The newspaper story was sensational – in all sense of the word. The tale is incredible and written in the era when journalism meant whatever sold papers, truth be damned.
But the story is about an underground city and giants in the Midwest, so it’s worth telling again.
It happened on the pages of the April 9, 1885 edition of The New York Times in a story entitled: “Missouri’s buried city: A strange discovery in a coal mine near Moberly.” Moberly, the largest city in Randolph County, had a population of 6,108 in the 1880s.
Coal miners, sinking a shaft 360 feet deep, broke into a cavern revealing “a wonderful buried city,” the article claimed. Lava arches stretched across the roof of the cavern, looming over the streets of an ancient city “which are regularly laid out and enclosed by walls of stone, which is cut and dressed in a fairly good, although rude style of masonry.”
Workers, along with Moberly city recorder David Coates and Moberly city marshal George Keating, inspected the site, found a 30-by-100-feet hall in the cavern filled with stone benches and hand tools.
“Further search disclosed statues and images made of a composition closely resembling bronze, lacking luster,” the article read.
Explorers discovered a stone fountain in a wide court, still pouring “perfectly pure water” into its basin. But it was what lay beside the fountain that interested the people exploring the site.
“Lying beside the foundation (of the fountain) were portions of the skeleton of a human being,” according to the article. “The bones of the leg measured, the femur four and one-half feet, the tibia four feet and three inches, showing that when alive the figure was three times the size of an ordinary man, and possessed of a wonderful muscular power and quickness.”
Its skull, the story reported, was shattered; bronze tools, granite hammers, metallic saws and flint knives were scattered all around. “They are not so highly polished, nor so accurately made as those now finished by our best mechanics, but they show skill and an evidence of an advanced civilization that are very wonderful,” according to the article.
Explorers spent 12 hours in the buried city and resurfaced only after the oil in their lamps burned low.
“No end to the wonders of the discovery was reached,” the article stated. “A further extended search will be made in a day or two.”
No record of the extended search could be found.
Dr. Tom Spencer, a professor in the department of History, Humanities, Philosophy and Political Science at Northwest Missouri State University, said that’s because after printing the story, the newspapers tried to forget it.
“A lot of the time I think these stories were written based entirely off hearsay and little or no direct on-site reporting,” he said. “As the story grew, the details got more and more outrageous.”
He equates it to a childhood game where children sit in a circle and one child whispers a story into another’s ear and by the time the story completes the circle, it was completely different.
“The point of this exercise was to try to see what would happen when the story had made it all the way around the circle,” he said. “If you recall, sometimes the ‘finished story’ bore little resemblance to the original story. My guess is one element of this story is factual – like the strange shaft formation or a long femur was found – and it became more and more embellished as it went around the journalistic circle at the time.”
So what happened to the fabulous buried city under Moberly, Mo.?
“There were stories like this periodically at the time and they usually disappear quietly because someone goes to investigate and there’s nothing to it,” Spencer said. “In order to avoid the embarrassment the newspapers just don’t say anything else about it.”
Copyright 2009 by Jason Offutt
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