Chicago and the Cardiff Giant

This “petrified cuss,” as he has been irreverently called, was made to order, and made very well. Of course he was made well, because he was made in Chicago. We can manufacture antiquities as easily almost as we make pork out of hogs. – The Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 1869.

The Cardiff Giant, the 10 foot “petrified giant” dug up in Cardiff, New York in 1869, has been called one of history’s greatest hoaxes – a statue that fooled the world. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have fooled very many people. When George Hull, a Cardiff farmer, announced that he had found the petrified giant while digging for a well on his farm, it attracted plenty of attention, but geologists knew that there was no good reason to dig a well where he was digging, and sculptors recognized the chisel marks. Even the most optimistic scientists merely called it an “ancient statue.” Still, various preachers announced that it was proof that a line in Genesis about giants who once walked the Earth was true, and that therefore the entire Bible was true. The giant immediately became a huge attraction, and P.T. Barnum rushed to produce his own (and to call the one dug up in NEw York a fake). Cardiff Giant

In 1866, the farmer, George Hull, had gotten into an argument with an Iowa clergyman about the line from Genesis. If that was real, he asked, why are there no artifacts? Hull, an atheist, decided to have some fun with religious people, and acquired a 20 foot block of gypsum, which he transported by rail to Chicago where he hired Eduard (or Edwin – sources differ) Burkhart, a sculptor who specialized in angel statues for cemeteries, to carve it into a 10 foot reclining nude man. When it was built, Hull buried it on his farm and left it underground to “season” for a couple of years before digging it back up and presenting his hoax to the world. He wound up selling it to businessmen for, depending on which source you’re reading, between 20 and 40 thousand dollars. The new owners tried to sue Barnum for calling theirs a fake, and when the case looked as though it was heading for trial, Hull got nervous and admitted the truth. Barnum was found not liable – there was nothing slanderous about calling a fake giant a fake.

Burkhart carved the giant in a barn which a 1985 Chicago Tribune article states was at 940 N. Clark. They don’t say whether that was the address before or after the 1909 street renumbering, but I suspect it’s the current address.  (update 2021: no, it was pre-renumbering; 1860s newspapers list it as 940. This is curious, as the 1909 renumbering guide doesn’t list a building at 940 North Clark, or anything on that side of the street nearby. Indeed, it would have been IN Lincoln Park across from the 2101 Block of N Clark. In the 1860s, this would have been right IN, or at least on the edge of, the old city cemetery, which is a convenient place to do stone carving). 

Today, the giant is still on display at Cooperstown, NY (though it spent a good chunk of the 20th century in an Iowa rumpus room). One of the copies is near Fort Dodge, Iowa. Barnum’s own replica is on display at a museum in Detroit. I think it’s high time Chicago got its own version. It’d be interesting to find out if any of the angels Burkhart made are still in cemeteries – many were probably for City Cemetery (which is now Lincoln Park). He died shortly after the carving, and his family doubted that he knew that it was intended for use as a hoax (though I don’t really see how he couldn’t have).

Here’s some info about Burkhart from his descendents

Museum of Hoaxes Entry on the Cardiff Giant

(Visited 225 times, 1 visits today)