The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

Cindy: When I was perhaps 10 years old, I saw the Cardiff Giant on display at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I was rebelling against my father driving out of our way to take my brother to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was never willing to drive out of the way for a Laura Ingalls Wilder historic site. So my dad and brother went to the BHF and my mother and I toured the Farmer’s Museum and stumbled upon the 10-foot-tall “petrified man.” I was mesmerized, even when I finished reading all the signs and learned of the hoax.  How delightful to have The Giant and How He Humbugged America (Scholastic 2012) show up on my doorstep!

When I got down to reading Murphy’s book, the first thing I learned was that the discovery of the giant happened on my birthday, October 16th, in 1869! This book really was meant for me. Anyway, some workers digging a new well on William Newell’s farm in Cardiff, NY found the buried giant and much like the circus described in Oliver Butterworth’s fictional story, The Enormous Egg, curious folk started showing up to see the spectacle. Fences and tents were erected, admission charged, and a barker enlisted to keep the melodrama pumping. Scientists first proclaimed it to be a petrified man, then other experts rejected that analysis but assured that it was a genuine antiquity. The controversies over just WHAT the Cardiff Giant was only fueled the interest…and the profits. Where there was hoax and scam and money to be made in the mid 1800s, P.T. Barnum was sure to be present, and of course he did factor into the Cardiff story. It was his involvement that led to him being incorrectly credited with the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Instead, that line belongs to David Hannum, one of the owners of the Cardiff Giant. You can read that story here. I’m sure to regret including the Barnum involvement here as we are still getting frequent blog spam comments  on our Barnum post for Candace Fleming’s P.T. Barnum biography a few years ago.

The Cardiff story contains commentary about the historical and societal conditions that made such a scam possible.

“Americans [at the time] were easy targets for anything couched in blandly neutral scientific and technological language.”–Cultural Historian, John Kasson

But we’re so much more informed today, right? The masses certainly couldn’t be swayed by faulty science or information that ignores science, right?

Lynn:  Cindy was waaay ahead of me on this event as I knew almost nothing about what was a nation-gripping sensation.  (I’ll remember that the next time I stand in line at the grocery store and am assailed on all sides by tabloids shrieking about the Kardashians!)  In its day the Cardiff Giant was…well. it was GIANT.  Murphy does a wonderful job of portraying the enormous interest the discovery created and maintained.  In fact, one of the things I most appreciated about this book is Murphy’s exploration of the what American culture and experience was like and how that led both to the hoax’s success and to the creation of scientific associations and processes.  The teacher in me loves those connections while the mystery-loving part of me was just plain fascinated by the elaborate scheme that was at least two years in the making.

Murphy structures this book wonderfully, first tempting our curiosity by taking us step-by-step through the Giant’s discovery, then enticing us closer by raising doubts and issues and then, halfway through the book, hooking us completely by announcing that it WAS all a scam and revealing just how it was done.  It’s impossible to resist and is the kind of book that just begs to be shared.  The illustrations are plentiful and wonderfully chosen including  period photographs, advertising, cartoons and newspaper articles.  The back matter was as interesting as the rest of the book and included information on other famous hoaxes, a wonderful “A Word About My Research,” and extensive source notes and bibliography.

This is a book that will practically book talk itself and kids will not only love it and share it but they’ll absorb a lot of history along the way.

Common Core Connections:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Murphy discusses the role that popular opinion played in the acceptance of the Cardiff Giant as authentic and how the hoax led to the establishment of institutions and scientific standards and processes.

…experts realized that they often had to argue against public opinion when stating their findings. Andrew White understood how the popularity of an opinion could be extremely daunting. It was, he noted, a “peculiarly American superstition that the correctness of a belief is decided by the number of people who can be induced to adopt it.” (pg. 87-88)

How does Murphy support this position?  Cite textual evidence.

Do you think this “peculiarly American superstition” is still present today?  Support your position with examples and cite your sources.

Check out other Nonfiction Monday contributions at The Miss Rumphius Effect.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

3 Comments on "The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy"

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  1. Hi, your review actually reminded me of “Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The true story of a real giant” by the Klise sisters. I have a feeling that they’d be good companion books. I love how you never fail to interweave the common core connections in your reviews. Thanks for sharing this one.

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