In the early 1800's, in New York City, at the junction of Baxter, Centre, and Grand Streets, was the Center Market. It is this area that people gathered to buy their goods as well as exchange news. There was an area with long benches and a soapbox where people could hold open forum to discuss topics of the day. So sets the scene for one of my favorite hoaxes in journalism.
Of all the orators, a man named Lozier was the most respected. On a daily basis, he could be found at the Market debating an important topic. Lozier had an illustrious background. He had made several voyages to Europe as a ships' carpenter and was well educated. Of all factors, his most important was that he had charisma. Through sheer charm, Lozier could convince others that what he was claiming was correct. He always had an answer ready for questions whether they be political, financial, or moral. July of 1824 saw a sudden change in Lozier and the birth of a great hoax. Although for years Lozier had made daily speeches at the Centre Market, and was always available for individual debates, now, all of a sudden, though coming to the Market each day, he sat off in a corner and was very introverted. If anyone approached him he would abruptly ask them to leave him alone. His friends debated among themselves on what was causing this change in Lozier. Finally, after a few weeks of quietness, a delegation approached Lozier with concern. Why was he so quiet and unsociable?
This moment is just what Lozier had waited for. He proceeded to explain that it was not only his own problem but it also greatly affected their very own lives! With that statement there was dead silence and the crowd surrounding Lozier grew bigger. In a well calculated and rehearsed speech, he went on to reveal the dire problem. Simply put, he informed them that Manhattan Island was much too heavy on the Battery end because of all the heavy construction that had gone on in recent years. The weight of all these buildings at one end was causing it to tip and eventually would break off into the sea! Though some expressed doubtfulness, Lozier had "proof." He took the crowd to the center of the street and told them to look down the road. From City Hall to the opposite end was all downhill.
Now it was sheer panic! It was true! 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 spared of the pending disaster.
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 saved. The plan was as follows: 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. There Manhattan would be turned around and brought back into the mainland and reattached. Now the heavy end would be the one attached to the mainland and the opposite end, which had fewer heavy buildings, would be on the free end. Zoning laws could be passed to prevent construction of buildings on this 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 possessed a perfect sense of timing, again showed up at Centre Market. When he arrived at the scene, he took command. 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 continued thinking 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 and each saw tooth 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 the sheer humor vein 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 must 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 better their previous time
The time came when Lozier could stall no longer. People were getting restless and anxious to start the project. Lozier 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 the 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 hadn't been seen since!
History has not recorded how long these people waited around before it finally dawned on them that they had been "had" -- or if they ever did realize it was only a well-planned hoax.
Is Manhattan Island still sinking? No problem. Call Lozier!
NOTE: 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!