The Cardiff Giant was one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. It was a 10-foot-tall (3.0 m) purported “petrified man” uncovered on October 16, 1869, by workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. Both it and an unauthorized copy made by P.T. Barnum are still being displayed.
Creation and discovery
The giant was the creation of a New York tobacconist named George Hull. Hull, an atheist, decided to create the giant after an argument at a Methodist revival meeting about Genesis 6:4 which stated that there were giants who once lived on Earth.
The idea of a petrified man did not originate with Hull, however. During 1858 the newspaper Alta California had published a bogus letter claiming that a prospector had been petrified when he had drunk a liquid within a geode. Some other newspapers also had published stories of supposedly petrified people.
Hull hired men to quarry out a 10-foot-4.5-inch-long (3.2 m) block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to carve it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy.
Various stains and acids were used to make the giant appear to be old and weathered, and the giant’s surface was beaten with steel knitting needles embedded in a board to simulate pores. During November 1868, Hull transported the giant by railroad to the farm of his cousin, William Newell. By then, he had spent US$2,600 for the hoax (nearly equivalent to US$48,000 in 2017, adjusted for inflation).
Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant. One of the men reportedly exclaimed, “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”
Exhibition and exposure as fraud
Newell set up a tent over the giant and charged 25 cents for people who wanted to see it. Two days later he increased the price to 50 cents. People came by the wagonload.
Archaeological scholars pronounced the giant a fake, and some geologists even noticed that there was no good reason to try to dig a well in the exact spot the giant had been found. Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh termed it “a most decided humbug”. Some theologians and preachers, however, defended its authenticity.
Eventually, Hull sold his part-interest for $23,000 (equivalent to $456,000 in 2018) to a syndicate of five men headed by David Hannum. They moved it to Syracuse, New York, for exhibition. The giant drew such crowds that showman P. T. Barnum offered $50,000 for the giant. When the syndicate refused, he hired a man to model the giant’s shape covertly in wax and create a plaster replica. He displayed his giant in New York, claiming that his was the real giant, and the Cardiff Giant was a fake.
As the newspapers reported Barnum’s version of the story, David Hannum was quoted as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute” in reference to spectators paying to see Barnum’s giant. Since then, the quotation has often been misattributed to Barnum himself.
Hannum sued Barnum for calling his giant a fake, but the judge told him to get his giant to swear on his own genuineness in court if he wanted a favorable injunction.
On December 10, 1869, Hull confessed everything to the press, and on February 2, 1870 both giants were revealed as fakes in court; the judge also ruled that Barnum could not be sued for terming a fake giant a fake.
Subsequent and current resting places
The Cardiff Giant was displayed at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, but did not attract much attention.
Iowa publisher Gardner Cowles, Jr. bought it later to adorn his basement rumpus room as a coffee table and conversation piece. In 1947 he sold it to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is still displayed.
The owner of Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, a coin-operated game arcade and museum of oddities in Farmington Hills, Michigan, has said that the replica displayed there is Barnum’s replica.
A replica of the Giant is displayed at The Fort Museum and Frontier Village in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
The Cardiff Giant has inspired a number of similar hoaxes.
- In 1876 the Solid Muldoon was exhibited in Beulah, Colorado at 50 cents a ticket. There was also a rumor that Barnum had offered to buy it for $20,000. One employer later revealed that this was also a creation of George Hull, aided by Willian Conant. The Solid Muldoon was made of clay, ground bones, meat, rock dust, and plaster.
- In 1877, the owner of Taughannock House hotel on Cayuga Lake, New York, hired men to create a fake petrified man and place it where the workers who were expanding the hotel would dig it up. One of the men who had buried the giant later revealed the truth when drunk.
- In 1892 Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, de facto ruler of the town of Creede, Colorado, purchased a petrified man for $3,000 and exhibited it for 10 cents a peek. Soapy’s profits did not come from displaying “McGinty”, as he named it, but rather from distractions, such as the shell game set up to entertain the crowds as they waited in line. He also profited by selling interests in the exhibition. This was a real human body, intentionally injected with chemicals for preservation and petrification. Soapy displayed McGinty from 1892 to 1895 throughout Colorado and the northwest United States.
- During 1897, a petrified man found downriver from Fort Benton, Montana, was claimed by promoters to be the remains of former territorial governor and U.S. Civil War General Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher had drowned in the Missouri River during 1867. The petrified man was displayed across Montana as a novelty and even exhibited in New York and Chicago.