6 Historical Myths You've Lapped Up As Fact
One of the profoundly horrifying things you discover when reading history is that nobody really knows what happened. What we call "history" is a bunch of stories relayed by people with agendas, edited (or outright suppressed) by other people who also had agendas, and repackaged into a simplistic story that an elementary school child can understand.
That means that from the most pivotal moments of massive wars to fun little factoids about historical figures, a little digging reveals that nothing played out exactly the way your history books claim. For example ...
Myth: The Alamo Was A Heroic Last Stand That Turned The Tide Of A War
It's one of the great tales of America's long battle for freedom against tyranny -- white settlers in Mexico-owned Texas wanted a taste of that sweet democracy just over the border, so they rebelled against Mexico. Famous heroic figures like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (of knife fame) led an army of ragtag rebels who were forced to make their last stand inside a crumbling old building called the Alamo.
There, those brave souls stood up against an overwhelmingly superior force until they finally went down in a hail of gunfire ... but not before doing to the Mexicans what the Greeks did to the Persians in 300. It's no wonder that "Remember the Alamo" became an American rallying cry and not just a reminder that Mexico used to have a really shitty army.
Which seems odd, since they were absolutely not fighting for America.
Despite the fact that the battle of the Alamo seems to be remembered as some kind of turning point in the Texas Revolution, it's been said that what the rebels did at the Alamo had, at best, no impact on the war and possibly even made things worse. Historians whose vision of the event isn't blurred by freedom tears see it as a catastrophic military blunder caused by the rebels refusing to take the advice of smarter men.
The commander of the Texas forces, Sam Houston, never wanted to bother trying to defend San Antonio in the first place, considering it was too far from the American settlements, its citizens were too sympathetic to the Mexican government, and it didn't hold much strategic value. He decided that they should pack the hell up and retreat to somewhere that's actually worth fighting for.
In your face, beautiful and historic River Walk.
The problem was that Houston's troops took orders about as well as a herd of cats at a laser disco. They were notorious for ignoring the orders of Houston's predecessor, and Houston himself had just as much luck. They listened to him right up until he got to the word "retreat," and everything else out of his mouth sounded to them like "blah blah blah I'm a big weenie coward who doesn't love America." Instead of following Houston's orders to evacuate, the rebels fortified the Alamo and holed themselves up inside. When Houston sent Colonel Jim Bowie back to convince the army to leave, Bowie took one look at the shitty fort, wiped away a patriotic tear, and joined them instead. Houston thought, "Sure, whatever, fuck it," and left them to their fate.
"Fine, stay. We'll see who ends with 'Metropolis Namesake' on their resume, dipshit."
The rebels put up an impressive fight, but probably not as impressive as Hollywood and the Texas school curriculum would have you believe. Far from going down in a hail of gunfire atop a pile of dead Mexicans, Jim Bowie was killed while lying sick in bed, and there's no record of what happened to Davy Crockett. And although the Alamo is considered a shrine to freedom today, right after the war it was seen as a kind of embarrassing footnote that they tried to sweep under the rug.
Myth: Fidel Castro Could Have Had A Promising Professional Baseball Career
American baseball players and journalists agree that Fidel Castro was once a talented southpaw, scouted by numerous Major League teams and offered a pro contract, before he decided to give it all up to become a communist dictator. The legend is supported by numerous photographs of Castro playing the sport, and we all know that photographs taken in repressive communist regimes never lie.
Nothing says "baseball prodigy" like calf-high leather boots.
It has become one of those great "What if?" scenarios of history, like "What if Hitler had gotten accepted into art school and grown a normal mustache?" If Castro had just been given a chance, could he have wound up pitching for the Yankees instead of bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation?
Castro was, at the very least, a pretty dedicated fan of baseball, but by all serious accounts, he was never particularly good at it, and his playing was limited to photo ops, first pitches, and a single documented one-off exhibition game. To be fair to everyone repeating this story (including us!) it is one of the most elaborate pranks in sports history.
Right behind getting people to spend $99.95 on Mayweather/Pacquiao.
The earliest possible origin of the story began with a silly joke by a Washington Senators scout named Joe Cambria. During the Cuban strongman's first U.S. visit, in 1959, Cambria playfully asked if he'd help his team beat the defending champs, the New York Yankees. This was the closest to a contract Castro would get. Not only was he never exactly baseball's equivalent of Good Will Hunting, Castro was never seriously scouted by anybody.
Aside from CIA assassins, of course.
