News of the “discoveries” on the moon became the proverbial talk of the
town, with other papers not only reprinting but also confirming the
story. Those who debated the articles argued not over whether the series
was true but over how true; among those who suspected it was all a
hoax, talk focussed on how the trick was achieved rather than on exposing
it. The story seemed too good—if not too good to be true then at least
too good not to be told. The hoax held hints revealing its own
speciousness, if anyone cared to look—for one, the prestigious Edinburgh
Journal of Science, from which the excerpts were meant to be taken,
had folded months before.

Still, the daily revelations continued, exploring “The Lake of Death”
and surrounding volcanoes, including the crater “Endymion” (which shared
its name with Keats’s famous poem, dedicated to the hoaxer and suicide
Thomas Chatterton). Eventually, Herschel discovered humanoids on the

“They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face,
with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a
thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs, from the
top of the shoulders to the calves of the legs. The face, which was of
a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the
large orang outang, being more open and intelligent in its expression,
and having a much greater expansion of forehead. . . . The hair on the
head was a darker color than that of the body, closely curled, but
apparently not woolly, and arranged in two curious semi-circles over
the temples of the forehead.”

These creatures sound like such a range of racial types that it is hard
to know how to read them now. In the racial coding of the day, they
sound stereotypically black—as noted by Benjamin Reiss in his tremendous
book “The Showman and the Slave,” about P. T. Barnum and Joice Heth, the
African-American woman whom Barnum touted as George Washington’s former
mammy. The creatures’ hair, for instance, is “apparently not
woolly”—neither is the hair of people of African descent, but that was
how whites of the time described black hair almost without deviation.
“As if this were not subliminal cue enough,” Reiss writes, “Locke
concluded with a subtle reference to their childishness and
oversexualized nature.” These inverted angels have yellowish flesh,
copper hair, and, as the beast from Revelation, one almost imagines feet
of brass. Locke has crafted a chimera both fanciful and false, a combo
platter of types. The moon beings were amalgams much like the racial
ones feared by “the common man” opposed to abolition.

This may only support the notion that the Moon Hoax was intended as
satire; though I would insist that intent doesn’t determine whether or
in what way something is a hoax, Locke’s motives appear as complex and
varied as “the canvass” of his alleged moon landscape. In Matt Goodman’s
book about the hoax, “The Sun and the Moon,” from 2008, he writes that
Locke helped make the Sun the one paper in the city to come out
against slavery in a state that, while it no longer sanctioned the
institution, by and large supported it in the South, and partook of its
spoils. William Bennett, the head of its fierce competitor, the Morning
, called the Sun a “drivelling contemporary nigger paper.” But
no one today would mistake the Sun as being fully abolitionist. As an
anti-slavery tract, in any event, the hoax is too obscure; as racist
propaganda, it is not obvious enough, given the extremes that surrounded
it. Phrenology and the rest of the racialist sciences then coming into
being were mere allegories in the end, finding one-to-one correlations
between the subject’s body and his intelligence or preconceived lack

Still, Locke had set his Moon Hoax not just in the black of outer space
but in the perceived darkness of Africa, which, to most of the Sunsreaders, may have seemed just as distant, hostile, and in need of
saving. It would prove symbolic not only of slavery but also of
salvation that Locke’s Herschel was viewing space, both for real and for
hoax, from the Cape of Good Hope—the populated moon’s surface was seen
by many readers as a sign of providence, of connection with a god who,
in his wisdom, had made the universe hospitable. This missionary moon
stood in direct contrast to a view of Africa as heathen jungle to be
tamed, Christianized, colonized, bested, bought. One group of
missionaries would inquire of the real Herschel about sending Bibles to
the lunar residents.

And there weren’t just man-bats on the moon but also another, superior
race of beings. That they lived in the “Vale of the Triads” indicated
that they were the third-highest of the three kinds of upright beings on
the moon. It is tempting to see the lunar humanoids as hierarchical in
the same ways that white eugenicists characterized races on Earth, from
beaver bipeds (metaphoric Native Americans) to woolly man-bats (Negroes)
to this last group, in which “nearly all the individuals . . . were of a
larger stature than the former specimens, less dark in color, and in
every respect an improved variety of the race.” These last beings are
first. “They were creatures of order and subordination.”

Most subsequent accounts of the hoax fail to mention the Vale dwellers,
that superior, lighter race—perhaps because those beings make clear that
race and racialism have plenty to do with the hoax and its success.
Whether Locke meant to have these creatures taken as symbolic whites, or
just as remarkable discoveries—or as things barely to be believed at
all—the Moon Hoax’s popularity certainly owed much to its re-creating on
the moon what many white readers believed could be found at home: there,
on the other end of a telescope, wasn’t just life but order, not just
extinct craters but vibrant temples, not just sustenance but
subordination, not just humanoids but hierarchies.