by Al Nelson
In early June of 1868 two men registered at the St. Charles Hotel in Fort Dodge, Iowa. One was George Hull of Binghamton, New York. His companion was H. B. Martin of Boston, Massachusetts – or at least that is what he claimed. Martin was actually from Marshalltown, Iowa. Fort Dodge was about to become embroiled in one of the largest worldwide hoaxes in history.
It all started because Reverend H. B. Turk, in Ackley, Iowa, recited a Biblical verse from Genesis (6:4 KJV): “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Hull was visiting his sister and after the sermon he entered into a lively discussion with the preacher as to the literal accuracy of his reference. Thus the seed of a “giant” prank was planted.
Numerous renditions of the story of the Cardiff Giant have appeared in newspapers, magazines and books all over the country, and even around the world. Taking into consideration the state of communications of the 1870s, and the breadth of its fame – the Cardiff Giant was a nuclear explosion, and Piltdown Man a fizzled firecracker.
The Chicago Tribune also engaged in a bit of hyperbole December 9, 1869, when it declared, “The Colossus of Rhodes, between whose legs ships of the largest tonnage, and with the tallest masts, could sail, was nothing compared to this modern man of stone.”
In the 2009 Scott Tribble book A Colossal Hoax, P. T. Barnum is quoted as saying, “They must not call me the Prince of Humbugs after this. That beats anything I ever did in my life.” He had just visited Syracuse and witnessed the hubbub caused by the Cardiff Giant.
A Fort Dodge man observed in writing to the Dubuque Times, “For a number of weeks after their arrival here (Hull and Martin), their movements seemed to be of a very suspicious character; they would wander about town, apparently with no definite object in view.”
They showed their hand when the two tried to contract with C. B. Cummins, owner of a gypsum quarry north of town, to cut a block of gypsum (12 feet long by 3 and a half feet wide and 2 feet thick) to “exhibit in New York as a specimen of the products of Fort Dodge and vicinity.”
Cummins wasn’t buying the necessity of such large proportions, nor the story. The story changed several times; at one point they “wanted to send it to Washington, as Iowa’s contribution to the Lincoln Monument.” After some cross-examination Cummins decided they were imposters and wanted nothing to do with them – “at any price.”
There is a story that Hull bought an acre of land south of town to mine his own chunk of Fort Dodge gypsum. A search in the Webster County Courthouse failed to uncover any evidence of this supposed 1868 transaction.
Hull and Martin hired Michael Foley to get the job done. Foley went into Section 33 and extracted the required slab from “Gypsum Hollow.” George Webber and some others helped Foley load the immense block onto a wagon. An 1878 article in The Popular Science Monthly claims that Foley and his helpers were paid a barrel of beer for their services. Martin, however, said Foley was paid $15.
Thus began the journey of the most traveled piece of gypsum in history. Years later it would return to Fort Dodge only to leave again.