The story didn't take off until a Sport magazine beat reporter named Myron Cope roped washed-up pro ballplayer Don Hoak into the gag. Hoak claimed to have witnessed the student activist during a winter league game in the early '50s. Castro, then a fiery law student protesting the government that he'd later overthrow, was so caught up in the moment that he supposedly stormed the field mid-game and swiped the ball from the pitcher to take a few throws himself. (Note: Historians point out that Castro was actually in jail at the time.)
Castro was such a talent, the story goes, that he turned down a lucrative contract with (depending on the source) the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, or New York Giants because he did not want to be an imperialist lackey (which makes sense if we're talking about the Yankees, but the Pirates?). An alternate telling describes Castro's turn to radical Marxism after being rejected by Cambria, the Senators scout mentioned above.
"I figured, what's the worst that could happen?"
Cuban baseball historians and other researchers can't find any evidence the law student turned guerrilla ever played professionally at all, only a lone intramural game in college -- which he lost. That is, if he even is the F. Castro mentioned in the lineup -- it's hardly an uncommon name. Also, Castro is described, depending on the source, as either having good control but lacking speed or pitching something like vintage Randy Johnson. Shit, this makes us wonder if Kim Jong-Il actually wasn't the best golfer in history after all.
Myth: The Hoover Dam Is Full Of The Corpses Of Construction Workers
The Hoover Dam is one of America's greatest feats of engineering, and, as with any great human endeavor, it demanded sacrifice. The popular legend is that the foundations of the dam are packed with the bodies of unfortunate workers who fell into the wet concrete during construction, to be forever entombed within the mighty display of American engineering superiority. It even has a sculpture to mark their resting place.
"Giving them safety harnesses would have been an insult to their legacy!"
It's one of those stories that works specifically because it's so perfectly symbolic. The unnamed working Joes literally gave up their bodies to create something magnificent. And their deaths meant so little that construction couldn't even stop long enough to fish out their broken corpses.
There are probably no corpses buried inside the Hoover Dam's mighty walls. As for how the rumor came about, there are several possibilities that combine to transform into a Voltron of misinformation.
Don't let us get your hopes up with that; there are no giant robot cats either.
First of all, it's thought that people are misremembering facts they learned about the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Six workers actually did get buried inside that one during a landslide, and it's possible that people who learned this fact got their dams mixed up, because the Hoover Dam is probably the only one that most people know by name anyway.
Then there's the fact that several men who worked on the Hoover Dam did recount that there were bodies entombed within the concrete like a Han Solo cosplay festival. The problem is that they reported this in 1986, several decades after the construction, and none of them were present for any of the supposed accidents or knew the names of anyone involved. In other words, they were basically just spreading rumors they had heard on the job site.
"Also, I heard there's penis-enlarging gold in the foundation. Get a pickaxe."
Now, there was one worker who fell into the concrete during the dam's construction, one W.A. Jameson, who broke his back in the fall. But his body was fished out before the concrete dried, because that's what you do if you don't want your fucking dam to be haunted.
Plus, a hydroelectric plant seems like a pretty shitty place to get stuck haunting,
even by old-timey ghost standards.
"But wait," you say, "isn't there a memorial to the dead right there on the dam?" Oh, don't get us wrong -- a whole bunch of people did die during the Hoover Dam's construction, as this was still an era when basic worker safety was for pussies. But not a single one is recorded as having suffocated in concrete. In fact, experts dismiss such a case as next to impossible. For one thing, they didn't just pour the whole dam together in one gloopy mess like a toddler might imagine; they did it in small increments that were so shallow that anyone who fell into it would only need to stand up to escape.
Also, a bunch of soft bodies riddled throughout the dam like blueberries in a giant muffin would be devastating to the structural integrity of a wall designed to keep back billions of gallons of water. So the very fact that Las Vegas hasn't been flattened by a tidal wave of water, concrete, and skeletons is proof enough.
Myth: Martin Luther Nailed His Thesis To A Church Door
In 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, a Catholic priest and university professor named Martin Luther got pissed off at the pope for going crazy with power and turning the Catholic Church into one giant pyramid scheme. The final straw was when the Vatican started selling "get out of Hell free cards" for a popely sum to anyone who was willing to bribe God to overlook their sinful ways.
Which isn't really all that surprising from a pope willing to pawn statues
of the apostles like a junkie trying scrape cash for a fix.
Luther wrote a manifesto known as "The 95 Theses" and, unable to get any Catholic authorities to look at it, wound up nailing it to a church door, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation that broke Christianity into two parts -- the Catholics and everyone else. If you've ever been confused about the difference between Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Calvinists, and Evangelicals, you can blame Luther.
