Although published in reverse order, the prefatory remarks (published second) lay out the circumstance through which a man named Joseph Backus, probably the prominent Bridgeport, Conn. lawyer of that name, grandson of a clergyman, came to deliver to the journal a letter written to him by Capt. James Allen, lately returned from Sicily. Note that even at this early date—1812!—the idea of gigantic skeletons was already associated with proving the literal truth of Scripture, something strangely missing from many earlier European accounts of giants, which for Europeans were simply part of the everyday background of intellectual life. Something about America seems to demand the security of connecting experiences back to Scripture:
Amongst the many who near the time of the end, according to the prophet Daniel, should run to and fro, and by whom knowledge should be increased, Capt. JAMES. ALLEN, of this borough, appears to be one. He has lately returned to his family and friends, after an absence of about two and an half years, traversing different seas, and visiting different countries. At the port of Girgenti, in the island of Sicily, in the Mediterranean, he spent considerable time. Among many things gratifying to the curious to hear, he lately described to me some enormous human skeletons seen by him on that island. The relation was so extraordinary, that I requested of him that his statement might be committed to writing, and that he would make oath to its truth; to which he very politely assented. I was not induced to this by any doubt in my mind of the truth of the facts, as all who are acquainted with Captain Allen, will as readily give credit to his naked certificate of facts within his own knowledge, as to the affidavit of any person whatever. But as I thought the statement worthy of publication, strangers might, by the solemnity of the mode, give more attention to it.
Captain Allen’s relation must furnish the naturalist with much additional evidence of the changes which have taken place in the world since its creation, and give an enlarged scope to his philosophical researches. The scholar will be pleased to learn, that on classic ground there are now indubitable evidences that the fables of the Titans and Cyclops, had for their foundation a race of giants, who while existing, must have been the terror of all mankind of modern size, and by the heathen, naturally, have been believed superior in their nature. The Christian, whose faith is founded on the divine authority of the Bible, must feel peculiar pleasure when new and important evidence of the truth of scripture history is discovered. Mallet, in his Northern Antiquities, and Russic Mythology, drew from the darkness of ancient Scandinavian languages, the Icelandic Edda, containing the religion of Odin. The readers of that little volume, translated by Mallet, readily discover many facts and doctrines (though enveloped in fable) so analogous to some in the bible, that the knowledge of them must have been derived from the same source—a revelation to the Patriarchs at a period anterior to the dispersion of mankind after the general deluge. Sir William Jones, in his Asiatic Researches, has produced from the mythology of the Hindoos, incontrovertible evidence of many of the permanent articles of scripture history, peculiarly subject to deistical cavilling and derision. Barrow, in the account he gives of his travels in the province of the Cape of Good Hope, furnishes satisfactory proofs that the Unicorn was once an inhabitant of Africa. Captain Allen’s statement proves beyond a doubt, that a race of men once inhabited our earth, as large as Goliath or the sons of Anak.
After the above remarks, I make no apology for offering to you for publication the annexed statement.
Concerning some HUMAN Bones of an extraordinary size, dug from a great depth, near Girgenti, (the ancient Agrigentum) in Sicily: In a letter from Capt. JAMES ALLEN to JOSEPH BACKUS, Esq. of Bridgeport, dated
BRIDGEPORT, Dec. 21, 1808.
In compliance with your request, and in answer to your different inquiries, be pleased to accept the following statement.
In the spring of the year 1807, I was master of the ship Jupiter, of Philadelphia, on a voyage up the Mediterranean, and in the month of May in that year, lay a considerable time, in the port of Girgenti, in the island of Sicily; situated on the southern side of the island, about twenty leagues south-east of Palermo, and about thirty leagues south-west from Mount Ætna. While lying there, I was informed that some human skeletons, of vast size, had been then lately dug from the ground, about three miles from Girgenti. My curiosity led me to visit the spot from whence they were taken, and to examine and measure the bones. On arriving at the place, I was shown two skeletons, the one much broken, the other entire, except a small piece of one of the leg bones being wanting. The bones of the entire skeleton were promiscuously laid in a box, but measured when laid in a natural position, eleven feet four inches, Italian measure, in length; ten of which inches equal nine English, or very nearly; making the skeleton about ten feet and a half, English. I measured one of the thigh bones, which was twenty-six Italian inches long, and of a proportionate size—its diameter, as near as I could judge, being about four inches, English. The head, including the skull and jaws, were about the dimensions of a common two gallon pail or bucket, and the rest of the bones were in suitable proportions to those described: the whole being a human skeleton, or the entire bones of a man, as above described, of a gigantic size, certainly of a height when living, of not less than ten English feet, and probably several inches higher, by reason of the cartilages between the joints, muscles and skin, on the top of the head and the soles of the feet.
