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Everybody knows that people in the past were insane. They wore funny hats, used words like "wherefore," and don't get us started on the pants.

But some of the historic anecdotes we love repeating again and again simply aren't true. As convenient as it may be to think of our ancestors as murder-happy torture enthusiasts, they were crazy, but they weren't that crazy.

6
Gun Fights in the Violent Wild West

The Insanity:

A gloriously mustached man sits at a card game in an old saloon, surrounded by cowboys and surprisingly fresh-faced prostitutes. He looks up, and notices that the player opposite him is hiding an extra card up his sleeve. He calls him on it, the word yellow is pronounced as 'yeller,' and pretty soon they're facing off in the city square. There's a long moment before the cheater moves for his hip holster, but he's not fast enough. Quick as lightning, the gambler draws his revolver and shoots the cheat dead between the eyes.

The cowboys and prostitutes go back to their drinks, well-accustomed to this sort of random violence, as the man nonchalantly twirls his pistol and says: "Guess he couldn't read my poker face."


A typical western saloon, moments before everyone in the room shot each other.

A hundred years of Westerns have taught us that this is how you lived and died in the Wild West. The quicker draw lived to gun-fight another day. It was essentially a roving single elimination rock, paper, scissors tournament that didn't end until you were dead.

But in Reality...

How many murders do you suppose these old western towns saw a year? Let's say the bloodiest, gun-slingingest of the famous cattle towns with the cowboys doing quick-draws at high noon every other day. A hundred? More?

How about five? That was the most murders any old-west town saw in any one year. Ever. Most towns averaged about 1.5 murders a year, and not all of those were shooting. You were way more likely to be murdered in Baltimore in 2008 than you were in Tombstone in 1881, the year of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral (body count: three) and the town's most violent year ever.

As for the traditional Western gunfight as depicted in movies, the inaccuracy of handguns at the time would have made quick-drawing skill irrelevant: It was simply so unlikely you'd hit a guy on the first, second or third shot that it didn't really matter which guy got out his gun first. The closest history got to high-noon show downs was dueling, where people just stood across from one another with their guns out, aimed and fired until someone got lucky, and someone else was dead. Forget about "fanning," rapidly cocking a single-action revolver between rounds like Clint Eastwood does in A Fistful of Dollars. You'd be lucky to hit a henchman if the duel took place in a closet.

Why Do We Believe It?

Because famous gunfighters like Billy the Kid wanted you to believe it. If you've seen Young Guns on cable, you probably know the guy was gunning somebody down every ten minutes!


"... then I was all like 'pow' 'pow' and all the minotaurs exploded!"

Well according to sources who aren't Billy The Kid, his lifetime kill count was four. Criminals inflated their murder stats for the same reason guys today inflate their sexual experience: It made them look cool. Towns like Deadwood talked up their violent, lawless natures in order to attract adventurous settlers. Books were written about them and movies were made as soon as cameras were invented, and nobody who'd been out west was rushing to correct the misconceptions because, why the hell would they. A century and a half later, we still love that lie.

We believe it because shooting a nameless bad guy in the heart is infinitely more satisfying than filing a complaint with the cops or writing a strongly worded letter to the editor. No checks and balances, no second guessing. Just you and a gun.

Pardon us, we have a certain Bon Jovi song we need to play right now.

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5
Stock Brokers Jumping Out of Windows When The Market Crashes

The Insanity:

After the Wall Street crash in 1929 that eventually led to the Great Depression, ruined investors jumped en masse from the windows of their towering buildings. They plunged to the ground in a fatal metaphor for the value of their stocks, leaving the streets below covered with splattered puddles of failed capitalism.

Knowledge of this historical event is so widespread that references to it can be found everywhere, from RoboCop to modern protests against the Wall Street bailout:

But in Reality...

Unfortunately for the angry guy in that picture--and fortunately for the people whose job it is to clean up the sidewalks in New York--the legendary string of dramatic Wall Street suicides never actually happened.


The sweet relief of used condoms and vomit.

A popular comedian at the time made a quip about speculators needing to "stand in line to get a window to jump out of." The myth grew from there, until the "suddenly bankrupt stockbroker leaping from a window" became a stereotype.


Failed early attempts at jetpack commuting didn't help.

In reality, only two suicides by jumping occurred on Wall Street between the crash and the end of 1929, and one of those was that of an elderly female clerk named Hulda Borowski--not really the image that comes to mind when you hear "corporate fat-cat."

Why Do We Believe It?

First of all, we love a good dramatic symbol. An oil tanker spills a million gallons of oil on a beach? Ah, that's just a number. But show us a picture of an otter coated in oil? Holy shit! It's a disaster.

Likewise, saying the market lost 12 percent doesn't quite stick to the mind as well as the idea of stock brokers splattering their brains on the sidewalk rather than face another day of losses.

