A Hoax Within a Hoax Within a Tale

manhattan-flooded

He was simply known as Lozier, and when he spoke people listened. It could be said that he was the Walter Cronkite of his time: highly-respected, sagacious; everyone trusted his opinions and heeded his advice. He had traveled the world and was learned in everything. Whether the topic was political or financial, social or spiritual, Lozier had a ready answer to people’s questions. His wisdom was only equaled and complemented by his charm; it was this charm that could convince the most skeptical individual that what Lozier had to say was indeed true. Hence, in July of 1824, one of American history’s greatest hoaxes was born.

Centre Market was situated at the junction of Baxter, Centre, and Grand Streets in New York City. In the early 19th century, the bulk of the entire city was crammed into Lower Manhattan and was becoming further crammed with each passing year. Centre Market was a bustling spot for shopping and socializing; a place where people came to pick up groceries as well as pick up on the latest news and gossip. In fact, an area was set aside replete with long benches and soapboxes where various orators would deliver their latest announcements and pronouncements. This was where Lozier reigned supreme over all other lecturers and sermonizers, gossipmongers and aspiring prophets…no one could get enough of him.

Over a century before television would place a “talking head” in everyone’s home, Lozier was a full-bodied talking head who was gifted at dialogue as well as monologue. He never missed a day speaking at Centre Market and was always available for both public and private debates; if anything, he was never at a loss for words. His friends and associates could always depend on Lozier having something to say about anything beneath the sun or underneath the earth or beyond the stars.

Then, sometime in the aforementioned July, 1824, Lozier suddenly went silent and unaccountably wished to be left alone. He withdrew into a corner of Centre Market and into himself, chasing away anyone who approached him. After several weeks of brooding dormancy, Lozier decided to tell a small group of puzzled followers what was troubling him. The small group very quickly became a large crowd, as more passersby began gravitating towards the vocally and socially reanimated Lozier. He prepared them slowly but surely for what was disturbing him, telling the crowd that his problem wasn’t his alone but affected all their lives. This time, they listened to what he had to say like they had never listened before; he told to them quite solemnly that Manhattan Island was about to fall into the sea.

After the inevitable flowing cries and surging gasps from the crowd died down, the obligatory group of fainting ladies finally revived, Lozier went into details concerning this quite depressing news. He explained how Manhattan Island was weighted down at the Battery (its southernmost end) with buildings and the island was tipping more and more towards the sea. When some skeptics questioned this, he had them look at the streets running from City Hall…all ran downhill towards the harbor. Lozier further illustrated the catastrophic imminence of “downhill topography” by telling them that if rivers ran to the sea, the streets around them ran to the sea, it only followed that the island they lived on would follow such streets and ultimately fall into the sea.

Now there was sheer panic. It was true! But Lozier told them not to worry as he had almost figured out a solution. He asked them to give him a few more days and he would announce how Manhattan could be saved from becoming an underwater city.

After a few days the news came that Lozier was going to speak that afternoon at the Market. Needless to say, hundreds showed up to hear his solution. With much drama, Lozier explained how Manhattan Island could be spared impending submersion. First it would be necessary to saw the island off at the northern end, at the Kingsbridge, and tow it past both Governor’s and Ellis Island and out to sea. Meanwhile, the lower, heavy half of Manhattan would be towed north and attached to the mainland. The other half would now be re-towed and reattached to the newly-created northern half of Manhattan. Zoning laws could be passed to prevent construction of buildings on this lighter end. Problem solved!

For several days the sawing off of Manhattan Island was on everyone’s mind. When public interest was at its height, Lozier, who, needless to say, had a perfect sense of timing, again showed up at Centre Market. He held up a large ledger and announced that the names of all able-bodied men would be recorded as applicants to work on the project. Over 300 men signed up the first day! Lozier next hired a handful of contractors and carpenters to furnish lumber and build large barracks which would be used by laborers during the actual saving process. Going one step further, he also ordered a separate building to be constructed to house a mess hall to feed the workers. Continuing with the well-executed plan, Lozier next notified butchers to submit their bids for five hundred head of cattle, the same number of legs, and three thousand chickens!

Lozier was having great fun. He constantly conjured up up new things that had to be done before the actual sawing could take place. He next sought out some blacksmiths to have them make fifteen crosscut saws one hundred feet in length (each sawtooth alone stood 3 feet high); it would take fifty men to operate each saw. They also needed to make several miles of heavy gauge chain which could be wrapped around trees and attached at the other end to the fifteen hundred boats he was having built. (It must be added that no one questioned just who was going to finance this operation.)

Perhaps the single event in this plot that tops them all in terms of humor is that of a “pitman.” Lozier, at Centre Market, announced new applications were being taken for several pitmen. He explained that a pitman had the most dangerous job. That job entailed being on the bottom end of the cross cut saw — under water! Since the job was so dangerous, the pay was triple of those on top of the saw.

To qualify for the job, the applicants were required to hold their breath and be timed. Those with the longest time would be selected as pitmen. All day long the scene was the same. A man would have his turn at the front of the line, Lozier would activate his stopwatch while the man held his breath. At a certain point the man’s face would turn various shades of red then, finally, let out a burst of breath. Several men got in line more than once to see if they could top their prior breathless records.

Eventually, the time came when Lozier could stall no longer. People were getting restless and anxious to start the project. He was forced to announce a starting date. Even this was done with great flair. The date was announced and the workers hired. All were to report at 6 AM at a specific location on the Battery end. From there a parade would march to City Hall — complete with bands! Thousands showed up at the appointed time and place — all except Lozier, that is. He left town the night before and was never seen again.

History has not recorded how long these people waited around before it finally dawned on them that Lozier had made a permanent, one-way departure; leaving behind this moaning herd of befuddled dupes.

Is Manhattan Island still sinking? No problem. Call Lozier! If you could find him.

NOTE: What you just read was a spurious tale about a hoax; or, if you will, an urban legend. It originated in 1835. A business partner of a real life Lozier claimed that he told him the story. In turn, the business partner told the story to his son and grandson many times over. The tale, presumably, gaining more and more elaboration as it was told and retold. Somehow, long before the Internet, the story went viral and it became a popular conversation piece of the mainstream.

Despite the truth behind it all was allegedly revealed in the 1870s, many journalistic history books continued to retell the story as being factual well into the mid-twentieth century! If anything, heedless of one fact: despite being largely undereducated, most people living in New York in the early 1800s (or at any other time) were not that gullible… and certainly not that stupid. In fact, to have believed that there ever was such a hoax would be almost as ridiculous as being duped by Lozier himself.

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