The American huckster has a long pedigree, and we’re a people with an appetite for curiosities. On occasion, those two things have merged in our own backyard. A hare-brained scheme, hatched by some enterprising citizens of Trumansburg, is one such example and a favorite bit of Tompkins County history.
On a hot July Wednesday in 1879, some workers were widening a road by a popular hotel called the Taughannock House on the upper glen overlooking Taughannock Gorge (approximately where the Falls Overlook traffic island circle is in the state park today). Late in the morning, they hit what they thought was a big rock, but as they dug further, they uncovered what appeared to be a gigantic, ancient, petrified man. The creature’s hands were crossed over his right thigh, and the left leg crossed over the right, and it was huge. Around the neck seemed to grow the roots of a nearby tree.
News of this sensational discovery spread quickly, and by day’s end spectators started to materialize at the site. The newspapers were also drawn, like moths to a flame. Reporters from the Watkins Express and Waterloo Observer were on the scene the next day, and within two days a reporter from the New York World was there. It was the 1879 equivalent of a story going viral.
The owner of the hotel wasted no time in having photographs taken for public sale, and set up a tent over the hole, charging ten cents admission to see the spectacle. Business was excellent, and stayed that way.
There was skepticism regarding the authenticity of the find from the beginning, though, and with good reason. Just a decade earlier, in 1869, a similar huge "petrified man" was uncovered by workers digging a well in Cardiff, near Syracuse. It wasn’t real, of course. A New York City tobacconist had bought a 10-foot-long block of gypsum, and had it secretly carved into the likeness of a man. Using stains and acids to simulate aging, he then had it transported and buried behind the barn on his cousin’s farm, where it was ‘discovered’ by the well-diggers.
Like in Trumansburg, a tent was set up over the ‘Cardiff Giant’ and 25 cents, quickly increased to 50 cents, was charged for people who wanted to see it. Customers came in droves, but before long the scammer confessed to the fraud. It was one of the most famous hoaxes in American history and would still have been well known to people in 1879.
Still, in spite of this recent bit of attempted skullduggery, Cornell University and other scientists asked for, and received, permission to chip off small fragments of the Taughannock artifact for closer study. Scientific opinions were duly rendered, but were decidedly mixed.
In any event, the hoax didn’t survive for long. Within days, one of the schemers, Frank Creque, his tongue loosened by in a Trumansburg tavern, revealed that the stone uncovered on the hotel property was also a fake. According to Creque, the plan was contrived to attract business to the Taughannock House hotel. The hotel’s owner, John Thompson, along with Ira Dean, a Trumansburg mechanic, and Mr. Creque, had mixed a concoction of eggs, beef blood, iron filings and cement, molded the material into the shape of a prehistoric collosus, and baked it in a huge oven.
Then, late at night, the three men took the 800-pound object by wagon to the scene of its discovery. They tunneled in from the side and pushed the stone man through the hole to its resting place, wrapping a tree root around the neck so it would look as if it had grown there. The idea was that the earth above would look undisturbed to the road crew, and it worked. The fact that the ground above the fossil hadn’t been disturbed was later cited as convincing proof of the object’s authenticity.
It’s a classic story from the 1870s. It was a time when people were on the make. The country was finally recovering from a long economic depression in 1879, and speculative investments and get-rich-quick schemes were rampant. There was a fascination with novelties and unusual phenomena, and there were fortunes to be made, if one could get a lucky break. That year, former president Ulysses S. Grant was pouring his money into a 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."
John Thompson seemed particularly to have the hustler’s spirit. To drum up business, he had previously hired a Canadian tightrope walker named “Professor” Andrew Jenkins to walk a rope 1,200 feet long and 350 feet above Taughannock Gorge as a publicity stunt.
Ultimately, thousands came to see the Taughannock Giant, and even after the scheme was exposed, there were people who refused to believe that Dean had actually made it. In order to convince them, Dean had to create another in miniature to convince them that it had actually been man-made. Soon enough, the public’s attention moved on and the incident passed into folklore. In the process of removing it, the giant was dropped, or fell off a wagon, and broke into pieces. There are various theories regarding the whereabouts of the remnants today, which is perhaps just as well. It seems only fitting that the fate of the Taughannock Giant be shrouded in mystery.