud’s cabin, a stranger came to the hotel in Tully for a guide to the house of Newell, at Lafayette. A wagon and guide were there furnished him. After travelling to within sight of Newell’s house he paid and dismissed his guide and proceeded on foot. This was the last seen of our mysterious stranger. A few days after – some of my informants say two and others three days – a wagon containing a large box eleven feet long was observed to be making its way towards Newell’s house. Several veracious witnesses are willing to swear it was Newell’s team.”
Although the letter turned out to be a hoax, the eyewitness report remained a mysterious curiosity and a constant thorn in the side of Newell. Not helping matters, he had placed him farm for sale and many took it as a sign of a guilty man looking to do a bunk. The press’ news reports put enough pressure on Newell from the giants buyers that eventually led him to sign an affidavit swearing that he had no knowledge of the giant before the day of the well excavation, although it was not connected with any court of law and was not at all legally binding, it offered the new owners some piece of mind. A new clause was also written into the contract on their behalf that made any debt for ownership negated and all money returned, should the giant be proved a fake within the first three months of their buying it. The cut off for the clause was the 24th January.
The mysterious stranger referred to in the letter was named George Hull, a 48 year old businessman with a shady past and a poor reputation from trading dodgy horses. It was quickly confirmed that Hull had been in town and that he had been carting a large box, but when he was tracked down and confronted, he insisted that he was only in town to make delivery on a box of machinery for the railroad. meant for the railroad. His story was not universally accepted, especially given his sketchy past, but when Hull produced a stack of receipts as proof of the cargo, the letter in the paper was dismissed entirely, both by the press and in the public opinion.
Newells reassurances might have given the buyers confidence, but the problem for Newell was that throughout it all, he and Hull had been lying through their teeth.
The Creation of a Humbug
The true story of the giants origin sadly, for the new owners, lay not in ancient American history, but instead was, according to George Hull, the result of a night drinking in a saloon one night in 1867. At the time, Hull was working as a tobacconist and was visiting the town of Ackley, Iowa for a business trip when, during a night out, his path crossed with a Methodist Revival Preacher named Henry B. Turk. The two got to drinking late into the night and discussing, among other things, the stories in the Bible. Turk, a devout Christian was adamant that giants had existed at one time, as referenced in the bible and Hull, who was far less religious himself, debated the possibility long into the next morning. This chance meeting seemed to lay heavy on Hulls mind, who after returning to his hotel room, could not shake the strength of the man’s belief.
“I lay awake wondering why people would believe these remarkable stories in the bible about giants when suddenly I thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as a petrified man.”
George Hull was an interesting figure. A man with a shady past, who had seen himself often cast as something of a social pariah due to his beliefs and quite often, fraudulent business schemes, including hawking marked playing cards. But Hull was no gung-ho, simple minded criminal. He took an interest in the emerging sciences, visited lectures and paid attention to popular culture. He knew of Darwin and the interest that the book had stirred in fossils and evolution and he was aware of Barnum and his exhibition of the Feejee Mermaid 27 years prior along with the unparalleled career he had gone on to have, including all the wealth and fame that had come with it. Though in his own words, his primary motivation for his inspiration to create the giant was as an atheist looking to make a fool of the religious folk he viewed as gullible beyond extremes, Hull undoubtedly had more than a casual eye focused towards turning a hefty profit.
