The Cardiff Giant: A Truly Great Hoax

How a hoax intended to ridicule Biblical literalists itself got hoaxed.

April Fools Day is as good a time as any to look back at the Cardiff Giant, one of the all-time most awesome hoaxes in the history of hoaxing. The Giant ended up being embroiled in layers of hoaxing and inspiring one of the most famous (misattributed) phrases of the modern era.

Everything about the Cardiff Giant is cool. The Giant was a hoax dreamed up in 1868 by George Hull, a New York tobacconist. Most importantly, Hull was an atheist, and he came up with the idea for the Giant after spending the night arguing religion with a Methodist. The factuality of Genesis was in contention, with Hull especially disputing Genesis 6:4 -

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.

That’s from the King James.

And so Hull decided to give his Methodist antagonist a giant all his own. It’s hard to imagine going through all the effort required, but Hull hired men in Iowa to carve out a ten foot slab of gypsum. He told them that he was using it for a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. Then Hull had it shipped to Chicago, where he hired a stonecarver to shape into a man; Hull swore the stonecarver to secrecy.

Next, Hull artificially aged the statue, using oils and pigments and beating it with steel. When he got it weathered enough, Hull put the statue on a train to New York, where he had it placed in the ground in the town of Cardiff. At this point, Wikipedia tells me, Hull had spent $2,600 on the hoax. Even in 2011 dollars that’s a pricey prank, but in 1868 it was a princely sum.

Hull was fastidious in his hoax. He waited almost A YEAR to hire someone to dig in  the area where the giant was buried. Such patience! When the statue was unearthed, Hull claimed it was a petrified man - a petrified Biblical giant, in fact.

People swarmed to the site. Hull charged admission, looking to make back his big investment. Scientists scoffed at the thing, but just as Hull hoped religious types fell hook, line and sinker. Andrew White, ambassador and New York State assemblyman, recounted the story of the Cardiff Giant in his autobiography, where he quotes a ‘prominent clergyman’:

“This is not a thing contrived of man, but is the face of one who lived on the earth, the very image and child of God.”

Next David Hannum entered the picture. Hannum, leading a group of five men, bought Hull’s Giant for $23,000, making the whole thing a big success for that angry atheist. Hannum put the Giant on display in Syracuse, where it was still a big hit. Such a big hit that PT Barnum showed up and offered $50,000 for the Giant.

Hannum refused. But Barnum would not be dissuaded, so he hired a man to sneakily make a plaster cast of the Giant and recreate it. Barnum put the ersatz Giant on display in his New York City museum and called Hannum’s Giant a phony.

And so began the War of the Giants. As the media began to cover the situation, David Hannum gave a quote that would stick in the lexicon: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But just as Barnum stole Hannum’s Giant, he also stole the quote - today most people associate that phrase with the great huckster.

Hannum eventually sued Barnum for calling his Giant a fake. But then Hull confessed to fabricating the original giant and the case was thrown out - you can’t sue somebody for calling your phony a phony.

The Giants have kicked around since then. Barnum’s Giant now rests at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Michigan, while the real fake is on display in Cooperstown.