A ‘Relative’ Hoax

“The Cardiff Giant” courtesy of farmersmuseum.org

A couple of weeks ago, my pandemic life in quarantine led me to watch an episode of television’s The Blacklist.[1] During the program, I heard Mr. Reddington (the program’s protagonist) bemoan the fact that something (in this case, a piece of counterfeit art) was, in his words, “as phony as the Cardiff Giant.” As a native Angeleno,[2] and never having heard of the Cardiff Giant before – and additionally unsure if said giant was from Wales,[3] or indeed from Cardiff-by-the sea,[4] – I wanted to see just who (or what) this giant was, and why the heck Raymond Reddington would compare him to a work of art.

I quickly discovered that the Cardiff Giant, problematic as a work of art, was one of the largest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people. Now, I won’t bore you with too many details, but suffice it to say that the giant’s creator, one George Hull, was an atheist who got into a theological argument with a revivalist preacher sometime in the late 1860s. Their argument concerned the latter’s fervent belief that giants had once roamed the world.[5] Mr. Hull, both annoyed and amused by the argument, set out to hoodwink (for lack of a better word) his Christian adversary and, more importantly, to earn a dime or two in the process.

You see, George Hull decided to “create” his own giant. He did so by securing a five ton block of gypsum and subsequently having it carved (in secret and in exchange for a portion of the profits) into the form of a giant. From there he “weathered” the giant by various means to make it appear as old as possible. He then went into cahoots with a distant relative in (wait for it) “Cardiff,” New York, whereupon he and his kinsman buried the giant. And then he waited for a year, at the end of which he told his kinsman to hire folks to dig a well in the very place where they had buried their giant … and thus the hoax began. The giant was soon discovered, and for several years George Hull played the game well and profiteered greatly on his hoax. Even the great P.T. Barnum tried to get in on the action. Ultimately, by 1880 or so, the (now discredited) Cardiff Giant was “condemned to a storage barn in Massachusetts.”[6]

Exhumation of The Cardiff Giant in October 1869, public domain

I wondered what connection I might have (if any) to this giant hoax, to this Cardiff Giant. I mused that (at least for me) there might be a certain noble je ne sais quoi in being connected to the grandest of American hoaxes. For the most part, I’ve become a bit myopic with regard to my family’s possible connections to historical notables, the famous and infamous, a valued witch, or even to my next door neighbor – but what of a connection to something so totally fabricated or to something so unbelievably wrong? I decided that it just might be fun to see how close I could come.

I started with George Hull, but honestly I found little about old George’s ancestry (though the Hull name is a common one throughout New England).[7] I had hoped to find a connection to George Hull here, as my great-grandmother Mary E. (Kraus) Ogle has an immigrant ancestor by the same name.[8] (And truth be told, I’m not convinced that there isn’t one here.) No, Mr. Hull’s paternal lines have thus far been sort of a bust (for me) in finding any familial connection to the creator of the Cardiff Giant.

So, I decided to take a look at our “giant” creator’s maternal ancestry as well, as let’s face it, more often than not some of the better discoveries made in family history are found well-hidden in those maternal lines. To this end I was not disappointed. Working back, and on through George Hull’s mother, Ruth (Old) Hull, I hit pay dirt.[9] You see, one of Cardiff Giant “hoaxer” George Hull’s maternal great-great-great-grandmothers was Elizabeth (Stedman) Smith—who, like my biological great-grandmother Opal R. (Young) (Porter) Everett,[10]—was also a descendant of Isaac Stedman.[11] This certainly makes me distant kin to the giant’s creator.

courtesy of https://www.ripleys.com/ weird-news/cardiff-giant/

However, the giant had one secret left to tell. And this was the name of Elizabeth (Stedman) Smith’s mother – a family surname very familiar to me –Sage. Yes, the great grand hoaxer, the guy who pulled the wool over America’s scientific and evangelical eyes and made a dime off of a whole generation of spectators, was a direct descendant of David Sage[12] – just like my great-grandfather, Samuel Sage,[13] and his daughter Alta Sage.[14] I had that ‘close surname connection’ I had been looking for. And, yes, now I could claim that “our family” had helped to create the greatest hoax perpetrated upon the American public. (A very odd point of pride, to be sure!) Yes, I am a kinsman of that great American “hoaxer” George Hull – and a “cousin” (by proxy) of the one and only Cardiff Giant.[15]

Notes

[1] The Blacklist, an NBC Television series 2013–.

[2] “Angeleno” is used here to refer to someone born in Los Angeles or Los Angeles County.

[3] A reference to “Cardiff,” as the capital and largest city in Wales.

[4] “Cardiff by-the-sea” refers to a resort area in San Diego County, California.

[5] Genesis 6: 4: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.” Numbers 13: 33: “And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, [which come] of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”

[6] As per: https://www.history.com/news/the-cardiff-giant-fools-the-nation-145-years-ago.

