THE PETRIFIED MAN
The Cardiff Giant Hoax
On this date, February 2, 1870, one of the greatest hoaxes in American history was finally revealed to be just what it was --- a colossal practical joke gone awry. The Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot-tall purported “petrified man” was first uncovered on October 16, 1869, by workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. "Stub" Newell in Cardiff, New York. The worker’s astounding “discovery” shocked post-Civil War America and made headlines around the world.
What should have been a short-lived “wonder,” created by George Hull, became a national sensation thanks to famous showman P.T. Barnum and the story lives on today.
The Cardiff Giant – One of America’s Most Famous Hoaxes
The Cardiff Giant was the creation of a New York tobacconist named George Hull. Hull, an atheist, decided to create the giant after an argument at a Methodist revival meeting about the passage in Genesis 6:4 stating that there were giants who once lived on Earth. Thinking that he would teach the Christians a lesson, he devised a plan about a “real” giant that could be discovered, put on display and then revealed to be a hoax. His simple plan soon ran amuck.
Hull hired men to carve out a 10-foot long block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to carve it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy. Various stains and acids were used to make the giant appear to be old and weathered, and the giant's surface was beaten with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores. In November 1868, Hull transported the giant by rail to the farm of William Newell, his cousin. He buried the giant behind his cousin’s barn and then sat back to wait. By then, he had spent over $2,500 on the hoax and invested countless hours of time.
Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant. One of the men reportedly exclaimed, "I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!" The amazing giant was pulled out of the ground and it’s “discovery” made newspaper headlines.
Newell set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later he increased the price to 50 cents. People came by the wagon load, invading his property, all anxious to see not only a real-life petrified man, but proof that the giants in the Bible actually existed.
In spite of the crowds flocking to see the giant, archaeological scholars pronounced it a fake, and some geologists even noticed that there was no good reason to try to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh called it "a most decided humbug.” But the public didn’t want to hear it. Some Christian fundamentalists and preachers defended its authenticity and crowds continued to flock to the site, often with well-worn Bibles clutched in their hands.
Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest in the giant for $23,000 to a syndicate of five men headed by David Hannum. They moved it to Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant drew such crowds that showman P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate turned him down, he hired a man to model the giant's shape covertly in wax and create a plaster replica. He put his giant on display in New York, claiming that his was the real giant, and the Cardiff Giant was a fake.
As the newspapers reported Barnum's version of the story, David Hannum was quoted as saying, "There's a sucker born every minute" in reference to spectators paying to see Barnum's giant. Over time, the quotation has been misattributed to Barnum himself.
Hannum sued Barnum for calling his giant a fake, but the judge told him to get his giant to swear on his own genuineness in court if he wanted a favorable injunction.
By now, things had gone too far for George Hull – and he had his richly deserved revenge on the Methodist minister who told him that the Bible was meant to be taken literally. On December 10, 1869, Hull confessed to the press. On February 2, 1870 both giants were revealed as fakes in court. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant what it actually was – a fake.
Believe it or not, even after the Cardiff Giant was soundly revealed as a hoax, a number of other similar hoaxes followed in its wake. In 1876, The Solid Muldoon emerged in Beulah, Colorado, and was exhibited at 50 cents a ticket. There was also a rumor that Barnum had offered to buy it for $20,000. One employer later revealed that this was also a creation of George Hull, aided by Willian Conant. The Solid Muldoon was made of clay, ground bones, meat, rock dust, and plaster.
In 1877, the owner of Taughannock House hotel on Cayuga Lake, New York, hired men to create a fake petrified man and place it where the workers who were expanding the hotel would dig it up. One of the men who had buried the giant later revealed the truth when drunk.
In 1892 Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, de facto ruler of the town of Creede, Colorado, purchased a petrified man for $3,000 and exhibited it for 10 cents a peek. Soapy's profits did not come from displaying "McGinty," as he named it, but rather from distractions, such as the shell game set up to entertain the crowds as they waited in line. He also profited by selling interests in the exhibition. This was a real human body, intentionally injected with chemicals for preservation and petrification. Soapy displayed McGinty from 1892 to 1895 throughout Colorado and the northwest United States.
In 1897, a petrified man found downriver from Fort Benton, Montana, was claimed by promoters to be the remains of former territorial governor and U.S. Civil War General Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher had drowned in the Missouri River in 1867. The petrified man was displayed across Montana as a novelty and even exhibited in New York and Chicago.
The Cardiff Giant still exists today. It appeared at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, but did not attract much attention. An Iowa publisher bought it later to adorn his basement rumpus room as a coffee table and conversation piece. In 1947, he sold it to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still on display today. It is a very physical reminder that either P.T. Barnum or David Hannum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”