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.
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.
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.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated Today! Shit!) to see Brockway's extensive collection of torture devices.
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.
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