Thursday, October 25, 2007

Welcome to Weirdsville: When a Hoax is a Hoax

Manhattan (shown not cut in half)

Back when I used to write a variety of columns on the weird and the wonderful, like the Welcome to Weirdsville posts that have been going up here on Meine Kleine Fabrik, I came across what I thought was perfect fodder: one conman + lots of gullible people + a wild story = trying to save the island of Manhattan from sinking by sawing it free, towing it out to sea, turning it around, then putting it back. It was good. Too good, in fact, because I've since learned that the story of this hoax was ... a hoax. So, for a few laughs at my own expense, here's the original piece and a few comments but more more reliable sources about what really happened. Enjoy!


It seemed such a logical thing-after all, this was the 1800s and construction, development, and industry were everywhere. The United States was exploding like a runaway locomotive. Why, it seemed like practically everyday something new was being invented; the world was full of engineering miracles, and it was all, more than a little, frightening.

It also seemed like every day that new projects-some almost insane in their complexity-were being started. This was the era of bridges, tall, taller, and tallest buildings, transatlantic cables, and bigger and bigger steam engines.

And so it made perfect sense that a kind of mechanical Tower of Babel was lurking right around the corner-God sneering down on those damned industrial Americans and their hubris. Something, a lot of people felt, had to happen. Things were just going too well.

Then came their answer, and it was so simple-and, even better, the solution played right into the attitude of the age. The disaster was immanent, Biblical in its proportions, and the solution almost as grand. Why, those taken by the idea believed it was just too perfect: a punishment for our engineering pride, solved by our own mechanical brilliance. Irony can be so captivating.

As can insanity ... or a well-laid hoax.

Whether or not he was insane or just a mischievous craftsman of great hoaxes is a matter of conjecture. While the incident he sparked continues to amaze us to this day, the facts surrounding its mastermind are frustratingly obscure. His name, we know, was Lozier, and in New York City of the early 1800s he was known for being a persuasive, if eccentric, orator. Spouting off on all manner of subjects from his soapbox in Centre Market, Lozier was mesmerizing-to a degree, in fact, that will astonish you.

One day he spoke of something that seemed to resonate with the people of Manhattan. Lozier spoke of the new buildings that seemed to spring like brick and mortar mushrooms overnight on their tiny island-down at the Battery in particular. One day he told a rapt group of Manhattanites something he'd observed while looking down from City Hall, something that had shocked him to the very core of his being. The Battery was sloping down hill.

The situation was obvious, at least for Lozier. Luckily for the possibly doomed citizens of that great island, he had a solution as audacious as the impending disaster.

Manhattan, he said, was sinking, methodically slipping under the waves of the bay. What was needed to be done, he put forth in all his zealous brilliance, was to get a massive workforce together and systematically, precisely cut the island in half.

Once freed of its submerging half, the rest of Manhattan could then be safely towed out to sea, turned about, and then reattached to better reinforce the imperiled island.

I'll wait while you either laugh, or shake your head in amazed disgust.

Ready? That was the plan-but what separated Lozier's plan from, say, the idea of beaming up to an alien spacecraft clinging to the ass-end of the Hale-Bop comet is what happened. Yes, Lozier preached his insane, ludicrous disaster to the citizens of New York. But what's truly insane, truly ludicrous is that the fine, intelligent, cultivated citizens of the Big Apple... believed him.

Over the next few days Lozier organized a massive workforce-over 300 men signing up to help the first day, alone. Burly and eager to save their precious island, these men recruited others who then perpetuated the mad scheme/hoax. Supplies, Lozier deduced, would be needed, and so he dispatched many to various suppliers all over the island. With no money or backing, he managed to acquire bids for the construction of a headquarters, chain (for the towing), the manufacture of the massive saws, boats, and even food and necessities for his workers.

The dangerous part, he explained, would be handled by a very select cadre of men-for these masterful workers would have to be placed under the island, to help guide the massive saws. Since this required them being underwater for a considerable amount of time, Mad (or devious) Lozier held auditions for these so-important positions with a stopwatch in his hand to make sure the candidates could hold their breaths for the necessary amount of time.

Finally, it was zero hour. Finally, it was time to rally his troops and begin the actual construction and implementation of his all-important scheme. Manhattan was in danger! Manhattan could-and would-be saved. On that fateful day, several thousand showed up at the selected location, eager and willing to save their island.

But no Lozier. No sign of him anywhere. Those thousands lingers for hours, puzzled and confused. Eventually, they drifted off, back into the hurl and the burl of their constantly growing island. Insane or with just an insane sense of humor, Lozier was never seen or heard from again.

However, it is important to note, in Lozier's defense, that a recent study conducted by the US Geologic Survey calculated that the island of Manhattan is sinking at approximately the rate of a half-inch per year. Whether or not the US government has any plans to halt the submersion of this all-important trade and cultural Mecca is not known-but it's at least comforting to know that there was someone, once before, who not only foresaw this problem, but also dreamt up an elegantly simple solution.


18th Century folks (not that gullible)

But here's the truth behind the myth:

What you just read was a hoax of a hoax. Several books about journalism history have retold the above story as fact. It originated in 1835. A business partner of the man named Lozier in the story claimed Lozier had told him the story much earlier. He related the story to his son and grandson many times over. the truth finally came out in the 1870's. The entire story was made up. Despite the truth coming out, many journalism history books continued to retell the story as being true well into the 1950's. Despite being lower educated, people living in New York in the early 1800's WERE NOT that gullible!
From Wikipedia:

The sawing off of Manhattan Island is an old New York City story that is largely unverified. It describes a practical joke allegedly perpetuated in 1824 by a retired ship carpenter named Lozier. According to the story, in the 1820s a rumor began circulating among city merchants that southern Manhattan Island was sinking near the Battery due to the weight of the urban district. It was believed that by cutting the island, towing it out, rotating it 180 degrees, and putting it back in place that Manhattan would be stabilized, and that the thin part of the island could be condemned. Surprisingly the main concern was not the futility of the idea but of Long Island being in the way. Lozier finally assembled a large workforce and logistical support. At a massive groundbreaking ceremony, Lozier did not show up but hid in Brooklyn and did not return for months.

The story did not appear in any known newspapers (although the press supposedly did not report on such pranks in that era) and no records have been found to confirm the existence of the individuals involved. This has led to speculation that the incident never occurred and that the original report of the hoax was itself a hoax. The hoax was first documented in Thomas F. De Voe's 1862 volume The Market Book, and was told again in Herbert Asbury's 1934 title All Around The Town. Another condensed retelling occurs in the 1960's Reader's Digest book, Scoundrels and Scallywags. The term has taken on new meaning since the 1980's when upstate New York entered a regional economic recession that it has yet to recover from. Many upstate residents joke or believe that New York City itself is a huge drain on the state's economic resources and ever increasing income and sales tax rate over the last several decades. Some believe that New York City should be a separate and distinct district, like Washington, D.C., and rely on its own economic and tax infrastructure while allowing the rest of the state to adjust its own accordingly to try to bring back jobs and businesses.

- and be sure and check out the absolute source for telling truth from fiction: Snopes.

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