The discovery of the bones was made, as I learned from the inhabitants, about a year before I was there. Some of the neighbouring people having pitched upon the place from whence they were dug (a vale by the side of a mountain) for the purpose of digging sulphur, (an employment common in that island) opened the ground, and by degrees descended to the depth of one hundred and seventy feet, when they came to a marble wall, erected by art, and ornamented with hieroglyphical representations. While attempting to remove a part of it, the wall fell, when within was discovered a hollow place, in which were the bones described, and which appeared to have been enclosed in marble coffins or cases, also adorned with hieroglyphics. The parts of the supposed cases were so broken by the falling of the wall, that their proper shape and design was not ascertained. One of the skeletons was also much broken at the same time; the other was however entire, as before stated. The falling of the wall so deranged the parts of the vault, that it could not be determined whether it was in fact a sepulchre, or some other building; nor was it ascertained whether those were skeletons deposited here by design, or were those of persons killed by the sinking of a city, and buried in its ruins at the time of some awful catastrophe—but that at some period of the world the place where the bones were found had been the site of some opulent city, adorned with the arts, and which had, by some great convulsion of nature, been sunk and overwhelmed by the sea, there can be no doubt: the marble blocks and slabs taken from the wall, part of which had not been removed, all engraved in the most curious manner, with various devices, and which I carefully viewed, having descended into the aperture to its bottom for that purpose, satisfied me of the fact. Besides, the earth through which the workmen had descended was all made earth, appearing to be composed of sea-mud filled with oyster, scallop and other sea shells, of uncommon size. There was, however, no tradition among the inhabitants, as I could learn, of such a city, or of any such great convulsion as must have destroyed it. The people were still labouring at the depth mentioned.
Thus, sir, have I complied with your request, as far as my recollection will at this time enable me to do it. I am willing to make oath to the truth of my statement, when convenient for you to attend for that purpose.
If so, the skeletons found within begin to make more sense. They probably eroded out of the excavated underground caverns over the centuries. If so, the skeletons are probably those of extinct dwarf elephants, the bodies of which have been mistaken for giants and Cyclopes for thousands of years. Giovanni Boccaccio reported on the discovery of the skeleton of a “giant” at Trapani, on the same side of Sicily, in almost identical circumstances, back in the 1300s (Genealogia deorum gentilium 4.68). Those bones remained on display for hundreds of years.
In 1806, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier surveyed the distribution of known fossil elephant bones and discovered that they correlated well with the reports of the discovery of “giant” or “heroic” skeletons of extraordinary size. In fact, he specifically noted that “Sicily possesses these curiosities in abundance” and concluded that the skeleton reported by Boccaccio as well as another found in Palermo were those of fossil elephants.
I’m comfortable concluding that Capt. Allen saw another in the endless parade of Ice Age fossil mistaken for the bones of giants.
OK, so let’s return to Joseph Comstock. Comstock’s version of Capt. Allen’s story repeated all of the essential details and added Comstock’s own recognition that the discovery occurred in the land where mythology claimed the Cyclopes lived. It’s strange that Comstock was familiar with and endorsed Georges Cuvier’s geological work, but he seems to have either not known about or rejected Cuvier’s claims about giants, since Comstock concludes from Allen’s testimony “that the remains of Goliah’s, and of the sons of Anak, or the similitudes of their race, are occasionally found in a fossil state, must be admitted.” In other words, the existence of giants is important for understanding the world through scripture, something that the less fanatical French didn’t have as much problem ignoring. Comstock concludes that, like Pompeii, a lost city was buried by a volcano, trapping the ancient giants beneath its effluvia.
More importantly, Comstock’s book included the following drawing of Allen’s discovery, an artist’s impression by someone who had only a 25-year-old letter to go on.