The Burned-Over District is the name given to the western part of New York state. From this region in the early- to mid-1800s came much of the energy for the Second Great Awakening. From here came Mormonism; the Millerites and their descendants, the Adventists; the Fox sisters, key to the Spiritualism movement; the Shakers; and the Oneida utopian community. It was named the Burned-Over District to suggest that it had had so many revivals and religious movements that no fuel remained for any more.
One additional fruit of this region was the Cardiff Giant, which has a surprising religious connection.
A giant man discovered
In 1869, workmen digging a well in Cardiff, NY, near Syracuse, uncovered what appeared to be a petrified man. In fact, it was a giant over ten feet tall. William Newell the landowner charged 25 cents to see the marvel. Two days later, with huge crowds, he doubled the fee. Some religious groups saw the man as archeological proof of the Genesis story of the giant Nephilim—“there were giants in the earth in those days,” as the King James Bible put it (Gen. 6:4).
With interest in the giant still strong, Newell sold the giant to a Syracuse group for the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s money.
The story unravels
Archeologists soon declared the giant a fake, and George Hull, cousin of the landowner, admitted he was behind the hoax. The giant had been carved from gypsum, stained to simulate age, and then shipped to Cardiff so that Newell could bury it and then, a year later, order the well dug so that workmen could stumble across the find.
Incredibly, even after this admission, the stone giant continued to be a moneymaker, and showman P.T. Barnum offered a fortune to buy it. When the Syracuse syndicate refused, Barnum made a copy, displayed it in his New York City museum, and claimed that his was the real fake, while the Syracuse giant was a fake fake. In response to the idea of people paying to see a fake fake, one of the new owners of the Syracuse giant observed, “I guess there’s a sucker born every minute” (falsely attributed to Barnum).
Barnum’s observation is also penetrating: “The American people love to be humbugged.”
L. Frank Baum was 13 years old and living in a suburb of Syracuse as the Cardiff giant hoax unfolded. He learned Barnum’s observation and, decades later, merged it into his The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At the end of that book, Dorothy and her friends discover that the wizard is a humbug but that the citizens of Oz had participated in the deception. Evan Schwartz in Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story said,
In telling the story of the real fake and the fake fake, Frank Baum would never forget this powerful lesson: Americans not only don’t mind being fooled, or humbugged, but they desperately want to be taken for a ride—and the greater the number of people who are strung along by a great humbug, the more others want to be in on it, too.
The real story
While cashing in on Americans’ gullibility (or delight at being duped) might have been a motivation, George Hull’s real drive was to prove how easy religious Americans were to fool. Hull was an atheist, and the idea for the hoax came from an argument with a preacher who took the Genesis giant story as history. (Clearly, frustration at Christianity’s hold on Americans dates to long before blogging.)
As with the Cardiff giant, American Christians easily accept remarkable and unsubstantiated religious claims. In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I’ve explored the surprisingly frank admission of how, for Christian apologist William Lane Craig, reason takes a back seat to faith. How can his flock keep following him when he admits that reason isn’t what supports the edifice? Perhaps Americans’ ready acceptance of the Cardiff giant hoax gives some insight.
When you wear green spectacles,
why of course everything you see looks green to you.
— the Wizard of Oz, on why the Emerald City looked green
Photo credit: Donald Simanek