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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?” 







Public Lecture -┬áMICHAEL MISCIONE


When: Saturday May 2, 2015 @ 2PM

Where: Baruch Performing Arts Center, 17 Lexington Ave., Room 306 (The "Skylight Room")

Did the Dutch really buy Manhattan Island for $24? Were the winged moonmen that made headlines in the New York Sun in 1835 for real? Are there really Alligators in New York City’s sewers? Since colonial days Gotham has been an incubator for great myths, hoaxes, and urban legends. This presentation will separate facts from fiction.

MICHAEL MISCIONE is a native New Yorker, a professional tour guide, and a historical activist. In 2006 Mr. Miscione was appointed Manhattan Borough Historian by Borough President Scott M. Stringer. As the borough's official history booster he hosts history talks, ceremonies and tours. He fields questions from the media and public, and has written articles about New York City history for various publications. Mr. Miscione is well known for his ongoing efforts to secure recognition for Andrew H. Green, a forgotten 19th century master planner, reformer, and preservationist. Thanks largely to Mr. Miscione’s efforts the Parks Department named a new Manhattan park for Mr. Green. Every February 9th Mr. Miscione celebrates Alligators in the Sewers Day, an unofficial annual holiday he created to mark the birth of New York City's greatest true urban legend.

NYCS tries to keep their lectures free and open to the public, but it does cost money to produce the events. Please consider donating to NYCSkeptics or becoming a member. Suggested donation for this talk is $10.


Public Lecture - Silvia Spivakovsky

Why We Need Evidence-Based Practice

When: Saturday March 21, 2015 @ 2PM

Where: 55 Lexington Ave on 25th Street between Lexington and 3rd Room B3-130 (The Rehearsal Room)

General Admission: $10; Free for NYC Skeptics members

Join renowned lecturer Silvia Spivakovsky for a discussion of why health and health science needs "Evidence Based Practice?" What is EBP and what are some examples of proper and improper implementation. How do medical professionals and the general public deal with the "information overload" that is a hallmark of modern medicine? What does the future hold for ensuring best practices among both medical professionals and the general public?

An audience Q&A and social will follow.

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