For the 104th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, Brian Thornton discusses one of the first and most bizarre newspaper frauds in the United States: the infamous moon hoax of 1835, perpetuated by the New York Sun and reporter Richard Adams Locke.
Brian Thornton is a professor of multimedia journalism in the School of Communication at the University of North Florida. Formerly a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, Maui News, Hawaii Observer, and West Hawaii Today, Thorton conducts research focusing on the history of letters to the editor, with an emphasis on African American newspapers.
Brian Thornton: Today, I think if a hoax were revealed, everyone would – would be angry, but back then, they seemed to laugh it off and kind of enjoy it.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
It was once called the greatest fake of our journalistic history by historian Frank Luther Mott.
The moon hoax of 1835 appeared in the New York Sun and told amazing stories about the scientific discoveries of a famous astronomer at the time. Readers were dazzled with tales that he had seen bison, bat people, and unicorns on the moon. It was actual fake news long before the current use of the phrase and just one of many hoaxes in journalism history to cause a stir.
Brian Thornton of the University of North Florida joins us today to talk about his article, “The Moon Hoax: Debates about Ethics in 1835 New York Newspapers”.
Brian, welcome to the show. Before we talk about the moon hoax, itself, let’s start out giving our listeners some context of what journalism was like in the 1830s.
Brian Thornton: Well, it’s really a dividing point in 1833 when the penny press was created by Benjamin Day.
And so up until 1833, I would say that journalism was pretty staid, pretty traditional, conservative, primarily for wealthy people and you had to buy a subscription a year in advance and it cost something like the equivalent of that time of $50, which is the equivalent today of like $1,000. And an average newspaper cost 6 cents, which doesn’t seem like very much today, but back then, that was about what an average person made in a day’s work. So can you imagine if you paid $80 for a newspaper today? That would be the equivalent.
And so the penny press came along in 1833 and caused a revolution. It was a newspaper for the common man, for the – for the maid. One of the descriptions said, “For the scullery maid and for their butler,” and for the everybody, the common person. And so that was a big change, 1833. Then by 1835 the moon hoax comes along and, again, it’s kind of a shot that revolutionizes the – the journalism establishment.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s delve right in into the moon hoax itself. What exactly was printed in the newspaper? What was the moon hoax?
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] Well, they always say that the elements of a good con are to have elements of truth. So it was a scam or a con that was actually built on some truths. The truth was that there was an – a renowned astronomer at the time, Sir Herschel Walker, and he had a telescope actually in South Africa. So those parts were true. And whether he knew it or not in advance, and there’s indication he might have known, the author of the article, the journalist, was Richard Adams Locke.
And I think that Richard Adams Locke knew that the so-called astronomer, which really was an astronomer, was on a boat trip going to South Africa, so he was incommunicado and couldn’t be reached. So it was a good time for Mr. Locke to print a series of articles. There were six articles altogether.
They serialized one article each day, and he started out by saying that Sir Herschel Walker had discovered some different kinds of geography on the moon, different kinds of rocks, flora and fauna was the phrase that he used. And the next day, he discovered beavers on the moon. And then the next day, it was bison. And then finally, it led up to the last day, he said that he discovered bat men and bat women living on the moon. And so it was – everyone got excited, of course, and they – a lot of newspapers just decided to go ahead and copy it straight out without checking it out.
And so eventually, it was revealed to be a hoax. And ironic thing, it was revealed to be a hoax by the author himself, the journalist, because for some reason with journalists, there’s always a bar attached [laughs] or nearby the newspaper. So Mr. Locke, Richard Adams Locke, he was hanging out with the reporters and one reporter said, “Oh, we’re going to print your story in our newspaper.”
And he said, “No, don’t do it. I made the whole thing up.” So he kind of outed himself [laughs].
Teri Finneman: Hmm, so let’s talk about how did this series go over with readers?
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] Well, that was the surprising thing to me is that I decided I wanted to know how people reacted and so I looked at the newspapers of that time, and there were quite a few of them, which really is surprising. Uh, back then, there was like four, at least four or five very strong, healthy, daily newspapers competing against each other.
So what I wanted to do was go out and I – in my article, “The Moon Hoax: Debates about Ethics in 1835 New York Newspapers”, I went out and I looked at the four different newspapers that I chose and decided that I looked at The Evening Post, The Herald, The Morning Courier, and New York Sun. So, of course, and they were competing against each other.
So one of the things that you need to know is that there was a rivalry in journalism in the new penny press between Benjamin Day, who created the penny press, and James Gordon Bennett, who claimed that he created or perfected the penny press. And so there was a rivalry between them. So most of the other newspapers, as soon as it was printed, they decided to, you know, run excerpts, and they didn’t give credit for it or anything. They just said it was true.
But James Gordon Bennett, fortunately or unfortunately, he had a fire at his newspaper and he was able to print an edition the day after the moon hoax was published. And then once he was trying to catch up, he started looking into it and he had a very skeptical attitude and he wanted to shoot down the – the opposition. So he said that it was a hoax from the very beginning.
