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Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Cardiff Giant, October 16, 1869

Today in 1869, workers digging a well in Cardiff, New York discovered a 10-foot long stone in the shape of a man. It was detailed and appeared, at least to the eyes of the day, to be fossilized remains. William Newell, the man on whose land the giant was discovered, put the giant on display, eventually charging 50 cents per person for a look. The discovery stirred debate across the area and the nation: was this an example of the giants written about in the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis? Or was it an ancient statue left over from some unknown civilization?

It was neither. The Cardiff Giant, as the piece came to be known, was an elaborate hoaxed created by New Yorker George Hull with the help of William Newell and some talented stonecutters. It remains to this day one of the most far-reaching hoaxes in history. Before all was said and done, even famed showman P.T. Barnum would get in on the action.

Legend has it that Hull commissioned the giant after an argument with a minister in which the man of the cloth insisted that the Bible needed to be taken literally. Hull, a reputed atheist, initially intended the giant as a joke on fundamentalism. However, money became his primary motivation when a group of businessmen paid more than $37,000 to buy the giant. Hull agreed to the sale and statue was moved to Syracuse.

It didn’t take long for the giant to be seen as what it was. Paleontologists from various universities not only called the giant a fake, but a bad one. The chisel marks were still visible on the piece, a detail that would’ve worn away had the giant been an ancient statue. Hull soon confessed his deceit, but no one seemed to care; the giant had grown out of control.

P.T. Barnum offered to rent the giant for three months for $60,000 but the Syracuse-based owners were not interested. Angered by this refusal, Barnum had a copy of the giant made, thus producing a fake of a fake. One of the giant’s owners told a newspaper reporter, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, talking about why anyone would see Barnum’s statue. However, the quote has been mistakenly attributed to Barnum ever since.

A law suit eventually arose between Barnum and the giant’s owners, in which the statue was finally revealed proved to be a fake. The defendant, Barnum, won the case because the judge ruled that calling something a fake (which he had been doing for some time) was legal when the item in question was actually a fake.

The original Cardiff Giant can still be seen in Cooperstown, New York. Barnum’s copy is on display in Michigan.

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