The bones of the ancient dead have long fascinated people from every culture and era in history. America is no different. From the mummy of an outlaw that wound up doing time in a sideshow to a tiny enigma some believe is evidence for a new species of dwarfish human, odd remains have a habit of popping up within the vast expanses of the United States.
Mortal remains need not only take human form to arouse curiosity. Bones and fossils of the Earth’s most massive and ancient creatures have spawned not only awe but fearsome legends all their own. For example, the ancient Greek discovery of mammoth skulls, with their large central cavity that looks something like a massive eyes socket, and bones likely influenced the creation of the cyclops myth. The Greeks were not the only people to believe that giants walked the earth at one point in its history; indeed, the idea of giants is common to every culture around the globe, as other cultures likely discovered large remains and came to the same conclusion as the Greeks.
Of course, modern science does not recognize giant humanoids as part of the fossil record. Still, the belief in giants is prevalent even today, due in large part to their being mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis as having existed before Noah’s Flood. In the 19th century, the belief in giants and the fascination with bones and bodies came together to produce an odd phenomena–that of the petrified giant. The most famous and best documented of these hoaxes occurred in 1869, when two laborers digging a well near Cardiff, New York discovered a giant stone man under the ground. The find was dubbed the Cardiff Giant, and it would go on to create a craze for petrified giants that would last for the next forty years before finally dying out in the early 20th century.
A giant discovery, and an even bigger fraud
The odd story of the Cardiff Giant begins not in the ancient past, but in 1866 with a man by the name of George Hull. A cigar-maker and a staunch atheist, Hull found himself in Iowa on business when he crossed paths with a Methodist revivalist, Reverend Turk. Hull and the good reverend exchanged heated words. The minister mentioned the scripture from Genesis referring to the antediluvian giants, which birthed an idea in Hull’s mind.
To put his odd plan in motion, Hull returned to Iowa in 1868 to find a suitable stone for his purposes. Once secured, he hired men to quarry the 11 foot block of gypsum, telling them it was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln to be built in New York. Then, he had the giant block shipped to Chicago, where it was shaped by a German stone cutter, who was sworn to secrecy. The finished giant, measuring about 10 feet long and weighing in at 3000 pounds, was shipped by rail to Cardiff, New York in November 1868, where Hull and his cousin and co-conspirator William Newell buried the bulky sculpture.
A year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a well on his property. On October 16, 1869 the workers hit stone beneath three feet of soil. One man reportedly exclaimed, upon clearing away dirt and seeing a large stone foot: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”
What followed after the excavation of the statue could be described as “giant fever.” Once word got out, people flocked from miles around to see the sight. Hull and Newell erected a tent over the statue and charged $.25 a head to view it. When the crowds swelled and Hull saw he could bilk even more money from the eager sightseers, he doubled the price of admission.
The giant electrified the public. Many believed they’d laid eyes on a petrified giant straight out of the pages of scriptures. A pastor from Syracuse declared as much, and since when was the clergy wrong about anything?
Other experts did not agree. Some believed it was a statue built by missionaries to impress local Indian tribes, while others thought perhaps it was a statue made by some sort of ancient people who predated the coming of the white man, and perhaps the Indians themselves.
Andrew White, first president of Cornell University, visited the site to lay his skeptical eyes on the sensational find. Even the skeptic was impressed by the theatrics of it–a giant being lay in its grave, lit only by the soft light of candles, as quiet onlookers stood in quiet awe of its bulk and age. Of course, upon a closer look White found that the figure was a carved statue, and not a particularly good one at that.
Seeing White’s skeptical reporting, added to the fact that Newell himself had let the cat out of the bag, made Hull nervous. . He sold the giant to David Hannum and a syndicate of businessmen who were interested in the spectacle for a cool $23,000. The businessmen took the giant’s show on the road toward New York City.
Meanwhile, P.T, Barnum heard of the row surrounding the giant. The legendary showman offered Hannum and his cabal $50,000 as is for the statue. When Hannum declined, Barnum simply sent a man to view the Cardiff Giant. The agent molded a lump of wax into the likeness of the giant, and Barnum paid to have his own version of the giant carved. When Hannum heard that Barnum’s giant was drawing crowds, he uttered famous words often attributed to P.T. Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Giant mania ends
The Cardiff Giant was not the only so-called petrified man found in mid to late 19th century America. The country seemed to be teeming with the stone encased bodies of the ancient dead. Hull himself made another hoax body, this one called the Solid Muldoon, sporting a monkey-like tail no less. Hotels in New York commissioned their own giants, using the stone bodies to draw in crowds of curiosity seekers.
For its part, the Cardiff Giant was falling on hard times. Hannum took Barnum to court over the copying, where a judge told the hoaxer that he could have his injunction if the giant came and swore to his own genuineness. Needless to say, the skeptical judge threw the case out. Meanwhile, Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh denounced the giant as a fraud, writing that the statue was probably of recent origins. George Hull finally confessed the hoax on December 10.
The statue that spawned dozens of imitations was outed as a fake. Still, over time the giant and its many imitations still brought in money for sideshows and scam artists, although the returns never matched those of the early giant craze.
In 1901, the statue made an appearance at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. Few paid it any attention, its moment of glory forty or more years gone. A publisher from Des Moines, Iowa bought the Cardiff Giant. He sold it in 1947 it to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is currently on display.
“The Cardiff Giant.” Farmersmuseum.org. The Farmer’s Museum. January 1, 2015. http://www.farmersmuseum.org/node/2482
Rose, Mark. “When Giants Roamed the Earth.” Archaeology. Volume 58, number 6. November/December 2005. Retrieved from: http://archive.archaeology.org/0511/etc/giants.html