If Hulls scheme was to work in any capacity, he first needed to secure funding to make a reliable fake. He met with a blacksmith and inventor named Henry Martin and pitched his plan, ultimately securing a partner and half of the money needed to purchase the large slab of stone they would need along with the labour to carve it. For the other half, he burnt down two of his own cigar factories and claimed the insurance. The second problem facing Hull was actually acquiring the stone for the job. He had few contacts in the quarrying industry and though he approached several, he was turned away by owners who had no interest in working with him. During his hunt, he wound up contacting and eventually selling the plan to a Chicago marble dealer named Edward Burkhardt. Burkhardt was a gem of a find for Hull, not only did he have the knowledge to quarry the stone, but the workforce and contacts to take care of just about every step of the plan going forward. Burkhardt agreed to work with Hull in exchange for equal partnership in the scheme. Utilizing their new expertise, the trio rented an acre of land in Fort Dodge, Iowa and dug out a 6,500 Lbs slab of gypsum, which Hull then shipped to Chicago, driving the piece of rock 40 miles to the nearest train station by horse and cart. Over the next few weeks, Burkhardt’s team, marble cutter Frederick Mohrmann and his assistant Henry Salle meticulously sculpted the slab into the figure of a giant man, modelled on Hull himself, including tendons, veins, Adam’s apple and veins. They even hammered tiny pores over the giant’s skin, using a wooden block hammer struck through with knitting needles, to pepper the surface with tiny, dotted indentations. At first the statue was complete with hair and beard, until Hull read that hair would not fossilize, at which point, he chiselled it off.
The next stage was to age the stone. It may look convincing in its form, but it needed to look ancient if it was to fool anyone. He stained the entire statute with blue ink, dowsed it in Sulphuric Acid and carefully sandpapered the entire surface, creating a statue which once finished, looked… potentially passable at least. Hull researched where best to bury his stone man and finalised on New York state after he read Geologists were theorising that the state had at one time been a lake and that many fossilized fish and reptiles were being found there. It had also been a relative hotbed of emergent religious movements over the years, a thought that certainly couldn’t hurt. He canvassed the area around Syracuse and approached Newell, securing the farmer as a partner in exchange to bury the statue on his farm and to have him dig it up a year later. It took Hull’s team, along with Newell 7 nights, working under the cover of darkness to get the statue in the ground and once covered, Newell sprinkled the fresh earth with clover seeds. In total, the whole scheme had taken nearly two years and cost the initial investors over $3000. Now it was time to wait it out and make it pay.
The scheme may seem positively audacious, but in the mid to late 19th Century, it was really not so much of a risk as it might sound. P. T. Barnham had proved decades prior that you could hoodwink the public with a well made, or at least, passable for the time, fake and in the very worst case scenario, Hull could always welcome the inevitable skepticism onto his giant, utilizing the tactic so well refined by Barnum to invite the public to make their own judgements on the truth of an exhibit, but only after they’ve come to see it with their own eyes and paid the price of entry.
In fact, in comparison to one of Barnhams most infamous humbugs, the Feejee Mermaid, the Cardiff Giant was positively a top class project. Barnhams “mermaid” had been advertised before its exhibition from a woodblock depiction of a beautiful woman with the lower half of a large fish, but in reality, it was the shrivelled carcass of a monkey, crudely attached to the dried tale of a fish, it was, as one press report put it, “The very incarnation of ugliness.” Barnham had leased the taxidermy monstrosity knowing full well that it was a fake, he had had it inspected by a naturalist long before the deal was done, but it was Barnhams skill in marketing along with his audacity to manipulate public curiosity that stood him out from the crowd. Hull took all these lessons on board and so far, his giant creation had been a roaring success. He needed only now to extend that until the 24th January and he and his partners were, financially at least, in the clear.
On the Road
Now that the Cardiff Giant was under new ownership, the consensus was that the exhibit needed to make some real money, something which it could do much better on the road. It was promptly decided that with all the press attention surrounding the find, a national tour should be organised. It would visit states throughout the East Coast, the Midwest and stretch even as far as Claifornia, where a spot in a San Francisco museum was secured. On November 3rd, before the giant was due to be excavated from its resting place on Newells farm and begin its travels, a group of scientists, doctors, judges and local ministers were invited to the farm to give their final opinion on the find and hopefully, secure the Giant one final piece of big press hype.
