No, we're not talking about the idiocy of NASA faking the 1969 Moon landing on a soundstage. ("That rock has a 'C' on it! The flag is waving when it's not supposed to wave!" Moses smell the roses you're a dope.) This was an actual hoax.
In 1835, a serialized article appeared in The New York Sun boasting an incredible discovery. The periodical claimed they were reprinting findings from the Edinburgh Journal of Science. There was no such thing as the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The Sun's headline read:
GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S.
At the Cape of Good Hope
Herschel was a real astronomer and quite well known at the time. The article claimed that through a new, extremely powerful telescope, the British scientist had discovered ... LIFE ON THE MOON!
In detail that may have made H.G. Wells envious, the screed spoke about lunar topography, huge forests, vast seas and oceans and "lilac-hued quartz pyramids."
That was just the beginning.
Through Herschel's alleged uber-telescope, bustling life was seen knocking about on the Moon. There were round, amphibious creatures rolling around sandy beaches. Herds of bison. Gangs of "blue unicorns" grazing on the rolling hills. A tribe of fire-spewing bipedal, tailless beavers that lived in huts. And the most amazing discovery; winged, bat-like humans that lived in a golden-roofed temple. The creatures were dubbed "Vespertilio-homo." The Man-Bat. This was about a hundred years before The Dark Knight graced the pages of DC Comics. Not bad.
Along with the articles were detailed lithographs. Supposedly depicting this awe-inspiring Moon culture. The pictures showed the great architecture, luscious landscapes, walking beavers, and flying man-bats.
Some editors at rival papers panicked, said they too had access the original non-existent articles from the non-existent Edinburgh Journal of Science and just reran the Sun's stories.
Some reports say the Moon Hoax boosted the Sun's readership. Thousands believed the tale. And not just the common man. Almost twenty years later a reporter wrote that students and staff at Yale bought it hook, line and moon boots. It read:
Yale College was alive with staunch supporters. The literati--students and professors, doctors in divinity and law--and all the rest of the reading community, looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail with unexampled avidity and implicit faith. Have you seen the accounts of Sir John Herschel's wonderful discoveries? Have you read the Sun? Have you heard the news of the man in the Moon? These were the questions that met you every where. It was the absorbing topic of the day. Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story.
Though it was eventually discredited, the Sun never publicly admitted the hoax.
Sir John Herschel initially was amused by the story, saying he wished he could see such an unusual world, but he became increasingly annoyed when he was asked about it over and over again for years after.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 makes the reports of water molecules on Mars seem pretty lame. Where's the blue unicorns and flying man-bats? Boring.