A Q&A by Jeanette Ronson
In 1869 thousands of people did indeed flock to Cardiff, New York, just south of Syracuse to see the Giant. Even after the 10-foot 4½-inch fossilized man was exposed as hoax, they kept coming and paying for the privilege of seeing the fraud with their own eyes. In the days before television, the Cardiff Giant must have stirred people’s imaginations and hopes of a magical past.
Today, many of us who should know better still love a good hoax as it sparks a moment of hopeful childish excitement.
Dr. Ken Feder, Professor of Anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, knows a thing or two about the best archaeological fraud schemes, from the Lost Continent of Atlantis to the ancient astronauts. But Dr. Feder contends that the Cardiff Giant was the most hilarious and most archaeologically crazy stunt ever pulled off.
Dr. Feder explained that the Cardiff Giant was a con job so elaborate and profitable that P.T. Barnum, the legendary showman and circus owner, wanted a piece of the action. George Hull, a wealthy businessman, secretly ordered a ten-foot man carved out of stone. Hull had the giant buried, then exhumed with great fanfare and the press present. Later, he sold tickets to the public. Lots of tickets. Barnum, hearing of the hullabaloo, pressed Hull to sell the giant to him, but Hull wouldn’t budge. Knowing a good con when he saw it, Barnum made his own giant. Following the American litigious tradition, the owner of the original fraud sued Barnum for creating a fake.
Enjoying a good joke in his deadly serious study of human antiquity, Dr. Feder holds “Old Cardy” close to his heart as one of his favorite “nonsense” archaeological finds. Feder discusses his pal, the Cardiff Giant, in further detail in his books Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology (McGraw-Hill, 2013) and the Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology (Greenwood, 2010).
Dr. Ken Feder has published several other books, including A Village of Outcasts: Historical Archaeology and Documentary Research at the Lighthouse Site, The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory, and Human Antiquity: An Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology.
PY: I understand that you have always been interested in hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant. What intrigues you about these types of frauds?
KF: I have always been passionate about antiquity. When I was three years old, my goal was to grow up and become a dinosaur. Once I determined that I couldn’t accomplish that, I became fascinated by the scientific quest to “visit” the past through paleontology and archaeology. With that fascination, I became interested in the desire of some folks to recast the past through fraud and myth. It has always irritated me that there was so much nonsense (I simply can’t watch Ancient Aliens on the History Channel except in small doses), but I am intrigued by the nonsense nonetheless.
PY: How does the Cardiff Giant rate amongst all the hoaxes in the world?
KF: That depends on how you construct your rating scale. In terms of scientific impact, by way of comparison, Piltdown Man is a 10 out of 10. The Cardiff Giant is a zero. In terms of hilarity, Piltdown is a 1. The Cardiff Giant is a 9.5. As a case study in archaeological fraud, Cardiff is a 10.
[The Piltdown Man was a human-like skull and jawbone found at Piltdown in Sussex, England, in early 1912. For 40 years the scientific world believed the Piltdown Man to be the missing link between ape and man. In the 1950s, new dating technologies revealed that it was a complete hoax.]
PY: Can you confirm the roles of George Hull and William C. “Stub” Newell in the Cardiff Giant hoax?
KF: George Hull was the brains behind the hoax. It was his idea (born of his atheism, entrepreneurial focus, disdain for religion, and attraction to humbug). Hull bought the block of stone, hired the sculptors, and shipped the sculpture. Newell, a relative of Hull, supplied the farm on which the giant was planted. Newell couldn’t keep the humbug secret, bragged about it, and that led to the revelation that it was a hoax.
PY: Is it true that P.T. Barnum tried to buy the Cardiff Giant and created his own copy when he was rebuffed?
KF: Yes, true. Barnum’s copy is currently housed at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Michigan.
PY: Can you confirm the amount of money or wealth that Hull, Newell, or Barnum made from selling tickets to the public to view the Cardiff Giant in the late 19th century?
KF: Hard to know for certain, but when you look at the claimed attendance figures, it certainly amounts to thousands of dollars. Beyond this, a consortium of local Syracuse, New York businessmen purchased a ¾ interest in the giant from Hull and Newell for $30,000. The businessmen made back more than half of that in the few weeks between their purchase and Hull’s public confession. So, for sure, tens of thousands of dollars are involved.
PY: Why was the American public so fascinated with the idea of ancient giant men in the late 19th century?
KF: Other than the simple cool factor, it appeared to confirm Bible stories like that of Goliath. The Old Testament has several references to the existence of giants and the existence of the Cardiff Giant seemed to confirm that claim.
PY: Is it true that the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute,” often incorrectly attributed to Barnum, came from someone involved with the Cardiff Giant hoax?
KF: The actual origin of the phrase is uncertain, but it seems likely that David Hannum (one of the Syracuse businessmen who purchased the ¾ interest in the Giant) said it in reference to the people who continued to flock to the Barnum fake even after it had been revealed to have been a fake of what already was a fake.
PY: You mentioned that the Cardiff Giant was one of your favorite hoaxes. Why does this one appeal to you so much?
KF: Because it is extremely funny and it has all of the elements of a typical archaeological hoax.
PY: Have you ever been to the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, to see the Cardiff Giant? If so, what were your impressions?
KF: I first visited the Farmers’ Museum during a family vacation when I was a kid. At the time the Giant was located under a rickety covering attached to a barn. I remember being fascinated by it at the time. The next time I saw it, it was highlighted in a fancy circus tent with lots of signage explaining the hoax. It really was amazing to see.
The Cardiff Giant that George Hull commissioned is on permanent display at the Farmers’ Museum in upstate New York, 5775 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, NY.
P.T. Barnum was a Connecticut-born businessman, philanthropist, politician, and notable showman. He is best known as the creator of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is a tribute to his cultural influence.