P. T. Barnum and the First Mission to the Moon

Conspiracy theory background:

Mark Philipson’s first exposure to conspiracy theories came when he read Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken. The compelling text had a profound affect.; the 14 year old got caught up in the whole alien visitor thing. Mark wanted to believe humankind on Earth needed an alien intervention to lead the way to civilization. This attitude wore off not long after turning the last page.

What did keep a hold was a fascination with conspiracy theories remaining to this day. While recovering from an injury during the Great Pandemic of 2020, Mark decided to cook up conspiracy theories. The following narrative is an attempt at building a conspeory.

The Seed:

Phineas Taylor Barnum stared at his financial records. The ledger didn’t look too good, the showman had been in the red for the past two months. The bottom falling out of the railroad industry had hit the economy hard, forcing Barnum to sell his holdings in the show. At least he got some royalty payments from having his name on the bill. It wasn’t enough, Bsrnum couldn’t take another quarter like the last one. He needed a new revenue stream and he needed it fast.

Barnum closed the workbook. Sheer willpower wasn’t going to change those numbers. It wasn’t some phony fortune teller act he was promoting. When Barnum moved the ledger to the side and revealed his favorite newspaper the top story on the Daily Mail jumped out at him: MOON PLATES. The headline was so big it spanned the width and one third of the height of the front page.

Henry Draper, an American astronomer, had developed a technique of exposing photographic plates through a telescope. Barnum breezed past the technical explanations defining Draper’s method of hydraulic stabilization and clock driven rotation control.

Barnum saw something beyond the crystal clear images of the lunar landscape. He just wasn’t sure what it was.

Barnum went with his favorite source of inspiration, a Turkish water pipe loaded with hashish. After three long draws, his mind wandered. What if scenarios drifted through his consciousness like the pungent smoke billowing to the ceiling.

After making some quick notes, Barnum hit the streets of New York City armed with an idea. That wasn’t all he was armed with: a four-barrel, .36 caliber pepper box revolver sat tucked away in a vest pocket. Hidden in the blackthorn cane he carried, a 14 inch dagger sharpened to a razor’s edge waited to be drawn.

Barnum made it to the publishing office of the Daily Mail without incident.

The Pitch:

“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” Barnum told Horatio Hollingsworth, the managing editor.

“I’m a busy man, Mr. Barnum … Can we get to this?”

“Of course,” Barnum said. “A second lost is one less penny in the piggy bank.”

Hollingsworth grinned. “That’s an interesting turn of a phrase.”

“I noticed the front page piece the paper did this morning … A good story … I can see potential there.” Barnum threw out the bait.

Hollingsworth saw a story about an astronomer who fiddled with a telescope so he could expose high quality photographic plates of the moon. To the editor, the story was already dead. “Like I said Mr. Barnum, I have a paper to get out … If you have anything constructive to add to that end, I’d be glad to hear it … If not, I have to get back to work.”

“Here it is, when I saw that bit this morning, I got to thinkin … what if the dark and light areas of the photograph of the moon turned out to be forests and oceans. You know, like on Earth.”

“There’s no proof of that.”

“Who needs proof … All we need to do is get enough people to lay their coins on the barrel head.”

“Which people will be setting coins down for what?”

Barnum could see Hollingsworth was interested. Hell, he hadn’t been tossed out of the office yet. Barnum set the hook: “0n tomorrow’s edition, I want you to run a colorized version of that photograph. Make the light areas green and the dark areas blue. Say astronomers believe the moon is covered in forests and oceans.”

The Scam:

The next afternoon, Barnum answered a knock on the door. A messenger boy handed him a slip of paper. Barnum dug deep into his pockets to come up with a one cent tip. The message, printed on Daily Mail stationary, was from Hollingsworth. The managing editor wanted to meet Barnum for supper at Delmonico’s Steak House on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street.

“You must be hungry,” Hollingsworth said as he watched Barnum tear into his second shrimp cocktail appetizer.

“Well,” Barnum said. “I missed lunch and I walked all the way to get here.” He left out the part about being down to his last ten dollars in the bank and going on a eating every other day schedule.

“You know, running that colorized edition increased our circulation by ten percent.”

“I figured as much.” Barnum looked at the unfinished baked oysters on Hollingsworth’s plate. “Are you going to eat the rest of those?”

“Go ahead.” Hollingsworth pushed the plate across the table. He waited until Barnum was done devouring what was left. “Does the story end here, or is there more?”

“Oh, there’s always more. I could use a drink before dinner, how about you Hollingsworth?”

“All right.” Hollingsworth ordered a glass of white wine. Barnum went with bourbon.

Barnum was working on his third drink when he looked around. Making sure no one was in hearing distance, he leaned in: “Tomorrow, run the paper and say astronomers have seen life on the moon.”

Every evening over dinner, Barnum gave Hollingsworth another story to run the next day. Barnum sketched creatures on house napkins: people with bat-wings soared the lunar skies, oxen with eight legs plowed fields of moon corn 30 feet high. Artist depictions of Barnum’s crude renderings crowded the front page for three days. Circulation was up

At the next meeting, Barnum said, “I think it’s time to move on.”

Hollingsworth had seen sales skyrocket. He didn’t want to stop now. “Move on to what?”

“The next act … The big show … The one that’s going to pack them in and fill the cash boxes.”

Hollingsworth wasn’t following. What could they possibly do to boost circulation by more than it stood now? The managing editor got his answer.

“Tomorrow, start running an advertisement calling for donations. Use that French guy … You know, the writer?”

“Are you talking about Jules Verne?”

“That’s the guy. Didn’t he write some crazy shit about a trip to the moon?”

