The hoax put the Onondaga County Hamlet of Cardiff in newspaper headlines across the world. But it's been more than a century since the Cardiff Giant was unearthed and there is an effort underway to make sure that "the hoax that fooled America" is never forgotten.
*Editor's note: This story was produced by Randy Wenner, instructor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism at Syracuse University.
Be honest, now – have you ever heard of the Cardiff Giant? Most residents of Central New York have no idea what the Cardiff Giant is – or was. But chances are many area residents of will soon know a lot more about the Giant , thanks to efforts by some local residents to keep the Giant alive.
The Legend of the Cardiff Giant
The story of the Cardiff Giant began in the year 1869, not long after the end of the Civil War. On a small farm in Cardiff in Onondaga County, workers digging a well, made an amazing discovery. They unearthed what appeared to be a petrified man, taller than ten feet, with a three-foot shoulder span, seven-inch wide hands, and feet measuring 19 and a half inches. It came to be known as the Cardiff Giant. Central Connecticut State University Anthropology professor Ken Feder told the History Channel in a 1999 documentary, that for a long while people didn't know what to make of it. “It’s enormous,” Feder says, when he tries to describe what people saw. “He’s lying there with his legs sort of folded and to the side, a little flex at the knee, his eyes are closed, his nose is enormous, and he has this little hint of a smile, and he sure is one giant naked man.”
No one knew for sure what the Giant was. Well-known experts were split over whether the Giant was the petrified remains of a Biblical giant race, or perhaps a statue carved by early settlers, or maybe even -- a hoax. Syracuse University Pop Culture expert Bob Thompson says the debate over the Giant quickly became the talk of the town. “There’s no TV yet, there’s no radio, no movies,” Thompson says. “We’re bored to death. You’re bringing in the sheaves, milking the cows. Life could be really dull. And if someone suddenly says, ‘There’s this big, massive petrified giant, wanna come see it? Quarter.’ You’re probably gonna say yes.”
The Man Behind the Giant
The Cardiff Giant was the brainchild of a man named George Hull, an atheist who couldn't understand why some people believed everything they read in the Bible, especially the reference in the book of Genesis to a time when there were "giants in the Earth." Former LaFayette Town Historian Roy Dodge says Hull dreamed up a scheme to have a giant man carved out of stone, and then arranged for it to stay buried for almost a year before it was discovered. Dodge says Hull had good reason for attempting a scheme like this – revenge. "Not only might it be possible to make religious literalists look like fools,” Dodge says, “but perhaps he could make some money out of it."
Hull's staff started charging people admission to see the Giant. Soon they were making a fortune. In the first week alone, the exhibit took in what would now be the equivalent of about $25,000. And it got even better as the Giant was put on display in several Northeast cities. P.T. Barnum unsuccessfully tried to buy the Giant, so he made a fake of the fake to put on exhibit. The scheme began to unravel within two months, when Hull finally admitted it was all a fake. In the many years that have since passed, the memory of the Giant has begun to fade.
Central New York’s Disappearing Claim to Fame
No one in the area near Cardiff knows more about the Giant than former LaFayette town historian Roy Dodge. He's been building a file on the Giant for half a century. That's long enough for him to gather boxes and boxes of material about the creature, but it's also long enough for the memory of the Giant to fade. Dodge admits, "I would guess probably the majority of people living here have never heard of it." Abe Danaher of Fayetteville was stumped when asked if he knew about the Giant. “I don’t know,” Abe says with a smile, “I thought of a cartful of Giants.” But now, almost 150 years after the Giant was discovered, there is a movement underway in Central New York to preserve his place in America’s pop culture.
Cardiff – The Musical
Peter Tigh is superintendent of the LaFayette School District that includes Cardiff. He believes that the Giant’s past – and its future -- belongs to the residents of Central New York. “Keeping the Cardiff alive, I think, should be the responsibility of this local community, I really do,” he says. Tigh has been working for some time on an idea to incorporate the Giant into a one-of-a-kind student activity. “Why don’t we have high school kids go through the entire process of creating and writing a play? A musical,” he wonders. If Tigh has his way, the Cardiff Giant, an original “work of art”, may be transformed into another work of art. Tigh says an original musical could help “cement” the Giant’s place in history. “If ‘Cardiff - the Musical’… ever made it to Broadway, can you imagine that anyone would ever forget?”
The Fake of the Fake of the Fake
But while “Cardiff - The Musical” has a long way to go before taking shape, another effort to keep the Giant alive has been underway the past few months. Syracuse artist Ty Marshal has been busy building a full-size replica of the Cardiff Giant from scratch, as part of a plan to recreate the historic event this Fall, a recreation, he jokes, that would represent the unearthing of “a fake of a fake of a fake.” Marshal has the dimensions of the original Cardiff Giant, and he’s using modern day material to build his own. The story of the Cardiff Giant, Marshall says, is too good to let vanish. “It’s such a perfect story, with a beginning, middle and end. There’s drama and intrigue,” Marshall says. “There are colorful characters. How can you not be interested in something like that?” So, on October 16th, the anniversary date of the discovery of the original Cardiff Giant, this new replica will be unearthed in Lipe Art Park, on West Fayette Street in Syracuse, following the timeline of the original event – but with a twist. This time visitors will be able to take home a piece of the Giant with them, including Cardiff Giant soap, candy, and coffee – even some Cardiff Giant wine. And local stores are promising “giant” sales. Artist Ty Marshal believes the bigger, the better, if the Giant is to capture the imagination of a new generation. He points out, “the story only stays alive if we talk about it… if we remember it. So this is one way of keeping that story alive.”
That’s just fine with historian Roy Dodge, who believes the time is right to relearn some of the lessons of the Cardiff Giant. “We are apt to fall into the same mindset today as those people did,” Dodge warns. “There are always the preaching politicians and pundits around who tell us things that may or may not be true, and people believe them.”
Syracuse Pop Culture expert Bob Thompson is glad his community is celebrating what he calls one of the area’s finest moments. “We were doing “Balloon Boy” many, many years before everybody else figured out how to do it. We managed to make the Cardiff Giant a big deal without CNN, without TMZ, without any of these kinds of things,” Thompson says. “We were playing that kind of game back then when it was a lot harder to play than it is now. And I think we ought to embrace that.”>
So, chances are that much of Central New York will be hearing about the discovery of a huge creature in the hills of Onondaga County this Fall. And the little community of Cardiff may finally reclaim its place as the home of one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.
The original Cardiff Giant – the one that was unearthed in 1869 – is on display at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown.
Syracuse artist Ty Marshal begins creating the form of what will become the new Cardiff Giant in his art studio.
Ty Marshal’s web site about his effort to recreate the Cardiff Giant: http://www.syracusecardiffgiant.com/tag/ty-marshal/
Farmers Museum, Cooperstown, where the original Cardiff Giant is on display: http://www.farmersmuseum.org/
For more details of the original Cardiff Giant, check out Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardiff_Giant