A newspaper story that was out of this world

Matthew Goodman details The Sun hoax of 1835. Matthew Goodman details The Sun hoax of 1835. (GERALDINE DE HAUGOBART)
By Michael Kenney
November 25, 2008
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Among the take-it-for-granted marvels of computer technology could be counted the "Breaking News Alerts" that can be delivered to one's computer - or even by a text message to the mobile phone.

But at not so distant a time - even well into the 1950s - the cry of "Wuxtry, Wuxtry" could be heard as newspaper Extras were hawked on downtown street corners.

The original in-your-ear news hawkers were the street urchins who peddled The Sun at a penny-a-paper on New York's streets in the mid-1830s.

And the story that they were hawking in the summer of 1835 is the subject of Matthew Goodman's highly entertaining "The Sun and the Moon" - the "Moon" being The Sun's running account of its own hoax, the discovery of life on the moon.

And not just some primordial life, but life worthy of a full-blown hoax, unicorns and other mythic beasts, and - "Wuxtry, Wuxtry" - man-bats who not only flew over the lunar landscape and bathed in its lakes, but engaged in behaviors that had to be censored for the sensibilities of The Sun's readers.

The Sun was the two-year-old creation of a journeyman printer-turned-journalistic pioneer, Benjamin Day, who conceived the idea of producing a "penny paper" to compete with the city's existing papers which sold for six cents a copy. "It Shines for All" was the motto over the nameplate.

The Sun's secret weapons were the street urchins who peddled the paper, rising before dawn from the alleyways where they huddled together, buying their bundles of papers, at 67 cents for a hundred papers, and hoping to make enough for a supper of a butter cake and coffee.

The hoax came as the proverbial "pennies from heaven," for a few weeks making them rich enough for oyster suppers and warm beds.

It was the brainstorm of a British immigrant, Richard Adams Locke, who had been hired by Day as a police reporter. Locke had an interest in astronomy and that apparently provided the seed for the moon hoax.

The weeklong series, writes Goodman, "a rich amalgam of technical detail and lyrical fancy," seemed, even to some who knew something of astronomy, "utterly believable."

The public loved it. On the Friday when the last installment ran, Day announced on his front page that daily circulation was 19,360. None of his six-penny competitors sold more than a few thousand.

And what a summer it must have been for the city's newspaper readers.

P.T. Barnum was exhibiting his own hoax, an elderly black woman who he was presenting as the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington.

And then there was Edgar Allan Poe who was convinced that Locke had stolen the idea for the moon stories from his own short story about a balloon voyage to the moon, "Hans Phaall -- A Tale." That had appeared, obscurely, in the Southern Literary Messenger just two months before Locke's stories began running in the Sun.

But when The Sun went looking for another hoax, some nine years later, it turned to Poe who produced an account of a balloon crossing of the Atlantic, three days from England to the Carolina coast.

As for The Sun, it merged with the World-Telegram in 1950 -- and that morphed into the short-lived World Journal Tribune. The name resurfaced in the New York Sun that died this fall after a half-dozen years. The Sun itself is best remembered today for its Christmas editorial of 1897, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," and among journalists, for the adage, "When a dog bites a man, that is not news . . . But if a man bites a dog, that is news."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.


The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York By Matthew Goodman

Basic Books, 350 pp., illustrated, $26

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