It all began on July 2, 1879.
It was a hot day, and the workmen, who were widening the carriage drive to the upper glen at Taughannock Falls, a few miles southeast of Trumansburg, were wishing for cooler weather. Despite this, however, the work of excavating the road had progressed as far as the land of one John Thompson, who owned a summer hotel nearby.
Suddenly, one of the workers felt his pick strike something hard in the dirt. Believing he had come across a large rock, he began to loosen the dirt around it. As he dug away the ground, he stopped, and his jaw dropped in amazement. For there in the ground, partly exposed to his startled gaze, was what appeared to be a petrified man.
Finding his voice, he shouted to the other men, and soon the crew, oblivious to the heat, was digging frantically. When the men had finished their work, they stood in silence, viewing what they had uncovered.
In the cavity lay the body of a seven foot man, a giant man of stone. His 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 grew the roots of a nearby tree.
To say the men were gripped with excitement is to put it mildly, for they had apparently uncovered the petrified remains of a man who had existed countless centuries before.
The news spread like wildfire and it was not long before hundreds of spectators were flocking to the scene. Exploitation of the petrified giant naturally fell to John Thompson, upon whose land it had been found. Thompson had photographs taken and the photographers enjoyed a period of prosperity as people bought the pictures as fast as they could be made.
Cornell University and other scientists visited the spot, and, at Thompson’s invitation, chipped off small fragments for study. After analyzing these bits of the body, the scientists proclaimed that, without a doubt, here was an authentic petrifaction of a human being of an extinct, prehistoric race.
For months, Trumansburg and vicinity became the mecca of thousands of tourists and the fame of the Taughannock giant spread far and wide.
Then came the startling revelation!
A Trumansburg man, Frank Creque, imbibed a bit too freely in a village tavern one night and his drink-loosened tongue revealed that the stone man was nothing but a hoax, conceived purely as a publicity stunt, and that he, Creque, had been one of the instigators. As Creque, under the influence of alcohol, continued talking, the entire story came to light.
The idea of this brother to the famed Cardiff giant of ten years before was conceived in the mind of John Thompson for the purpose of attracting attention to his hotel. Thompson approached Ira Dean, a Trumansburg mechanic, with the scheme and Dean agreed to help.
After studying chemistry to learn the ingredients of the human body, Dean mixed up a thick batter composed of eggs, beef blood, iron filings and a special plaster or cement. After nights of patiently molding the material into the resemblance of a prehistoric man, Dean baked it in a huge oven until it was rock hard.
Then, in the dead of night, Dean, Thompson and Creque took the 800-pound object to the scene of its discovery. They were clever enough to realize that they could not merely dig a hole and bury the body, thus showing the earth had been disturbed. Instead, the trio tunnelled in from the side and then pushed the stone man through this 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.
Because of this careful plan, the most convincing evidence when the giant was discovered the next day was the sod over the body which “had not been disturbed for a thousand years.”
Even after the hoax was revealed, scientists refused to believe that Dean had actually made it. In order to convince them, the Trumansburg man was forced to create another in miniature so that the scientists could see for themselves that the giant had actually been man-made.
The revelation of this hoax created as much excitement as its original discovery, but then, public interest waned and the Taughannock Giant joined the ranks of the forgotten.
As the giant had served its purpose, plans were made to remove the stone creature, but, in lifting it, it was dropped and broken. The remnants were taken and buried in an orchard near Trumansburg, where they remain to this day, the exact spot long since forgotten.
Perhaps hundreds of years from now, these fragments will be re-discovered and hailed by future scientists as a great find. Mr. Dean died in 1912, but the giant is well remembered by his grand-daughter, Mrs. Pearl Holman, now a resident of Ithaca.
The story of the Taughannock Giant is little known to the newcomers and younger generation of Trumansburg and the area, but a few of the old timers still remember those hectic days of discovery and exposure which brought the spotlight of fame for a fleeting instance to Trumansburg three-quarters of a century ago.
by A. Glenn Rogers
This story was originally published in 1953