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The Great Moon Hoax or Was It — The Joke’s on Who?

Moon Hoax illustration of aerial ship descending
Descent of the missionaries aeronautical ship carrying lunar specimens.

On August 31, 1835, what came to be known as The Great Moon Hoax took its final bow in the Sun newspaper. During the following weeks, the story would be largely revealed as a hoax, but was still running wild as a story just the same. Other than discovering animal life and man-bats on the Moon, the other truly odd part of the hoax was that it was no hoax at all, but rather a satire that very few figured out. Richard Adams Locke fully intended the Great Moon Hoax to be a work of satire aimed at the plurality of worlds theory and in particular one Reverend Thomas Dick–amateur astronomer and one of the main proponents of the theory.

Before launching into the reasons and nature of Locke’s attack on Rev. Thomas Dick, a little back-story on Locke himself. Locke was born in 1800 in East Brent, Somerset, England, although later he would claim to census inspectors that his was born in New York City. Locke’s family lived in Somerset for centuries by all accounts. His ancestral family gained their living as land surveyors and farmers, some of whom are even noted for their advances in agriculture. By the time of Richard Adams Locke, his family owned property that was rented out along with a good amount of farm land, enough to make the family independent of means.

Leicester Square London
Leicester Square London, early 19th century

While Locke could have become an educated gentleman and landowner, he decided to take a different path and moved to London to write for a couple of journals, including the Republican. Locke’s political leanings were on the radical side and he published several articles that did not sit well with the landed gentry and his family back at Somerset. Locke’s leanings to republicanism and a freer England, using America as an example, placed him outside of mainstream political leanings. Eventually, Locke returned to Somerset to write for a new paper called the Herald where he quickly angered the readership with his stance against the Corn Laws (trade law) and the Test and Corporation Acts, which barred anyone from civil or military office if they did not swear allegiance to the Church of England.

Due to his political leanings and increasing estrangement from his family, Locke decided to move himself, his wife Esther and their infant daughter Adelaide to New York City. Once in New York, Locke took odd writing jobs including crime reporting, which was a popular section of local papers. Locke drew the attention of Benjamin Day, owner of the Sun, when he did a sensational write-up of the case of Matthias the Prophet, who was a cult leader, murderer, and held a harem of wives. Locke claimed that Matthias was a delusional person who brought faith and scientific reason together in dangerous ways. Regarding science and religion, Locke was someone who thought science and religion should be kept separate and that science should not be used to support questionable religious theories, such as was the case with the plurality of worlds debate.

Viewing night sky
Viewing the night sky illustration Gregor Reisch book 1504.

The plurality of worlds theory is one which dates back to antiquity. The basic premise is that since there exists an infinite number of atoms, and later that the universe itself was infinite, it then goes that the chance of other worlds being populated like ours was philosophically probable. Over time, the theory evolved to take on a spiritual tone, especially from the Renaissance through the 19th century. The more religious version of the theory believed that since what God created was so perfect it follows that all planetary bodies, including suns and moons, and not just the Earth could contain life. While the scientific community of the early 19th century did not fully embrace the theory, some including John Herschel’s father William Herschel, famed royal astronomer to the King of England, did hold out the possibility of life on the Moon and other planets. William Herschel even went so far as to write about life on the Sun where so called Solarians lived, an idea that he later dropped.

The religious cause of pluralism was taken up by several preachers and reverends including one Reverend Thomas Dick. The reverend was an avid amateur astronomer who wrote several popular books on astronomy including school texts. Among his works are: The Christian Philosopher, or the Connection of Science with Religion (1823); The Philosophy of the Future State (1829) in which he developed a Christian theology compatible with empirical science; and Celestial Scenery, or the Wonders of Heavens Displayed (1837). In his writings and sermons, the reverend laid out how the Moon had an atmosphere, volcanic activity, tropical plant life and was capable of supporting life. He was well educated in science enough to include elements that supported his claims. Just like we have scientific criteria for what it would take for a planet to support life or be Earth-like, so was the case in the 19th century. Based on observation, many astronomers at the time stated that the Moon had no evidence of clouds or an atmosphere, water, or showed any signs that the satellite was geologically active with volcanic activity.


In contrast, other astronomers claimed that they found evidence that the Moon could be inhabited, including Johann Hieronymous Schroter whose 1791 mapping of the Moon was the most thorough at the time, and who stated that the Moon had an atmosphere but probably not rain or snow since no clouds could be found, but that water was possible from the lunar valleys. Other astronomers include Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, who by his own observations found evidence of roads and architecture on the Moon, and Wilhelm Olbers, who thought rational beings could inhabit the Moon.

Portraits of Olbers, Gauss and Gruithuisen.

In 1826, the findings of Olbers and Gruithuisen, along with the mathematicians Carl Freidrich Gauss’ idea of how to communicate with lunarians, were published in a brief article entitled “The Moon and its Inhabitants” in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. It was this article that inspired Locke’s idea for his satire.

Locke intended the satire to be so fantastical that most readers would immediately spot it as a fable and would get the joke of how he was satirizing all the concepts held by Rev. Thomas Dick and the believers of pluralism, and even borrowed some of the reverend’s writing style. In order to wrap the farce in enough realism that people would question what they read, Locke, who was an avid reader of science, included just enough facts. To do so, Locke used an up-to-date lunar map, included correct information on optics when describing Herschel’s telescope, although the telescope itself was far more advanced than anything constructed at the time, and other such factual elements.

William Herschel's telescope
William Herschel’s telescope

As an aside on the telescope, Locke described Herschel as designing a tubeless telescope with a 24 foot diameter lens weighing over 7 tons and powerful enough to view objects on the Moon as little as 18 inches in diameter and record flora to such an accuracy that the plant life could be identified.

Camera obscura projection
Camera obscura projection image from Mathematical elements of natural philosophy, 1721.

The images from the telescope could then be projected on the wall using hydro-oxygen microscope. At the time, none of the level of technology described by Locke could be remotely developed. The camera obscura was still the normal means of image projection and would not have had the projection capacity described by Locke. In addition, John Herschel’s telescope would have been at least 5 times larger than his father’s picture above.

Needless to say for Locke, his satire was not viewed as such by many readers of the fantastic tale. In addition, Benjamin Day would not allow Locke to expose the story as a hoax or a satire and since Locke was so in need of a job to support his family he did reveal the true nature of the story and in fact wrote editorial letters stating that everything was fact. It was a number of years later until Locke could reveal the truth. Unfortunately for him, the satire was a failure and pluralism continued to flourish only to be dispelled later by better scientific investigation, and even despite this new evidence some still believed life would be found.

As is true today, tales of space travel and alien life continued to fascinate readers throughout the 19th century. Despite failing at his quest, Locke, along with Edgar Alan Poe, is credited by some as the beginners of American science fiction. So, long before Orson Welles caused a panic with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, and the conspiracy theory that the Moon landing was a hoax, there was the Great Moon Hoax (Satire).

View of the Earth from the Moon
View of the Earth from the Moon





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