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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.