By Russ Dobler
Yes, it happened. The Dutch really did buy Manhattan for $24. Or, at least, $24 worth of goods. Not adjusted for inflation.
That was one of the few “mostly true” tall tales about the Big Apple recounted by official Manhattan historian Michael Miscione on Saturday, May 2. Miscione had returned to Baruch College, his alma mater, to take part in the New York City Skeptics’ monthly lecture series, where he spoke to a standing-room only audience of about 70. With a talk named “New York City’s Greatest Myths, Hoaxes and Urban Legends,” he expected a tough crowd.
Miscione needn’t have feared, though, no more than anyone should have worried over the fictional Central Park Zoo escape he described, the narrative of which the New York Herald published in 1874. True, false or even deliberately misleading, it’s hard for anyone to not enjoy a yarn that starts with a shocking rhino/elephant team-up and ends with Mayor John A. Dix shooting a tiger dead at the corner of 34th Street and Madison Avenue.
The Herald owned up to its fabrication at the very end of the 10,000-word article, but that didn’t stop armed Manhattanites from showing up at police stations, offering their amateur animal control services for the containment effort. But that was over a hundred years ago. Surely the modern public couldn’t be taken in by such a ruse.
“If you think these kinds of newspaper hoaxes couldn’t happen today,” Miscione said, “au contraire!”
The professional tour guide and native New Yorker reminded the crowd of 2008’s “hoax that would make The Onion proud,” when the satirical activist duo called the Yes Men printed 80,000 copies of a fake New York Times issue that reported the announcement of a maximum wage for corporate CEOs, along with then-President George W. Bush’s stunning accusation that he himself had committed treason. So many people bought into the special edition that the Times was forced to issue a statement: “We’re looking into it.”
Ever heard that Broadway began its life as an Indian trail? Not exactly. Only the blue segments coincide.
Altogether, Miscione told about a dozen hard-to-swallow stories, from the folklore of Mose the Fireman to the science fiction of the moon men observed (but not really) by astronomer John Herschel. Although some were harmful, like the famous panics brought on by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, one hoax at least launched the career of Washington Irving and gave New Yorkers the term “knickerbocker.”
Miscione saved his favorite (probably true) myth for last, one that’s so dear to his heart that he campaigns for February 9 to officially be named “Alligators in the Sewer Day.” That was the date in 1935, so the New York Times reported, that several teenagers hauled a 125-lb. gator from a storm sewer on E. 123rd Street.
That seems pretty far-fetched, until you consider there were mail-order services in the 1920s that would actually send you baby alligators through the post office. Why no one considered what would happen when they grew up is unclear, but maybe it had something to do with the marketing slogan that Miscione showed:
“Do you want a baby alligator? You bet you do. What boy wouldn’t?”