Luther nailing his theses to a church door is a really cool story, and like many cool stories from history, it's probably horseshit. The more likely story, given the evidence, is that Luther just bombarded the pope with letters until he got annoyed enough to act on it.
Apparently, "venerated theologian" and "most annoying person
on your Facebook timeline" are closer than we thought.
In fact, not only did Luther probably never publicly display his grievances, it seems that he was peeved that the public found out about them at all. Luther never intended or wanted to start his own church independent of Catholicism. He just wanted to appeal to the pope to cut out the whole thing about selling Heavenly salvation to the highest bidder.
The romanticized idea that the church door was used as a kind of bulletin board is unsubstantiated, based solely on the testimony of an associate 30 years later who was not in Wittenberg at the time it happened. In the '60s, a historian named Erwin Iserloh could not find evidence from Luther's work to corroborate the legend.
Nevertheless, it is true that Luther's constantly irritating bombardment of letters eventually forced Pope Leo X to take him to court in an effort to make him cut it out. He was excommunicated, his fans responded by creating an entirely new theology, and the rest is history. So the lesson here is that sometimes mass-mail campaigns do result in real change.
Myth: Napoleon's Men Shot Off The Sphinx's Nose
During his honest attempt at world domination, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, and during his victory romp around one of humanity's oldest civilizations, he came across the Great Sphinx. In an effort to prove that he really was a cartoon supervillain, he used the massive, ageless statue as target practice. His soldiers blew off the Sphinx's nose with a cannon, which is why today it looks like a monument to Voldemort.
"If you didn't take its nose, then what's your hand hiding?"
While it can't be confirmed one way or another whether Napoleon shot at the mighty Sphinx (like maybe it was dark and he thought it was a monster or something) one thing we can be sure of is that the statue was noseless for a long, long time before he was even born.
Illustrations of the Sphinx from back in the 1600s show the statue, which was at that time still buried up to its neck in sand, had already been the victim of a botched rhinoplasty. In fact, there are reports from all the way back in the 1500s of travelers noticing that the Sphinx was missing a certain prominent facial feature.
Though, if you're gonna get bukakked by sandstorms for 45 centuries,
we'd probably prefer to do that sans-sinuses too.
So, who was it that actually played the world's most infamous game of "Got your nose"? Nobody is completely certain, but some historical sources point all the way back to 1378, when a devout Muslim sufi named Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr got pissed off that the locals were offering pagan sacrifice to the Sphinx and broke off its nose in an effort to discourage worship, an act that saw him ironically captured and sacrificed to the Sphinx himself. But that story doesn't inspire nearly enough hatred of the French, so it never got the same traction. Maybe the nose fell off on its own because one of the workers' corpses got entombed inside it and ruined the structural integrity.
Myth: Newspaper Magnate William Randolph Hearst Single-Handedly Started The Spanish-American War
Media mogul and probable supervillain William Randolph Hearst is often fingered as the primary culprit in instigating the Spanish-American War. Hearst heaped blame for the destruction of a U.S. Navy ship on the Spaniards via exaggerated stories of aggression in his newspapers. The allegations that this was done not out of old-fashioned racism but out of an orchestrated campaign to start a war come from an infamous telegram from the magnate to Frederic Remington, a New York Journal correspondent/illustrator in Cuba. In it, Hearst told him to "furnish the picture" and in return Hearst would "furnish the war."
Who would furnish the badass in said war went without saying.
It makes for a nice cautionary tale about the media's role in drumming up support for questionable wars, but the truth is the apocryphal telegram from Hearst to Remington has never been proven to exist. Professor W. Joseph Campbell points out the Spanish would have likely snagged this communique anyway, and the Journal's own editorials never advocated war, believing the Spanish forces would collapse before war was ever necessary. The idea that the sensationalist newspaperman secretly directed the war from his office is, ironically, sensationalism.
"That's a douche move; I'm an asshole. There's a difference."
The man who revealed the communication (upon which the whole myth turns) was Remington's Journal colleague James Creelman. Creelman was not in Cuba at the time the message was supposedly sent; he was in Europe, which renders his eyewitness account about as useful as asking your 10-year-old nephew about Pogs.
Your loss, kid.
Don't get us wrong -- the story stuck because Hearst had done enough dishonest shit in his life and was implicated in enough scandalous rumors to make it perfectly believable. But this is the one (and probably only one) case where the world owes the tycoon an apology.
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