Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Cardiff Giant – Podcast #38

For only the second time in ten years, I actually went on a vacation this summer. We stayed for a week in a great little cabin at Gilbert Lake State Park near Cooperstown, NY. Staying in a cabin may not be considered roughing it but going a whole week with the modern conveniences of television or cell phone reception was something that I am just not accustomed to.

While most people go to Cooperstown to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame, my destination was very different. I told my wife that we had to go see the Cardiff Giant.

This stone man has been on my list of must-see-before-I-die tourist traps for more than a decade. Since he is now housed at the Farmer’s Museum there, we had no choice but to pay our $12.00 admission fees. And there he was in all his rock-solid gypsum glory located right inside the museum entrance. So, we took a few pictures and then left.

The Cardiff Giant.
The Cardiff Giant. Library of Congress image.

Well, not really. I was pleasantly surprised by the rest of the Farmer’s Museum and spent several hours there. Now that I have given you my two-thumbs-up review of the museum, let me tell you about the Cardiff Giant.

If you don’t know the story of the Cardiff Giant, let me begin by stating that he is considered one of the greatest hoaxes ever pulled and get that detail out of the way. Don’t be fooled into thinking he is real for the slightest moment.

The Cardiff Giant story begins back in 1866 in Ackley, Iowa. Here we find a Binghamton, NY cigar maker named George Hull trying to straighten out some business dealings that he had with his brother-in-law. At some point during his visit, he got into a debate with Reverend Turk, a visiting Methodist revivalist. The two men were at great odds with each other. Turk was discussing that Genesis 6:4 makes reference to “There were giants in the earth in those days”. Hull, an atheist, was in total disagreement and felt that statement was not intended for literal interpretation.

That is when the flash of inspiration struck Hull. Why not create a stone giant and try to pass it off as a petrified man? He was curious to find out just how gullible people could be.

Two years later Hull made his way back to Iowa and visited the gypsum quarries in Fort Dodge. There he purchased a 12-foot-long solid block of stone to create his fossilized giant. Hull claimed he was purchasing it to make a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York City.

Due to its immense weight, the stone had to be trimmed down quite a bit along its journey but was ultimately delivered to a marble cutter named Edward Burghardt in Chicago. Burghardt, who did not know of the intended purpose of the statue, worked with two assistants a few days each week to carve the statue between July and September of 1868.

The sculpture, supposedly modeled after Hull himself, was originally carved with hair and a beard. But once Hull learned that hair wasn’t fossilized, he had it chipped off. Of course, the supposed fossil looked brand new, so they aged it a bit. First, they rubbed a wet sponge with sand over the very soft gypsum. Then a large number of darning needles were inserted into a block of wood and hammered all over the statue to simulate the pores of human skin. Lastly, the giant was washed in ink and acid to make it look aged.

Then came the real trick. Fossils should be typically buried and then discovered by someone. Hull arranged for the giant to be shipped across the country to his brother-in-law Stub Newell’s farm near Cardiff, NY, which was about ten miles south of Syracuse. Concealed in a large wooden box, the carving was secretly buried on a dark night and left to age for about a year.

On October 16, 1869, Newell arranged for two handymen to dig a well behind his barn. Newell used a divining stick to show them where to dig the well and then left for an appointment in Syracuse. At a depth of about three feet, the men hit something solid. By the time Newell had returned a small crowd had gathered around their discovery.

Everything was going as planned. Newell quickly had a tent erected over the fossilized man. Visitors paid 50 cents to get a look at the sleeping giant. After fifteen minutes, the tent was cleared and a new group was admitted. The news quickly spread and people came from all around to see the Cardiff Giant. On one Sunday alone, 2600 people paid admission. This was quite the excitement for a town with a population of about 200 people at the time.

The Cardiff Giant was giant in every way, if you know what I mean, so an improvised fig leaf was made to cover his loins. While I didn’t take out a ruler when I was there, he is said to be 10 feet tall and weigh about 3000 pounds.

Quickly debate started as to what the Cardiff Giant really was. On one side were scientists like James Hall, the famed New York State Geologist, and John Boynton, who both concluded that he was not a fossil, but possibly an antiquated statue from another time. They became known as the “statuists”. Their opinions were based mostly on the fact that there had been no evidence at that time of the preservation of flesh in fossils – Only the hard parts like bones were preserved.

