Designing from Bones – The Stone Giant & Escalating Tension

Welcome to Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories.

Come friends, the portal keeper awaits, beckoning us follow him through the mists to a small town in central New York and the lessons surrounding one of the greatest hoaxes of a past era.

The Cardiff Giant

The Cardiff Man

On October 16, 1869, workers digging a well behind William C. Newell’s barn uncovered a body. This wasn’t a normal body, but rather that of a ten-foot tall anatomically correct man. The petrified giant became on overnight sensation and attracted a firestorm of religious argument and greed, the deceptions of a master showman and spawned one of the most famous lines in history.

It all began as an argument between George Hull, a tobacconist, and a Methodist minister over a reference in Genesis 6:4 that states: “There were giants in the earth in those days…”. The minister, holding to his beliefs, argued that giants had literally existed at one time beneath the surface of Earth during a conversation at Hull’s sisters in Ackley, Iowa. Hull, an atheist, became so incensed by the mans naivety that he swore to teach the superstitious minister and others like him a lesson about the dangers of gullibility.

Hull offered a keg of beer to a local quarry crew to cut a monumental block of gypsum for him and shipped the 3-ton block to Chicago, Illinois. He then hired a stonecutter named Edward Burkhardt and his son to craft a giant from the gypsum bearing the appearance of a painful death. Hull swore the men to secrecy only allowing them to work on the statue during their off-time hidden inside a barn on Burkhardt’s property.

Burkhardt, using Hull as a model, created a life-like work that included the use of a needle-tipped hammer to replicate skin pours. He then aged the statue with a combination of sulfuric acid, sand and water. As an unexpected bonus, the use of the aging solution caused vein-like ripples to appear on the surface, thus creating the illusion of reality.

Once the statue was complete, Hull smuggled it to the farm of his cousin, William C. Newell and the two men along with Newell’s son buried the statue behind the barn. Here it lay for a year while Hull waited, allowing the statue to age in place. The entire project had cost the conspirators a mere $2,600.

A stroke of luck, for Hull at least, occurred six months after the burial of the statue when million-year-old fossils were discovered on a farm near Newell’s. One can only imagine that George Hull was ecstatic as this discovery would add credence to his ploy once it was revealed.

After a year of waiting, Newell was instructed to hire a crew to dig a new well on the exact spot where the statue was buried. Newell did as he was told and after setting the crew of well-diggers to work waited inside his house. The crew discovered the statue halfway through the day and Newell had them continue to dig until the entire statue was revealed. He then erected a tent over the top of the statue and proclaimed the discovery of a giant petrified man to the local community.

Within a matter of days, buggies, carriages, lumber-wagons and omnibuses from the nearby city of Syracuse and surrounding valley began to arrive at Newell’s farm. At first, visitors were charged 25 cents to enter and view the grave of the petrified giant but as numbers increased, so did Newell’s greed and he raised the price to 50 cents. Farmers, scientists, university professors and people from all walks of life gladly made the journey and parted with their hard-earned cash to see the morbid exhibit.

David Hannum

Not long after the discovery became public offers began to arrive from universities and museums interested in purchasing the exceptional find. Several offers were turned down before George Hull finally agreed to sell two-thirds of his share for $30,000 to a syndicate of five men from Syracuse led by banker David Hannum. This was a large sum in that day and nearly 1000% profit on Hull’s investment.

Hannum and company installed the giant in an exhibition hall in Syracuse and raised the price of admission to one dollar.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Shortly after its purchase by Hannum, the master entertainer of the era, P.T. Barnum caught wind of the Cardiff Giant (as it was now billed) and sent a representative to investigate. On the day the agent arrived in Syracuse, 3000 people crowded into the exhibition hall. The agent reported back of the rare sensation and was instructed to make a $50,000 offer for the giant. Hannum and his partners refused, knowing that the giant would be worth far more than that if they kept it.

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum was not to be outdone by a group of amateur entertainers and instructed his agent to bring back an exact description of the Cardiff Giant. When the agent returned, Barnum hired a team of stonecutters and created a duplicate of the petrified man. Barnum then employed a masterful sleight-of-marketing-hand ploy and announced that Hannum had sold him the original while keeping a fake for local crowds. Within a matter of days, Barnum’s greater publicity draw attracted the crowds away from Hannum’s exhibition.

While speaking to the press about the controversy, David Hannum, in a fit of frustrated irritation, uttered: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That’s right, this line was spoken by David Hannum and later falsely attributed to P.T. Barnum. Seems the master showman had little issue with stealing others “intellectual property” as long as there was money to made by the theft.

Hannum later attempted to sue P.T. Barnum for claiming his original was fake. However, when the court asked Hannum to provide proof, George Hull intervened and admitted to the hoax. Both were fakes, court adjourned.

The Spectacle

Structure of a Hoax

The Cardiff Giant hoax is a study in story escalation.

