The Critical Mass

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The suckers born every minute

Four of us were on the way outta Cooperstown when I slammed on the brakes. A sign along the roadside had caught my eye: THE CARDIFF GIANT. He was here, at the Farmer’s Museum. I had to see him.

The Cardiff Giant is often labeled as the greatest hoax in American history. A 10-foot-tall man “discovered” in 1869 by guys digging a well in Cardiff, NY., outside of Syracuse. Supposedly a fossil of some forgotten race. P.T. Barnum figures in the story, so that ought to tell you something.

And now here the Giant was on this summer afternoon, reclining in his shed among the tools and arcane tractors of honest, hard-working American farmers. One of the Giant’s arms lies across his body, in what appears to be a vain attempt at modesty, for the mighty fellow is naked. The Giant’s details are rough. In two or three seconds, any casual observer will determine that this is simply a figure chiseled from a big block of gypsum. Yet thousands of Americans were fooled by this. They wanted to believe this was a giant. Perhaps because the Bible says there were once giants on the earth.

I Googled some photos of the Cardiff Giant this morning and noticed something odd. There are at least two distinct Cardiff Giants, including one that looks a bit more realistic than the one we saw in Cooperstown. With a little poking around I found that Barnum, who had bought the Cardiff Giant from the original hoaxer, had made a second Cardiff Giant to double the hoax payoff. A hoax of a hoax. That second one’s in Farmington Hills, Mich., at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

It would be cool if such things were true. A few years ago, the bluegrass star Alison Krauss urged me to Google “giant skeletons.” I’m not sure if she actually believed giant skeletons exist, but I took her advice. You try it. You’ll come up with videos and photos of construction equipment digging up impossibly large human skeletons.

Last year I stumbled across Season One of a show on The History Channel, Search for the Lost Giants. Supposedly a documentary series, it’s about two New England brothers pursuing their theory that giants once roamed the planet, just a couple of centuries ago. I watched it with interest. Not because I think giants once existed. I’m just attracted to stories of useless quests and unrequited dreams. And here were two seemingly smart guys so obsessed with their urban myth – or so intent on carrying on an expensive fraud for no explainable reason – that every small piece of “evidence” resoundingly backs their idea. So now I Googled Search for the Lost Giants, just to see if the astonishingly misnamed History Channel, which regularly airs programming of dubious veracity, was preparing a second season of the show. No word on that. But I found a blog by Stephen Mrozowski, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Mrozowski was invited on the show to examine the “Goshen Mystery Tunnel,” a long, stone structure beneath the Massachusetts ground consisting of several chambers. Or so they say. The brothers fervently insist this tunnel is connected to their giants, although they never explain how they come to that conclusion; the tunnel seems a bit cramped for giants. In his blog, Mrozowski notes that he was never told that he was being invited on the show to discuss giants. Nor does the show air his speculations that don’t fit the brothers’ needs. Like the tunnel could have been built by Canadian bootleggers to hide booze during the Depression. In the selectively edited video, Mrozowski seems to give the brothers’ quest some credence.

More than a few bloggers point out the racist point of view behind theories of UFOs building Mayan cities. Or a race of giants must have created Indian burial mounds. Because Native Americans could never have stacked stones or dug holes on their own.

This all comes to mind because a few people were hanging out at the house Friday night over a couple of bottles of wine. And the subject of lies came up. Mostly the lies that surround today’s political and social issues. I made some kind of comment about how the Republican Party seems to be collapsing beneath the weight of a decade or two of lies piled on top of lies. Once you start lying, you have to manufacture more lies to support the lies.It’s gotten so bad that, with John Boehner having resigned as House Majority leader, the Republicans can’t find anyone to take his place. No one wants to be in charge when it falls.

Before we left the Farmer’s Museum, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a postcard of the Cardiff Giant, shot in strange lighting that made it look weirdly metrosexual. I suppose that makes me guilty of supporting the Cardiff Giant hoax. A tribute to the willingness of people to believe.

But there are stone-cold hoaxes bigger and more serious than the Cardiff Giant. Or giants buried in the New England woods. Or computer-generated Internet images of giant skeletons. Hoaxes like “clean coal,” no such thing exists. So we continue to choke the planet to death. And the decision to invade Iraq, and then Afghanistan. Lives and money thrown away. And vaccinations cause autism, a claim backed by virtually no doctor. Faith is comforting, but society moves forward with science.

Driving from Cooperstown back to Rochester, taking the beautiful back roads of Western New York, we noticed that people in these rural communities like to post signs in their front yards. Guns aren’t dangerous, they read. But wind turbines are a threat to “Family, Faith and Health.”

What was it that P.T. Barnum said? Perhaps as he was passing through Western New York, counting his receipts from The Cardiff Giant?

There’s a sucker born every minute.