But the other newspaper said it was – it was true, and then once the – the hoax was revealed, what surprised me was most of the newspapers’ editorial said, “Oh, it – it was so great. It was fun. They enjoyed it. It was a lark.” And there was one person who wrote a letter to the editor and was outraged and said that they should be arrested for – for hoaxing, or for scandal, or for fraud.
But most people enjoyed it. They seemed to think it was just entertainment. So that’s what surprised me is I, you know, if we had something like this today, people would be outraged to discover that they’d been hoaxed, but back then, they seemed to just kind of take it in stride and kind of enjoy it.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so as you mentioned, your research focuses in particular on editorials and letters to the editor. Why were you interested in studying letters to the editor? Why do you think they’re important?
Brian Thornton: Oh, okay, good. Well, I’m – I’m glad to talk about this. I’m happy to talk about this. I sort of have created a – a subgenre of research and I’m kind of proud of that, that when I started doing this about 20 years ago, nobody was really looking or studying the content of letters to the editor, the history or the content of the letters to the editor.
So I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Utah and I came across this idea. I had been a former newspaper reporter, myself. I was a reporter for about 13 years and I always was fascinated by the letters to the editor.
I wanted to see how people responded to my stories, but to the paper in general. So it was always a favorite of mine and when I was working or looking for a dissertation topic, I said, well, let’s look at letters to the editor. So that’s where I started there and then we started jumping around in different time frames looking at them.
So I – I think that letters to the editor, in particular, are an area that’s long been overlooked. People have looked at editorials in the past, but not letters to the editor. And I think that it’s something that shows that, yes, it’s true that the letters are – go through a censorship or a gatekeeper process, but I think oftentimes, they’re the only voice of the people or people, anyway, reacting and responding to content.
So I feel like it’s really an important thing and we can just start anywhere in journalism and take a look at letters to the editor. And in fact, I’ve kind of done that, jumped around to different time frames. I started in the 1830s, but I’ve gone up to recent years, too, and in recent years, I’ve looked at letters to the editor in Black or African American newspapers.
Teri Finneman: Going back to the moon hoax, were there any other interesting findings that you saw in the letters to the editor about that?
Brian Thornton: I was surprised that people wrote in the themes that they wrote in, so I broke down the themes, and people talked about something that I don’t think journalists would talk or people would write about today. They talked about how journalism should be a moral force, a force for moral good, and it should serve as a public service, and it should be fair, and it should be nonpartisan. So the first thing is I – I don’t think you’d find anybody discussing about moral force in newspapers today, so that was interesting to me.
And one of the things, too, is that they were always talking in letters to the editor, people would write in and say fairness and honesty is the most important thing. But then they were deliberately in a situation where it was something was patently, you know, a lie but they didn’t seem to bother them. So I – I – that’s – I thought that was interesting.
Teri Finneman: You talked a little bit earlier about the reaction of the other media.
Do you think it was that they were just jealous [laughs] that this newspaper was getting so many readers or do you think that there was some kind of, you know, upholding of journalism that – that offended them about it?
Brian Thornton: I think probably the answer is yes [laughs], yes to both. I think they were jealous. Um, actually, this moon hoax almost made the newspaper go bankrupt because it was so successful. How can a thing be so successful it makes you bankrupt? Well, they didn’t print enough copies or they hadn’t planned on printing enough copies.
They were like a couple of thousand circulation, and all of a sudden overnight, there was demands for 20,000 copies of the newspaper. Now 20,000 doesn’t sound like a lot now, but back then, it was a tremendous amount, and they kept printing out extra editions. So it was really, really successful.
So the other newspapers were – were – were jealous, and especially you know, James Gordon Bennett was extremely jealous. He felt like he was in a competition with Benjamin Day’s New York Sun. Oh, by the way, I should have said that from the very beginning. The name of the newspaper that printed this famous moon hoax is the New York Sun and their slogan was, “The sun shines for us all,” or, “shines upon us all.”
But James Gordon Bennett was extremely jealous. So he said, “I’m going to look into this. I’m going to find out – poke some holes into it. But the other newspapers were, in the very beginning, just willing to go along for the ride, and then gradually, when – when it was revealed to be a hoax, they gradually came around and said, “Oh, wasn’t that fun? Wasn’t that enjoyable?”
And the ironic thing, too, is that the New York Sun never actually formally apologized. All the closest they came to an apology was they wrote an editorial that said it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or false. What was – what was good is that it gave us a distraction from the abolition arguments.
So one of the things that kinda helps know about this is the context. The year before, in 1834, there were actually race riots in the city of New York, which I didn’t really know much about. But there were people roaming up and down the streets going after anybody that was against slavery, and of course, going after Black people, which there weren’t very many. But they even attacked people who were advocating for getting rid of slavery.
So the moon hoax comes along and gives people a distraction and the Sun, itself, said wasn’t this a fun distraction?
Teri Finneman: Oh, wow. That’s interesting historical context. Whatever happened to Richard Adams Locke after writing this famous piece?
