5 History Myths Everybody Believed For Far Too Long
History is littered with events so outlandish and bizarre that you wouldn't believe a single word of it, if not for all the stuffy historians vouching for one another's accounts. Trust us, we've written about hundreds of them. But the beauty of history is that we discover new things about it every day, and sometimes those revelations totally ruin all of our favorite stories. Because academics are, above all else, total buzzkills. For example ...
Rasputin's Reputation For Being Hard To Kill Was A PR Stunt
Even we couldn't resist this great story: Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen, was such a die-hard that his murderers had to poison, shoot, bludgeon, drown, and freeze him before he finally took the hint and shuffled off this mortal coil. Or at least, that's what his murderers want you to think, because that's a much better story to turn into a bestseller.
While the myth ended with him freezing to death in the Volga River, the truth is that Grigori Rasputin was long dead before he got bundled up in a fur coat and tossed away like a bunch of unwanted kittens. According to his autopsy in 1917, the mad monk had no water in his lungs, proving he was dead before he went in, which may have something to do with the fact that he had been shot in the head hours before.
But besides Rasputin (who wasn't really in a state to do much), who would want history to remember him as a badass? His killer, of course. Felix Yusupov, Russian aristocrat and one of the conspirators, later wrote a series of highly sensationalist books about the murder. But he realized that publishing the story of him, a prince, shooting a common holy man in the back of the head because he didn't like the guy would make him come off as a bigger wang than the one Rasputin was packing.
So instead, Yusupov turned Rasputin into a demonic Terminator who could not be killed, even returning from the dead to attack his assassins, making Yusupov look like a real-life Van Helsing instead of a common backstabber.
But keen Rasputin fans will note that even if the ensuing bullet storm ice-capade was nothing but a cheap way to promote Yusupov's book tour, that doesn't account for the fact that Rasputin survived consuming an unbelievable amount of cyanide in his wine and cakes before being shot to death. Unbelievable ... in that you shouldn't believe that part either.
While it had been the plan to poison Rasputin, the poisoner in question, Dr. Stanislaw Yusupov, waited until he was on his deathbed before confessing he had suffered a crisis of conscience and chickened out. So the only thing Rasputin survived that fateful night was some perfectly fine wine (he didn't even eat the cakes), before getting shot point blank and, quite reasonably, dying from it.
Chastity Belts Were Only Ever Meant As Prop Comedy
It's a problem as old as time: You have a fair maiden awaiting her Prince Charming, but you want to protect her virtue from ne'er-do-wells like bards, black knights, or those creeps who call women "females." Hark, all thy needs are answered with the handy chastity belt, the crotch binding that has been keeping genitals apart for centuries. Except these metal doom traps were never more than a weird medieval gag, and no woman in her right mind has ever worn one.
As we've mentioned before, there are countless real-life examples of Victorian prudes having fashioned intricate prisons for precious groins. But we're not claiming they didn't exist; just that they were a big joke. Much like how a whoopee cushion has never cushioned a whoopee, chastity belts were never intended to preserve chastity. Rather, they served as cumbersome props for terrible Victorian comedians.
Wearing a chastity belt would have been fatal. Locking your genitals in the underwear version of a rusty bear trap in an age when leeches were aspirin would've caused such horrific bacterial infections that, even if a woman could survive the ensuing sickness, no one in their right mind would put their fun parts anywhere near her. So actually, chastity belts would've been great at preventing people from having sex. Unless they were necrophiliacs.
Neanderthals Weren't Too Dumb To Survive
Every schoolchild knows that Neanderthals were brutish cave morons who liked to hit each other over the head with oversized clubs. So naturally, when us real humans arrived, we easily outwitted these unibrowed ape-men out of existence, and the better man, genetically speaking, won. Except that he didn't, because the better man and the knuckle-dragging caveman were in fact one and the same.
Recent findings have shown that, compared to early homo sapiens, the much larger and stronger neanderthals also possessed superior intelligence. In the neanderthals' later settlements, archaeologists have uncovered that they were capable of such wide-ranging intellectual pursuits as symbolic thought, art, and jewelry-making. And based on their elaborate burial rituals, they maybe even invented religion, to boot. They also had rudimentary healthcare, maybe even dentistry. All in all, much more advanced than us "smart" humans at the time.
