The Cardiff Giant
The Cardiff Giant, "America's Greatest Hoax," was an elaborate scheme perpetrated by George Hull, a cigar-maker and get-rich-quick artist from Binghamton, New York. During a business trip to Iowa in 1866, Hull, an atheist, argued with a revivalist minister about a biblical passage. The phrase "There were giants in the earth in those days" (Genesis 6:4) sparked Hull's imagination and led to an involved plot that would make him a fortune.
In 1868, Hull journeyed to Ft. Dodge, Iowa, and ordered a five-ton block of gypsum to create, he explained, a piece of patriotic statuary. In moving the massive block to the railroad for shipping, Hull broke several wagons and bridges and was forced to reduce the block's size. It was subsequently delivered to stonecutter Edward Burghardt of Chicago.
Burghardt and his assistants, sworn to silence and plied with beer, worked on weekends to carve the massive figure, which is ten feet tall and weighs 3,000 pounds. Hull supervised every detail. He dictated the Giant's positioning and expression, treated him to a sulfuric-acid bath in order to produce a suitably aged look, and gave the stone man skin pores by pounding the surface with a mallet faced with darning needles.
His creation complete, Hull crated the Giant and shipped him to Union, near Binghamton. In November 1868, the Giant was secretly moved to Cardiff, a village just south of Syracuse that was steeped in American Indian lore and already known for its fossils. On reaching the Newell farm, the box was unloaded and sat for two weeks. Hull returned and he and Stub Newell, his brother-in-law, dug a pit in a marshy area. The crate was opened, the Giant was lowered into his grave, covered up, and the site planted in clover. Hull left for Binghamton and his cigar business, not to return for one year.
Newell orchestrated the next phase of the scheme. On Saturday, October 16, 1869, he hired two workmen, Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, to dig a well. He showed them where to dig and set them to work. Emmons struck the Giant's foot three feet down, and the workmen quickly uncovered the rest of what they supposed was a very large American Indian.
Word of the discovery of the petrified man spread quickly around the countryside and across the state. A tent was placed over the pit and a fifty-cent admission was charged to view this incredible find. People came from miles around. Special stages carried in visitors, eateries sprang up, and hotels were booked solid. Newell, who played the part of bewildered, honest citizen, took in a fortune.
The Giant was identified as an example of an ancient race as mentioned in Genesis, proof enough for believers. "Found" in the heart of New York's Burnt Over District, the Giant benefited from the religious fervor sweeping the area.
Scientific experts visited the Giant and offered another theory on his origin. Dr. John F. Boynton, scientific lecturer, declared that no evidence existed for the petrification of flesh. He believed that the Giant was a statue created by a Jesuit priest during the early 17th century to awe local Indian tribes. State Geologist James Hall was also convinced that the Giant was an ancient statue. A third group said it was a hoax, but this in no way diminished its popularity.
On October 23, Newell, acting for Hull, sold a three-quarters interest in the Giant to five local business men for $30,000. On November 5, David Hanum, the syndicate's leader, exhumed the Giant and shipped him to Syracuse to provide better surroundings in which to exhibit him. The New York Central Railroad set up a special stop for those who would travel to see the Giant.
In November the hoax quickly began to unravel. Skeptical reporters dug into Newell's and Hull's activities. Farmers remembered seeing a large crate travel toward Cardiff a year earlier, and Yale paleontologist Othniel C. March, citing fresh tool marks and smooth surfaces, declared it a "decided humbug of recent origin" in a report published 25 November 1869. By December 10, Hull admitted the whole story to the press.
The Giant continued to draw a curious and interested public. The syndicate booked a national tour. P.T. Barnum, who unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Giant for $60,000, had his own sculpted from wood. In December the two were shown less than two blocks apart in New York City, with Barnum's replica outdrawing the original Giant.
After a few years, interest in the Giant waned. He was brought out of storage and exhibited at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Between 1913 and the mid-1930s, the Giant was exhibited intermittently in Syracuse and Ft. Dodge.
In 1947, the Giant was sold to The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown. He
is now on display on the grounds of the museum in a tent that duplicates
the original one erected after his discovery at Stub Newell's farm.
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© 1999 The Farmers' Museum
August 12, 1999