On the other side of the coin were the petrifactionists, typically amateur scientists who believed that the skin had been petrified and turned to stone. They dismissed the idea that skin could not be preserved and argued that the giant lacked the pedestal or base that all other statues had. The press, which was benefiting from the increased circulation, clearly went out of their way to side with the petrifactionists.

Interest in the giant seemed to grow exponentially. While few people had the scientific education needed to determine whether the Cardiff Giant was authentic or not, the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 had sparked a great interest in fossils and the Cardiff Giant was no exception.

On October 23, 1869, a week after Newell’s shocking discovery, he sold ¾ interest in the Cardiff Giant to a group of investors for $30,000. Having already made $12,000 from the exhibit, they lifted the giant from the ground on November 5th and shipped him off to Syracuse to be seen by an even larger audience and even more cash.

Not only was the giant a cash cow for the promoters, but the attraction was also a real bonus to the city of Syracuse. The New York Central Railroad arranged for a ten-minute stop right across the street so passengers could make a quick visit. As you can imagine, the tourists stayed in Syracuse hotels, ate their meals, purchased souvenirs, shopped in their stores, and so on.

Newspaper sales went through the roof as readers eagerly awaited new stories on the Giant each day. And if new information wasn’t available, they just made it up. The New York Herald did an expose based on the deathbed confession of a Syracuse teamster. He revealed that the giant was carved by a Canadian stone cutter in order “to rival the fame of Michael Angelo.” Not only was the story a pure piece of fiction, but it was Michelangelo who achieved fame, not Michael Angelo.

But, like all hoaxes, Newell’s story started to unravel.

Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, the famed dinosaur hunter, stated “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.” That caused statuist Dr. Boynton to take a closer look and concluded that the giant was not 250 years old, but more like 250 days old.

Then there were stories from local farmers who remembered a large iron box being shipped to Cardiff from Binghamton.

Finally, there was a damaging report that Newell had gone to the Onondaga County Bank to have a very large draft made in the name of George Hull.

The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Hull admitted in early December that the whole thing was a hoax.

That group of investors – the ones that had purchased the 75% stake in the attraction – attempted to quench these rumors and Hull’s admission by producing a set of affidavits from experts proving that the iron box could not have contained such a giant.

Finally, on February 18, 1870, the two assistant stonecutters who had helped carve the giant confessed to their role in the hoax.

You would think that would have been the end of the Cardiff Giant, but it wasn’t. The curiosity factor was still there and people came from all around to see the stone man. He went on tour around the Northeastern US and generally pulled in large crowds.

One noted time that he didn’t was in NYC. There he competed with himself, well sort of. PT Barnum had offered the group of investors a huge chunk of change – reportedly in the $50,000 to $60,000 range – but his offer was turned down. Since he couldn’t get his hands on the real Cardiff Giant, he decided to have one carved for himself. Barnum’s giant far outsold the real giant in ticket sales. Basically, Barnum was showing the fake of the fake and people ate it up.

The real owners filed a lawsuit against Barnum, but the judge refused to hear the case unless they could prove that the original was genuine.

Like all sensational stories, people’s attention was turned elsewhere and things started to die down. By the turn of the century, the Cardiff Giant was sitting in long-term storage in a Fitchburg, Massachusetts barn. In 1913 he was purchased and taken back to his place of birth and appeared in various state fairs in Iowa. Then he was purchased by publisher Gardner Cowles to become a conversation piece in his Des Moines, Iowa rumpus room. (There’s a term you don’t hear anymore…)

Finally, the New York State Historical Association purchased the giant from Cowles in 1947 and has been on exhibit at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown since May 19, 1948.

A year later a $100,000 lawsuit was filed against the Farmer’s Museum by then 38-year-old actor Michael Fitzmaurice of New York City. He claimed that he was the great-grandson of Wesley L. Jukes, who purportedly had carved the Cardiff Giant and loaned it to PT Barnum. Fitzmaurice demanded the return of the giant to his family. His lawsuit went nowhere since the Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer’s Museum was not the same one that Barnum had carved.

Now if you can’t get to Cooperstown to see the original Cardiff Giant, Barnum’s version is on display at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. And if you can’t get there either, there is a full-size replica that was cast from the original giant at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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