While not as well-known in the U.S. as historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo or Charles Darwin, Sir John Herschel (7 March 1792 – 11 May 1871) was a major figure of science, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and photography (he invented the amazing cyantype process). During his lifetime he became known as one of, if not the preeminent astronomers of the age. Who better to use as the name to lend some gravitas to your prank. Which is exactly what Richard E. Locke of The New York Sun did with a series of articles in 1835 claiming that Sir John had by means of telescopic examination discovered life on the moon. The Smithsonian has a good write-up on the hoax – done to drive up readership – though the Sun never admitted it publicly, Lunar Bat-men, the Planet Vulcan and Martian Canals
Each new story in the six-part series reported discoveries more fantastic than the last.
Herschel’s telescope revealed lunar forests, lakes and seas, “monstrous amethysts” almost a hundred feet high, red hills and enormous chasms. Populating this surreal landscape were animals resembling bison, goats, pelicans, sheep—even unicorns. Beavers without tails walked on two legs and built fires in their huts. A ball-shaped amphibian moved around by rolling. There were moose, horned bears and miniature zebras. But the biggest surprise of all was reserved for the fourth article in the series. Herschel and his team of astronomers had spotted humanoids: bipedal bat-winged creatures four feet tall with faces that were “a slight improvement” on the orangutan’s. Dubbed Vespertilio-homo (or, informally, the bat-man), these creatures were observed to be “innocent,” but they occasionally conducted themselves in a manner that the author thought might not be fit for publication.
The Sun also described massive temples, though the newspaper cautioned that it was unclear whether the bat-men had built them or the structures were the remnants of a once-great civilization. Certain sculptural details—a globe surrounded by flames—led the Sun’s writer to wonder whether they referred to some calamity that had befallen the bat-men or were a warning about the future.
Reaction to the series—an effort to boost circulation, which it did—ranged from amazed belief to incredulity. Herschel himself was annoyed. In a letter to his aunt Caroline Herschel, also an astronomer, he wrote, “I?have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English French Italian & German!!”
Locke may have been motivated to do the stories initially as a way to satirize some space discoveries that were claimed to have been made by people like a German astronomer named Franz von Paula Gruithuise, who said he had seen buildings on Mars.
The images below were from a portfolio of hand-tinted lithographs (1836) by Leopoldo Galluzzo of what he imagined to be the life on the moon described in The Sun stories:
Other discoveries made in the moon from(1) Sigr. Herschel, 1836
Other discoveries made in the moon (6). it’s difficult to pick a favorite. if one were to dream up men on the moon, doesn’t naked breaded winged batmen come first to mind. on the other hand you know if there were moon people they would have some crazy floating party boats.