[7] Robert E. Hull, The Ancestors and Descendants of George Hull (1590-1659) and Thamzen Mitchell of Crewkerne, Somerset, England, Dorchester, Massachusetts, Winsdor and Fairfield, Connecticut (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1994).

[8] Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-33, 3 vols. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995), 2: 1040, for George Hull (1589-1647), immigrant ancestor of Mary E. (Kraus) Ogle.

[9] Susan S. Gascoyne and Edson B. Olds, The Olds (Old, Oulds) Family in England and America (Washington, D.C., 1915), [p.] 1915, for the ancestry of Ruth (Old) Hull.

[10] Opal R. (Young) (Porter) Everett (1895-1978), a Mayflower descendant of Hopkins, Howland, and Warren.

[11] Charles Edward Banks, The Planters of the Commonwealth… (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1961), 147, for Isaac Stedman.

[12] Elisha L. Sage and Charles Sage, Genealogical Record of the Descendants of David Sage (Batavia, N.Y., 1919).

[13] Samuel Silas Sage (1863-1947).

[14] Alta V. (Sage) (Lee) Dixon (1909-2004), my grandmother.

[15] George Hull, creator of “the Cardiff Giant” is, in this instance, a six cousin to my great-grandfather, Samuel Silas Sage; however, numerous relationships exist through several of my great-grandmothers.

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

17 thoughts on “A ‘Relative’ Hoax

    1. Michael – I know right!! Though I may have to keep it “real” just long enough to see if Great Grandma didn’t know Cheddar Man, or if Aunt Sally dated a Yeti or two back in the day. Your comment about Piltdown Man had got me curiuos though …. I may be contacting you for some help here my friend. 😉
      Many thanks for this note!

  1. As always, up lifting start to the day with Jeff’s unique take on genealogical discoveries in even sequestered lives. Thanks Jeff.

    1. JMeleney – You are too kind!
      Thanks for “getting me” and my sense of humor. Yes, I firmly believe that the discoveries and “coincidences” we find while working in genealogy can be quite fun (and humorous) too.

  2. Growing up in the New York – Finger Lakers region, everyone knew of the “Giant” and the story. The Giant now resides in the Framer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY. Located in the foothills, just north of the Catskill Mountains.

    1. Michael, thanks for this info. I think you’re lucky. It’s amazing how ‘isolated’ we still are out here in the west. I hope to see the “Giant” one of these days – after all, we are practically kin!

  3. The Farmers Museum (mentioned by Michael Warner) is a smaller version of Sturbridge Village and is a great place to get the feel for what farm life was like in Upstate New York in the early to mid-1800s. Across the street, in the Fenimore House library, is a repository of Upstate records. It is open for public research, but it is best to call ahead to request documents and photographic privileges.

  4. Our local Trumbull County Fair, Warren Ohio used d to having a “related” exhibit called “The Petrified Man.”

  5. My ancestor (4x g-gf) Jeremiah Jenks (Jenckes) was reportedly of unusual stature (for the time). As were his wife Lucy Whipple and 3 daughters – all over 6 feet. Perhaps they were giants of the day. Also, a 9x great-uncle named Benjamin Buckland was reported to be over 6 feet tall, killed and buried in Rhode Island (Nine Men’s Misery) in a battle in King Philip’s War. There was a TV show several years ago where they were looking to get to his grave (but didn’t manage to get to it) to see if they were really the bones of a giant (as had been claimed). Also supposed to have double rows of teeth in this branch of family! Yikes! So maybe giants were just people of unusual height ….. not sure about the teeth though. Luckily, did not inherit those ;-).

    1. Israel D. Amsbry, the uncle of George Hull’s wife, was a co-conspirator with George Hull in the Cardiff Giant hoax. Israel and George’s nephew John Hull were hired to transport the stone giant via a wagon from Union to Cardiff. Israel was my first cousin 6x removed, and the nephew was my second cousin 5x removed, both through common ancestors Abraham and Damaris (Hollister) Smith of Glastonbury, CT, and Pompey, NY.

  6. As wonderful as the Farmer’s Museum and the other Fenimore Museum across the road on the Great Glimmerglass Lake is, no one has mentioned the best Research Library to be had the Art Museum at the Fenimore House. We live perhaps 20 minutes from where the Cardiff Giant was found so famously. But this message is to call attention to the wonderful Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown as well, it is the nicest little village you might like to visit and is the County Seat of Otsego County.

  7. Well done! I have also have found family lines through odd names, places and dates that have caught my attention. I am also proud (or at least used to accepting) that my ancestors were mostly notorious for their unlawful deeds. If there is a horse theif, poacher, murderer or a ruffian in the group, they will belong to me. Have to laugh and enjoy it, what else is there to do!

  8. I too grew up in the Finger Lakes region…Auburn, NY to be exact. Reading about the Cardiff Giant was a trip down memory lane for me. Seeing it in the Farmer’s Museum was a pretty scary sight for a young child who then dreams of giants everywhere!!
    Thanks for the memories!!

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