Also, take another look at the dude's sign up there. We root for this sort of thing to happen to the Gordon Gekko types who play Blackjack with billions in other people's money. They're the ones to blame. So when we lose our jobs or retirement accounts due to a crash, it makes us feel a little better to know the guys with gold watches and slicked-back hair got a face full of concrete.

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4
Feminist Bra Burnings

The Insanity:

For a few decades the "bra-burning feminist" was as much an archetype as the "dope-smoking hippie." On The Simpsons, Marge met Homer because she was in detention for participating in a bra burning.

The story goes that at protests in the late sixties, feminists raging against the male-dominated world defiantly removed and set fire to their bras. It was a powerful statement, symbolically declaring the women's desire for their feminine power to burst out of its patriarchal restraints and bounce free, no longer confined by the lace and spandex of traditional social mores.


We at Cracked support sweet bouncy freedom.

But in Reality...

This one literally never happened as far as anyone can tell. Women protesting against the 1968 Miss America contest in New York did toss several items into a trash can, including bras, girdles, high heeled shoes and women's magazines, labeling them "instruments of torture." But no fire was involved, except for the fire of burning feminine rage. Neither did the women actually remove their bras at the protest, inexplicably opting to gather the bras beforehand, and remain fully clothed.

It wasn't long after the era of Vietnam protesters burning their draft cards, and a journalist or two presumably conflated one of the concepts with the other. After all, they're all hippies, right?

Why Do We Believe It?

There's the fact that it involves topless women. Even the Wall Street Journal knows you get more readers if you can tie the story to unrestrained titties. Also, most of us want to believe people with non-mainstream opinions are all on the far-out fringe, doing crazy things they'll be embarrassed by later in life.

It saves us the trouble of listening to them. A woman demanding equal pay for equal work is making a point you have to address. A woman burning a bra and claiming it's a torture device is just a silly sideshow you can safely dismiss after a few minutes of vigorous masturbation.

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3
America Goes Crazy Over War of the Worlds

The Insanity:

Oh, how gullible we used to be.

In 1938, Orson Welles' radio production of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds played out as a massive prank on the nation, reporting a Martian invasion as if it were real. The broadcast plunged millions of Americans into mass hysteria, as frightened listeners overloaded phone lines, fled cities, rushed to warn their loved ones, rioted and even attempted suicide for fear of the alien attack.

Life Magazine even ran a photo of a farmer defending his land against the Martians, shotgun in hand:

Newspapers happily jumped on reporting the panic in the days and weeks afterward, and even Adolf Hitler commented on the supposed hysteria. Something to the effect of, "An army of futuristic war machines trying to take over the planet?! Ha! You people are crazy to think such a thing could happen. If it did, you'd damn well know about it."

But in Reality...

That photo up there, of the farmer with the shotgun? Life Magazine just had the guy pose for it. Most of the War of the Worlds freak-out was exactly as fake as that photo.

There's no doubt that some people thought the broadcast was real. Radio was still new and a fake news broadcast had literally never been done before. But virtually all of them reacted in exactly the way you would have: flipped to another station, or called somebody to ask what was going on.

Reports of people immediately flying into a panic--attempting suicide, hallucinating alien death rays or fleeing to the countryside with guns in hand--were almost all anecdotal stories told second hand with no names attached. And although the phone lines to the studio were unusually busy that night, mixed in with the people asking for information, were people praising or complaining about a show that seemed like it was clearly designed to create a mass panic.


"This broadcast is terrible!"
"Wait till you see the movie!"

There were also the people who tuned in late, and only caught the part about an "invasion" and "poison gas" (the Martians' main weapon) and assumed they were hearing reports of the Nazis invading, which wasn't ridiculous at all in 1938.

It's true that a few people probably actually did stupid shit, but keep in mind there were six million listeners that night. In any group of six million people, you'll find a certain number of them doing stupid things anyway, probably because they're stoned.

Why Do We Believe It?

You know how they keep trying to tie terrible crimes or trends to the Internet? Some teenager dies due to "cyber bullying" or gets jailed due to "sexting" or somebody loses everything on a Craigslist scam, and the story somehow implies it's the technology that's making people evil?


It happens all the time.

Radio was the scary new technology once. The old media at the time (newspapers) was eager to jump on anything that made the new media seem dangerous and irresponsible.

Of course, the story stuck after that because it gives us the chance to do the thing we love doing most: look down on people. They fell for it, we didn't, therefore we're smarter than our grandparents. We're the enlightened generation, and don't believe in stupid bullshit. Oh, on an unrelated note, here's a website about how Lady GaGa is a puppet of the New World Order.

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2
"No Irish Need Apply"

The Insanity:

You've seen "HELP WANTED - NO IRISH NEED APPLY" signs in movies set in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and you can still buy them at memorabilia stores:

Stick one in your window! Let us know what happens.

