ON THE ROAD WITH THE CARDIFF GIANT
The Cardiff Giant is on the road again. From August 26, 2023, to February 11, 2024, the Giant will be a centerpiece of a new exhibition, Unraveled: Natural History’s Greatest Hoaxes at The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The exhibition will present classic examples of biological and archaeological hoaxes spanning the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. It will present the motivations behind the perpetrators and the methods scientists eventually used to debunk each hoax. Bruce Museum Curator Daniel Ksepka notes, “It is an exhibition well-suited for this age of disinformation.”
An infamous hoax, the Cardiff Giant was the creation of George Hull, a cigar-maker and con artist, in 1868. Hull had a stonecutter make the Giant as a get-rich-quick scheme inspired by the biblical passage, “There were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4). He had it buried on his brother-in-law Stub Newell’s property in Cardiff, New York. Newell orchestrated the “discovery” of the giant in October 1969 under the pretense of having workers dig a well in that spot. Experts and the public alike debated the Giant’s authenticity, and Newell and Hull capitalized on the excitement. The Giant went on display in Syracuse. The debate didn’t last long, however, as evidence piled up that it was a fraud. Hull admitted the hoax in December of 1869. Nonetheless, it remained popular; P.T. Barnum had his own competing copy made.
Unraveled brings together an eclectic mix of hoaxes and frauds. These include one of Beringer’s 1725 Lying Stones, arguably the first ever fake fossils (courtesy of Oxford Museum of Natural History); a cast of the Piltdown Man skull along with a “Toad in a Hole,” a faked fossil frog that represents one of Piltdown hoaxer Charles Dawson’s earlier fakes (courtesy of the Brighton Museum); and a “Fee Jee Mermaid,” one of many imitations of the original shown in England in 1822 and later acquired by P. T. Barnum.
“Of course, the biggest highlight is the Cardiff Giant,” says Kspeka. “The Giant is considered by many, myself included, to be America’s Greatest Hoax. As such, it fits perfectly in the exhibition. The sheer size of the Giant makes it a wonderful visual focal point for the exhibition, and I hope to light it so that it looms up at visitors as they turn a corner in the gallery.”
While we think of the Cardiff Giant as a New York story, Kspeka points out that it has Connecticut ties, too. “The story of Hull’s original Cardiff Giant being usurped by P.T. Barnum’s copy is fortuitous, as Barnum has major local connections for us—he served as mayor of Bridgeport, a nearby town,” Ksepka says. “Likewise, O. C. Marsh of the nearby Yale Peabody Museum was the first to cast doubt on the Giant, despite his verdict being lost in the overall clamor.”
This is not the first time the Cardiff Giant will travel for an exhibition. It was frequently on the move during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, serving as a sideshow attraction at fairs and other gatherings. The Farmers’ Museum acquired the Cardiff Giant in 1947 where it has been exhibited ever since.