“You’re talking about From the Earth to the Moon.”

“That’s it. Use the plot of the book to pad out the add … Lay it on thick … Are you with me so far, Hollingsworth?”

Hollingsworth envisioned the piece. He went home that night and put the first draft together in his study.

The next morning, Barnum looked at the morning edition of the Daily Mail. In the classified section, he saw what he was looking for. The article called for donations to a fund that would send a manned missile to the moon. Arms manufacturers from around the world were united with scientists in a quest to build a cannon powerful enough to launch a projectile that would make the journey.

The gag worked. Donations poured in. After three days Barnum took his 25 percent of the proceeds and caught a train to San Francisco.


Cover art for Shoreline blog post.

Space Walk:

The things Mark Philipson hadn’t done were beginning to add up: sitting in the booth by the window, sipping hot coffee while waiting for breakfast, reclining in the padded chair and putting the 3d glasses on as the opening credits of the movie came on screen, walking from store to store in the mall, looking for the best deals on toaster ovens or boxer shorts.

The Covid-19 pandemic had altered his lifestyle.

In the PPE (Pre-Pandemic Era), Mark tried to walk every day. He recalled his last walk clearly. It was during his space station spotting phase. When the NASA web site announced the times and locations when the station would be visible, Mark checked the sighting coordinates. If they were in the good zone and the skies were clear, he planned the walk around the information.

Mark thought about the last time he saw the station. The memory reel rolled in the projection booth in his mind, pushing image sequences out of the stereoscopic lenses of his eyes.

He left his neighborhood behind and stepped into darkness. Mark was in the mitigation area, what he called The Land that Time Forgot. Being in the natural environment made him think about a quote by Edgar Rice Burroughs: “If you write one book, it will probably be bad, if you write a hundred, the odds are in your favor.”

Words to live by.

Mark stepped off the residential sidewalk and pulled his penlight off the clip hanging from his belt loop. Released from its magnetic holder, the twin LED bulbs cut a hole in the wall of night, bathing the sidewalk ahead in moving light.

There were no street lamps in the mitigation area.

Birds squawked in the dense tree line a few feet to the right. Gators grunted in the shallow water on the other side of the wide bank to the left.

Mark stopped when he reached the halfway point between his development and the one due west and stood at the access area used by county maintenance crews. They’d launch air boats here and spray herbicide along the banks of the canals. He thought about how he did it when he was a kid: Mark stood on the sea wall, hauling in clumps of weed on a stiff rake. It was a triple-win situation. He earned some cash, supplied his mom with compost for her rose garden, and picked the craw fish out for bait.

No clouds drifted by. Mark checked his phone. He’d timed it perfectly, two minutes left until the station appeared.

This morning, the international space station would come into view at 18° above true North for twelve seconds.

Mark waited. Using the compass app on his phone, he pointed the digital needle to zero and faced the dark expanse of the Everglades.

He didn’t need to do this. Crossing the Gulf stream—from Port Everglades to Bimini—then returning on a reciprocal heading had burned the cardinal points of the compass rose into his brain.

It killed time.

Then he saw it.

Light from the rising sun hit the space station. From the vantage point on the ground, a bright globe came out of nowhere and streaked across the sky.

Then it was gone.

Above the Water:

Mark’s mind rolled over countless walks until it homed in on one and brought it to the front.

He was in the parking lot at the beach, putting money in the meter. The first thing he saw when he crossed over the wooden sand dune bridge was a woman putting brush to canvas. She worked fast, roughing in the vertical pylons of Dania Pier.

Mark headed south; with each step, the sun climbed higher and a west wind increased until high swells offshore rippled across the horizon.

Ahead, a man entered the surf, a short board under one arm and a bar in his free hand. In one motion, he dropped the board into the shallow water at his feet and stepped on. On the beach, a woman let go of an elliptical sail. The onshore breeze inflated it in an instant, pulling the rigging attached to the handlebar tight.

The board cut a wake across the waves. What happened next took a few seconds to register: the board rose out of the water, the hydrofoil skegg slicing across the surface.

Mark watched the rider maneuver over the sandbars and then run parallel to the shore. The rider was out of sight in minutes. He tried to imagine what it felt like to be holding onto a sail and standing on a board flying over the water, but couldn’t come up with anything.


As Mark continued walking in the soft sand moistened by the cool surf, he saw something in the distance.

It looked like a telephone pole had toppled over. That couldn’t be, Florida Power & Light didn’t erect poles on the beach.

You know, that looks like a mast, he thought. With each step closer, the cylindrical shape, the metallic texture, and heavy rigging confirmed his suspicions.

Mark stood and stared at the sailboat. He figured it was a 30 footer. Somehow, it ended up halfway up Johnson Street beach in Hollywood.

He tried to picture what might’ve happened.

After polishing off half a fifth of dark rum, the captain passed out.

While he slept, bands of thunderstorms moved in from offshore. Lightning forked across the tall clouds. Wind whipped the waves. The sailboat’s single anchor came free of the rocks and the flukes dredged a trench across the sand.

The captain, still drunk, was woken by a grinding noise. He sobered up in a second when he was tossed out of his bunk. When he went on deck and saw he was on the beach, he vomited over the side.

Mark shot some photos with his phone. Walking around the port side to get a different perspective, he saw a sticker pasted to the hull. By order of the maritime commission, the sailboat had been declared condemned and would be removed in five days.

Using one of the photos, Mark attempted to build a composite image blending the beach scene with the Normandy invasion.

For reasons he couldn’t remember, the project never got past the initial layout stages.

Walk thoughts faded. Mark was back in pandemic real time.