Mobsters, Gangs, and Crooks – The Sawing Off of Manhattan Island

It was a hoax to end all hoaxes, perpetrated by a man known only as Lozier.

Lozier was neither a mobster, nor did he belong to a gang. And certainly, by all historical accounts, Lozier was not a crook. However, considering the havoc he caused in New York City in 1824, Lozier was certainly, by all definitions, a creep.

In 1824, the population on Manhattan Island was approximately 150,000 people. Centre Market, an area at the junction of Baxter, Grand, and Centre Street, was where the townspeople congregated daily, to buy and sell goods, and to shoot the breeze about anything, and everything, that had an impact on their lives. The most vocal person who came to Centre Market daily, was a charismatic man named Lozier. Lozier had traveled the world, and was considered to possess the highest intellectual capacity. When Lozier spoke, people listened. Lozier, a carpenter by trade, was pals with a man with the dubious name of Uncle John Devoe. That’s right, Uncle John.

In early 1824, for some unexplained reason, Lozier remained absent from his bench in Centre Market for several days. When he returned, the usually loquacious Lozier was suddenly, and inexplicably, mute. He spoke to no one except Uncle John Devoe. The rest of the people, who congregated daily at Centre Market, were curious as to why Lozier’s temperament had changed so dramatically.

Finally, Lozier broke down, and told the assemblage that for the past few weeks he had been huddled with the mayor of New York City, Stephen Allen. The reason for those serious discussions was that Manhattan Island, as a result of the many large downtown buildings, was so heavy at the Battery end, the south-most point of the island was in danger of breaking off, and falling into the water.

Some doubted Lozier’s conclusions. So he led them to the middle of Centre Street, and asked them to look for themselves. It was obvious that the street was tilted extremely downhill, as Lozier pointed out to them, “from all the weight of the south-most buildings.”

The crowd was aghast. “What can we do?” they implored Lozier.

Lozier said not to worry. He and the Mayor had come to the conclusion that the only way they could save the southern end of Manhattan Island, was to cut off the island at its North end, in the Kingsbridge region, and turn the island around. Then the would anchor the sagging end to the north mainland. So in effect, North would be South, and South would be North, averting the terrible loss of lives and property.

The only problem was that Mayor Allen thought Long Island was in the way of the proposed operation. Mayor Allen said, there was no way Manhattan Island could be turned completely around without smashing into Long Island. Mayor Allen said it was necessary to detached Long Island from its moorings, tow it out of the way, and after Manhattan Island was properly rotated and re-attached to the mainland, Long Island then could be returned to its proper place.

Lozier finally convinced the mayor that there was enough space in the harbor to rotate Manhattan Island, without dislodging Long Island. Lozier said all they had to do was saw off Manhattan island at Kingsbridge, tow it past Governors Island and Ellis Island, spin it around, and then tow it back to its new position, and anchor it. After much consultation, the mayor reluctantly agreed to doing it Lozier’s way.

Being the political animal that he was, Mayor Allen thought it best to keep the government (meaning him) completely out of the picture. The mayor thought this should be a private endeavor, and he appointed Lozier to handle the entire project, including the hiring of labor, and the supervising of the work.

Not everyone in Manhattan bought the convoluted idea that the southern tip of Manhattan Island was in any danger. However, because of Lozier’s fine reputation as a thinking man’s thinker, those who did believe, quickly either silenced, or convinced Lozier’s doubters.

To make matters more conclusive, Lozier came to his own defense. He cited the recent building of the famous Erie Canal, as proof that his project could indeed be done. Lozier said that when the building of the Erie Canal was proposed, even the best engineers thought, to run a river through the middle of a mountain, was an impossible task. This dubious analogy convinced even the most ardent doubters that not only could it be done, but that Lozier was indeed the man to supervise the operation.

For Lozier, his first task was to hire the hundreds of people needed for such a monumental project. Lozier appeared in Centre Market, with a large ledger, on which he tediously began the task of jotting down applicants, for all types of employment needed to to sever, then turn around Manhattan Island. While attention was diverted elsewhere, Lozier entrusted his pal Uncle John Devoe to complete this task. Devoe personally wrote on the ledger the names, ages, and place of residence, of all who applied, most of whom were the newly-arrived Irish peasants.

While Devoe was compiling a list of workers, Lozier was busy huddling with butchers, to assemble herds of cattle, hogs, and chickens, which were necessary to feed the hundreds of workers on the proposed project. Lozier was especially concerned with getting enough chickens, because he had promised that all workers would have chicken dinners twice a week. One poor butcher was so anxious to please Lozier, he took 50 fat hogs, that were ready for slaughter, and herded them north near Kingsbridge, where he fed them for a month; the feed money coming out of his own pocket, not Lozier’s.

