When aliens invaded N.Y.

Ruland is the author of "Big Lonesome: Stories."

One late summer morning in 1835, the people of New York City were greeted with the shocking news that life had been discovered on the moon. And not just an “animalcule” of the sort that was on display under a microscope at Scudder’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street but a whole menagerie of celestial creatures: water birds, unicorns, beavers that walked upright, and a race of winged creatures dubbed “Vespertilio-homo, or man-bat.”

As we read in Matthew Goodman’s delightful history “The Sun and the Moon,” all of New York was convulsed by this discovery. The newspaper offices of the New York Sun, which printed the series of articles revealing the findings, “was besieged by thousands of [newsboy] applicants from dawn to midnight” waiting for the opportunity for more papers to arrive.

The articles were so popular that a pamphlet, “A Complete Account of the Late Discoveries in the Moon,” was hastily assembled and sold for 12 1/2 cents apiece and lithographs of “Lunar Animals and Other Objects” went for a quarter. P.T. Barnum, a former newspaper editor who knew a thing or two about a good hoax, claimed in his book “The Humbugs of the World” that the Sun sold no less than $25,000 worth of moon-hoax paraphernalia. An astounding number, considering the entire population of New York City was just a shade over a quarter-million.


How was such a stunt possible? It was a vastly different age. Gas and steam were being harnessed to provide all manner of conveniences, but few understood how they worked. Marvels such as the microscope and the telescope were making it plain that the universe was far more vast than previously imagined. Claims that the fossils of gargantuan creatures that kept turning up were the remains of living species that hadn’t been discovered yet were becoming increasingly hard to explain. For all this progress, newspapers were methodically printed and distributed by newsboys, horse-drawn coaches and sailing ships. Suffice to say, news traveled slowly.

However, much of the credit for the hoax’s success goes to the series’ author and editor, Richard Adams Locke, a descendant of the English philosopher John Locke. Looking for a way to drum up sales for the Sun, one of the bold, new penny papers that were turning the New York newspaper establishment on its ear, Locke used his interest in astronomy to construct a fanciful -- yet believable -- narrative. His masterstroke was to credit the discovery to John Herschel, the world’s leading astronomer, who was hard at work at the Cape of Good Hope and in no position to repudiate Locke’s claims. The articles, it was asserted, were excerpts of Herschel’s latest findings published in a copy of the Edinburgh Journal of Science.

Thus girded, Locke proceeded to impress his readers with descriptions of a device that combined the principles of the microscope with those of the telescope, providing Herschel with a view of the moon the likes of which had not been seen before. The details were so thorough that even men of science were fooled. How many were taken in by Locke’s “unquestionable plausibility and verisimilitude,” in the words of Horace Greeley? According to Greeley, who at age 24 was already working his way up the editorial ranks, “nine-tenths of us, at the least.”

Goodman’s book, however, is more than the story of a good leg-pull. He explains not only the details of the hoax but also the circumstances that made it possible. This includes brief investigations into the rise of the penny press and its dueling (literally) editors, Locke’s background as one of America’s first court reporters, the powder keg that was the anti-abolitionist/pro-slavery conflict, Barnum’s role in introducing New Yorkers to strange attractions, early 19th century astronomy’s uneasy relationship with natural theology, and Edgar Allan’s Poe’s jealous response to the hullabaloo. Apparently, Poe’s short story “Hans Phaall -- A Tale,” which recounts one explorer’s unintentional visit to the moon, was printed shortly before Locke’s series ran. Upset that Locke’s story became an international sensation while his did not, Poe -- a notorious plagiarist -- was convinced that Locke had stolen the idea from him.

The drawback to this approach is that Goodman takes his readers away from Manhattan to New England, South Africa, Baltimore and beyond, and while these detours certainly enhance the story, we don’t arrive at the moon until halfway through the book.

For modern readers, it is helpful to remember that in Locke’s day, newspapers were not monolithic bastions of objectivity. On the contrary, many were funded by political parties whose names could be found on the mastheads. Editors fulminated over the causes they championed and thundered the evils of their opponents. The genius of “The Sun and the Moon” is that it endeavors to explore, through the lens of 19th century New York and the prism of the press, why we believe what we believe, particularly when those beliefs go beyond the pale of plausibility.