What begins as a simple disagreement between two men arguing over an inane reference in the Bible, turns into a spectacle for the entire nation by the climax. One man a naive minister the other a jaded atheist. Our antagonist, Hull, devises a plan, recruits conspirators and lays his plans with care while the minister maintains the conviction of his beliefs. The first escalation occurs when the well-diggers find the statue and the general public is drawn into the debate.

Andrew Dickson White

Tensions and stakes rise as arguments between those that feel this is a revelation of religious truth and the intellectual elite battle over the veracity of the claims surrounding the giant. In the words of Andrew Dickson White, a co-founder of Cornell University and eye-witness who traveled to see the spectacle, “At no period of my life have I ever been more discouraged at the possibility of making right reason prevail among men. As a refrain to every argument there seemed to go jeering and sneering through my brain Schiller’s famous line: Against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain.”

The stakes expand even more as Hannum and company purchase the statue for a large sum of money and unwittingly join the deception. Enter P.T. Barnum and the tension rises to monumental levels. Greed. Deception. Out-of-control ego and back-stabbing. A masterful view of the power of perception and showmanship in the face of human gullibility. Need a theme?

Finally, we reach the climax in court. P.T Barnum versus banker David Hannum. The court vibrates with tension. And then. George Hull, the creator of the controversy, stands and reveals the hoax and makes his point in front of the court and an enthralled nation.

All that remains is to choose a hero to navigate this treacherous landscape. Who would you choose? A reporter trying to uncover the truth? An intellectual like Andrew White? Perhaps the minister attempting to prove his religious beliefs only to meet defeat in the end?

As epilogue to this story, George Hull tried a similar hoax in Colorado a few years later but failed due to his earlier exposure. In the end, he died alone, penniless and forgotten in England.

What starts quietly and is built in isolation can rise beyond the clouds if we ensure that the stakes steadily increase until the tension hums and the crowd sits on the tip of a pin in anticipation of that final, beautiful, climactic moment.

Have you heard of the Cardiff Giant before today? Or perhaps some other hoax where the tensions escalated in a similar way? Any thoughts on Hull’s ploy, how well it worked or his self-enrichment at the expense of trust? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peaceful Journeys!

The final verdict

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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23 Responses to Designing from Bones – The Stone Giant & Escalating Tension

  1. Squeeee! I knew you were talking about the Cardiff Giant the second I saw the photo. When you grow up in Syracuse, we learn this legend at the teat. So glad it made your list of cool stories.

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    Cool stuff, Gene! I did some research into this for a post on frauds a few months back:

    It’s a great story, isn’t it? I love the detail you provided.

  3. authorjapaul says:

    Awesome story. I had never heard of it before. Great job on your research too! This story goes to show what you can accomplish if you set your mind to something. I can’t imagine spending $2600 on a gag in 1869. Seems to me you’d have to be pretty passionate about it to follow through.

  4. Diane Tibert says:

    Wow, this proves truth is stranger than fiction. What a great idea to fool the public. I had not heard of the giant before today. If you had not told me it was true, I would have thought, what a great story. It has every element needed.

    Thanks for sharing. The hero I would have chosen to tell this story in a book would have been a child, perhaps Newell’s son or daughter if they were between the ages of 10 and 16.

  5. Shéa says:

    I’d heard of this one before, but not the details. Fascinating stuff. And the lengths some people will go to to proof a point?

  6. OMG you have outdone yourself this time. I love this and yes, there is a sucker born every minute. Now if we could only transmute that into a reader born every minute. hmm, now where did I put that darn spell book I got on E-Bay…

  7. Fascinating! Hadn’t heard of the Cardiff giant and I just loved not only finding out the correct attribution for “there’s a sucker born every minute” but to learn that it was also an ironic statement, LOL! Love this! Thank you 🙂

  8. Lynn Kelley says:

    I’d heard the name but didn’t know the story behind it. So fascinating! And that quote is a winner and so true! So many people are gullible, and I’m one of ’em! Not so much as I was when I was young. I’d choose to tell the story from the POV of the intellectual. Yep, I can see him getting fed up with the public’s naivety. Great post, Gene!

  9. A knockoff with better marketing than the original…or maybe brand-name versus generic…original song versus sampled version versus dreadfully overproduced under-talented remake…wow, there’s a ton of ways to go with that.

    Thanks for the great post featuring what is one of the most interesting periods of American history, the last half of the 19th century. The Civil War, territorial expansion, telegraph communication becoming commonplace, quick(er) transportation, entertainment, retail, advertising, cowboys, so many of the factors of our American identity were generated there. It’s like the adolescent US was growing into its “big boy clothes” before it went out into the world in the last twenty years of the century. Not losing its innocence, but gaining its self-awareness. A very exciting time.

  10. Not only have I heard of this giant but I have met him several times. His current resting place is in one of my favourite places in the world and not too far from the place I grew up. He is at The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The last time I saw him was three years ago.

    That being said, I have not heard his story told with as much detail as you have just gone into and that includes the times I have listened to the tour guides talk of him.

    As always, this was a great post Gene.

  11. Catie Rhodes says:

    Never hear of this, but what a fascinating story. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I am greatly amused at all the backstabbing and fraud on top of fraud. It’s my kind of thing. Thanks for the mini history lesson and the big writing lesson.