“The conclusions now reached are that the figure is a giant cut from gypsum; that no known gypsum quarry capable of furnishing a block large enough to work out a figure of this size exists in Onondaga County; that the statue is ancient and that it is a mystery. On Wednesday there was a large gathering of scientific men at Cardiff, and they made a careful inspection of the giant and his surroundings. The proprietor offered every facility to see it, and courted the honest criticism of scientific men… There is in this statute food for scientific speculation enough to set all the associations of the world by the ears, and Syracuse, which has been heavy in the convention and ism business for years, has a fresh incentive to exertion in the same line.”
After the inspection was done, the tent was removed, official photos taken and finally, the giant was towed up, suspended by a large winch built of solid wooden beams and thick rope, pulled by a wagon and four horses. It was then carefully removed from the property and taken to a warehouse in Syracuse, where it was to be cleaned, weighed and exhibited on its first stop for the nationwide tour. Before it was placed in Shakespeare Hall exhibit, it’s home for the next week, it was paraded through the streets, to a fanfare that drew over a thousand spectators. By the end of it’s tenancy in Syracuse one week later, it had drawn in between 35,000 – 40,000 visitors, each paying a dollar for the privilege. For some it was now time to cash out. Some of the early investors sold their share in the giant for a few thousand dollars and Newell himself sold his quarter share for a cool $25,000 to a businessman named John Rankin. Newell had to strike the deal to only accept bank notes, as, still unbeknown to the other owners, he had to split the fee with Hull and his team of Giantmakers. During the Giants exhibition in Syracuse, P. T. Barnham once again took an interest in purchasing the giant for his own museum, reportedly offering $50,000 for a one quarter ownership, but with the giant earning so much even without the backing of a figure like Barnham, it was promptly turned down. This was a move that would prompt one of the strangest and most absurd chapters in the story of the giant. Not being deterred after having his offer turned down, Barnham instead created his own replica giant, enlisting the services of sculptor Carl Franz Otto to cast a giant from plaster using the official photos of the Cardiff Giant as reference. He paid the sculptor $100 per week for three months and put him up in a fancy New York City hotel for the duration as payment. Advertising his giant, he made no reference to the fact that it was a copy, instead he fell back on his age old technique of tossing the question out to the public,
“A most impressive mystery! The phenomenon of the Century, the stone man of Onondaga! Is it a statue? Is it a petrification? Is it a stupen—dous fraud? Is it the remains of a former race?”
Amazingly, despite the fact that it was yet another of Barnhams obvious humbugs, the exhibit pulled in huge crowds all the same, likely helped along by the fact that Barnham was rumoured to have paid off the local press to give him favourable reviews. Seeing the fake undermine its profit potential in a city that was close coming up as a stop for the real, fake, cardiff giant, the owners took Barnham to court to file an injunction and have the exhibit pulled, but the judge, George Barnard, a notoriously corrupt and lazy individual with little knowledge of, nor care for, the law, threw the case out before the lawyers had even finished reading their statements. On December 20th, 1896, the Cardiff Giant rolled into New York city to go head to head with Barnhams giant. Most perverse of all, Barnhams giant outperformed the Cardiff Giant at an extreme level, with the Cardiff Giant pulling in crowds of only a few hundred during its first few days of opening, whilst Barnhams giant pulled 5000 on Christmas Day alone.
The loss of profit to Barnham in New York was one thing, with luck, that could always turn out to be localised, but a more difficult situation was occuring in the background for Hull. Opinion in the press was slowly turning against the giant and without barnhams fame, there was little hope he could sway the opinion by himself. Letters were being printed on a more constant basis calling the giant out as a humbug and a fraud. Boynton, the original sceptic was also back on the scene, chipping in that after a set of experiments where he tested the eroding of gypsum, he now believed the statue to be of modern creation, writing to both the press and the Smithsonian with his findings. Fortunately for Hull, there were some papers who dismissed him, but it was a swelling tide. In late November, Professor O. C. Marsh of Yale Universities Paleontology department had inspected the giant and pronounced it “A most decided humbug!” In a last ditch effort, hull went to the editor of “The Daily Courier” and struck up a new deal. If he could keep negative stories out of print in his paper until the clause in the giants contract ran out on january 24th, Hull would give the editor the full story of the giants creation, the rights to pen a book on the story and share in the profits from the publication. The editor agreed, but it was only one paper and it could only do so much.
