March 1, 2024 | Sarah Ng

The Giant Hoax That Fooled America

The Petrified Man

Discovered on October 16, 1869, the Cardiff Giant—believed to be a "petrified man"—has gone down in American history as one of the most bizarre archaeological hoaxes.


The Place Of Rest

This discovery took place in Cardiff, New York.

While shoveling to make a well behind a barn, workers unearthed a strange, 10-foot figure that weighed a whopping 3,000 pounds—what would become known as the Cardiff Giant.

An October 1869 photograph showing the Cardiff Giant being exhumed.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Creator

So where did this giant come from? Well, it all began with a man named George Hull—an atheist with a love of science and a belief in Darwin's theory of evolution. However, his views were often a hot topic of debate.

Image of The Cardiff Giant - 1910Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

The Spark

George Hull, with his science-based beliefs, clashed mightily with a reverend and his followers. At a Methodist revival meeting, they quarreled over a bible passage about giants and how they once roamed the earth.

Council meeting - 1900Feitl, István , Picryl


An Act Of Revenge

In the end, the religious party won the argument over Hull, who was left infuriated by their beliefs. In a way, he decided to get some petty revenge. 

Hull set out to create a fake giant to demonstrate how simple it was to trick these gullible people.

People standing outside - 1930sWolcott, Marion Post, Picryl

Putting The Plan Into Action

In 1868, with a vengeful fire beneath him, George Hull put his plan into action. He hired a group of workers to extract a massive slab of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa. But he lied to them about its purpose.

Exterior marble work of two workers - 1905New York Public Library, Picryl

He Lied

Hull told the men quarrying his gypsum that he needed it for an Abraham Lincoln statue—a monument that would reside in New York... Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Cardiff Glen, Near Fort Dodge, IowaNYPL,Wikimedia Commons

Sworn To Secrecy

Once he got his hands on the material, Hull sent it to a stonecutter in Chicago—Edward Burghardt, a man who'd been sworn to secrecy.

A Marble Yard with workers In Long Island - 1907New York Public Library, Picryl

Keeping It On The Down Low

Under Burghardt, the sculptor Henry Salle and Fred Mohrmann got down to business, carving Hull's mysterious giant.

They kept the project under wraps, making sure to muffle their noisy work with quilts. However, there were some bumps along the way.

Stonecutter working on a stone - 1979Library of Congress, Picryl

No Hair Here

George Hull made sure to get his facts right. Though the giant was made in his likeness, Hull sought a geologist for consult.

The geologist informed Hull that hair couldn't be petrified, and so the sculptors removed any "hair" on the giant.

Stonecutter working on a stone - 1979Library of Congress, Picryl


All In The Details

To make the giant seem ancient and properly eroded, Hull soaked a sponge in sand and water and essentially sanded the gypsum sculpture. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Man holding a sponge in hand.Ron Lach, Pexels

Creating Pores

The process of aging the giant went even further. By attaching steel knitting needles to a board and knocking it against the giant's exterior, Hull created the impression of real pores.

Two knitting needles close-up. Gray backgroundWebAkela, Shutterstock

Making It Ancient

The cherry on top of this deception was the color of the giant. Wiping sulphuric acid over the sculpture gave it an even more authentic "old" quality. 

By November of 1869, the giant was finally ready to be buried.

Sulfuric acid in bottle on table.chemical industry, Shutterstock

It Cost A Pretty Penny

By the time he'd perfected his fake giant, George Hull had spent $2,600 on it, which would be around $57,000 today.

Elder man holding moneyAndrea Piacquadio , Pexels

Burying The Bait

The final phase in George Hull's plan was to ship his expensive giant to his cousin William Newell's farm. Arriving by train, the Cardiff Giant found a brand new home beneath the earth. All that was left to do was wait.

Train 3623 at Albury Railway Station 1930sMatthew Dallinger, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Digging It Up

Almost a year later, in October 1869, Hull's cousin Newell hired a couple men to "dig a well"—but of course, that's when they stumbled upon the fantastic gypsum giant.

Reportedly, one of the workers cried out, "I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!"

Man digging a hole.Library of Congress, Picryl


It Was An Instant Sensation

On the first day of its exhumation, the Cardiff Giant was a free spectacle for any visitor. However, the next day, everything changed. A tent went up and Newell began turning his giant into a money-making machine.

Midway Rides at Idora Park (1912)Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

It Was A Money-Maker

For fifteen minutes of looking at the giant, Newell charged his visitors fifty cents. Soon, the demand skyrocketed, with around 300 to 500 people visiting the site per day.

People outside - 1941Library of Congress, Picryl

It Helped Out The Town

For the town of Cardiff, the Cardiff Giant was a downright blessing for its economy. Due to the influx of visitors, the restaurants and hotels experienced an unprecedented wave of customers.

Crowd Gathered Around Amusement Ride - 1912Miami University Libraries, Picryl

So Much Speculation

With such a spectacle as the Cardiff Giant, people and professionals began speculating. Some thought it was a statue, while others insisted it was a petrified man. As Hull expected, some religious folks did indeed believe it was one of the giants from the Bible.

