In 1868, New York cigar-maker George Hull got into a discussion with an Iowa evangelist about the reference to giants in the book of Genesis. George was not a particularly religious man, but he was no slouch when it came to recognizing a God-given opportunity. As a result of the conversation, he determined to find the evidence that would prove the Bible ‘right’ and have some fun while he was at it. Wasting no time, he purchased a twelve-foot high, one-and-a-half ton block of Gypsum from Fort Dodge, Iowa and had it shipped to Chicago, Illinois. There, under his supervision, he had it carved into the likeness of a ten-foot tall, reclining, naked, human being – a likeness not unlike his own as it happened – with a smile on his face to match. This ‘petrified giant’ was then surreptitiously transported by rail and by wagon to the upstate, New York farm of his relative William ‘Stub’ Newell, and buried behind his barn.
In the months that followed, several, ‘million-year-old’ fossils were suddenly discovered nearby. Whether George had anything to do with it isn’t known, but the event certainly established a mood of credibility for such things in the neighborhood. When Stub decided it was time to dig a well on his property and unexpectedly unearthed what appeared to be the fossil of a giant human being, folks from nearby Cardiff were on the scene in a matter of hours.
By the end of that same afternoon, a tent had been erected and people were lining up to pay 25 cents apiece for a look. In the days that followed, crowds began arriving from as far away as Albany, Syracuse and New York City and George raised the price of admission to 50 cents. Experts appeared: Geologists, Paleontologists, Religious authorities and Native Americans, each paying their fifty cents and offering their opinions. It was a “fossilized giant,” a “petrified Indian,” an “aboriginal sculpture.” It was remarkable. It was unique.
It was huge.
Apart from the religious fundamentalist interest there was – for the ladies at least – the added perk of seeing male anatomy exposed on a grand scale. In promotional images released at the time, an obscuring branch or fig leaf fuelled the titillation. The equally giant, clearly defined member was unquestionably – both figuratively and literally – the centerpiece of the show, a show that became so popular that George was able to sell shares to a consortium of local businessmen for 37,500 dollars.
The giant duo spelled money from the get-go, a godsend to shop keepers, hotel owners, restaurant owners, bar owners and anyone else who could find a way to cash in on it.
When P.T. Barnum got wind of it, he offered 60,000 dollars to loan the giant for a year (that would be 1869 dollars.) Crafty George, however, figured he would make more on his own and turned him down. But George was dealing with the master now and not to be out-hoaxed, Barnum proceeded to have a copy made for his American Museum in New York City, presenting it as the ‘original,’ and dismissing George’s as a ‘fake.’ When the ’fake’ finally arrived in the city, it was unable to compete with Barnum’s ‘original’ and the consortium of businessmen, led by one David Hannum sued for damages.
In the course of the trial, the judge simply insisted George swear to the giant’s authenticity and the jig was up. The case was thrown out and Barnum emerged unscathed. In response to the crowds that continued to line up to gawk at the fake-fake, David Hannum uttered the immortal “There’s a sucker born every minute,” a remark that Barnum – to add insult to injury – also appropriated as his own.
The giant has had several homes over the years and now lays to rest in Cooperstown, New York. Whether it’s the original-fake or the fake-original is anyone’s guess. Images from the time are confusing and difficult to compare with what remains. One thing is abundantly clear: the center of attraction has weathered over time, the details visible in the original pictures now reduced to an amorphous blob.
A cover up is no longer needed.
Over time all the details will fade, but to the perpetrators it’s of no concern. They achieved what they set out to achieve.
The smile will remain.
“The bigger the lie, the more people believe it.”
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.