Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Unearthly Unearthing of the Cardiff Carving

                       It was forty years before the Piltdown hoax was finally debunked but the fake known as the Cardiff Giant fell apart in a matter of weeks. I have mentioned the blow to American national pride caused by the remarks of the Comte de Buffon previously here, and the subsequent search for the remnants of large American land animals, and one explanation of the enormous bones found at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky in the 1740s was that they were the remains of giants who had perished beneath the deluge of Noah’s flood. Cotton Mather, in his vast Biblia Americana, wrote,  
“The Giants that once Groan’d under the Waters, are now Found under the Earth, and their Dead Bones are Lively Proofs of the Mosaic History,” 
echoing Job 26:5 
Behold the giants groan under the waters, and they that dwell with them.” 

Joseph Priest, in his American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West (1835), described the excavation of Indian graves in which were “… found several sculls [sic] leg and thigh bones, which plainly shows that their possessors were persons of gigantic stature.” 
One evening in 1866, George Hull was in Ackley, Iowa, chasing up his brother-in-law who was late in paying for a consignment of cigars, when he got into an argument with Rev Mr Turk, a Methodist revivalist, about the veracity of the Biblical tales of giants, particularly Genesis 6:4 “Now giants were upon the earth in those days,” which Rev Turk insisted was literally true, whereas Hull, an atheist, denied it, saying it was metaphorical at best. Hull settled on the idea of making a giant of his own, “I thought of making a stone giant, and passing it off as a petrified man,” and found a large block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, which, he told the quarrymen, was to be made into a statue of Abraham Lincoln in New York. 

The block was transported to Chicago, where German sculptor Edward Burghardt was commissioned to carve the giant. In a bid to add an aged patina, the figure was stained and a gallon of sulphuric acid was poured over it, and Hull hammered darning needles into a block of wood, which he used to pummel the appearance of pores onto the surface of the stone. In November 1868, the finished piece, over ten foot long and weighing over 3,000 lbs, was shipped to Hull’s home at Binghampton, and from there to his cousin’s farm at Cardiff, New York. 

The Cardiff Giant and a strategically placed branch

William C ‘Stub’ Newell secretly buried the figure behind his barn, and on October 16th 1869, he engaged Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a new well at the point he indicated. When they were three feet down, they struck stone and seeing a foot, one of them shouted out, “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!” 

Lifting the Giant

Hull and Newell erected a tent over the ‘petrified man’ and charged visitors 25c a head to see the marvel. Word spread and wagonloads of sensation seekers arrived, so two days later the price of admission was upped to 50c. 

The Cardiff Giant and friends

Although Hull had sworn all involved to secrecy, he found out that Cousin ‘Stub’ had let word slip so, knowing that the truth would soon come out, he sold his part-share to a syndicate of local businessmen for the sum of $23,000. On November 5th 1869, the Cardiff Giant was unearthed and shipped to Syracuse, where one eminent churchman declared “…we have here a fossilized human being, perhaps one of the giants mentioned in Scripture,” although others were not so easily beguiled - Yale palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh pronounced, “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug.” 

Phineas T Barnum

The showman Phineas T Barnum became interested in the Giant and offered to buy it from the syndicate for $50,000, and when they declined to sell, Barnum sent an undercover artist to make a surreptitious wax model of the figure. 

The Dimensions of the Cardiff Giant

From this, and using the measurements taken from advertising flyers, Barnum had a plaster reproduction of the Cardiff Giant made, which he exhibited at his museum in New York. David Hannum, leader of the syndicate, expressed his opinion on the popularity of Barnum’s copy with the words, “There's a sucker born every minute,” a phrase often attributed to Barnum himself and happily appropriated by him later. The syndicate sought a court injunction to stop Barnum’s exhibit, only to be told by the judge, “Bring your giant here, and if he swears to his own genuineness as a bona fide petrifaction, you shall have the injunction you ask for.” On December 10th 1869, George Hull confessed all to the press and on February 2nd 1870, the court ruled that both Giants were fakes, and Barnum could not be sued for displaying a fake of a fake. 

The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Giant was sold to a publisher from Des Moines, who sold it in 1947 to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is now exhibited in a reproduction of the original tent raised on ‘Stub’ Newell’s farm in October 1869.

Roll Up, Roll Up

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