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] Well, it’s interesting. He is a nephew of the famous philosopher, Mr. Locke, so his family came from wealth, and he came from England, and he came over here to this country specifically to be a reporter for this newspaper. And he did the – he worked for the Sun for only a few more years after this. You would think that this would destroy his journalistic career.
It actually increased his journalistic career. He was in demand. People asked him to come and give lectures, and discussions, and they would pay him to come. And he like, you know, greeted like a celebrity. And but he did that for a few more years and then he decided, “Well, I’m so successful that I’m going to start my own newspaper.”
And he did start his own newspaper, but the problem is he didn’t realize that his reputation was as a – as a person who fakes things. So he tried to put out a real newspaper after a few years on his own and people didn’t believe what he wrote in the newspaper [laughs]. So it didn’t last, yeah, it didn’t last very long.
So he took a job as I guess working in a custom house. So there was something like a similar thing, I guess, I was told that Edgar Allan Poe had a similar kind of job [laughs]. But he got out of the newspaper business is what it comes down to. Six years after the moon hoax, he’s got out of the newspaper business completely and became well, pretty much upper middle-class person, a very stodgy life, working behind a desk, but making a lot of money.
Teri Finneman: I’m glad you mentioned Edgar Allan Poe because that’s what I wanted to talk about next because the moon hoax wasn’t the only hoax that was printed in newspapers around this time. Uh, Mark Twain and – and – and Poe, himself, were among others to print fantastical stories in newspapers.
You know, you mentioned wanting a distraction, but, you know, why else do you think this hoaxing culture really thrived during this period?
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] Uh, I’ve been really kind of fascinated by that ever since I wrote it. Why did they – why is the catch on one particular time? You know, and I think really through this, they – the abolition movement was important to people, saw that as a way to get away from that. Um, you know, the newspaper itself, the Sun was an abolition newspaper, and James Gordon Bennett said awful things about the newspaper for doing that.
And so why – but why did it catch on? I think people needed a distraction and it was a time of tremendous change in journalism and it was a time when people wanted – they didn’t – they couldn’t go and watch Netflix because it wasn’t around, so this was their equivalent of that. You know, P.T. Barnum was very popular. Um, different showmen. As we said, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain.
They were all spinning these large tales that – taking us out to a different world.
Teri Finneman: How do you think the story of the moon hoax is still relevant to journalism today?
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] I think it’s extremely relevant. I think we’re at a similar time when people are angry with the official government, and the official voices and words it says. They don’t trust anybody in authority and so they’re – it’s a similar kind of a situation where people are looking for something different, sort of distraction. So I think it – it is kind of similar. We’re going around in a circle, coming back to the same time. This was a time of there actually were great astronomical changes or discoveries. They just took it a little bit further like science fiction, so I think that’s a part of it.
Um, let’s see, what else? [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: Certainly through social media we’re seeing a lot of hoaxing and false information, right?
Brian Thornton: Exactly, right. The – the difference that I was surprised by is that today, I think if we – a hoax were revealed, everyone would – would be angry.
But back then, they seemed to laugh it off, and kind of enjoy it, and they embrace it as kind of, you know, “Look at these lunar man bats. Isn’t that a fun story? Isn’t that –” so it’s kind of a parody of science and faith, and it’s also do – are people gullible today? Are we different in our gullibility level? Well, if you went home and CNN said that there were bat men on the moon, you – you might have a tendency to believe it [laughs].
Teri Finneman: [Laughs] And then the final question that we ask all of our guests is why does journalism history matter?
Brian Thornton: Well I – I love journalism. I started in the newsroom when I was about 18 years old working for the college newspaper and then I eventually began working for daily newspapers and started my own magazines. And I think that journalism is the voice of the people and somebody said it’s the rough draft of history. Well, it’s very important to know what it was like and the challenge for journalism and for us is to try to, as journalism historians, is to try to recreate that.
What was it like to be around in 1835? Uh, I’m – I’m old enough now that I tell students, I just teach a journalism history class, yesterday talking about the 1960s. And to me, the 1960s are just last week [laughs]. I just feel alive and I’m trying to capture that.
And the same thing with 1835. What was it like to walk down the street? That’s kind of our challenge. We – we feel that we’re – we’re very, very different, but people are the same no matter what timeframe. And so how have people – how has technology changed us? How has journalism changed us?
I mean, think of it in – back in the 18 or even the 1950s, people had to memorize lots of things. They had to memorize phone numbers, and today, we don’t – nobody memorizes phone numbers. Maybe our memory has changed.
So I think it’s the job of journalism and journalism history to keep a record of that so that we can look back and say, oh, this is what it was like to be alive at this time. This is what it was like to strive to search for the truth.
I think one thing that stays the same no matter when it is in journalism, people want to know the truth or they want to see the world, understand what’s going on. And the surprising thing is that they also enjoy the newspaper as a distraction, as a – as a kind of a, you know, amusement. Oh, this is what we do. We have this funny story that we all laugh over.
Teri Finneman: All right, well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Brian Thornton: [Laughs] All right, well, thank you very much.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”