The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York
Matthew Goodman, Basic Books, 384 pp., $26
In this baggy diversion tailored around the lives of journalists, Edgar Allan Poe, P.T. Barnum and high and low lifes in the burgeoning metropolis of New York, Matthew Goodman traces the birth of American mass media from a familiar mix of entertainment, tall tales, titillation, entrepreneurial invention and an apparently endless pool of suckers longing to be enjoyably fooled.
Aptly, his tale starts with coincidence. On August 26, 1835, the New York Sun reported the first proof of extraterrestrial life: a new hydrooxygen telescope in Cape Town, South Africa, sighted a poppy field near the moon’s Mare Fecunditatis, along with unicorn goats and giant two-legged bats cavorting and arguing at a lunar seaside resort. A couple of weeks earlier, the city’s papers announced that George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid was alive and well—if shrunken, “extravagantly wrinkled” and blind— and appearing at Niblo’s Pleasure Garden on Broadway, presented by one P.T. Barnum. The public clamored for more, and the penny news – paper was solidly established.
Until the 1830s, merchants’ papers, six cents a copy, with circulations of a few hundred among the economic elite, were the media. Front and back covers were filled with advertising and occasional features; news got the second page; the third page listed ship clearances, auctions and bank notices. Boring and expensive, they didn’t move the masses dodging pigs and liquefied horse manure in their daily quest for a few bits.
Then in September 1833, Benjamin Day, a printer-entrepreneur, dreamed up a smaller-format penny paper. The New York Sun would fit in the hoi polloi’s pockets as well as their budgets. Young boys bought the papers at discount, hawked them in the crowded streets, and sold them for enough profit to get a couple of hotcakes before crashing in an alley. The more papers they sold, the more pennies they copped. And what sold, they quickly found, were the lurid and odd stories gathered by Day’s police court reporter. Soon sensational front-page stories ruled, penny papers’ profits zoomed and their numbers multiplied. The first celebrity trial—of Matthias the Prophet, a cult leader with a harem of six upper-class women and a freed servant accused of murder in Westchester—appeared in the Sun in effusive, literary style. The author: Richard Adams Locke, an English poet and essayist on theology and politics languishing in New York. Locke’s “Celestial Discoveries” series, which introduced readers to the incredible world of man-bats and unicorns, moved tens of thousands of papers, helped the teeming populace forget the unbearable heat of the summer of 1835 and allowed newsboys to gorge on seafood and rent weekly beds.
Goodman sees this early infotainment as a harmless cousin to the Western tall tale or Barnum’s humbug, which P.T. defined as “a fanciful display of some sort, entertaining enough to suddenly arrest public attention” and, Goodman adds, “possessing just enough verisimilitude to make it seem at last possibly genuine.” In a nation of infinite possibilities, the author implies, this was a liberating approach to news—harmless, not yet acidified into the manipulative bite of yellow journalism, coy “truthiness” a la Stephen Colbert or Swiftboating destructiveness. But it was a brief age of relative innocence, for lurking in the background was race and slavery. Much of New York’s commerce dealt in the South’s agricultural products; merchant paper editorials helped fuel mob attacks against abolitionists with tales of miscegenation and other outrages. Add that to the usual vortex of politics and money, and the fictional bent of the new mass media could hardly stay innocent for long.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.