History is so complicated that it’s arguably a minor miracle the average person knows as much as they do. Sometimes dumbing down complex events is enough to help us get the point of how it’s shaped the modern world; you don’t need a PhD to understand that the Nazi were bad. But sometimes simplifying accidentally leaves everyone with the completely wrong impression, so allow us to point out that … 

Most Jonestown Residents Had The “Kool-Aid” Forced On Them At Gunpoint

Jonestown has become synonymous with the inevitable sad result of cult mentalities. You may not know exactly where they were or why they were there, but you know “drinking the Kool-Aid” means someone has uncritically bought into madness. But that’s a major misunderstanding, and we’re not referring to the fact that pedants and/or Kool-Aid employees are rushing to point out that the mass poisoning used Flavor Aid, Kool-Aid’s bum cousin. 

Jel Sert Company

You'd think someone planning to be dead by the end of the day wouldn't sweat an extra 9 cents for the real stuff.

In 1955, Jim Jones founded the grammatically dubious Peoples Temple in Indiana, before later moving his preaching to California because the Midwest was hostile to his crazy idea called “racial integration.” Jones’ charitable efforts earned him praise and high-profile pals, but the Temple, which mashed the worst tendencies of evangelical Christianity and hardline communism together to create something even worse, grew increasingly authoritarian, spying on its members and urging them to cut ties with family. Jones won people over with good ideas, then manipulated them until they either adored him or left in disgust, and those defections led to criticism. 

And so in 1977, the same year he won a Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award, Jones founded the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, where he could build an agrarian paradise free from government scrutiny. By 1978, over 900 of the Temple’s members had joined him, but his promised paradise turned out to be worse than the farm you start with in Stardew Valley. The commune could barely grow food in the poor soil, forcing loyalists to go into town and beg. 

Most members didn’t stick with Jones because they were brainwashed; they stuck with him because Jonestown was a miniature police state. They were spied on, worked to the bone, and encouraged to denounce any talk of leaving. Jones had his fanatics, but some people realized he was spewing nonsense. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown at the behest of concerned family members. This is the same congressman who had himself secretly incarcerated in Folsom Prison to study its conditions, yet Jones’ carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign worked; Ryan said that his report would be “basically good.” But 14 people asked to leave with Ryan, and the panicking Jones ordered Ryan’s murder. 

U.S. House of Representatives

Successfully.  We've covered plenty of would-be assassinations that turned slapstick, but Jim Jones knew murder.

With the project apparently doomed to collapse and Jones’ health failing, Jones and his inner circle debated their options. Someone suggested fleeing to the Soviet Union, but a therapist of all people won them over to the mass suicide option. But shockingly, hundreds of people didn’t politely volunteer to die. 

The whole affair was enforced by loyalists pointing guns and crossbows at the victims. Jones had spent months lying about the dangers of the jungle to make escape sound impossible. Rehearsals had been run to identity potential troublemakers, and to trick people into thinking the real deal was just another loyalty test. Babies and children were killed first to break the will of their parents. Some adults had the poison forced on them. Jones made an audio recording, but paused the tape whenever there was dissent to create the illusion it was all voluntary. Even that didn’t hide the fact that a third of the victims were scared minors. 

Survivors were understandably horrified that “drink the Kool-Aid” came to mean the passive embrace of insanity. Lurid media reports initially called Jonestown a mass suicide, but scholarship has since re-evaluated it as a mass murder. So as an expression it’s not a pithy insight into mass psychology so much as shorthand for getting killed by a crazed egomaniac.   

The Galileo Affair Was More About Workplace Politics Than Religion

You all know this one. Galileo proved the Earth revolved around the sun, but the Catholic Church said “Uh, not according to a little book called THE BIBLE.” Superstition set science back, and centuries later budding atheists would have ammunition for Sunday school arguments. 