  12. Marcia says:

    OMG, Renee Schuls-Jacobsen is from Syracuse?! So am I and have always known of this incident. We lay claim to that quote by Hannum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The exhibition hall may have been on the site where our NY state fair is now held. It’s a cool story and one that people in my parent’s generation loved telling.
    It’s also a great idea for a story. The wife or may a daughter of Newell or Hull might give a good POV. Or maybe Hannum’s wife, telling the story of how her husband was made a fool. Thanks for posting this. It was fun seeing my hometown’s name in print on your blog!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Renee: I totally forgot that you were from Syracuse so now I’m doubly glad I chose this story. The Cardiff Giant is such a deeply layered and intricate story, it must have a thrill to hear about at a young age.

      K.B.: On occasion I run into one of my blogging friends when doing research for a piece. I hadn’t seen the post you did on frauds from history, BUT, I did once I found it while doing research for this one. Always fun to find a friend, you were in the top ten hits by the way 🙂

      JaPaul: True that $2600 was a significant amount of money in that era, however, Hull was an entrepreneur and used to taking the risk. His payoff on this gamble was 1000%, an excellent gamble in my estimation. Of course it did him little good over time, the real “cost” being his good name and that my friend is priceless.

      Diane: I thought the same thing, about using a 10 to 16 year old to tell the story or at least be central to it (and may well be doing so, hush hush *grin*). I think the story opens up a wealth of possibilities, both as a backdrop of that era or through exploration of the themes attached to it.

      Shea: Some will go to any lengths to win a point. Watch the American elections (or the British ones for that matter) and this becomes abundantly clear.

      Prudence: Thanks and the book is behind the loose brick, third up on the left of the fireplace 🙂

      Angela: Ah, the irony, not just in Hannum’s statement but throughout this entire sordid affair. Irony is the heart of good story and I think that is one of the reasons the hoax was so successful (and why stories around its theme’s will be too).

      Lynn: The intellectual is a good choice. Lock Haven University of PA has a page with Andrew White’s “journal” of the event. He goes into great detail about not just the controversy but the responses of the populace, etc. Coming that angle “A sucker born every minute and parted with his money the next” becomes a key statement.

      John: I know your love for the era and you make a great point as the late 1800’s to just before WWI were a coming of age for the U.S. We were starting to come into our maturity, drinking, partying, irritating the forces of morality and finding out what it was to be a nation beyond just the words.

      Billie Jo: The original (as far as everyone believes) is indeed in The Farmers Museum, sold there in 1947 by an publisher who had owned it for years and used it as a coffee table. Truth is always stranger than fiction which is why it, truth, makes such an excellent guide to discovering good fiction 🙂

      Catie: Somehow I knew that the web of deceit and machinations would draw you in, very much my kind of mind *smile* And yes, it is fine to be amused, I laughed loud enough to attract the wife and kids a few times while I was doing research for this. It was a fine spectacle, the event, not my research 😀

      Marcia: I didn’t know you were from Syracuse but as I mentioned to Renee I’m almost envious. Getting to hear this story as a kid would have been awesome. Excellent POV choices, I think getting it from the view of the wives or daughters of these men is an interesting angle. The era was seeing the first pushes towards equality of gender but in general, women were still happier seen and not heard. Giving them a voice is a wonderful choice and I wish that more writers would explore that option.

      Thanks for all the fantastic comments folks 😀

  13. Hi, Gene,
    Loved this report, and you’re right — for the writer, it’s a manure-spreader-full of rich story fodder.
    But one thing puzzles me. That is, your statement concerning the preacher, that he attempted “to prove his religious beliefs only to meet defeat in the end.” Where’s the defeat? The fact that the statue was a fake only proves that his detractors were crass and deceitful. It doesn’t speak to his postulate itself.
    I like your blog and I’m glad to have discovered it.

  14. Kerry Meacham says:

    What people won’t do for a joke, or to prove a point. Amazing.

  15. Jess Witkins says:

    Quite possibly my favorite designing from bones post yet! It might be cause it involves the circus, and you know I love the circus, but this story was awesome start to finish! Why aren’t you writing the fiction form of this tale right now? I expect a logline in WWBC!

    You know what it reminds me of? Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants) interviewed many former circus performers/workers and used a lot of their stories as events/side stories in the book. One of them was about a circus who traveled with a “giant hippo” for months. The hippo had in fact died and was “swimming” in formaldehyde. Come see the “pickled hippo!”

  16. I’d never heard of this before. That seems like quite a bit of money to spend on a hoax even today let alone in the 80s. That said, it’s a good lesson to do your research on anything rather than simply following what other people think.

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  19. Wow! I’d heard of the Cardiff man, but didn’t know the whole story. What a great real-life example of escalating tension/stakes.

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  21. Doug Schneider says:

    In honor of the Giant being quarried in Fort Dodge, Iowa, the town of Fort Dodge commissioned their own Cardiff Giant in 1978. Made of gypsum from the same quarry as the original.

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