How Edgar Allen Poe Likely Inspired A 19th Century Moon Life Hoax

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The following is an excerpt from The Reason for the Darkness of Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forge of American Science by Jean Tresch.


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The Reason for the Dark of Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forge of American Science

Batmen in Gotham

The contradictions in Poe’s poetic theories and his love for “the palpable obscurity” were part of the philosophical, technical and scientific tensions of his time. In the new sciences of the day – hastily communicated in new newspapers, high schools and lecture halls, transported by train and steamboat – ideas about the relationship between spirit and matter and between God and humans were scrutinized , contested and overturned. New discoveries and science, along with the frantic pace and relentless surprises of the press, have left readers in serious doubt about who and what to believe.

For example, the new and controversial science of phrenology claimed to explain human character through empirical observation of the skull. Launched at the end of the 18th century in Vienna by Franz Gall and promoted in Paris, it won the support of the rising middle classes in Britain and the United States. Phrenology held that the characters and mental capacities of people – likeness (or love), industry and ideality (or imagination) – were located in different organs of the brain. Because the skull followed the shape of the brain, protrusions in different parts of the head indicated larger or smaller organs for each trait.

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How Edgar Allan Poe exposed and carried out science hoaxes

Phrenology was an interesting and practical science. Evaluating friends and foes based on their appearance and watching others read their character from the bumps on their skulls brought endless fun. Dealing with subjects of universal interest, it could be mastered by individual study. He also courted controversy. The popular Constitution of Man by Scottish phrenologist George Combe categorically stated that “mental qualities are determined by the size, shape and constitution of the brain”; despite his arguments for the compatibility of science with Christianity, such statements seemed to deny faith in an eternal soul independent of the body.

Reviewing the fourth edition of a phrenology textbook, Poe said reluctantly, “We might as well make up our minds to listen.” A few months later, he scolds another writer for attacking phrenology without studying it. In March 1836, in a review of Phrenology by Mrs. L. Miles – sold with printed cards and a ceramic head – phrenology had, Poe decided, “assumed the majesty of a science; and, as a science, ranks among the most important. The methods and concepts of phrenology would cross its criticism and its fiction.

In the summer of 1835, another popular scientific sensation emerged: the return of Halley’s Comet, last spotted in 1759. Contractors set up a telescope in New York’s City Hall Park, charging six cents for one. a look. In the throes of this “peculiar mania”, PT Barnum observed that “the whole community was finally literally busy with nothing but star gazing.”

A series of anonymous newspapers in the New York Sun, the first of the penny dailies sold by the street corner “newsboy system”, harnessed the astronomical fever of the summer. In August 1835, the Sun published a front-page exclusive: “Discoveries in the Moon,” which was reportedly reprinted directly from The Edinburgh Journal of Science. It details what John Herschel at the South African Astronomical Observatory saw with a gigantic telescope; his images were projected on a wall using a “hydro-oxygen” lamp. This new form of lighting – applying the chemical principle of the limelight, developed by Robert Hare and Michael Faraday – fueled new and dazzling magic lantern shows in the high school halls by projecting natural wonders and brightly colored fantasias. . Attached to a microscope, the magic oxyhydrogen lanterns could expose hidden worlds of insects, tissue and tiny natural structures.



In the Sun report, this optical technology, attached to a telescope, revealed the world to the moon. On the walls of the Cape Town Observatory, Herschel and his colleagues observed caves colored like rubies, vast lakes, soaring mountains, lush forests and, on closer inspection, horned bears, zebras. and blue unicorns. Most astounding, the fifth episode reports, they saw human-like creatures standing on two legs and flying with wings, as well as evidence of the civilization of these ‘batmen’, including pyramids. perfect crowned with reflective globes.

With the history of the moon, the newspaper circulation has grown to over seventeen thousand, ten times that of its competitors. The series was ripped and discussed across America and the Atlantic. Visitors bombarded Herschel with questions about lunar life. According to a legend, Yale University astronomy professors Elias Loomis and Denison Olmsted came that of the sun office demanding to see the original Edinburgh report; the publisher sent them on a wild goose hunt from printer to printer. The series ended in disaster: the last part reported that the Herschel telescope, aimed at the sun, created a beam of light so intense that the observatory caught fire and burned. In late August, the Herald debunked the story by documenting its contradictions. Its anonymous author, abolitionist and reformer Richard Adams Locke, confessed his identity in writing four years later.

“Discoveries in the Moon” appeared two months after Poe’s “Hans Pfaall”, also a realistic account of lunar exploration. Poe publicly accepted Locke’s claim that he had not seen the previous story, but whether or not Locke was inspired by Poe, the “Moon Hoax” taught Poe some memorable lessons. Surprising facts offered a hold to the imagination of readers, especially when expressed in the language of technical evidence and precise observation. “Not one in ten people discredited,” Poe noted. Even those who didn’t believe it were eager to buy it and discuss it.

Like that of Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe, which Poe reviewed in a new illustrated edition of Harper & Brothers, Locke’s “Discoveries in the Moon” possessed the rare quality that Poe called “the powerful magic of verisimilitude.” Defoe wove a literary spell thanks to his “great power of abstraction” and his strong “faculty of identification”. Dominating the reader’s imagination with sheer force of will, his deep technical art has become invisible. History has become indistinguishable from life itself.

Locke’s “Discoveries in the Moon” suggested that scientists and hoaxes tap into the same toolbox to persuade their audiences and forge their conviction. Truth and belief were, at least in part, questions of style. These were effects obtained by a controlled flow of information, the language of facts and observation, living images, a large distribution network, favorable publicity, word of mouth, good timing and luck.


Extract of The Reason for the Dark of Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forge of American Science by Jean Tresch. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by John Tresch. All rights reserved.


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