So if they had both the brains and the bods, why aren't we all speaking neanderthal right now? Scientists' best guess is it has little to do with survival of the fittest and more with bad luck. Through some combination of climate change, population dynamics, and other randomness, neanderthals drew the Darwinian short straw and lost their niche to homo sapiens.
But even then, neanderthals proved they were the smart ones after all. Because instead of dying out, a lot of them simply integrated into human tribes, who were more than willing to get it on with their sophisticated cousins. They "integrated" so well that most humans still have around 2% neanderthal DNA inside of them. And if you're going to get screwed out of the evolutionary hierarchy, it's pretty ingenious to go the literal route.
Vibrators Were Never Used To Cure Hysteria
During the 19th century, doctors were obsessed with trying to cure the female illness of hysteria, or as we call it today, "having emotions." As the story goes, they figured an orgasm could relieve them of this ailment, but because doing that by hand took ages (probably because being molested by a physician isn't most women's idea of a good time), they invented the vibrator, a steampunk implement that could exorcise hysteria quicker than they could utter the safe word.
But the theory of medicinal vibrators didn't come up until the '90s -- the 1990s. That's when historian and scientist Rachel Maines released her book The Technology Of Orgasm, which became the basis of the hysterical myth. However, Maines' key sources were two turn-of-the-century physicians who never claimed they used Victorian vibrators to orgasm hysteria out of women. They only promoted the devices as glorified back massagers to fix small problems and promote general wellness.
Doctors eventually realized the little buzzing wand was a useless medical tool and stopped recommending them. At which point all of womanhood promptly hid them in their nightstands and pretended they never got the memo.
Phineas Gage Didn't Become A New Person After His Historic Accident
Since the dawn of pop psychology, everybody (uh ... including Cracked) has loved the story of Phineas Gage. The railway foreman had part of his brain destroyed when a dynamite-propelled metal rod plowed through his skull. But putting the WTF in "Well, that's fatal," he not only survived, but the accident also gave him an entirely different personality. Or did it? In truth, we have little proof that half your brains dribbling out your eye socket is as life-changing as people want it to be.
After the incident, it was widely believed the brain damage changed Gage from a kind and upstanding citizen to a profane scalawag. That was exciting news for the budding field of neuroscience, which used the case to prove that that changes to the brain could change one's personality. But the tale of this dramatic makeover came from only one source: a Dr. John Harlow, the who man saved Gage's life.
And while Harlow may have been a great medical doctor, he was a terrible psychologist. He wrote in the kind of vague statements more appropriate for a daytime soap opera than a medical treatise, like claiming "Gage was no longer Gage," and that he had surrendered to "animal passions" -- something people interpreted as him showing base aggression, but could just have easily have meant he really liked peeing in bushes.
And Gage's later actions clearly contradict the popular account. In spite of being labeled a dumb antisocial rube, he lived life to the fullest. He traveled the world and became a stagecoach driver in Chile -- a job he couldn't have held for many years if he kept swearing at customers while driving them off cliffs. But just because the truth isn't in textbooks doesn't mean we don't know what happened. More modern neuroscientists agree that whatever change in personality Harlow thought he saw in Gage only lasted for a couple of years, maximum (and you're allowed to a have a few hundred bad days after a freak accident destroys half your head).
After that, Gage was likely the same person he had always been, and not the neurological wonder he was made out to be. Also, sadly, he didn't truly "survive" the incident. Gage died 12 years later from a seizure undoubtedly caused by his brain damage. Maybe it was because his brain was demolished by a metal rod, but it took Gage's body a bit longer than average to realize that you're not supposed to survive having your brain demolished by a metal rod.
Eamon Lahiri has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of outlets that you can check out on his hastily organized portfolio. To hire him to write things for you, mail him at email@example.com, or say hi on Twitter.
Steven Assarian is a librarian. He writes stuff here.
For more, check out 6 Myths You Probably Believe About The American Revolution:
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