In 1866, NY State Geologist James Hall received a message from T.G. Younglove, an official at Harmony Mills in Cohoes, New York, informing Hall that while conducting some excavations to expand the mill they uncovered a “great pothole” at the foot of Cohoes Falls where the Mohawk River begins to empty into the Hudson.
The “great pothole” contained a large jawbone “of some unknown beast,” much larger than that of an elephant.
Hall and his associates proceeded to Cohoes where they unearthed the Cohoes Mastodon, a remarkably preserved fossil of a mastodon that had been carried down the Mohawk River at the end of the last ice age, about 13,000 years ago. At that time most of New York State, and most of Canada, were covered by a glacier.
As the most recent period of warming began, the North American ice sheet retreated northward over a period of several thousand years. As the edge of the ice sheet retreated north of the Mohawk River, the mastodon was washed down the river and deposited at the foot of the falls where it became entrapped in the swirling eddy.
In 1867, the mastodon was mounted and put on display in Albany’s new Geological and Agricultural Hall. Thousands came from around the U.S. and even from around the world to view the mastodon. Worldwide publicity accompanied the event.
(In 1915, the skeleton was moved to the New York State Museum when it opened in the newly built State Education Building where it was on display until 1976 when the State Museum moved into the new Cultural Education Center on the Empire State Plaza. At that time the mastodon was dismantled and placed in storage where it remained until it was rehabilitated and return to public display in 1997. It can still be seen at the State Museum today.)
The Cardiff Giant
Probably playing on the popularity of the Cohoes Mastodon, in the autumn of 1869 it was widely reported that the petrified remains of a 10-½ foot tall stone giant had been found behind William C. Newell’s barn in Cardiff, Onondaga County, NY. Many believed the giant was part of a previous civilization and his remains had become petrified over the years and turned to stone.
Experts of every kind, archaeologists, medical doctors, anatomists, geologists, historians and sculptors, together with the general public, flooded to the area to view the nude giant. Some of the experts, the general public and most of the newspaper reporters were convinced that this was a remarkable find. The reporters realized that the sensational story sold newspapers and it was front-page news for weeks.
State Geologist James Hall was quoted in a newspaper article saying “It is certainly a great curiosity, and, as it now presents itself, the most remarkable archaological [sic] discovery ever made in this country, and entirely unlike any other relics of a past age yet known to us.” Hall said he believed that the statue was related to “the race or people of the past formerly inhabiting that part of the country.”
Some of the experts weren’t so sure. Albany’s preeminent sculptor, Erastus Dow Palmer (1817-1904) said that it was a statue because he recognized chisel marks; Spencer Baird (1823-1887) of the Smithsonian Institute said that the petrification theory was absurd.
Dr. John F. Boynton (1811-1890), one of the original twelve apostles of the Latter Day Saint Movement and a noted expert on natural history and geology, said that the giant had a magnificent chin, pleasant mouth and a noble forehead and reminded him of Governor DeWitt Clinton, but Boynton said that the creature could not have passed from life into limestone, and was probably carved by Jesuits to impress the Iroquois.
A delegation from the New York State Board of Regents was sent to investigate. Chancellor John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn (1811-1877) was skeptical and didn’t think it had been a real person. The newspapers, however, avoided reporting negative comments that would discourage selling newspapers and continued to promote the petrified stone giant theory.
Meanwhile, William Newell was making money from this “find.” He put it in a tent in Cardiff and charged 25 cents a head to see it, quickly raising the price to 50 cents as its notoriety spread. The man who had actually created the giant was George Hull, Newell’s cousin.
After Hull and Newell arranged for it to be “discovered” by well diggers, Hull sold the giant to a group of men led by David Hannum for $23,000. Hannum had it moved to Syracuse where a tour began that would take the giant to the city of New York. P.T. Barnum offered a large sum for the giant, which was declined, but not before Barnum made a copy, which he dubbed the “Onondaga Stone Giant,” and put it on display, claiming it was the real thing.
James Hall was no sucker however, his scientifically based investigations eventually concluded that the stone from which the giant was made did not exist in New York State, but came from Iowa.
In 1869, Hull confessed and the following year during court proceedings both giants were shown to be fake. Hull, an atheist, said he perpetuated the hoax show that religious people were in fact the real suckers.
Photos, from above: The Cohoes Mastodon exhibit at the New York State Museum (courtesy Kenneth C. Zirkel); the Cohoes Mastodon’s bones before they were assembled and mounted (courtesy New York State Museum); the Cardiff Giant being exhumed during October 1869; and on exhibit at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown (courtesy ).