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Oct. 16, 1869: Cardiff Giant “discovered” on New York farm

Compass

When two men hired to dig a well at William “Stub” Newell’s farm in Cardiff, N.Y. pitched in with their shovels on Oct. 16, 1869, they had no idea they were about to become embroiled in one of America’s greatest hoaxes. What they found — and what seemed to have been long buried — appeared to be a fossilized male human figure about 10 feet tall.

There was general speculation at the time about both fossilized humans and giants, based on actual fossil discoveries and on a passage in the Bible that said giants once populated the earth. So even as scientists pooh-poohed the whole idea, believers flocked to the farm by the thousands. Newell charged 50 cents a pop for a look at the giant, making it one of the era’s most notable tourist attractions.

What those people didn’t know was that Newell’s cousin, George Hull, had paid stonecutters to carve out the “giant” and make it appear old and weathered. By the time Hull sold it a few months later, his interest in the enterprise was worth $23,000 (about $425,000 in today’s dollars).

Headed by David Hannum, the group that bought the giant moved it to nearby Syracuse, where it continued to attract crowds. After Hannum turned down impresario P.T. Barnum’s offer to buy it, Barnum had a copy made, displayed it in New York City, and claimed that was the original. The sculptures’ draw prompted Hannum (not Barnum, as is commonly thought) to coin the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Only after Hannum sued Barnum did the world discover the giant’s true origin, when the court forced him to openly admit that it was a fake. Folks who want to get a look at the original Cardiff Giant today still can: It’s on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

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