During the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was widely believed that the Moon was habitable, and even inhabited by “lunarians,” or “selenites.” This view was popularized in the sermons and writings of pluralistic theologians such as Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College from 1795 to 1817. The English astronomer William Herschel in 1780 declared it to be an “almost absolute certainty” that the Moon is inhabited. In the 1790s, the German astronomer Johann Schröter reported green fields on the surface of the Moon, and also what he took to be a city. In the 1820s, the German selenographer (lunar map maker) went even further, claiming that he had actually seen men and animals on the Moon’s surface.
The fascination over lunar inhabitants reached a zenith in 1835, when a series of articles in the New York Sun purported describing lunar observations made with telescopes constructed on “an entirely new principle” by Sir John F.W. Herschel (William’s son) from a site at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The articles were allegedly written by a close assistant to Herschel, but in reality they were penned by Richard Adams Locke, a reporter for the Sun. The articles reported that Sir John had seen sheep, pygmy zebra, and even the fabled unicorn roaming the lunar grasslands. But the most extraordinary creatures described were bipedal winged creatures four feet tall and covered with “short and glossy copper-colored hair,” to which Herschel had supposedly assigned the scientific name Verspertilio homo, or manbat.
The articles were extremely popular with readers, and the Sun’s circulation increased to then-record levels. A few days after the series ended, however, Locke admitted his authorship of the articles to another reporter, who then exposed the deception. Many people felt both foolish and angry for having been taken in by these incredible tales, but when word of the hoax reached Sir John in Africa, he is said to have laughed it off and considered the whole matter a pretty good joke. Today, astronomers know that the Moon’s surface is airless, barren, and uninhabited, but the possibility of other habitable worlds still piques the imagination of Earthly dwellers.
- "Richard Adams Locke" from Literary America, 1848, manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe.
- "The Great Moon Hoax" - Museum of Hoaxes
"Richard Adams Locke" (Born: September 22, 1800 - Died: February 16, 1871) American journalist. He was born in England, but came to the United States in 1832, settling in New York City. (Source: Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.)