By Michael Aaron Gallagher
One of my favorite stories that I have come across in my travels is the tale of the Cardiff Giant.
The story goes that in 1869, workers digging a well in Cardiff, New York discovered the petrified body of an enormous, 10-foot tall man (10 feet, four and a half inches to be exact). The news of the discovery spread across the country, landing on the pages of newspapers far and wide. The owner of the large figure began to charge spectators 25 cents to view it, before swiftly doubling the price. It was eventually sold and moved from the small town of Cardiff to be displayed in the city of Syracuse.
As crowds lined up to see the giant, P.T. Barnum, the founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, quickly recognized it’s money-making potential and made a large purchase offer. Unfortunately for him, the owner refused to sell. Not to be deterred, he reportedly had a replica constructed, claiming it was the real Cardiff Giant and the other was the fake. His supposed archeological treasure soon went on display in New York City to draw crowds of its own.
One of the new owners of the original Cardiff giant, David Hannum commented about P.T. Barnum’s fake replica and all of the believers, saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The quote is often misattributed to Barnum, but it is no less insightful.
Despite the evidence that both stone men were hoaxes, many religious scholars at the time, supported the claims of the Cardiff Giant’s authenticity, using it as evidence to support their beliefs in Biblical giants.
The truth would eventually come out, that George Hull hired stonecutters to carve a block of gypsum, which was buried in Central New York and then dug up. There never was a prehistoric petrified man. Instead, the Cardiff Giant had become one of the greatest hoaxes in American history.
The story fascinates me on so many levels. It is a cautionary tale about naïveté and the foolishness of believing what you want to believe is true, in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
On one hand, it shows the entrepreneurial ingenuity of George Hull that spawned a massive entertainment cash cow that drew more than 6 million visitors (including famous authors like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson), who have paid to see it. And on the other hand, it is a sad example of the gullibility that so many people exhibited in the face of what could plainly be seen as a hoax. As they say, it is easier to fool someone, than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.
Still, knowing the sculpture was a hoax up front, didn’t diminish my interest in seeing the Cardiff Giant for myself. The fact that it was such a huge draw that countless people have seen, going back all the way to the 1800s intrigued me.
And so I journeyed first to Cooperstown, NY where the original Cardiff Giant is on permanent display at the Farmer’s Museum. Then, when I learned there was replica near the site where the giant was first unearthed in Cardiff, NY, I went to visit that one as well.
As I stood before the giant petrified man that had captivated the imaginations of so many crowds, I couldn’t help but wonder like those who have come before me, if somehow, perhaps it was true. What if the Giant was really real?
Maybe someday I will go in search of P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant, wherever that may be, and find out for myself, once and for all, who the real sucker is.