But in 1543, decades before Galileo’s trial, Copernicus published his own argument for heliocentrism, and it caused about as much controversy as your friend’s bad poetry. Heliocentrism is obvious today, but back then it still lacked sufficient evidence, and it broke the Aristotelian physics that had fueled science for over a millennium. In a world with primitive astronomical tools that hadn’t yet grasped the laws of gravity, it was an ancient fringe theory that failed to account for problems like stellar parallax. Copernicus had long resisted publishing his argument, not for religious reasons, but because he thought his fellow astronomers would dunk on him. 

Jan Matejko/Wikimedia Commons

Back when "Heliocentrist OWNED" was a real professional setback and not just a genre of delusional YouTube videos. 

By 1609, fancy new lenses allowed Galileo to observe sunspots, Jupiter’s moons, and other discoveries that made the case for heliocentrism much stronger. But a stronger case isn’t a proven one, and some of Galileo’s arguments were hilariously bad. He said, for example, that the Earth zipping around the sun propels the tides, countering those dumb geocentrists who suspected that the tides had something to do with, get a load of this, the moon. 

Galileo’s findings made him a celebrity, but people weren’t sold on heliocentrism yet. The Church’s stance was that it was fine as a theory, but greater proof was needed before you could argue about its impact on the Bible, as Galileo promptly did. He further hurt his own case by being a caustic jerk to foes and friends; when the sympathetic Jesuits suggested that his intriguing ideas needed more work, he called one of their leading astronomers a thieving moron. The big nerd fight ended in a stalemate because nothing could be proven and no compromises could be reached, and so in 1616, after years of debate, Pope Paul V formally declared heliocentrism false and told Galileo to cool it. 

Cristiano Banti/Wikimedia Commons

Apparently there needs to be some religious reasoning beyond just writing "Cram it, douchebag" in a papal bull.

Then, in 1623, Urban VIII took charge. While a geocentrist, he liked Galileo and told him he could talk about his ideas again as long as kept them hypothetical. Galileo wrote a new book, but his enemies argued that it went too far in presenting heliocentrism as fact, therefore violating the 1616 ruling. They may have also convinced Urban that the huge dumbass who argues for geocentrism in the book was a caricature of him, although not even the undiplomatic Galileo was that stupid; he was probably mocking contemporary philosophers he’d sparred with. 

The end result was a brief trial that ended with an elderly Galileo convicted of a minor charge and sentenced to house arrest. None of this is to say that Galileo had it coming, or that the Church came out looking good. It was clearly an unjust ruling. But the affair was a human drama fuelled by egos and the tense politics of the Counter-Reformation, not one sane man getting railroaded by a bunch of overzealous morons. Nine years after Galileo’s death, Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Riccioli published a massive analysis of arguments for and against heliocentrism before settling on Tycho Brahe’s compromise between the two systems as the “least absurd,” so it wasn’t exactly thought crime. Basically, decades of devout Catholics arguing over 17th century physics can’t be reduced to a petty morality play that fuels comment section arguments. 

The Boston Tea Party Was A Protest Of A Tax Cut, Not An Existing Tax

Some of you are already saying “Uh, duh, I took grade school history too.” But a modern political movement demanding lower taxes named themselves after the event, so it never hurts to brush up. 

First, the 1767 Townshend Acts added duties to a variety of consumer goods arriving in America, including paper, paint, and tea. This was a blatant attempt to fill British coffers, and Americans were pissed off. A few violent protests later and the duties were removed … except for the tax on tea. 

So that’s what the Tea Party was about, right? Squashing that final nefarious tax? Well, while the tax annoyed people, it wasn’t exactly the biggest issue of the day. The tea duty was modest, and anyone serious about their tea could get it from smugglers anyway. Many Americans didn’t even care for it, some decried it as a recreational drug, and it was increasingly seen as a symbol of namby-pamby upper-class living. 

Marie Charouzova/Shutterstock

Even today, Americans can't look at this without reflexively loading a musket.

