By Charley Githler
A ham-handed publicity stunt, concocted by local men, is a beloved part of the lore of Tompkins County. The story is equally amusing and amazing, and reveals the tenor of the times in post-Civil War America.
On Wednesday, July 2, 1879, workers were widening a carriage pathway on the upper glen at Taughannock Falls, approximately where the Falls Overlook parking lot is located today in Taughannock Falls State Park. Even back then a popular attraction, the overlook site was developed in 1850 when a hotel on the site was built by J.S. Halsey. It was called the Cataract Hotel and by 1879, the Taughannock House.
Suddenly, one of the workers struck something hard in the dirt with his pickaxe. Believing he had come across a large rock, he summoned the others to help loosen the dirt around it. As they dug away the ground, though, they uncovered what appeared to be a giant, petrified man.
The creature’s hands were crossed over his right thigh, while the left leg lay over the right, which was bent up toward the body. Around his neck seemed to grow the roots of a nearby tree. The discovery was something of a sensation, and news spread quickly. Soon hundreds of spectators were flocking to the scene.
Newspaper reporters flocked, too. Within two days, a reporter from the New York World was on the scene, and described the artifact as follows:
“He is nearly seven feet long, and was apparently a muscular man, without a superabundance of flesh, but with the muscles, joints and bones quite prominent. He lies upon his back, with his head slightly raised, the right arm following the line of the body, with the hand resting on the right thigh, the left arm crossed over the right, with the right leg crossing the other just below the knee, the left foot being somewhat deformed or claw-shaped and resembling slightly a summer squash, as an honest country woman present remarked. The head indicates a low degree of intellect, the forehead slopes back, and the crown is shaped like an ape’s. The nose is flat and broad at the end, and the cheek-bones are rather low than high. The joints, knees, etc., are very distinct, and the muscles and bones are indicated perfectly.”
The discovery was made on the premises of the Taughannock House hotel, owned or leased at the time by John Thompson. He wasted no time in having photographs taken for public sale, and immediately erected a tent over the hole so that 10 cents admission could be charged to view the spectacle. Business was brisk from the start.
A certain amount of skepticism was also apparent from the start. The headline of the story in the Watkins Express of July 10, 1879, a week later, was “A Prehistoric Image, or a Good Counterfeit of One, Exhumed at Taughannock Falls.” Similarly, a report in the Waterloo Observer on the same date stated: “Although fossils have been frequently found in the immediate vicinity and petrifications of various kinds are occasionally brought to light, there is a suspicion that the specimen lately discovered is the handiwork of clumsy man and not of nature.”
There was good reason to doubt the authenticity of the discovery. Just a decade before, in 1869, a 10-foot-tall “petrified man” was uncovered by workers digging a well in Cardiff, just south of Syracuse. It was one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. A New York tobacconist named George Hull bought a 10-foot-long block of gypsum in Iowa, and had it shipped to Chicago, where it was secretly carved into the likeness of a man. Using stains and acids to simulate aging, Hull then had it transported and buried behind the barn on his cousin’s farm, where it was uncovered by the well-digging workers.
A tent was set up over the “Cardiff Giant” and 25 cents was charged for people who wanted to see it. Two days later, the price increased to 50 cents. People came by the thousands. Hull was able to sell his part-interest for $23,000 (equivalent to $440,000 in 2017), but confessed to the fraud within a few months.
Still, in spite of this recent chicanery, Cornell University and other scientists, including a “Dr. Congdon, formerly of the Binghamton Inebriate Asylum,” visited the Taughannock discovery within days, and, at Thompson’s invitation, chipped off small fragments for study. The scientific opinions that were rendered were decidedly mixed.
And then it wasn’t long before one of the instigators, Trumansburger Frank Creque, his tongue loosened in a Trumansburg tavern, revealed that the stone man uncovered on Thompson’s property was also a fake. According to Creque, the scheme was hatched to attract attention to Thompson’s hotel.
Apparently, Thompson approached Ira Dean, a Trumansburg mechanic (and engineer in Trumansburg’s Fire Department), who, after studying some chemistry to learn the ingredients of the human body, mixed a thick batter of eggs, beef blood, iron filings and cement. He molded the material into his conception of the resemblance of a prehistoric man, and baked it to hardness in a huge oven.
Then, late at night, Dean, Thompson and Creque took the 800-pound object to the scene of its discovery. Rather than dig straight down, they tunnelled in from the side and pushed the stone man through the hole to its resting place. A tree root, which protruded into the cavity, was wrapped around the neck so it would look as if it had grown there. The idea was that the earth above would look undisturbed, and it worked. Some of the most convincing evidence of the giant’s authenticity was the fact that the sod over the body “had not been disturbed for a thousand years.”
It’s a story that is evocative of the 1870s. This was a time when people were susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes and speculative investment projects. Fortunes were made overnight and just as quickly lost. No fewer than eight different, competing railroad companies were involved in active construction at different times in Tompkins County during the decade. Most of them didn’t survive the Panic of 1873. In 1879, former president Ulysses S. Grant was pouring his money into the Ponzi scheme that would render him almost penniless, and the greatest show on earth was P.T. Barnum’s “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.”
The Taughannock hoax was a chapter from that time, and Thompson and Creque were men of their time as well. Both were Civil War veterans (Thompson was wounded at Spotsylvania Court House). Thompson, particularly, seemed to have his eye out for what was called the “main chance.” While he was proprietor of the hotel, he hired a Canadian tightrope walker named Andrew “Professor” Jenkins to traverse a rope 1,200 feet long and 350 feet above the rocks and creek below as a publicity stunt to draw in patrons. Even Ira Dean, though a mechanic with no formal training, embodied the can-do spirit of the age in undertaking the elaborate process of creating the giant figure.
In the end, at least 5,000 people viewed the giant. Even after the hoax was revealed, some scientists refused to believe that Dean had actually made it. In order to convince them, Dean created another in miniature to convince them that the giant had actually been man-made. Ultimately, the public’s attention to the discovery and the revelation of the hoax waned, and it passed into lore. In the process of removing it, the thing was dropped and broken. The pieces were taken and buried in an orchard near Trumansburg, where they remain to this day, the exact spot long since lost to memory.