January 20th, 2012 by Tracey Kry
In 1869, a giant was uncovered, and along with it, a giant hoax. The 10 foot statue of what was thought to be a petrified man was unearthed at a farm in Cardiff, NY. The Cardiff Giant, as it quickly became known, confounded scientists, historians, and the general population. Was this a statue made to honor giants that used to walk the earth? Was it the fossilized remains of one of the said giants? Many theories were discussed, but it didn’t take long for suspicion to arise. The hoax was soon discovered.
George Hull of Binghamton, NY, buried the statue on a friend’s farm in Cardiff after having a frustrating debate with a preacher about the presence of Giants on earth – Hull disagreed with the preacher’s too literal reading of the Bible. In probably one of the most extravagant practical jokes ever, Hull decided to find an over 10 foot piece of gypsum, have an artist carve the slab into a statue, and cart it all the way to Cardiff for a proper burial – not an easy feat for 1868! However, hoax or not, people were still interested. People still wanted to see the Giant, not only because some might have thought it the real thing, but because of the controversy it was stirring. Hull made a fortune charging people to view the statue, as well as exhibiting it across the state.
Many people over the years made offers to buy this piece of practical joke history. P.T. Barnum actually offered Hull $60,000 just to lease the Giant for three months (after being turned down, he went ahead and carved his own and displayed it as “The Original of all ‘Cardiff Giants’” much to the dismay of Hull). The Giant was eventually purchased by Calvin O. Gott of Fitchburg, MA, who kept the Giant in storage with his friend, Sumner Lawrence. The Giant stayed in the Lawrence family until the early 20th century, when the storage bills were not being paid. Newspapers had a field day with the story, saying the Cardiff Giant was behind on his rent, being evicted, etc. By 1948, the Giant found a final resting place at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
What struck me most while looking into the story of the Cardiff Giant was the wealth of information I was able to find. Researching a topic such as this serves to remind me of what incredible resources can be found at AAS. A single topic as esoteric as the Cardiff Giant actually has a presence across all collections. I was able to find newspaper articles about the Giant, written days after its discovery all the way until the early 20th century when it made news again. I could read a poetic tribute to the Giant written in 1871, and even see advertisements for exhibitions. Scrapbooks (believe it or not, we have two scrapbooks devoted to the Giant!) in the manuscript collection bring together multiple mediums and show how the topic held the interest of everyday people. Even modern takes on the subject have been written and are available at AAS. As James Taylor Dunn of the Farmers’ Museumwrote in his pamphlet about the Giant in 1948, “a fake, well established, is long lived.” Fortunately for us, the hoax created so much debate and speculation, many resources were left behind so that the Giant’s memory can live on at AAS.