As any 21st-century non-fiction writer might do, Goodman Googled; he consulted Wikipedia; he checked Amazon.com. Discovering that nothing had ever been written about this quirky incident, he dug deeper - into the archives of The Sun and all the 19th-century newspapers, among other sources, in search of the whole story and the historical context in which such a hoax might have been successful.
The country was young; the practice and realization of democracy had begun to filter down into the masses in unexpected ways. The Sun was the first publishing house to produce and sell a newspaper to the common man: local, often sensational news that would cost the reader just one cent. Meanwhile, imaginative entrepreneurs like P. T. Barnum were inventing ways to astound people - and to make a living doing so. People seemed to enjoy a good hoax, as if one man's right to propose an outrageous humbug was matched only by another's right to witness and form an opinion of it.
Not knowing where his research would take him, Goodman was already passionate about all things New York City. So to excavate the obscure details about the most successful hoax in the City's history of journalism and uncover a truly remarkable (if not also unacknowledged) journalist was a delight to this native of Brooklyn. Goodman came to admire and respect Locke as an erudite thinker and writer - one whose essays against slavery were powerfully eloquent. What he didn't know, but was soon to learn, was that Locke's purpose for writing the series was not in fact to dupe readers and sell more newspapers, even though his series effectively launched the genre of tabloid journalism; rather, his intention was to satirize the religious astronomers of the era: men who assured the public that all planets and stars were surely filled with sentient beings, since God would not bother to create a heavenly body without populating it. Goodman says, "It's ultimately about the conflict between science and religion that existed 25 or so years before Darwin. That's when I knew I was onto a bigger story." Meanwhile, Locke's satire missed its mark, and for weeks people marveled at sketches of the moon's inhabitants: man-bats and giant beavers - and yes, unicorns! His brief fame was forever after attached to his status as a master hoaxer.
Goodman's encyclopedic account takes a reader on a jaunt of 19th-century New York. It's a visceral recreation of a decade about which not a lot has been written - particularly compared to recorded history of the 1860s and beyond. The 1830s were the pivotal years when New York actually became the biggest city, the center for entertainment, media, shipping, garment production and of course immigration. Goodman's prose captures the sense of newness and excitement that existed on the streets and in the parlors; as well, it outlines the political struggles of the day, particularly the push to abolish slavery.
The story of Richard Adams Locke - a man perhaps ahead of his time, a progressive who valued genuine advances in scientific knowledge - is most pertinent in its exposure of the conflict between science and religion: one that continues on today. And the question arises: Are we as gullible today, with our insatiable need to be entertained and vicariously stimulated? "I don't think we have anything on the 19th century in terms of our willingness to be deceived," comments Goodman.
The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in 19th-Century New York was published by Basic Books. Goodman will be at the Kingston Barnes & Noble this Saturday, February 21 at 3 p.m. to read from his book and talk about journalism, New York history - and anything remotely related.