The Cardiff Giant hoax involved a large stone figure, advertised as a petrified giant man. The Giant is of anthropological interest both as a classic example of a hoax and as a source of insight regarding the interaction of popular and scientific conceptions of human prehistory.
On October 16, 1869, workers digging a well on William “Stub” Newell’s farm outside Cardiff, New York, exhumed a gray stone figure of a giant man with contorted limbs and a serene facial expression. According to a contemporary advertisement, the Giant was 10′ 4.5″ (about 3.2 m) long and weighed 2,990 pounds (about 1,350 kg). Newell exhibited the Giant, charging 504 admission, for 2 weeks, and then sold a majority interest in it to a syndicate of businessmen from nearby Syracuse, where the Giant began to be exhibited on November 5. The Giant was of commercial benefit both to its exhibitors and to the city itself, which profited from the tourist trade.
Opinions about the Giant’s provenance were divided. The popular view, encouraged by its exhibitors, was that it was a petrified giant, possibly one of the giants described in the Bible (for example, Genesis 1:6). It was sometimes called “the American Goliath,” after the Philistine giant in Samuel 1:17. Scientific investigators, however, disagreed for a variety of reasons. The Giant was composed of gypsum, a soft stone that would not hold details for long when buried in wet soil; it displayed soft tissues, such as skin and muscle, which are incapable of petrifaction; and it appeared to bear the mark of sculpting tools. A minority thought that the Giant was a genuine ancient statue; most, including paleontologist O. C. Marsh and Andrew Dickson White, the president of Cornell University, regarded it as a recent hoax. Despite the opinion of the experts, the public remained fascinated by the Giant.
In December 1869, George Hull, a cousin of Newell’s, admitted that he had commissioned the sculpting of the Giant and conspired with Newell to perpetrate the hoax. Motivated by a conversation with a Methodist minister who insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, including the stories about giants, Hull sought to expose—after profiting from—the gullibility of the religious. His admission was corroborated by the testimony of the sculptors. Not everyone was convinced, however; the Reverend Alexander McWhorter insisted, despite Hull’s confession, that the Giant was a Phoenician statue.
The Giant remained popular after the hoax was exposed, spending the 1870s touring throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. In New York City, during the winter of 1869 to 1970, it was in competition with a duplicate commissioned by P. T. Barnum, who advertised his as the “original” Cardiff Giant. (Barnum and Hull later collaborated on a similar hoax, “The Solid Muldoon,” in Colorado.) As interest in the Giant dwindled, it changed hands a number of times; it is now on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Among the literary works inspired by the hoax are Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story” (1870), A. M. Drummond and Robert E. Gard’s play The Cardiff Giant (1939), and Harvey Jacob’s novel American Goliath (1997).
- Dunn, J. T. (1948). The true, moral, and diverting tale of The Cardiff Giant, or, The American Goliath. Cooperstown, NY: Farmers’ Museum.
- Feder, K. L. (2002). Frauds, myths, and mysteries: Science and pseudoscience in archaeology (4th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Franco, B. (1990). The Cardiff Giant: A hundred year old hoax. Cooperstown, NY: New York State Historical Association.