Did Giants Exist? George Hull and the Cardiff Giant

It turns out that it’s pretty easy to convince people that a race of giant humans used to roam the Earth. Because of a biblical passage in Genesis 6, lots of people still believe it to this day, but in the 19th century, the belief was much more widespread. One non-believer named George Hull devised one of the greatest hoaxes known to man in an attempt to make them look foolish. In this episode, we talk about Nephilim, George Hull and the Cardiff Giant. Then we chat with Rachel and Victor from the Wikilisten podcast!

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Congressman Abraham Lincoln visited Niagara Falls in September of 1848. He was so moved by the falls that he started to write an essay about it. In that essay, he said the following: “The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now.” I did some research on this quote, because it’s often used to promote the idea that a giant species of humans once roamed the earth. And it’s hard to know exactly what Lincoln was referring to. After all – just two sentences later, he references the giant bones of the mastodon and mammoth. But it also is true that it was a popular thought – specifically among the religious – that a race of giant humans once roamed the Earth. 

And that brings us to the Nephilim. Some Christians believe that Genesis 6 refers to a race of Giants in the Bible. The Nephilim of the old testament are described as the offspring of the “sons of god” and daughters of men. They are seen by some as these giants that walked the earth, the spawn of demons. The quote from scripture – this is Genesis 6:4 – “There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” That’s the translation from the New King James Version. Other versions replace the word giants by simply referring to them as the Nephilim. So because of this reference in the Bible, there are – even to this day – people who believe that a race of giants existed. And we’re not talking about just unusually tall people. The Book of Enoch in the Hebrew bible describes the Nephilim as 300 cubits tall. A cubit is around 18 inches, so that would make them 450 feet tall. 

The tallest human in recorded history was Robert Wadlow. He was 8’11.” Wadlow died in 1940 and towered over his contemporaries, whose average height was around 5’7” at the time. 8’ 11” is 8” taller than anyone currently living. But in China in 2006, a skeleton was discovered of a young male – around 18 years old who was 6’4.” The skeleton, referred to as “The Longshan Giant” is thought to have lived around 4000 years ago when he would have absolutely towered over other men, who in that period of Chinese history would have been between 5 and 5 ½ feet tall. In 2012, a skeleton in Rome was discovered that was 6’8” and dated back to the 3rd century. These people likely had gigantism, long before that was a diagnosis. They would have been considered giants by people in their time, but were still only a couple feet taller than the average human. 

No scientist has ever verified an actual giant as described in Genesis. But there are lots of people who still believe this. In the age of the Internet, where people believe anything if more than 2 other people post about it, its treated like it’s absolutely true. There have been dozens of doctored images spread across the Internet, one of them which has been shared millions of times and falsely attributed to National Geographic since 2004. It shows people standing next to giant skeletons in a apparent excavated grave. In reality, it’s a photo of a dinosaur dig in the 90s and they photoshopped a human skull into it. There are many of these out there. One popular video going around the Internet claims to show a giant in Japan walking in a parade in 1931. The truth is that its footage from a 2007 film – Big Man Japan. It’s all fake. Well before the internet, back in the 19th century, believing in giants wasn’t a strange belief at all. One of these believers was a Methodist revivalist preacher Reverend Turk. Turk was holding a revival in Ackley, Iowa. Turk was a biblical literalist and believed that the Nephilim reference in Genesis 6 meant that it was undeniably true that giants used to walk on the earth. That’s where he met George Hull. 

George Hull was in Iowa on business. He was in the tobacco business back in Binghamton, New York and he was an ardent follower of Charles Darwin and his theories about evolution. Hull was an atheist and somehow found himself at this revival with Reverend Turk. The two began to argue about the existence of Giants and Hull left, completely dejected. The revival was full of fellow believers and he felt like he was talking to a wall, as he was unable to convince any of them as to his point of view. He essentially lost the argument. He was angry that people could be – in his eyes – so gullible. Traveling home to New York, George got the idea that he would have the last laugh.

He was going to conduct one of the greatest hoaxes in history – one that is still talked about to this day: The Cardiff Giant.

It was 1868 and George Hull was angry that so many people at the revival he attended believed this notion that there were a race of giants that lived on the Earth. What he was really angry at was that people would believe anything they heard without scientific proof. He had an idea that he could also make them believe what he wanted. He found a man in Fort Dodge Iowa named H.B. Martin to help him with his project, though Martin didn’t know what Hull was up to. Hull didn’t want to risk being turned down, so he told Martin that he was intending on sculpting a monument to memorialize Abraham Lincoln. This was believable. The wounds of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination were still fresh. Martin quarried a 5-ton block of gypsum in Iowa and had it sent by rail to Chicago, where Hull had arranged for a sculptor to be part of his hoax. Edward Burghardt was a stonecutter in Illinois who was sworn to secrecy. According to Barbara Franco’s 1969 book, “The Cardiff Giant: A Hundred Year Old Hoax,” Burghardt was so careful to keep the carving a secret, he actually constructed walls of blankets around the working area to keep nosy listeners from hearing the sculptors’ hammer and chisel work. Burghardt had hired Henry Salle and Fred Mohrmann to actually sculpt the block into the appearance of a giant petrified man. So now Hull, Burghardt, Salle and Mohrmann were all in on the ruse. They used a photo of Hull himself as a model to sculpt the giant. It was anatomically correct and even had pores in the skin made from needles.

