Then it produced a list of eleven quotes from scientists claiming to back up the story—some taken out of context, others possibly total fabrications—and denied the existence of outlets challenging its claims.

“These are but a handful of the innumerable certificates of credence and of complimentary testimonials with which the universal press of the country is loading our tables. Indeed we find very few of the public papers express any other opinion.”

When pressed to answer reports debunking the story, the Sun declined to take responsibility. It would be at least several weeks before the Edinburgh Journal of Science could receive and reply to transatlantic requests for confirmation, the paper noted. (The journal had in fact folded two years earlier; no such confirmation would ever arrive.) In the meantime, they were just passing along what they’d heard, and had no more power to verify it than anyone else.

“Certain correspondents have been urging us to come out and confess the whole to be a hoax; but this we can by no means do, until we have the testimony of the English or Scotch papers to corroborate such a declaration.”

* * *

News that it was a hoax eventually spread, though not as speedily as the lie itself.

The writer, Richard Adams Locke, later claimed the piece was satire, not intentional deception, and that he was trying to parody the over-the-top writings of a popular sci-fi author.

The story became a meme. “Moon hoaxy” became shorthand for deception. There was merchandise.

Spare a thought for John Herschel. His contributions to astronomy were overshadowed by those of his famous father William, discoverer of the planet Uranus, and by a hoax in which he was unwittingly caught. He was hounded about it for years—“I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English French Italian & German!” he complained in a letter—but never spoke publicly about it.

In May 2001, his descendants found an unpublished 1836 letter to the literary magazine Athenaeum. In it he wrote:

“[I]t appears to me high time to disclaim all knowledge of or participation in the incoherent ravings under the name of discoveries which have been attributed to me. . . . I consider the precedent a bad one that the absurdity of a story should ensure its freedom from contradiction when universally repeated in so many quarters and in such a variety of forms. Dr. [Samuel] Johnson indeed used to say that there was nothing, however absurd or impossible, which if seriously told a man every morning at breakfast for 365 days, he would not end in believing—and it was a maxim of Napoleon that the most effective figure in Rhetoric is Repetition.”

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