Beginning in August 1835, a series of six articles published in a New York newspaper The Sun proclaimed how astronomer Sir John Hershel had glimpsed fantastic forms of life on the moon through “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.” Hershel, the readers were told, had discovered bi-pedal beavers, unicorns and man-bats who, “being innocent creatures,” engaged in public copulation. The series was alleged to be reprints from the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science and written by a companion of Hershel’s who witnessed these and other discoveries with him at his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope.
The companion was as much fantasy as the man-bats and unicorns. The whole affair has come to be known as the Great Moon Hoax. It is author Matthew Goodman’s contention that the author of the hoax (widely believed to be Richard Adams Locke) did not intend the obvious fabrication as to be a hoax.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, “The Sun,” focuses on mid-19th century New York and the publishing trade. Goodman skillfully creates the world, beginning in the prologue by telling the story through eyes of the paperboys. What would a really hot story like this mean to them? The reader also meets P. T. Barnum, Edgar Allan Poe and learns about “humbugs.” This section also discusses how The Sun, the first successful penny paper in a town of six-penny papers, changed the way news worked.
The second part of the book, “The Moon,” deals primarily with the hoax itself and its fallout. Goodman’s readers are treated to accounts of “astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description,” thanks to Hershel's newfangled telescope that used oxygen and hydrogen to magnify objects on the moon to the point they could be seen as clearly as objects than 100 yards away on Earth. The sheep on the moon could hold their own against any terrestrial sheep.
Goodman makes a good prima facie case for his thesis. He also paints a vibrant picture of New York City as well as the newspaper publishing business of the 1830s. While the book may plod in some places, there is also a great deal of humor and anyone interested in the era or in journalism history should find this a fun and entertaining read.
An earlier version of this review appeared at Epinions.com. It has been extensively rewritten. Epinions is no longer in business.