Iowa History Daily: August 17 - A Giant Hoax

Iowa History Daily: On August 17, 1935: Gardner “Mike” Cowles Jr., originally from Algona, bought the ‘Cardiff Giant,’ a 10’ tall, 3,000 lb. ‘petrified man’ at the center of one of the world’s greatest ever archaeological hoaxes.

Cowles grew up in Algona before attending Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University. Co-owner of the Cowles Media Company (Des Moines Register, Des Moines Tribune, Minneapolis Tribune, Minneapolis Star, Look Magazine). In 1935 he bought the ‘Cardiff Giant’ and displayed the central figure of the great hoax in his basement rumpus room.

‘Discovered’ on the farm of William C. ‘Stub’ Newell in Cardiff, New York, the creation of New York tobacconist George Hull drew visitors from far and wide. In 1868 Hull hired a team to quarry a 10’ x 4.5’ block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, which he sent to a Chicago stonecutter sworn to secrecy. Working to carve a likeness of Hull, the stonecutter and two sculptors carved out the figure and attempted to weather their work with stains and acids.

In November of 1868 the sculpture went into the ground at Newell’s farm, and the following year he hired two men to dig a well. On October 16, 1869, the two uncovered the giant. A tent went up, and for fifty cents eager visitors could view the giant for fifteen minutes. Although the hoax came to light relatively quickly, P.T. Barnum eventually created a plaster replica for his circus. The Barnum version can now be viewed at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village in Fort Dodge.

By the time Cowles bought the oddity the furor had largely died down, however he found it a great conversation piece as a coffee table in his basement. He sold the infamous carving to the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where visitors can still take in the ‘Cardiff Giant.’ #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


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