Every school kid knows this story. It's one of those bizarre, seemingly inconsequential accidents that leads to disaster.
On October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire turned huge swaths of the city into charcoal briquettes, killing about 300 people in the process. And the whole thing began when Ms. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, setting the barn ablaze and lighting the fuse on what was apparently the world's most flammable city.
It was the Chicago Tribune that reported the blaze began in the barn of Irish immigrant Catherine O'Leary, when the aforementioned cow kicked over a lantern while she was milking it.
O'Leary countered that she had been asleep that evening, but given that she was an Irish Catholic lass living in 1871, nobody gave a fuck what she said. O'Leary was a pariah for the rest of her days. Passers-by would insult her and spit on her until she died in 1895, sad and saliva-soaked.
But how did the Chicago Tribune know O'Leary was responsible? Don't fire investigations take months to complete since, you know, everything is in ashes?
Short answer: No.
Well, journalistic standards were a tad more lax back in the day, and the cow anecdote made for a cute, Irish-bashing story, so the Tribune just made the whole thing up.
Specifically, Tribune reporter Michael Ahern, who quickly came forward and admitted that it was all fiction and that everyone should stop spitting on her. And by "quickly" we mean 22 years later, long after the story was ingrained in popular culture and Ms. O'Leary's life had been ruined.
Yeah, compared to the newspapers of the 19th century, this here website is the goddamn Economist.
In the Roaring 20s, actress Clara Bow was the sex icon for the flapper generation. She danced, partied and canoodled with actors such as John Wayne and Bela Lugosi. You know someone's big time when she's diddling both the Duke and Dracula.
The Coast Reporter, an L.A. rumor rag, figured that if Clara was profiting from her flirty image, then they might as well cash in too. In 1931, the tabloid ran a hit piece detailing Clara's fondness for public sex, threesomes with prostitutes and, oh yeah, fornicating with dogs.
"I am in public with a dog. This covers two of my fetishes. Hopefully this dog is also a prostitute."
The Coast Reporter followed this with a three-week series on Bow's perverted lifestyle and even published such charming lines as, "You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself."
Authorities discovered that the publisher of the Coast Reporter had fabricated these lurid tales to blackmail Bow out of $25,000 (and you thought the Tribune's standards were low).
The damage to Bow's career was catastrophic. The public and her studio no longer considered her an independent, sexually liberated woman--they saw her as a dog boner.
You know, like Megan Fox. And we'll run the rest of the photos unless we get 25 billion dollars.
In 1939, Adolf Hitler became the ultimate spokesman of evil (as opposed to his current position as spokesman of The History Channel). And while we hate to be in the awkward position of defending Hitler, you have to admit the ever-present rumor that the man only had one testicle was a low blow.
The rumor came from a song penned in 1939. To deflate the cult of der Fuhrer and boost Allied morale, the British Council's PR man, Toby O'Brien, came up with the catchy little ditty titled "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." The most well-known version of the tune goes like this:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Goering has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.
The lyrics weren't based on any actual rumors or information at the time, and in fact an early version of the song had Hitler and Goering switched, with Goering being the one missing a testicle and Hitler's having two shrunken ones.
Admittedly, the song was no "Gettin' Jiggy wit It," but it served its purpose. It quickly spread the world over, striking fear into the hearts of Aryan supremacists everywhere. So yeah, maybe it was actually exactly like ""Gettin' Jiggy wit It."
"In the middle of the club with smaller than average testicles."
But wait, there's one more bizarre twist to this tale.
In a weirdly prescient case of art mirroring reality, a Polish field medic who treated Hitler came out last year and said Hitler did in fact have only one ball, having misplaced his testicle in World War I during the Battle of Somme.
As far as we know Toby O'Brien never talked to said medic before writing his tune. Either it's an absolutely bizarre coincidence, or somehow, he just knew. The man was... the Testicle Whisperer.
For more of our attempts to set the historical records straight, see The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught in History Class and 5 People You've Never Heard of Who Saved the World.
Or if you know a thing or two about the subject--or any other--you can write a Cracked Topic Page. You might win cash.