What started as an argument between George Hull of New York and a Methodist Preacher in 1868 turned into one of the most famous hoaxes of all time in America known as the “Cardiff Giant”.
Hull, an atheist, was arguing over scripture from the Bible, in particular, Genesis 6:4 that states “there were giants in the earth in those days”. So, Hull decided to pull one over the faith community and proceeded with a long elaborate plan. First, he came to Fort Dodge, Iowa and purchased an acre of land along Gypsum Creek. Then he hired men in Fort Dodge to carve out a 12 foot long, by 4 foot wide, block of gypsum that was 2 feet thick. Telling the local men it was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln, he then had the block shipped to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to secretly carve it into the likeness of a man. Hull and Burghardt used stains and acids to “weather” the giants’ skin, and darning needles to create pores on his body.
After they were finished, Hull then secretly shipped the carved block to Cardiff, New York, where it was put into a pit and buried on land owned by his cousin William Newell. Hull’s total cost in setting his plan in motion was $2,600, which would equate to over $42,000 in 2016.
Almost a year later, Newell hired a couple of men to dig a well on that same spot, and on October 16, 1869, the “great discovery” was made, setting Hull’s hoax into action. Wasting no time, Newell quickly set up a tent over the giant and began charging 25 cents for people to see that indeed giants had walked the earth. Attracting the attention of scientists and archaeological scholars, it was quickly pronounced a fake and only carved stone, but some argued it was an ancient statue created by a Jesuit priest in the early 17th Century. Meanwhile, Newell upped the admission charge to 50 cents.
Hull, seeing that even more money was to be had, sold his part-interest in the giant for $23,000, or almost half a million in today’s money, to a group headed by David Hannum. Hannum had the giant moved to nearby Syracuse, NY for exhibition, drawing huge crowds.
That attracted the attention of famous showman P.T. Barnum who offered $50,000 for the giant, however, Hannum’s group turned him down. Barnum, not wanting to be denied, hired a man to create a replica, then put it on display in New York City, claiming his was the real giant and that the Cardiff Giant was a fake. Hannum, in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s version of the giant, was quoted in one newspaper as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”. Over the years that quote has mistakenly been attributed to Barnum instead.
Hannum sued P.T. Barnum for calling his giant a fake, but George Hull admitted to his hoax on December 10, and in February 1870 the court ruled that Barnum couldn’t be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
That wouldn’t be the end of the story for the Cardiff Giant though. In 1901 it made an appearance at the Pan-American Exposition, and in 1923 at the Hawkeye Fair and Exhibition. It has also been referenced in Pop Culture many times since 1870, and the hoax imitated several times over, including famous bunko man “Soapy” Smith when in 1892, he took a real body and passed it off as a petrified man he called “McGinty”. Smith would profit from the ruse for several years, charging 10 cents, and swindling those waiting in line with shell games. He even profited by selling interests in the exhibition.
The original Cardiff Giant would wind up in an Iowa man’s basement as a coffee table until it was eventually sold to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York in 1947, where it continues to be displayed. The other copy created by P.T. Barnum is claimed to be at a Farmington Hills, Michigan museum. Meanwhile, a third replica created in 1972 is on display at the Fort Museum & Frontier Village at Fort Dodge, Iowa, acknowledging the area where the original stone was cut and the hoax was born.
© Dave Alexander, Legends of America, updated February 2020.
The Fort Museum, Fort Dodge Iowa