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Horses and Hoaxes

Cardiff Giant

Not the horse

It’s been a difficult Derby prep season so far, thanks to the weather gods; rain postponed racing in California, snow did the job in the Northeast, and finally Arkansas also fell victim to their wrath.  The Southwest Stakes, scheduled for Presidents’ Day, will now be run next Saturday; whether the same field turns up will be determined later in the week when the race is redrawn.  Of particular note were the top three finishers from the San Rafael: Conveyance, Cardiff Giant and Domonation [sic – but he’s by Maria’s Mon, it all makes sense].  While a chief objective for most will be getting a chance to see how these horses perform on traditional dirt, I am intrigued simply because Cardiff Giant is running.

And no, it’s not because I used to live in Wales – the Cardiff in question in this case is in upstate New York – it’s because I have an unhealthy interest in the history of scientific hoaxes.  Let’s rewind to the 1860s: Gorillas had only been ‘discovered‘ (by white European men, that is) in the late 1840s; Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859, and the hunt was on for ‘missing links.’  In the Pacific Northwest, reports of something not unlike Bigfoot appeared in local newspapers during this same period – in short, it was an ideal time for someone to mix these ingredients together into a moneymaking soufleé.

Enter George Hull: after arguing with a fundamentalist minister over the literal truth of a particularly obscure Bible passage (Genesis 6:4 – ‘There were giants in the earth in those days’), he decided that not only could this notion be amusing to parody, but that it might just be a nice little earner.  He set about hiring stonecutters to carve a ten-foot ‘giant’ and had the resulting sculpture shipped to his cousin’s farm, where it was subsequently buried.  After letting the giant ‘age’ for nearly a year, Hull’s cousin, William Newell, hired some local men to ‘dig a well‘ – and lo, they uncovered a giant ‘petrified man.’  Immediately, crowds poured in to see this marvel – first for 25 cents a head, then double that.

While scientists immediately pronounced the Cardiff Giant a fake, a number of the fundamentalist preachers Hull had originally set out to poke fun at defended it as legitimate – and the public did not seem to care either way, and kept coming. Hull sold his share of the Giant for $37,500 – not a bad return on a $2,600 investment, especially in 1869 – to a group of businessmen who moved it to Syracuse.  Upon getting wind of the sensation, P.T. Barnum got into the act and offered $60,000 to exhibit the Giant for three months; when he was turned down, he simply made his own and displayed it in Manhattan.  Hull was forced to confess his scheme when the owners of ‘his’ Giant sued Barnum for claiming that their fake was a fake – but public interest continued nonetheless, and the Cardiff Giant spawned several similar offspring before fading into obscurity early in the 20th century.

In any event it’s a fantastic name for a racehorse – if he does, indeed, become very successful this year, I hope we can look forward to his offspring with names like Feejee Mermaid, Oak Island and Piltdown Man. If only someone would name a racehorse for Kaspar Hauser, I could continue to be distracted from things like Sidney’s Candy’s fine win in the San Vincente, or Blind Luck’s determination to win despite a terrible ride or the successful return of Munnings

3 comments to Horses and Hoaxes

  • I love how you work in the 1860’s monster hoax angle. I never would’ve understood the connection between this. I assumed “Cardiff Giant” was a reference to some battle-axe wielding Norsemen of mythical fighting prowess who caused the Angle and Saxon men to cower in fear at the sounding of his war horn, which would trumpet the arrival of a one-on-one combat tournament – presumably for the hand of some fair maiden. 🙂

  • So are you saying that white European females had already discovered the gorilla?

  • Glimmerglass

    When I saw the name of the colt back in December I wondered if he was owned by a family in my native hometown. My long-held user name ‘Glimmerglass’ is the name for the body of water that Cooperstown NY (perhaps better known for being the Baseball Hall of Fame) is nestled along side.

    The Cardiff Giant has been on display at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown NY since 1948 and I’ve seen ‘him’ many a time at that respected sister museum to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    To add to the equine connection, both the aforementioned Hall of Fame as well as the Farmer’s Museum [including the ‘Cardiff Giant’] are owned by the Clark family, led today by Jane Forbes Clark. Her late mother owned and campaigned the great ‘Hoist The Flag’ among many horses.

    Do you know how the original owners of this one-time claimer chose the name? You’d think he would’ve been sired by Giant Causeway but nope.

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