But in 1773, Britain gave the struggling East India Company a break by excluding them from various tea taxes. The company could unload millions of pounds of surplus tea for pure profit, and the American market could finally get legal tea on the cheap. Britain thought it was an easy win-win, but smugglers and legitimate competitors got screwed, and hardline patriots considered it excessive meddling in colonial affairs. So while the “no taxation without representation” slogan from the Townsend days was invoked again, it didn’t mean “high taxes are bad.” It meant “we want a say on the taxes charged in this territory, irrespective of what those taxes may end up being.” Which is hard to fit on a bumper sticker. 

Regardless, wasn’t this the rallying cry that spurned revolution? Just look at George Washington and Benjamin Franklin who… scolded Bostonians for their violent vandalism. Both argued that the East India Company needed to be compensated. “Liberty and property” was another popular slogan, and those who held private property rights sacrosanct thought it was a bad look for patriots to be smashing other people’s stuff. Washington would be the guy saying “Won’t someone please think of Target’s windows?” during BLM protests. 

America was fiercely divided on the Tea Party until Britain’s heavy-handed response pissed everyone off, and in the aftermath of the American Revolution the event was downplayed because a bunch of cosplaying men with hatchets attacking government property didn’t fit the narrative that a peace-loving America had defeated British aggression and was ready to get down to calm governance. It was only decades later that it began being presented as one of the Revolution’s more memorable events, but all the complicated context fell away in favor of whimsical dress-up routines. 

Nathaniel Currier/Wikimedia Commons

"WE PREFER COFFEE!!"

Maybe this was all remedial to you, but if modern Americans are going to keep invoking the revolutionary fervor of the Tea Party, then they should be doing it while complaining about sleazy megacorporation tax loopholes.   

For Decades, AIDS Was Falsely Blamed On One Man

As you may have noticed recently, part of combating an epidemic is determining where it started. This can often become the most infamous part; everyone’s heard of Typhoid Mary, but how many people know when and where she spread typhoid? And for decades, Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas was considered the patient zero of AIDS. 

You can probably imagine how that went over. A New York Post headline about Dugas screamed “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS,” and that was one of the nicer ones. Another tabloid called him a “Monster,” the conservative National Review called him the “Columbus of AIDS,” and even serious publications, like Time, uncritically reported that Dugas was an irresponsible sex machine single-handedly responsible for an epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands. His legacy was secured when the influential 1987 book turned hokey HBO miniseries, And The Band Played On, portrayed Dugas as a callous man indifferent to his role in spreading disease. 

Dugas died in 1984, when AIDS was still derisively called “gay plague” and the White House’s official stance was to laugh at it during press conferences. The grim irony was that, during a time when AIDS victims were often mocked or told they were being punished by God, Dugas happily provided researchers with blood samples and the contact information of his sexual partners. Many gay men didn’t remember much about anonymous encounters or were suspicious of authorities, an understandable attitude given that a chunk of doctors said they wished they could choose to not treat AIDS. But Dugas did as much as he could to help. 

Originally dubbed Case 057, he was later renamed Patient O, for “Out of California,” which obviously led to mix-ups because that’s the worst shorthand ever. Early studies also underestimated AIDS’ development time, meaning that some of the men Dugas was thought to have infected were probably sick already. His continent-spanning job and flamboyant attitude fit the bogeyman narrative too. 

Via Wikimedia Commons

It didn't take much to scare the 1980s.

When AIDS research was in its infancy and homosexuality was still a punchline on sitcoms, Dugas made for an easy narrative about how “real” Americans didn’t need to worry about promiscuous gays killing themselves off. But 2016 research concluded that AIDS came to New York City from Haiti in 1971, and that Dugas was infected with a strain that had reached America before he was even sexually active. But hey, at least we learned our lesson and haven’t blamed a specific group of people for any epidemics since, right? 

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

Top image: via Wikimedia Commons

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