Digging in Upstate New York

Digging things up was a minor trend in upstate New York back in the 1800s.

Joseph Smith Jr started it in 1823, when he dug up a buried book written on golden plates near Palmyra, New York. This discovery led to the establishment of the Mormon religion. 

Throughout the summers of my youth, local TV stations ran a Public Service Announcement for the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a reenactment of Smith’s adventures on the hill. Once, at a writing conference, an editor said to me, “Oh, I’m from upstate New York, too, a small town outside of Rochester you’ve probably never heard of. Palmyra.” I responded “Hill Cumorah Pageant.” “That’s the one,” she replied.

Twenty or so years after Joseph Smith did his thing, George Hull and his cousin Stubbs Newell decided to play a hoax on the American public. Hull commissioned some folks in Iowa to create a “petrified giant”, which he then buried on his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York.  A year or so later, his cousin commissioned a couple of people to dig a well on the spot where he’d buried the petrified giant.  And thus one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American public came into being: The Cardiff Giant.  PT Barnum, when he couldn’t buy the original, commissioned his own and made a fortune off it.

The Cardiff Giant isn’t nearly as well known as Mormonism–but it does have a niche following, and people tend to co-op the name on a regular basis. There’s a baseball team in Cooperstown, NY (where the real giant currently resides, a folk-rock band out of Indiana, a wrestler, a winery, and a bar in Brooklyn.

Yet the place where he was disinterred barely rates a roadside marker, unlike Hill Cumorah.

I know, because I grew up next door to the farm where the giant was unearthed.