October 24, 2021

150 years ago today, Cardiff Giant landed in Homer’s history

Happy birthday to one big hoax

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Cindy Stoker of the CNY Living History Center in Cortlandville stands behind a replica of the Cardiff Giant. The Cardiff Giant hoax began 150 years ago today and involved Homer resident David Hannum. John Hartsock of Homer will discuss the hoax at 7 p.m. today at the museum.

Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols dug deep into the dirt of the farm of William Newell. They were digging a well, but 3 feet down they hit a rock. Except that it looked like a foot.

Attached to a leg, and a torso. It was a 10-foot-tall man they thought was petrified, an undiscovered predecessor of the nearby Onondaga people.

The farm was in Cardiff, a small hamlet just south of Syracuse. And one of the greatest hoaxes in history had just begun.

The date was Oct. 16, 1869, 150 years ago today.

So began a hoax that lasted a few scant weeks — creator George Hull confessed to it by December.

But its legend remains to the gullibility of people eager to believe, and the willingness of people to make a buck exploiting that.

The hoax ensnared David Hannum of Homer, whether through his eagerness to believe or to make a buck, and became a part of Homer history.

Today, a replica of the Cardiff Giant is on display at the CNY Living History Center as part of the 150th celebration of the hoax, which fooled thousands and captured the attention of the nation during the 19th century.

“We got this just before Steampunk,” center director Cindy Stoker said of the weekend- long event that drew fans of the mashup of Victorian-era aesthetics and science fiction. It drew quite a bit of attention.

The Briggs sisters of Homer, now Patricia Briggs Norris and Nancy Harris, created the replica in 1958, said Stoker, whose father would haul it through Homer in parades.

The two sisters created their likeness in 1958 in honor of Cortland County’s 150th anniversary and at the request of Harris’ father-in-law, R. Curtis Harris, who was the Homer town historian at the time. The family moved out of the Briggs house on Main Street in Homer when it was purchased by Tom Neiderhofer.

Neiderhofer followed in the sisters’ footsteps and would put the statue in parades and bring it to classes when lessons were taught on the giant.

He said it’s important to talk about a little — or, well big — piece of Homer’s history.

In short, the story by Smithsonian magazine goes that Hull had the giant crafted of gypsum to prove a point about faith and religion and science. Hull had the giant taken to his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, where he buried it, only for it to be later discovered by two of Newell’s farm laborers who were told where to dig.

But Homer’s relationship to what became known as one of the biggest hoaxes in history came from David Hannum’s relationship to Amos Westcott, said Homer resident John Hartsock, who will give a lecture tonight on the giant. Hartsock lives in the Hannum house.

“I’ve always been a little bit amazed at how much has been made out of it,” Hartsock said. “David Hannum was involved but he wasn’t the only one involved. He wasn’t quite the major player some people made him out to be.”

Hannum was Westcott’s brother-in-law and when Westcott saw the giant, he wanted to invest in it and the money it brought from having people view it. He got Hannum in on the investment.

“They didn’t know what it was,” Hartsock said. “What they knew was that it was attracting people.”

Eventually, questions on the giant’s authenticity were raised. Westcott, Hannum and one other person were already invested in the giant and ready to pull out, but were persuaded to stay in the contract but with an added amendment that Hull would prove the giant to be real.

He never did and while it took time, the truth came out that the joke was on everyone — it was a hoax.

Today, the original giant is displayed in The Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, where people still pay money to see it.

The hoax has its own entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica; it’s listed on any number of lists as one of the 10 best hoaxes in history; it was replicated in 2011 by artist Ty Marshal, now of the Homer Center for the Arts.

It’s even been the topic of play in Cortland and an off- Broadway musical to debut next month, “The Giant Hoax,” written by Kit Goldstein Grant and directed by Christopher Michaels.

While Hartsock said he’s no expert on the infamous hoax, he is interested in the topic because of how it relates to Hannum and Homer.

“I think it’s worth learning about it in terms of the cultural context of the time,” Hartsock said. “You look at it and you wonder how can somebody be dumb enough to fall for that?”