There were giants in the earth in those days. That’s what the book of Genesis says about the post-Fall world of the sons of Adam. These were the nephilim; the origin of the word is somewhat unclear, and although many Bible scholars advance the perfectly sensible interpretation that the nephilim were great in the sense that they were the descendants of antediluvian kings and heroes, a whole mythology of the nephilim, complete with a family tree, sprung up. If nephilim were giants and not "sons of Adam", where did they come from? Were they demons? Extraterrestrials? British goths? One thing was sure to true believers, though: there were giants in the earth in those days. And if there weren’t, George Hull would put them there. It wasn’t that Hull was a fundamentalist; he was, in fact, a staunch atheist who had gotten into an argument with a travelling preacher about Genesis 6:4. So it was with an eye towards embarassing a credulous public that Hull hired a German stonecutter, Edwin Burkhart, to create a monstrous figure — and it was a whopper, 10‘4 1/2", weighing just ten pounds shy of a ton and a half — which he buried on his cousin’s farm outside Cardiff, New York. (Hull had chosen the location with some care; upstate New York was then known as a "burnt district" for its frequent and radical religious revivals.) His cousin, Stub Newell, waited a bit, then hired some workers to dig a well in the appropriate spot. Their discovery was an overnight sensation: a fossilized giant man, proof positive of the Biblical giants! Hull’s 1869 announcement of "The American goliah, a wonderful geological discovery" succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. As Andrew White, the first president of Cornell, saw through the Giant immediately:
Being asked my opinion, my answer was that the whole matter was undoubtedly a hoax; that there was no reason why the farmer should dig a well in the spot where the figure was found; that it was convenient neither to the house nor to the barn; that there was already a good spring and a stream of water running conveniently to both; that, as to the figure itself, it certainly could not have been carved by any prehistoric race, since no part of it showed the characteristics of any such early work; that, rude as it was, it betrayed the qualities of a modern performance of a low order.
Nor could it be a fossilized human being; in this all scientific observers of any note agreed. There was ample evidence, to one who had seen much sculpture, that it was carved, and that the man who carved it, though by no means possessed of genius or talent, had seen casts, engravings, or photographs of noted sculptures. The figure, in size, in massiveness, in the drawing up of the limbs, and in its roughened surface, vaguely reminded one of Michelangelo’s "Night and Morning."
But what did professors know?
Especially interesting was it to observe the evolution of myth and legend. Within a week after the discovery, full-blown statements appeared to the effect that the neighboring Indians had abundant traditions of giants who formerly roamed over the hills of Onondaga; and, finally, the circumstantial story was evolved that an Onondaga squaw had declared, "in an impressive manner," that the statue "is undoubtedly the petrified body of a gigantic Indian prophet who flourished many centuries ago and foretold the coming of the palefaces, ana who, just before his own death, said to those about him that their descendants would see him again." To this were added the reflections of many good people who found it an edifying confirmation of the biblical text, "There were giants in those days." There was, indeed, as undercurrent of skepticism among the harder heads in the valley, but the prevailing opinion in the region at large was more and more in favor of the idea that the object was a fossilized human being — a giant of "those days."
Hull and Newell, seeing that there was serious money to be made, sold a three-quarters interest in the giant to a consortium of local businessment headed by a Homer, New York, horse trader named David Hannum. Hannum, who served as the thinly veiled "local color" of E. N. Wescott’s successful novel David Harum, was fond of quoting his Golden Rule ("Do unto the other fellow what he would like to do to you, only first"), and made the Giant into a huge draw, with spectators paying fifty cents a go. Hull had no reason to complain; he’d made more than ten times the $2,600 he’d spent on the giant, and Hannum’s exhibition in Syracuse was so successful that a temporary railroad station was opened across the street.
That kind of money attracts attention. Mark Twain wrote a gentle burlesque of the Giant; a Yale paleontologist named Othniel Marsh pronounced it an unambiguous fake (human flesh doesn’t fossilize, for one thing); and the legendary P.T. Barnum came calling. Barnum’s offer of $60,000 for a three month lease on the Giant, which he would take to New York City, was refused, and Barnum did what any genius of humbuggery would do and simply made his own Cardiff Giant out of plaster and began advertising that Hannum’s was a fake.
One can imagine Hull, Hannum, Twain, and Barnum, smoking cigars and nodding sagely at the quote mistakenly attributed to Barnum: "There’s a sucker born every minute." The quote is sometimes attributed to Hannum, who, having seen his customer base stolen by a plaster knock-off, could be forgiven the sentiment. But Barnum, at least, never thought of himself as one of the proverbial two to fleece him; he always insisted that he gave value for the money, whether it was with the fraudulent Joice Heth ("George Washington’s nursemaid") and Feejee Mermaid or the perfectly legitimate little person Tom Thumb or "giantess" Anna Swan. The historian James W. Cook argues in Arts of Deception, his study of illusion in nineteenth century popular entertainment, that nineteenth century audiences weren’t rubes; in Barnum’s shows, particularly those that played in Northern cities (where truth was a more flexible concept), feeling that you were in on the joke was often half the fun. When audiences began to flag for Joice Heth, who was an old woman but probably not even half the 161 years Barnum claimed for her, he let slip the fact that she was actually a cunningly constructed India rubber and wire automaton. Crowds redoubled.
Today’s mass entertainment features marks and smarts, and everyone wants to be a smart; why should our ancestors have been different? The Cardiff Giant doesn’t seem to have understood as a sign of naïvete until the Great Depression. Indeed, while the "real" Cardiff Giant is exhibited at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, Barnum’s copy is still shown today, in Lansing, Michigan at the wonderful-sounding Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. And while the Cardiff Giant was debunked within months of its ersatz discovery, people still showed up by the tens of thousands to take a look at the massive figure, ever so vaguely reminiscent of a Michaelangelo. They nicknamed it "Old Hoaxie".