But you can see from the sign that it was hell being an Irish immigrant to America back those days. You'd prepare diligently for your job interview at the whisky-and-potatoes factory, put on your best, uh, leprechaun hat, only to get to the factory and see the terrible sign posted in the window.

Shocked, you'd turn around, only to see yet another sign in the window of the building opposite. Dejected and still unemployed, you would trudge home to cry into your Guinness, before sobbing through another round of Irish stepdancing.

But in Reality...

There is no record of even one of the so-called "NINA" window signs ever existing in America. No photographs have ever been found, and any evidence for them is entirely anecdotal.

Even in print notices for jobs, records from the New York Times at the height of anti-Irish discrimination (from the 1850s to the 1920s), show exactly two jobs using the phrase in a 70-year period. That's probably less than the number of jobs that specified that the applicant must bring his own trained monkey.

The myth of the window signs became widespread when a song, aptly named "No Irish Need Apply," was imported to the U.S. from the UK in the 1860's. The lyrics told the tale of a young Irish woman looking for domestic work and being discouraged by the "No Irish Need Apply" warnings in print ads, even though, she says, the Irish would gladly "given their last potato" to a person in need.

There was also an American version of the song, where the woman is replaced by a man, who simply beats the shit out of the business owner for not hiring Irish. Seriously.

Why Do We Believe It?

Maybe the most unsettling thing about studying history is realizing how much of what we "know" about the past is actually just fiction that bled into the historical record somehow. Our one criteria for judging fact from myth is apparently whether or not it seems like something that could maybe have happened.


Like telling your friends you narrowly escaped a dragon attack to disguise your crippling fear of lizards.

A whole lot of our culture and history, and what we believe to be true about ourselves, came about just this way. Somebody wrote it in a song or a poem and years later it got quoted as fact because nobody bothered to question it.

That's... kind of terrifying if you think about it.

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1
Elaborate Medieval Torture Devices

The Insanity:

Quick: What pops into your mind when we say "medieval"? We bet most of you pictured some kind of torture device ("I'm gonna get medieval on your ass!").

You can just picture a man back then, led by church officials into a sinister underground chamber. He looks around, really wishing now that he hadn't written that hilarious caption about the Pope's new hat. In front of him stands the famous Iron Maiden, a hideous vertical chamber with an interior lined with iron spikes...

As if that weren't bad enough, there was also the Pear of Anguish, which would spread open and violently tear apart whatever human orifice it was pushed into...

... and the Spanish Chair, an iron seat covered in spikes which a victim was strapped into while his feet were roasted.


Ergonomics wasn't a big deal back then.

The guy's last thought before being tortured to death is, "I hope somebody make a theme restaurant about this someday."

But in Reality...

Despite being one of the most famous torture devices ever (and having a heavy metal band named after them), Iron Maidens didn't exist back then, and there's no record they were ever used on anyone. If you're saying, "But I've seen them in museums!" well, that's why they exist. These kind of "horrors of the medieval times" exhibits were hugely popular in the 19th century and it appears the Iron Maidens they showed off were cobbled together for the exhibit.

That terrible pear thing that they used to punish sodomy and adultery by ripping the offending organs to shreds from the inside? Also a myth. Nobody can find any reference to the device before the 17th century, and no record at all of it being used to destroy somebody's asshole.

What about the spiked chair? It's supposedly a device of the Spanish Inquisition, but once again there's no record of them using it, or anybody else.


Discovered in Spain (On the back of a fifth grade heavy metal fan's spelling test).

Oh, don't get us wrong. The medieval times sucked, and lots of people were tortured. But the torturers apparently didn't spend nearly as much time as we think gleefully coming up with diabolical devices to inflict their horrors.

Why Do We Believe It?

As we mentioned with War of the Worlds, most of us want to believe that history is a steady march of progress towards enlightenment. The further we go back, the stupider, cruder and more brutal we want to think people were. And the Middle Ages, with fewer written records than many other periods in Western history, provide an easy target.

It's not enough that torture did take place. We need our ancestors to be creatively sadistic monsters who spent all their time coming up with new ways to mutilate people rather than inventing penicillin. Like the bra-burning myth, the fact that these torture devices involve sex and violence also makes them more likely to endure.

If you need a "medieval" article for your museum, what's going to put more asses in the seats? A faked up medieval torture instrument that was used to sodomize heretics, or the reality ...


Come see our genuine medieval bit of metal that's slightly wider at the top!

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For more bullshit humanity believes every day, check out 5 Myths That People Don't Realize Are Admitted Hoaxes and Your Mom Lied: 5 Common Body Myths Debunked.

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We have some bad news: American history isn't one glorious underdog story, the 'dark' ages weren't, and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.

It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.

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