Richard Adams Locke


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Richard Adams Locke

Richard Adams Locke

(Born: September 22, 1800 - Died: February 16, 1871)

Richard Adams Locke was a British editor, reporter, and essayist best remembered for his sensational satire Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L. L. D., F. R. S., &c. at the Cape of Good Hope, a novella that caused international uproar upon its serialization in The Sun and succeeded in hoaxing readers across the globe. Locke was the son of Richard Locke and Anne Adams (m. 1795).

In contrast with the majority of the writers to whom Edgar A. Poe afforded the dubious distinction of inclusion in his “Literati” sketches, Richard Adams Locke was not a native of America’s shores. Indeed, while Poe’s report that Locke was a lineal descendant of the eminent British philosopher John Locke strayed from accuracy, Locke was indeed a member of the same dynasty, tracing his ancestry to John Locke’s uncle, rather than to the philosopher himself. Perhaps as a result of this connection, Locke’s immediate family enjoyed a state of independent wealth in their East Brent, Somersetshire home, and throughout his childhood, Locke received every social and educational advantage attendant upon that station. Indeed, by the time he matriculated at Cambridge at the age of nineteen, the privately tutored Locke had already proven his budding talent as a writer through a series of sonnets to his youthful sweethearts and an attempt at poetic epic that stretched to 6,000 lines in length. At university, Locke continued his writerly habits, placing pieces in Britain’s Imperial Magazine and Bee.

While ostensibly training to join the clergy at Cambridge, Locke was, in fact, developing into something of a free-thinking political radical. Upon graduation, Locke avoided ministerial appointment and instead founded the subversively-titled Republican, in which he published democratic musings for the consumption of royalist England. Upon the magazine’s failure, Locke edited two additional magazines, the Cornucopia and the Somersetshire Herald, in swift succession and additionally contributed articles on art, European literature, science, political liberty, and religious non-conformity to their pages. In 1826, Locke married Esther Bowering, with whom he eventually had six children. Six years later, Locke relocated his fledgling family to New York City, where he began reporting for the Courier and Enquirer. In this way, Locke diverged further from the majority of Poe’s “Literati,” who, as authors and editors, adopted an armchair approach to their vocation. By contrast, Locke, as a reporter, actively plunged into the city’s slums and raucous courtrooms to pursue his stories. Indeed, it was while attending the trial of a particularly notorious prophet-turned-murderer that he made the acquaintanceship of Benjamin Day, co-owner of The Sun, for which Locke agreed to provide a sketch of the trial despite his presence at the trial as a representative of a rival newspaper. The thoughtful consideration of the nature of religious fanaticism that he produced achieved such popularity in The Sun’s pages that the editors also released it as a pamphlet, which quickly sold 40,000 copies. Upon his inevitable discharge from the Courier and Enquirer in the wake of his defection, Locke joined the writing lists of The Sun, thus setting the stage for the media event of the century.

On January 18, 1834, Sir John Herschel — astronomer and son of the famed discoverer of Uranus, Sir William Herschel — arrived in Cape Town to conduct astronomical observations. Nineteen months later, on August 25, 1835, the Sun ran the first of six installments from a report titled Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L. L. D., F. R. S., &c. at the Cape of Good Hope, which the Sun claimed to have extracted from the papers of an Edinburgh Science Journal. Over the course of these installments, the author, who purported himself to be Herschel’s amanuensis, reported the discovery of vegetation, lakes, mineral formations, architectural marvels, and — in the penultimate installment — “Vespertilio-homo” or bat-people on the moon. The public responded to this series with instantaneous frenzy. During the momentous week in which the reports were serialized, The Sun’s subscription lists swelled from 8,000 to 19,360 readers, rival newspapers ran reprints or summaries of the reports, a missionary society in Springfield, Massachusetts, began raising money to aid in evangelizing the bat-people, and Yale itself sent a delegation of scientists to The Sun’s offices to examine the original manuscript. After the series concluded, The Sun reissued all six installments in a pamphlet that sold 60,000 copies within weeks of its release. By the time the New York Herald denounced the tale as the concoction of Richard Adams Locke, the sensation was unstoppable — The Sun and its intrepid author had thrust themselves upon the international scene.

Perhaps precisely because they had been duped on such a large scale — Edgar A. Poe would later estimate that “not one person in ten discredited [the reports]” (“Locke” 134) — the public responded amusedly to the dawning realization of their mass deception. Horace Greeley summarized the good-humored attitude of the nation when he opined in the New Yorker that, “For our own part — frankly admitting that we were taken in to the full amount — we can feel no uncharitableness [sic] towards the perpetrator of the hoax. On the contrary, we advise all who have not read the whole story to buy a copy of his pamphlet, which costs but a shilling” (qtd. Goodman 264). As all of Locke’s readers looked quite foolish, none of them looked particularly more foolish than the rest. Even Sir John Herschel was tremendously amused by the narrative to which his name had been affixed, although that amusement mellowed to mild annoyance over the succeeding months as his office was overrun with enquiries from all corners of the world regarding his supposed discoveries.

