The Eureka Springs Baby: Hoax pulled off in 1880 by Pope County merchant
Compiled using information from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas
The second half of the 19th century saw an explosion in interest in excavations of remains and artifacts of ancient life and peoples; this interest in turn fueled a secondary upsurge in amateur carvers and promoters anxious to make a quick profit without doing any actual excavating.
The 1880 discovery of a fossilized human child in Eureka Springs was not revealed as a hoax until 1948. The find was exhibited locally and then around the state. Within a year, the carving—known variously as the “Eureka Baby,” the “Petrified Indian Baby,” or as a Hindu idol—had been exhibited in St. Louis, Missouri; Galveston, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana.
It was also reportedly en route to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC at the time of its disappearance.
This hoax was the brainchild of Henry Johnson, a Pope County merchant who closely modeled his deception on the nationally famous Cardiff Giant. This massive stone man was “discovered” in 1869 in Cardiff, New York, and publicly acknowledged as a hoax the following year in a lawsuit that pitted its originator against showman P. T. Barnum.
In both the Cardiff and Eureka Springs hoaxes, the stone likenesses were created by tombstone carvers, buried, and then unearthed by well diggers, and both made money for their owners.
In 1880, many newspaper writers appeared convinced of the validity of the Eureka Springs find, calling it “proof of pre-Adamic generations” or predicting that it would “revolutionize geology.”
There were some skeptics, however. L. J. Kalklosch, Eureka Springs’s earliest historian, while never claiming to have viewed the baby, agreed with those who called it “a humbug.” Other newspapers expressed doubts, but most telling of all was the Arkansas Gazette, which opined of the “petrified Indian baby” that “there has never been such a thing before. Indian blood was never claimed for the Cardiff giant.”
Henry Johnson had the means and the connections to undertake such a scam, as he was related to Marcus Lafayette Kelly, a Fayetteville tombstone carver. Kelly created the eighty-five-pound, twenty-six-inch-long statue of a child, which was later encased in a thick coating of clay and ash, aging the marble to a mottled blue-gray color.
Around the time it was being carved, Thomas Campbell (also of Pope County) and J. B. Hallum of Texas arrived in Eureka Springs. Hallum bought a piece of land near town and hired Campbell to dig a well on it. On October 1, Campbell, working alone, supposedly dug up the baby at a depth of four feet.
In 1880, Eureka Springs was just a year old, but belief in the curative powers of the town’s many springs had attracted hundreds of health-seekers. Thus, in addition to the townspeople, there was a large audience of invalids eager to see the latest attraction.
Johnson (who established his claim by supposedly buying a share in the baby’s ownership), Hallum, and Campbell charged ten cents to view the find, later raising the rate to thirty-five cents. Within three months, having exhausted local interest, the men took their creation to Clarksville and then Russellville before selling out to two Little Rock investors for a reported $4,600. The baby changed owners again over the course of its travels.
The extraordinary carving was offered to the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts for purchase and was examined by Dr. M.E. Wadsworth whose examination not only found that the figure could not have been buried in the earth for very long, if at all, but that that soil/chalk composition surrounding it which had not been removed contained scraps of modern printed paper.
“Of course”, Dr. Wadsworth concluded his report, “in the light of these facts, further discussion is unnecessary”. The Peabody retuned the figure to Mr. Campbell with the report and the suggestion that the carving be destroyed, a suggestion which was certainly not followed,
In 1948, after all of the participants were dead, T. J. Rowbotham gave an interview to the Arkansas Democrat, revealing the connections between the participants. Rowbotham’s brother John lived in Eureka Springs in 1880 and rented a room to Henry Johnson; Hallum was the Rowbothams’ brother-in-law and lived nearby. Campbell surely knew Johnson back in Pope County because he used Johnson’s business partner as a character witness when making a sworn statement concerning his “find.”
T. J. Rowbotham also revealed that Johnson and Kelly were related by marriage, and he stated that the baby had been seen in an unidentified Chicago, Illinois, museum, complete with information on its origins.
To date, the carving has not been located, but it is known that it did not end up at the Smithsonian. However, a similar stone baby of unknown origin can be found on display at the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock.
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