Weirdo Wednesday – June 29, 2011

For this week’s visit to some of the weird places of America, we are off to Cooperstown, NY. No, not for the Baseball Hall of Fame. About the only thing weird about baseball are some of the names and the ever-fluctuating size of the strike zone.

We are going across town to the Farmer’s Museum where, tucked into a small tent off to the side, you will find “The Cardiff Giant.”

As the story goes, sometime in 1868, Cigar manufacturer and prolific atheist, George Hull, spent an evening debating the existence of God and the subsequent Word of God with a traveling tent evangelist. Later that evening he thought back to bible stories from his childhood and remembered Genesis 6:4 — the story of giants in the earth. He wondered if people like the religiously rabid minister could be convinced that a large stone statue dug from the earth was actually a petrified giant.

Hull secretly put his plan into motion. He traveled to a gypsum quarry in Fort Dodge, IA., where he purchased a large stone block, twelve feet long, four feet wide and two feet thick. He noted the blue streaks running through the block looked oddly like human varicose veins.

He had the block shipped by train to Chicago where he hired a stone carver to create a statue of a giant over ten feet tall with distinct details including toenails, nostrils, sex organs, and other lifelike appendages, such that it could easily be mistaken for an ancient human. They aged the statue using a mixture of acid and ink giving it the appearance of being buried for many years. His elaborate plan of deception was coming together.

Once complete Hull had the statue shipped to his cousin’s farm near Cardiff, NY. In the dead of the night, Hull, his cousin William Newell and Newell’s son, buried the statue between the barn and the house. They were all sworn to secrecy and told to wait a year for further instructions.

A year later, after human bones were found on a nearby farm, Hull sent word it was time to find the giant. Newell hired a crew to dig a new well in the exact spot. He went back to the house to await the find. Sure enough, later in the morning the laborers rushed to the house announcing they had uncovered a petrified giant buried deep in the earth.

News of the amazing find spread quickly. By the afternoon the farmer cordoned off the area and began charging 25 cents to see the giant. Two days later, the Syracuse Journal (New York), printed an article about the discovery. Being greedy, Newell raised the price to 50 cents, and a stage-coach company made four round trips a day from Syracuse to the Newell farm. Thousands came every day.

Cardiff Giant Exhibit - 1869

The statue was immediately denounced as a fraud but, as Hull had guessed, it was fervently defended by Christian fundamentalists and also by civic boosters in whatever city happened to be exhibiting it.

About ten days after the discovery, the Cardiff Giant, as the papers had named it, started receiving national attention, Hull sold two-thirds interest in the giant for $30,000 to a five-man syndicate in Syracuse, the head of which was a banker named David Hannum. The syndicate moved the giant to an exhibition hall in Syracuse and raised the admission price to a dollar.

A representative of P.T. Barnum came to Syracuse and offered Hannum $50,000 for the giant. The offer was declined. Rather than raising the offer, Barnum hired masons to chisel out a giant of his own. Within a short time, Barnum unveiled HIS giant and proclaimed he had purchased the original giant and one displayed in Syracuse was a fake!

Thousands of people came to see Barnum’s giant. Newspapers everywhere printed what Barnum gave them — Hannum’s giant was a fake and Barnum’s was authentic.

Out of this circumstance came the world’s most prolific misquotation. The Syracuse banker David Hannum, not P.T. Barnum, was quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Hannum, still believing HIS giant was authentic, was referring to the thousands of “suckers” paying money to see Barnum’s fake.

Hannum eventually brought a lawsuit against Barnum. When it came to trial, Hull stepped forward and confessed that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax. He released the complete details of his deception. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling Hannum’s giant a fake since it was a fake after all. To this day the Cardiff Giant is considered the most extensive and elaborate hoax ever.

Bernie Madoff may have something to say about that.

For more about the Battle of the Giants, go here.

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