Poe’s reaction to the hoax was immediate and characteristic of his style. Ever eager to cast accusations of plagiarism at his fellow authors, he not altogether unreasonably perceived a similarity between Locke’s piece and his own story, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which had appeared in the pages of the Southern Literary Magazine just a few weeks before Locke’s moon reports began. In a letter to his benefactor, J. P. Kennedy, Poe hotly remarked of the series that, “from many little incidents & apparently trivial remarks in those Discoveries I am convinced that the idea was stolen from myself” (Poe 74). By the time Poe penned his sketch of Locke in the “Literati,” he still maintained that the two pieces had a striking similarity, but he professed that he had decided to believe Locke’s self-report of ignorance regarding “Hans Pfaall” (“Locke” 129). While he could not refrain from shredding the piece’s claims to scientific accuracy, Poe further expressed his admiration for Locke’s ability not only as a writer, but also as a practitioner of one of his own favorite hobbies — hoaxing.

If Poe’s attitude towards the affair was one of jealousy mixed with admiration, Locke’s reaction — and particularly his reaction to the idea that his story was a hoax — was equally mixed. Both Locke and The Sun had certainly hoped that Great Astronomical Studies would cause a sensation and thus bolster the magazine’s popularity, but Locke’s intentions ran deeper than a mere wish to hoax. In the course of his readings of both religion and science, Locke had grown concerned with the manner in which astronomical studies had been overrun by the ruminations of theologians, who possessed no knowledge of science, but insisted on promoting outlandish fantasies rather than data-based discourses of the properties of the moon and other solar bodies. In penning Great Astronomical Discoveries, Locke had hoped not to hoax his readers, but to satirize the works of these charlatans. The fact that the reading public so thoroughly swallowed his faux-scientific story despite the host of scientific inaccuracies he had committed (and which Poe had so proudly identified) only served to prove Locke’s fear that humbuggery had thoroughly destroyed the public’s ability to discern between science and fantasy. Thus, although he was proud of his story’s success, Locke regarded himself as a “self-hoaxed man” (Locke qtd. in Griggs 30) — a man hoaxed by the public’s determination to be hoaxed by his satire. Inflamed by this experience, he wrote passionately concerning the need to restore science and theology to their respective, distinct spheres in his later years.

Despite the popularity he achieved through Great Astronomical Discoveries, Locke, somewhat surprisingly, began to fade from rather than more firmly anchor himself to historical record in the years following the Great Moon Hoax. After a fifteen-month stint with The Sun, Locke left to begin his own paper, the New Era, in which he attempted to write more seriously regarding science, religion, politics, and literature. However, the very success he had helped to establish for penny papers — the very taste he had cultivated in the public for sensationalism — undermined this paper’s ability to thrive. In succeeding years, Locke resumed his interest in politics, editing the democratic Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which Walt Whitman would later commandeer, before abandoning the world of journalism altogether in 1842. For the next twenty years, Locke worked as a customs house officer, utilizing his position and connections within the Democratic Party to engage in occasional public oration. In 1862, the passionate defender of free thought and unintentional hoaxer of thousands retired from his position, and, after nine years of quiet retirement, he died of natural causes in his home on Staten Island.

Works Used for Research

Constantakis, Sarra, Jeff Hunter, Rebecca Parks, and Julie Pitlock, eds. “The Great Moon Hoax.” In America Eras: Primary Sources, Vol. 4: Reform Era and Eastern U. S. Development, 1815-1850, 96-100. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014.

Copeland, David A. “A Series of Fortunate Events: Why People Believed Richard Adams Locke’s ‘Moon Hoax.’” Journalism History 33, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 140-50.

Dinius, Marcy J. “Poe’s Moon Shot: ‘Hans Phaal’ and the Art and Science of Antebellum Print Culture.” Poe Studies 37, no. 1-2 (2004): 1-10.

Falk, Doris V. “Thomas Low Nichols, Poe, and the ‘Balloon Hoax.’” Poe Studies 5, no. 2 (Dec. 1972): 48-49.

Fernie, J. Donald. “The Great Moon Hoax.” American Scientist 81, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 120-22.

Goodman, Matthew. The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Griggs, William N. The Celebrated “Moon Story,” Its Origin and Incidents; with a Memoir of the Author, and an Appendix, Containing, I. An Authentic Description of the Moon; II. A New Theory of the Lunar Surface, in Relation to That of the Earth. New York: Bunnell and Price, 1852

Hudson, Frederic. Journalism in the Untied States, from 1690 to 1872. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1873.

Maliszewski, Paul. “Paper Moon.” The Wilson Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 26-34.

O’Brien, Frank M. The Story of the Sun. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918.

Poe, Edgar A. “Edgar Allan Poe to John P. Kennedy, September 11, 1835.” In The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by John Ward Ostrom, 73-74. New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1966.

——.”Richard Adams Locke.” In The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Volume XV: Literati & Autography, edited by James A. Harrison, 126-37. New York, N. Y.: AMS Press, 1965.

Stovall, James Glen. “Richard Adams Locke.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 43: American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872 edited by Perry J. Ashley, 309-312. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 1985.

Vida, Istvan Kornel. “The ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): 431-41.

This capsule biography was contributed to the Poe Society by Percy Verret, Middle Tennessee State University


  • Notice from “Autography”
    • Richa. A. Locke” (“A Chapter on Autography” - part II) — December 1841 — Graham’s Magazine
  • Notice from “The Literati”


  • Heartman, Charles F. and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Hattiesburg, MS: The Book Farm, 1943.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978. (Second printing 1979)
  • Reece, James B., Poe and the New York Literati: A Study of the “Literati” Sketches and of Poe’s Relations with the NewYork Writers, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke University, 1954.
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849, Boston: G. K. Hall & Sons, 1987.
  • Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1889, 3:751


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