Woman And Three Men are Talking Outside - 1900Library of Congress ,Picryl

New Theories

John F Boynton was the very first geologist to take a close look at the Cardiff Giant. With his expertise, he said there was no way the giant could be a real man.

Photo of John F. Boynton - 1837Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Wild Guesses

Instead, Boynton theorised that it was a 16th or 17th century sculpture. He also believed it was created by a French Jesuit to dazzle the Indigenous locals.

Portrait of John F. Boynton - 1865Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons


A Suspicious Location

The first president of Cornell University, Andrew D White, also had something to say about the Cardiff Giant. 

He was suspicious about the digging site for the supposed well, as there didn't seem to be a good explanation for working in that particular spot.

Photo of Andrew Dickson White, photographed in 1865Churchill and Denison, Wikimedia Commons

It Stumped Him

Andrew D White fully believed the giant was a hoax, but there was one aspect of the discovery that stumped him.

He couldn't quite explain some of the groovings on the giant as those particular markings should have taken years to form.

Andrew Dickson White; first president of Cornell University - 1885Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Little Mistakes

Similarly, Othniel C Marsh, a paleontologist from Yale, was not fooled by the Cardiff Giant.

Marsh identified the giant's make-up as soluble gypsum, and explained that it didn't make sense for the statue to have recent tool markings on it. 

Portrait of Othniel Charles Marsh - between 1865 and 1880Mathew Brady ,Levin Corbin Handy, Wikimedia Commons

The Preachers Believed

Marsh called the giant "a most decided humbug". 

But despite all the professionals weighing in with their scentific opinions, many preachers and theologians came to the giant's defense. Many religious folks were completely fooled—and this undoubtedly proved George Hull's point.

Portrait of Othniel C Marsh ,Yale paleontologist - circa 1880Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

It Caught The Eye Of A Famous Showman

Eventually, Hull sold the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate led by Davin Hannum. It ended up in an exhibition in Syracuse, New York, where it continued to dominate as a crowd favorite. That's when the famous showman PT Barnum took notice.

Portrait of Phineas Taylor Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

He Wanted To Buy It

When PT Barnum looked at the Cardiff Giant, all he saw was money. He tried to purchase the sculpture for $50,000 to no avail. So he came up with his own plan for deception.

B&W photo of  P.t. Barnum seating on chair and looking at camera - 1861Charles D. Fredricks & Co., Wikimedia Commons

A Master Of Deception

PT Barnum's questionable business practices knew no bounds. He hired someone to fashion a replica of the Cardiff Giant out of plaster.

Portrait of Phineas T. Barnum - between 1860 and 1870Mathew Brady Studio, Wikimedia Commons

Two Fake Giants

The showman confidently presented his own fake plaster giant in New York—but of course, claimed that the other Cardiff Giant was a phoney.

As we know, both giants were entirely fake.

Street Installation in Pasadena, California by anonymous artist - 2011Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

A Giant Throwdown

Quite ironically, David Hannum, the new owner of the original Cardiff Giant, responded to PT Barnum's claims by criticizing those paying to ogle the showman's giant: "There's a sucker born every minute". 

Well, in the end, it was George Hull who held all the cards—and he was about to expose many people as "suckers".

Phineas T. Barnum, the world-known proprietor of the American Museum, New York - 1861NYPL, Wikimedia Commons

A Satisfying Confession

Finally, on the fateful day of December 10, 1869, George Hull finally came forward with the truth. His jaw-dropping confession exposed both giants as hoaxes in court.

court1860-38d1ec.jpgWikimedia Commons, Picryl

He Called Them Out

George Hull had waited a long time to finally explain his reasons for the Cardiff Giant hoax. He confidently called out the Christian community for their gullible nature, especially their propensity for upholding certain beliefs too readily.

The Onondaga giantPopular Graphic Arts, Wikimedia Commons

Winning The Argument

But for George Hull, perhaps most satisfying part of the hoax was the fact that his Cardiff Giant flew in the face of the original argument he had with the reverand—that giants had once populated the world.

Photo of the Cardiff Giant while on display at the Bastable in Syracuse, NY. Circa 1869.New York State Historical Association Library, Wikimedia Commons

A Dip In Popularity

Since the truth came out in 1869, the Cardiff Giant has had a couple new resting spots. 

In 1901, it had a place in the Pan-American Exposition, but wasn't very popular.

Pan-American Exposition - Agriculture Building From Southwest - 1901C. D. Arnold, Wikimedia Commons

It Became A Coffee Table

Gardner Cowles Jr, an Iowa publisher, purchased the Cardiff Giant for a rather amusing reason. He wanted it to be an interesting piece of decor—a coffee table for his game room. 

However, the giant wasn't doomed to hold beverages forever.

Portrait of Mike Cowles - between 1940 and 1946Howard Liberman, Wikimedia Commons

Where To Find It Today

These days, the infamous Cardiff Giant can be found in Cooperstown, New York, where it's displayed at the Farmers' Museum.

The Cardiff Giant at the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown - 2013Martin Lewison, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


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