Many people have written about specific historic feats of building and engineering such as the construction of the Erie Canal. Others have written about particular hoaxes which fooled large numbers of people, and biographies of the hoaxsters have also been written. The career of PT Barnum seems as if it would repay study to prepare us for Herr Drumpf.
New York Sawed in Half by Joel Rose traces a story without the solidity of an engineering feat and without even the crowd of slack jawed rubes left behind as the hoaxster rides out of town on a fast horse with some of their hard earned cash in his pockets.
The story goes that an old Market Butcher in around 1860 sought to preserve the history of New York’s markets from the early days before refrigeration, reliable waste disposal, trains, cheap popular newspapers and all the other mod cons of the mid C19. One of his sources for tales of old New York was a distant cousin who incidentally passed on the tale of how he and an associate (“I’ve forgotten his name.”) had convinced a desperate group of the unemployed during an economic downturn in about 1825 that they were in charge of digging a ditch across Manhattan to stop the lower end becoming overburdened with its 150,000 people and sinking into the sea. Reputedly hundreds of men turned upon the appointed day with picks and shovels ready for work while butchers had already set up holding pens with livestock ready to be slaughtered to feed the workers.
There was a degree of plausibility around this large scale ditch digging enterprise in the aftermath of the completion of the Erie Canal which connected Buffalo and the Great Lakes with the Hudson River at Albany via an 8 foot wide barge canal and it’s many locks hacked out of over 300 miles of creeks and swamps at the cost of over 1,000 lives. Admittedly many of the casualties were just cheap, expendable bog Irish migrants. This canal fundamentally changed New York’s status among North American ports by giving upstate New York and the mid-west access to New York’s all weather port instead of the seasonally frozen St Lawrence River. This was one the critical events in the economic history of New York, the USA and the world as it gave Europe regular access to the food products and resources of the American Mid-West before the rail era.
The amateur historian duly inserted the story in his book about the New York markets and soon discovered his leg had well and truly been pulled by his cousin. He was not pleased by this, but the story eventually attracted enough amused attention to become part of New York’s folklore. Joel Rose thought he was undertaking an archival research project tracking down the hoax through contemporary journals, letters and diaries of the 1820’s, only to find that all roads led back to the same source – the first and only mention in the Markets book of 1860. New York Sawed in Half was in fact a story about a hoax of a hoax, spun into whole cloth one day in the 1850’s by an old man happy to chatter away to his younger and more earnest cousin.
Well played, that man!