Getting his food-supply-system for the workers out of the way, Lozier now turned his attention to building a barracks for the workers to sleep in at night, after they had finished working in the day. Lozier gathered 20-something carpenters and contractors to furnish the lumber, and the expertise needed to build the barracks. Several of these contractors and carpenters jumped the gun, and hauled a few dozen loads of lumber to the northern end of the island, and deposited it near Kingsbridge, so it would be right there when they needed it. This was done at the carpenter’s and contractor’s expense, of course. Not Lozier’s.

Lozier said he also needed at least 20 saws, each being 100 feet long, and each needing 50 men to manipulate them. In addition, Lozier said he required 24 huge oars, each 250 feet long, and 24 cast-iron oar-locks, in which the gigantic oars would be mounted. Lozier said that at least 100 men would be needed to tow Manhattan Island, after it had been sawed off from the mainland. Lozier provided scores of blacksmiths, carpenters, and mechanics, with the plans to provide the oars, and the oar-locks.

However, Lozier was not finished with this foolishness. He said he would need hundreds of men to do the actual sawing off of Manhattan Island. Lozier promised he would pay triple wages to those who did the sawing under water.

To see which men were most qualified for this hazardous duty, Lozier lined up hundreds of men, and one at a time, he used a stopwatch to measure how much time each man could hold his breath. As each man huffed and puffed, then held his breath until his face almost exploded, Uncle John Devoe entered the breath-holding times in his ledger. Some men were so eager to please, they pleaded with Lozier to let them try several more times, so that they could improve their scores. Lozier happily agreed to their folly.

As the weeks went by, the Manhattan natives were getting restless for the work to be started. Lozier kept putting them off, telling them that he did not have enough laborers, and that the equipment needed had not been completed. Finally, Lozier had no choice but to set a date on which hundreds of people would gather to commence on their mission to saw off Manhattan Island, tow it up the East River, spin it around, and reattach it. Lozier instructed everyone, who was to be involved in the project, to report to work at the corner of the Bowery and Spring Street. Lozier even hired a drum and bugle corps to accompany the large contingent of people on their march to upstate Kingsbridge.

At the appointed time, a group estimated to be at anywhere from 500 to 1000 people, assembled at the corner of the Bowery and Spring Street. Included in the crowd were laborers, accompanied by their wives and children, contractors, carpenters, and butchers, with their cattle, hogs, and chickens, all crated,and ready to go.

But alas, no Lozier. And no Uncle John Devoe.

As the wait for the two men continued, the crowd at the corner of Bowery and Spring Street was growing inpatient: the cattle mooed, the hogs grunted, the chickens cackled, and the young children started squealing in dismay.

After the crowd had waited several hours, of group of men was sent to Centre Market to search for Lozier, and Uncle John Devoe. When the search party returned from Centre Market empty-handed, the more intelligent people started realizing they had all been had, scammed, buffaloed, and humiliated. Some were angry enough to arm themselves with bats and sticks, as they searched the streets of lower Manhattan, looking for Lozier and Uncle John Devoe. However, the two men were nowhere to be found.

Months went by, and still no Lozier, and no Uncle John Devoe. Rumor had it that, their hoax being exposed, the two men had escaped to a friend’s house in Brooklyn, and were in deep hiding. Some of the people, who had invested their own time and money to no avail, wanted to have the two fugitives caught, arrested, and punished. However, the bulk of those who had been duped, argued against doing so, since they didn’t want to admit that they had been stupid enough to accept the outlandish plan that Lozier had made them believe.

Here is where the end of the story diverges into truth, and possible fantasy.

In those days, it was not the job of the newspapers to write about hoaxes. They wrote hard news, and the sawing off of Manhattan Island did not fall into that category. Therefore, there is no record in the newspapers that this event had ever actually taken place. As the years went by, word-of-mouth was the only way the story of the sawing off of Manhattan Island was perpetuated.

One version is, that after several months on the run, Lozier and Uncle John Devoe finally returned to Centre Market, where were ostracized by their victims, and forced to leave New York City. Lucky for them, without major bodily injury.

Another version is that this whole hoax never happened in the first place.

However, the latter version was basically accepted as the townsfolk being so embarrassed by the load of garbage they had been fed by Lozier, and accepted without question, they felt it was better to say that Lozier’s scam had never happened in the first place

I believe in the former version. You be the judge.