Monday, September 10, 2012

The Giant and how he Humbugged America - a review

Murphy, Jim. 2012. The Giant and How he Humbugged America.  New York: Scholastic.
(Advance Reader Copy supplied by the publisher)

While many of us are most familiar with Charles Dickens' use of the noun humbug as used by Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, "Bah! Humbug!" where it is used to mean "nonsense," humbug is also a verb.

humbug: (verb) deceive, hoax, to engage in a hoax or deception
First known use of humbug 1751
(from Merriam-Webster online)

The Giant is a story of how one man cooked up a scheme to humbug an entire nation.

By his own account, Jim Murphy originally toyed with the idea of telling the tale of the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, but decided that not enough time has passed to interpret the scandal objectively and completely.  How then to tell a true and cautionary story of greed, excess, and gullibility?  Why via the Cardiff Giant, of course!  The Giant hoax began in earnest on a morning in October, 1869, on "Stub" Newell's farm in the small New York hamlet of Cardiff, when workers digging a well uncovered a stone body.  Was it a petrified man, an ancient statue, proof of biblical giants?  Scientists, reporters, scholars and average citizens flocked to Cardiff in droves to decide for themselves. 

Demand was so great to see the statue while it was still in its hastily constructed home in upstate New York,
that the New York Central Railroad had trains stop for ten minutes near the hall so riders could run in for a quick view.
Eventually, the statue was moved in a specially-constructed wagon and toured the country.  Accounts of the Cardiff Giant appeared in newspapers throughout America.  Learned men debated competing theories about the giant's origin. 

An October 1869 photograph showing the Cardiff Giant being exhumed.
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They need not have debated.  The truth of the giant's origin was already known, but known only to Stub Newell and his several accomplices.  It was a steadily growing hoax of gigantic proportions.

It is difficult today to understand the immensity of the "giant" hoax of 1869, but to place it in perspective, consider these numbers.  The US Census of 1870, (one year after the "giant" was first "found"), lists the population of the United States at just over 38 million. According to accounts in the book, an estimated six million people paid to view the famous Cardiff Giant, about one sixth of the entire population of the United States!  Add in visitors to the several "fake" giants that appeared later, and the number is likely even higher.  It is estimated that the architect of the scheme made the equivalent of nearly a quarter million dollars in today's money; and he owned only an "interest" in the Cardiff Giant.

So shady and complex were the financial machinations and deals involved with this deception, that "The Cast of Characters" which begins the book numbers sixty-six, and is peppered with names that will be familiar to many, including P.T. Barnum and "Boss" Tweed.  Most of the cast were unaware that theirs were just bit parts in a monumental drama.  In the end, fortunes were made and lost, lives were enriched and ruined, and in one tragic instance, a life was taken.  Jim Murphy takes the reader deftly through the biggest swindle of its time.

Interestingly, some of the repercussions from the great hoax were beneficial - the birth of  new professional associations including the American Medical Association, peer-reviewed journals, graduate programs to better train experts in various fields, and a reforming spirit in everyday Americans.

Told in twelve chapters from "The Discovery" to "The Final Resting Place," The Giant is a fascinating look at many aspects of history through the lens of one "giant" swindle.  Entertaining and impossible to put down, readers will be both impressed and appalled by the complex maneuvers of the hoax's mastermind. (No spoilers here, you'll have to read it to find his identity.)  A large number of period photos, posters and handbills are included, adding much to the story.

Also included are meticulous Source Notes, a Selected Bibliography, and a summary of other famous hoaxes.  The Index and Photo Credits were not included in my Advance Reader Copy, but will be in the final version, due on shelves in October, 2012.

With many schools moving to a national core curriculum with a heavy focus on informational texts, The Giant should be on the "must buy" list of school media specialists.  What better way to teach critical thinking than to pore through the anatomy of one of America's most famous hoaxes!

Another review @
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I saw the Cardiff Giant at the Farmer's Museum in Cooperstown, its final resting place, when I was visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I only wish I had read the book first!

Nonfiction Monday is at Books Together this week.  Stop by.

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