When it was done, the giant was 10 feet, 4 ½ inches tall and weighed 2,990 pounds. Hull wanted it to look ancient, so he soaked the giant in a series of stains and acids. When it was finished, it was shipped to New York, but Hull didn’t want it too near his home in Binghamton. So he had it sent to his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, about 60 miles north. His cousin, William Newell, was now in on the hoax as well. Hull, Burghardt, Salle and Mohrmann and Newell. All in on it. Newell and Hull buried it laying down, face up in a giant pit, covered it up and left it there for a year. They even went through the trouble of wedging it under tree roots to make it look like it had been there before the trees.

Hull returned to Binghamton and left the giant alone for a year. After that year, in 1869, it was time for the plan to start unfolding. He instructed his relative to “resurrect the giant.” Newell hired some unsuspecting laborers to dig a well in his property out near the barn. Newell was specific to indicate exactly where the well should be dug. It didn’t take long for these men to come across the giant. And on that night, October 16, one of them yelled “I declare – some old Indian has been buried here!”

They left the giant where he was – lying in the ground, with mounds of shoveled dirt now crowning his burial place. Word spread throughout the tiny town of Cardiff, and then beyond. Journalists came from all over to report on the phenomenon. Many were amazed. Some were skeptical – like this newspaper report: “The Stone Giant. The Cardiff or Onondago Giant, is the great sensation just now of the country press. It is a rudely sculptured figure of a man found deeply imbedded in the earth. Some say it is a petrifaction–which is sheer nonsense. Some say it is a bit of sculpture chiselled by a person of ancient times. Others any that the chiselling was done lately by some Welsh artist in the neighborhood, who buried the figure here a few years. The men of science are fretting their wits over it.” It’s important to remember what was going on in this part of New York at the time. That part of New York was known as the “Burned Over District” and that referred to this time of tons of religious revivals that were taking the area by storm and it was called that because supposedly the spiritual fervor was so intense it was taking like fire to the area and spreading. This was a local public that was just itching for more and more proof of literal biblical evidence. So their B.S. detectors were set to minimal. The public loved it.

The only ones to view it for free were the ones who got there that first day. After that, Newell charged  50 cents a head to view it and covered the area with a white tent. That’s the equivalent to about $11 a ticket in today’s money. He made a LOT of money. And he made the town a lot of money too. Cardiff area restaurants and hotels were full of people who had come from all over to see the buried petrified giant. Something like 2,500 people viewed the giant that first week. Newell basically made a year’s salary in that one week. On top of that, a syndicate of businessmen ended up purchasing a 75% stake in the giant and paid Newell $30,000.

At this point, scientists started coming to examine the oddity. Now some of them were already prone to believe the giant theory, but it didn’t make sense, because it was obvious that the thing was tested and made out of gypsum. So then scientists believed it had been carved, but carved a long time ago. One geologist, John Boynton, who examined it, determined that it had been carved by a traveling Jesuit to impress the local native Americans and it had been carved 100-200 years ago. In other words, the staining worked to fool the expert. A Cornell scientist determined that it was a bit too coincidental for the well to be dug exactly where this thing was buried. There was no other good reason to dig a well there. A paleontologist from Yale determined there’s no way the statue would have fresh chisel marks the way it did if it had been buried for many years. He correctly determined it was made fairly recently. But those were the scientists.

The public – especially local evangelists, fiercely argued that the thing was real. They didn’t care about the science. They wanted to believe in it. And that’s how it stayed so popular despite the experts debunking it.

Once the Cardiff Giant was sold, it was moved and put on display in Syracuse, New York. One of the men who had been in the group that purchased the Giant spoke about it with a famous quote, that’s been misattributed to P.T. Barnum. His name was David Hannum. He said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Now Barnum WAS involved in this story. He offered to buy the giant for $50 grand. They refused, so he had someone build him one of his own. His fake “Cardiff Giant” – and that’s what he called it “The Cardiff Giant” – toured with the circus.

So how did the truth come out? Well it only lasted about a month before the real story emerged. On December 10th, 1869, George Hull came forward and told the public about his hoax. He ended up proving it in court, as there was a court case revolving around P.T. Barnum’s copying of the giant. It was then that Hull explained why he made it. He wanted to show that people would believe anything and he explained to the court about the revival and how he left angry.

The Cardiff Giant stuck around for quite a while. It was displayed in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and after being sold around a bit, it ended up in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY where you can still see it today. If you want to see P.T. Barnum’s version, it’s still displayed at a weird little oddities museum called “Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum” in Farmington Hills, Michigan. There are multiple other replicas that claim to be the real Cardiff Giant, but those are the ones that are from the real story.

So yes – there’s a sucker born every minute as David Hannum said. And you can trust me. Because the Internet Says it’s True.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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