US News & World Report and the Great Moon Hoax of 1835

US News & World Report has a special double issue this week on "The Art of the Hoax". Check out the lead article, "Strange but true: This is the golden age of hoaxes." Yours truly was interviewed for it and gets mentioned twice! Very exciting. But also check out their short piece on the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. As it turns out, they fell for a tall-tale about this hoax. In the first paragraph they claim that because of this newspaper hoax:

"Daily sales of the Sun skyrocketed from 4,000 to 19,000–making it the world's most popular paper and launching a new kind of journalism."

Not so! For almost a century historians have been repeating this story about how the great moon hoax propelled the New York Sun to media stardom and established it as the world's most popular paper, and established modern journalism in the process. But the story is actually totally false. The tale got its start because a few days into the hoax, on August 28, 1835, the Sun boasted that it had a circulation of 19,360, making it the most widely circulated paper in the world. Almost a century later the historian Frank M. O'Brien, in his 1918 work about the history of the Sun (The Story of the Sun) made note of this boast in his retelling of the hoax. Subsequent historians, who relied solely upon O'Brien's work for their information about the hoax, figured that if the Sun was boasting about its circulation during the moon hoax, this must have meant that the hoax had caused a rapid rise in the paper's circulation. It seemed like a logical conclusion, but it was wrong.In actuality, the Sun had regularly been making the same boast about its high circulation for weeks before the moon hoax occurred. In fact, two weeks before the moon hoax, on August 13, 1835, the Sun boasted that its circulation was at 26,000, meaning that if you go by the Sun's own numbers, its circulation actually dropped during the moon hoax. But once the idea was established that the moon hoax immediately caused a meteoric rise in the Sun's circulation, it proved to be so compelling (because it provided a slightly scandalous angle to the birth of modern journalism) that no one ever bothered to check if it was actually true. In fact, various historians began to embellish the idea, inventing the claim that the Sun's previous circulation had been 4,000 (or 6,000, or 8,000... pick a number. Almost every author who writes about the moon hoax has a different figure for what the Sun's circulation skyrocketed from, though they all agree on the 19,000 figure).USN&WR also claims that the Journal of Commerce first exposed the hoax after the hoax's author, Richard Adams Locke, confessed to one of their reporters. This is also false. Many New York papers had immediately denounced the Sun's lunar claims as a hoax, and the New York Herald was the first to point the finger at Locke. The idea that the Journal of Commerce exposed the hoax dates to an 1852 retelling of the hoax by William Griggs.USN&WR can't really be blamed for getting some of the facts wrong. The literature about the moon hoax is full of these erroneous claims. The only reason I realized they were wrong is because I'm writing my dissertation about the moon hoax, and so I spent the time to actually dig up the papers from 1835 and find out what the real story was.

Extraterrestrial Life History Journalism

Posted on Sun Aug 18, 2002


How is the dissertation coming? Where/how can I read it?
Posted by Bob Grossman  in  New York  on  Wed Apr 13, 2005  at  09:22 AM
Commenting is no longer available in this channel entry.