By Oll Lewis
Whenever there is a potential for something scientific to be misunderstood by the public there is the potential for con-artists to move in. Some science-based cons can be quite harmful, such as one perpetrated by former Baptist minister Prescott Jernegan in the United States.
In 1897 Jernegan presented his ‘invention’, which he called ‘The Gold Accumulator’, to investors. This fabulous invention was painted with mercury and a secret ingredient that would attract gold from seawater. The investors were suspicious of his claims so he organised a public demonstration of its effectiveness. The accumulator was dropped into the sea from a boat with several guards on the boat to ensure that the object wasn’t tampered with by Jernegan and when it was brought back aboard the witnesses were shocked to see it had become encrusted with real gold.
The investors, suitably impressed, parted with $350,000, a huge sum for the time, and Jernegan promptly took their money and fled to Europe with the diver who had swapped the original accumulator for a gold encrusted substitute while it was underwater, and lived out the rest of his days in style. Several of the investors were ruined after being taken in by this con.
Science-based cons can cover any aspect of science where public misconceptions exist so unsurprisingly, cryptozoology is full of them. The seeds for one of the most famous cryptozoological cons were unwittingly sown by Mark Twain in 1862. Twain was working for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City when he decided to have a bit of fun and write a joke news story satirising the amateur archaeologists that were buzzing around the local countryside and hills looking for arrowheads fossils and petrified objects. He came up with the story that the seated figure of a man had been found embedded in a local cliff. The man had been turned to stone, along with his wooden leg, according to Twain’s story, and an inquest was supposedlymheld with the coroner concluding that the man had died from exposure. Whereas some locals smirked a bit at the silly story and noticed that Twain had described the positions of the man’s hands in the article as if the man were pulling a ‘funny face’, the editors of other newspapers seemingly believed the story and published it as fact. Upon hearing this, Twain was very amused and wrote a second article stating that soil had been analysed from under the man’s toenail which indicated he was from ‘the Kingdom of New Jersey’ and also stated that the fossil would be exhibited in a glass case at the local library.
This story did get one man thinking though… What if there had been a real ancient petrified man? And if there had, would people want to see him? And if yes, then would they pay to see him?
The man who was asking himself those questions was George Hull, a cigar-maker and small-time conman from New York. Hull concluded that there was a good chance of making money out of a similar scheme, but what he really needed was a hook, something to draw people in from further afield than just the local area. He got this hook in 1866 when he heard a travelling preacher in Iowa talking about the giants in the book of Genesis.
Around 1867/8 Hull and a partner, H. B. Martin, bought a 12-foot by 4-foot block of gypsum from a quarry near Fort Dodge and set a pair of sculptors in Chicago the job of carving a giant. The gypsum giant was then ‘aged’ using sulphuric acid, wet sand and ink before it was shipped to Hull’s cousin, Stub Newell, who buried it on his farm in Cardiff, New York for a year before unearthing it in 1869. When word of Newell’s ‘discovery’ hit the press people came from far and wide to get a glimpse of this petrified wonder for a 50 cent fee. So popular was the giant that the farm had 2500 visitors on one Sunday alone. Hull knew, though, that the longer he kept up the façade, the greater the chances were that he’d be found out and the giant would be discredited, so he sold his share in the Cardiff giant to local businessmen for $37,500 while it was at the height of its popularity, to maximize his profits from the hoax.
The sale of the giant to David Hannum and a consortium of 4 more businessmen proved to be a premature move on Hull’s part because when the men moved the giant to Syracuse in New York the crowds were much bigger, even after a large number of eminent scientists had scoffed at the giant. Wherever in New York you found humbug and crowds one man was certain to show up sooner or later: the world’s greatest showman, P. T. Barnum. Barnum knew a crowd-pleaser when he saw it so leased the giant off Hannum and his business partners for almost twice the price they had paid Hull to buy it outright. When Barnum’s lease expired he offered to buy the giant but the consortium refused his offer, opting instead to take the giant on a national tour.
This did not deter Barnum, who secretly had a cast made of the giant so he could continue to exhibit it. Barnum’s plan would have worked perfectly had, upon the original giant's return, both ‘giants’ not been on display in New York at exactly the same time. Obviously this was going to take some explaining, and being possessed of what can only be described as 'balls of steal,' Barnum denounced the original Cardiff giant as being a fake. This had the added benefit of implying that Barnum’s giant was 'the real deal' so crowds flocked to his at the expense of the original. In response to seeing Barnum’s claims in the papers, Hannum uttered the famous phrase that would one day be misattributed to Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Hannum applied for an injunction against Barnum but was told that he would only receive one if he could prove his giant was genuine in court. Any slim chance Hannum had of being able to prove this evaporated when, in December 1869, Hull came clean and told his story to the press. The court ruled that as Barnum had told the truth in declaring Hannum’s giant a fake Barnum had no case to answer. In the end the excitement around the giants died down, mostly as a result of Hull’s confession, which meant even people who didn’t trust the scientific debunking would have difficulty getting excited enough to part with money to see a plaster sculpture. Eventually the original Cardiff giant made it’s way into the collection of the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown New York (via a publisher who had been using it as a coffee table) where it remains to this day and Barnum’s giant made its way to Mavin’s Marvellous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The world had not seen the last of George Hull’s handiwork however, as in 1877 he pulled off the same trick using the missing link as his muse rather than biblical giants when he created ‘Solid Muldoon’.
Learning from some of the criticisms made by scientists of the Cardiff giant, Hull set about to make this creation look more ‘authentic’ than just a block of gypsum. Among the materials used in its costruction were mortor, meat, bone dust and clay and it was baked in a kilm before being placed in the ground near the town of Beuleh, Colorado. Three months later the ‘petrified missing link’ was discovered by a friend of P.T. Barnum’s called William Conant, leased to gangster and conman Soapy Smith who took it on a tour of Colarado. After a successful run in the state, Solid Muldoon was then taken on a national tour culminating in New York City where Barnum allegedly offered to buy it. This particular plot was probably hatched between Barnum and Hull most likely around the time of Hull’s 1869 confession that saved Barnum from getting sued.
Whoever was involved, Hull decided to get out while things were going well once more and this time confessed to the press again, probably getting some cash from the story too.