In January the giants new owners hired lawyers to look into the contract and began selling off large shares of the giant to whoever was willing to pay the highest fee. It was a desperate scrabble to claw back an investment that had quickly turned south and with every sale made, contracts were penned that made sure to make no promises as to the giant’s authenticity. In what would be one of the last insults from Barnham, he hired Otto to create him another replica giant, which he exhibited alongside his first replica and called them “The two original Cardiff Giants.”
On the dawn of the clause, the vast stack of cards finally began to topple. Hull, in his meticulous planning whilst creating the giant had taken it upon himself to neglect one key issue, that of actually paying those involved in making it and now, with negative press everywhere and sensing the time as right, one by one the men came out to either get a slice of the money from selling their story, or just to take a stab at the man who had essentially screwed them in business. At the same time, new giants were being dug up on a more regular basis than ever, partly helped along by the fact that Fraz Otto had carved seven more by himself to sell on in excitement. In Pittsburgh, the remains of an 18 foot tall giant were discovered that headlines exclaimed, “Put the Cardiff GIant to shame.” The owners were now looking for a hasty sale. Eventually a buyer was found in Calvin Gott, the man who Newell hired to take the original photos of the giant when it was on the exhibit in his farm. He toured the giant around County fairs throughout America, under the banner “The Giant That Fooled The World!” until his death in 1870. Over the next few decades the giant would go on to be stored away in tired barns and occasionally pulled out for exhibits here and there, including the Pan-American Expo in Buffalo in 1901, but crowds were long since over the modern relic and it instead, slowly turned into a footnote, settling finally in 1948 in The Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where remarkably it still resides today, on display in the main barn of the Museum.
As for Hull, he had managed to drag the whole business past the contract clauses deadline and was, financially at least, in the clear. He even managed to sue the owners for losses in revenue, for the sum of just under $20,000. Perhaps even more amazingly, he then went on to try to pull exactly the same trick again ten years later, when he produced a “Missing Link” statue in Colorado, but what with his association to the Cardiff giant, few scientists were willing to get on board with the “discovery” and the press took an attitude of humour to the entire affair. He tried several times to get his book on the Cardiff Giant published, but died in 1902, aged 81 years old before any publication was completed. Despite all of the businessman he financially crippled, all of the scientists he embarrassed, one who took his life in the aftermath, and all of the religious men made a mockery off, he admitted only that,
“I made many mistakes in the management of the scheme, or today I would have been a rich man.”
When all was said and done, the Cardiff Giant was a monumental Humbug that Barnham himself would have been proud, and was most certainly enviable of. At times it can be difficult to understand the motivations of the men behind the numerous schemes that riddled the 19th Century in America and beyond. The art of the humbug was, as Barnham would put it, all in the name of entertainment. For others, like Hull, there was the promise of vast financial gain and of personal mockeries to score, but in their quest to find either one or all, many people were sucked in and damaged, either making huge, bankrupting losses or finding their carefully constructed reputations crushed. It was, in the end, a manipulation of the atmosphere of the day, but if the market wasn’t there and the people not willing to pay, it would never have become the phenomenon it did. Men like Hull and especially Barnham, who embodied much of the worst of the American 19th Century, but also, much of the best. Bombastically outrageous, but equally disappointing on a social and human level, they were contradictory figures. The Cardiff Giant brought difficulties to a few, most who were looking to profit, but it also brought excitement, hope, and entertainment to the masses in a time when there was little to feel so positive about.
Nearing the end of his life, P. T. Barnham summed up his career in humbuggery when he wrote, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” It’s a nice sentiment, but perhaps in 2020, it is more fitting to conclude on another of his quotes,
“It is very amusing to see how easily people deceive themselves by being too incredulous.”