Fake News Isn’t New: The Great Moon Hoax of 1835

Fake news has taken center stage since the election, but it is not a new phenomenon. The National Enquirer and Weekly World News have peddled fake news in supermarket checkout lines for decades. Even mainstream media sources have fallen prey to fake news as far back as the days of Andrew Jackson.

In 1835, a series of articles about breakthroughs in astronomy appeared in the New York Sun. The Sun was a major newspaper for over a hundred years before being acquired by the now-defunct New York World Journal Tribune in 1966. The Sun is best remembered for its publication of an editorial answer to a letter about Santa Claus from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897.

The articles in 1835 detailed major discoveries by Sir John Herschel, a noted astronomer. In the series, Herschel claimed to have used a new telescope to discover new planets and solar systems and that he had “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.” Herschel also claimed that through his telescope, he had discovered life on the moon. The series ran in six parts and was approximately 17,000 words, most of which described the astronomer’s observations of moon life.

The series was a sensation, but it was also totally false. The full story is recorded in the Museum of Hoaxes. The series was not authored by Herschel, who had no idea of the sensational claims made in his name.

Nevertheless, many people believed the stories. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that nine out of ten people believed the story. William Griggs wrote that there were skeptics, such as the competing New York Herald, but that many people came forward on their own to corroborate totally false details in the articles. The hoax eventually spread around the country and was even picked up by some papers in Europe.

The story was debunked by the New York Herald which accused Sun publisher, Benjamin Day, of masterminding the hoax. Richard Adam Locke, a British writer employed by the Sun, was accused of being the hoax’s author. Years later, Locke confessed to writing the articles as satire. Claims of satire are also used to excuse the publication of fake news today.

The Great Moon Hoax wasn’t the only time that the New York Sun was involved in a hoax. In 1844, the paper published a story about an English balloonist who drifted across the Atlantic and landed in South Carolina. The Great Balloon Hoax was quickly revealed to be the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Fake news isn’t new. It also isn’t going anywhere in spite of the best efforts of Google, Facebook and others.

The best antidote to fake news is to be skeptical about what you read and check out suspicious claims. As the Russian proverb favored by President Reagan goes, “Trust, but verify.

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David Thornton

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