Extra, Extra! Blue Unicorns And Man-Bats Walk The Moon! …Right?

How a hoax-filled 19th century ‘scientific paper’ about life on the moon fooled the public—and what Edgar Allan Poe learned from it.

The following is an excerpt from The Reason For The Darkness Of The Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch.

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The Reason For The Darkness Of The Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science


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The contradictions in Poe’s poetic theories and his love for “the palpable obscure” were of a piece with the philosophical, technical, and scientific tensions of his time. In the age’s new sciences—hastily communicated in new journals, lyceums, and lecture halls, carried by rail and steamboat—ideas about the relationship between spirit and matter and between God and humans were being scrutinized, challenged, and overthrown. New discoveries and sciences, along with the frantic pace and relentless surprises of the press, left readers in serious doubt about who and what to believe.

For example, the new and controversial science of phrenology claimed to explain human character by empirical observation of the skull. Launched in the late eighteenth century in Vienna by Franz Gall and promoted in Paris, it gained support among the rising middle classes in Britain and the United States. Phrenology held that people’s characters and mental capacities—amativeness (or love), industry, and ideality (or imagination)—were located in different organs of the brain. Because the skull followed the shape of the brain, protuberances in different parts of the head indicated larger or smaller organs for each trait.

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Phrenology was an engaging, hands-on science. Sizing up friends and enemies by their appearance and watching others have their character read from the bumps on their skulls brought endless amusement. Dealing in topics of universal interest, it could be mastered with individual study. It also courted controversy. The Scottish phrenologist George Combe’s popular Constitution of Man flatly declared that “mental qualities are determined by the size, form and constitution of the brain”; despite his arguments for the science’s compatibility with Christianity, such statements seemed to deny faith in an eternal soul independent of the body.

Reviewing the fourth edition of a phrenology textbook, Poe said grudgingly, “We might as well make up our minds to listen.” A few months later, he scolded another writer for attacking phrenology without studying it. By March 1836, in a review of Phrenology by Mrs. L. Miles—sold with printed cards and a ceramic head—phrenology had, Poe decided, “assumed the majesty of a science; and, as a science, ranks among the most important.” Phrenology’s methods and concepts would run through his criticism and fiction.

In the summer of 1835 another popular scientific sensation came into view: the return of Halley’s Comet, last spotted in 1759. Entrepreneurs set up a telescope in City Hall Park in New York, charging six cents for a peek. In the throes of this “peculiar mania” P. T. Barnum observed that “the whole community at last were literally occupied with but little else than star-gazing.”

An anonymous newspaper series in the New York Sun, the first of the penny dailies sold by the “newsboy system” on street corners, tapped the summer’s astronomical fever. In August 1835, the Sun ran a front-page exclusive: “Discoveries in the Moon,” said to be reprinted directly from The Edinburgh Journal of Science. It detailed what John Herschel at the astronomical observatory in South Africa saw with a gigantic telescope; its images were thrown onto a wall using a “hydro-oxygen” lamp. This new form of illumination—applying the chemical principle of theatrical limelight, developed by Robert Hare and Michael Faraday—was powering new and dazzling magic lantern shows in lyceum halls by projecting natural wonders and brightly colored fantasias. Attached to a microscope, oxyhydrogen magic lanterns could expose hidden worlds of insects, tissues, and tiny natural structures.

In the Sun report, this optical technology, attached to a telescope, revealed the world on the moon. On the walls of the Cape Town observatory Herschel and his colleagues observed caverns colored like rubies, vast lakes, soaring mountains, lush forests, and, on closer inspection, horned bears, zebras, and blue unicorns. Most staggeringly, the fifth installment reported, they saw humanlike creatures standing on two legs and flying with wings, along with evidence of the civilization of these “man-bats,” including perfect pyramids crowned by reflecting globes.

With the moon story the newspaper’s circulation rose to more than seventeen thousand, ten times its competitors’. The series was excerpted and discussed across America and the Atlantic. Visitors bombarded Herschel with questions about lunar life. According to one legend, Yale University’s astronomy professors Elias Loomis and Denison Olmsted came to The Sun’s office demanding to see the original Edinburgh report; the editor sent them on a wild-goose chase from printer to printer. The series ended in catastrophe: the final installment reported that Herschel’s telescope, directed at the sun, created a beam of light so intense that the observatory caught fire and burned. At the end of August, the Herald debunked the story by documenting its contradictions. Its anonymous author, the abolitionist and reformer Richard Adams Locke, confessed his identity in print—four years later.

“Discoveries in the Moon” appeared two months after Poe’s “Hans Pfaall”—also a realistic tale of lunar exploration. Poe publicly accepted Locke’s claim not to have seen the earlier tale, but whether or not Locke had been inspired by Poe, the “Moon Hoax” taught Poe memorable lessons. Surprising facts offered a grip for readers’ imaginations, especially when expressed in the language of technical proof and precise observation. “Not one person in ten discredited” the account, Poe noted. Even those who did not believe were eager to buy and debate it.

Like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which Poe reviewed in a new illustrated edition from Harper & Brothers, Locke’s “Discoveries in the Moon” possessed the rare quality Poe named “the potent magic of verisimilitude.” Defoe wove a literary spell through his “great power of abstraction” and strong “faculty of identification.” Overpowering the reader’s imagination through force of will, his profound technical art became invisible. The story became indistinguishable from life itself.

Locke’s “Discoveries in the Moon” suggested that both scientists and hoaxers drew from the same tool kit to persuade their audiences and forge conviction. Truth and belief were, at least in part, questions of style. They were effects achieved by a controlled unfolding of information, the language of facts and observation, vivid imagery, a wide distribution network, favorable publicity, word of mouth, good timing, and good luck.

Excerpted from The Reason For The Darkness Of The Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by John Tresch. All rights reserved.

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