Odd Facts and Myths from History
Odd Facts and Myths from History

Odd Facts and Myths from History

Larry Holzwarth - October 2, 2019

Odd Facts and Myths from History
The link between the Duke of Wellington and the beef dish which bears his name is tenuous. Wikimedia

8. Beef Wellington became connected to a man who cared little for food

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was famous in his lifetime for his complete disregard for the food placed before him. According to one of his fellow officers, his indifference went so far that he once ate a rotten egg without comment, apparently unaware of what he was doing. Curiously enough, the man Wellington defeated in his most famous victory at Waterloo shared his lack of regard for food, though Napoleon was finicky about bread. It is often reported that one of Wellington’s frustrated chefs invented the idea of cooking beef loin in a puff pastry crust, naming the dish Beef Wellington, but recipes for beef cooked in pastry in the same manner were over a century old when Wellington was alive.

Following the victory at Waterloo Wellington was England’s greatest hero since Lord Nelson, and his name appeared on numerous products, items of clothing, and the famous tall boots he favored. His popularity waned through his political career but rebounded as the centennial of Waterloo neared, especially as patriotism surged during the First World War. Beef Wellington has no connection with the man who became known as the Iron Duke. That appellation was not meant to be a compliment, by the way, it was bestowed by the magazine Punch after his political policies became so unpopular that he had to install iron bars on the windows of his home to prevent the mob from breaking them.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
British Marines with a captured Zanzibari gun following the shortest war in history. Wikimedia

9. The Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896 lasted less than an hour

Depending upon the source’s method of calculating the time it ended, the Anglo-Zanzibar war was over in 38 – 45 minutes. The British suffered one casualty, a sailor injured on one of their warships. Over 500 Zanzibari were killed or wounded, including several civilians. The war was fought because the Zanzibari leader, Sultan Khalid, acceded to the throne made vacant by the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad. Because Khalid did not have the prior concurrence of the British, in accordance with an existing treaty, they demanded that he step down. He refused, and ordered his palace reinforced and civilians to rally to his defense. Most of the Zanzibari were pro-British.

The British ships assigned to the task of removing the impertinent Khalid bombarded his palace, sank his yacht, destroyed some other ships, and in the aforementioned time achieved the surrender of his remaining forces. Khalid sought refuge in the German consulate and eventually German East Africa. The British installed a more palatable Sultan, supported with a puppet government under what was essentially British rule. It was the shortest war in recorded history. Following its completion the British demanded reparations for the cost of the shot and shell expended against Khalid’s forces.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Winston Churchill consumed cigars, wine, brandy, and whiskey from morning through night, every day. Wikimedia

10. Winston Churchill’s lifestyle was hardly conducive to good health

Winston Churchill consumed tobacco and alcohol with unabashed gusto for most of his adult life. He exercised little, preferring a sedate approach to life and the workday. He typically woke early, but did not arise, remaining in bed with the first of his ten or so cigars each day, reading and working on correspondence. Usually a glass of brandy accompanied his light breakfast. Rising around 11 he would go to his office for a couple of hours before lunch, which was usually preceded by a whiskey and water and accompanied with champagne. A two-hour lunch was his norm, followed by port, brandy, and another cigar. Then he would return to his office until naptime, about 5, when he would be whisked to sleep by yet another whiskey.

After his nap, more work occupied him until dinner, which was preceded by cocktails, accompanied with wine, and followed by port, brandy, and cigars. Churchill usually returned to work when his guests retired, and worked into the early hours of the morning. He maintained a similar schedule when visiting at the White House, to the dismay of Eleanor Roosevelt, who felt it dangerous to her husband, Franklin. Churchill maintained more or less the same schedule throughout his retirement, replacing work with painting or supervising work on his home and estate. He died in January, 1965. He was 90 years of age.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Saddam Hussein (right) was given the honor of the Key to the City of Detroit in 1980. Wikimedia

11. Some strange people have been awarded the Key to the City in America

The honor bestowed upon celebrities when they received the Key to the City was (and remains) more or less an opportunity for local politicians to achieve some free publicity and time before the cameras. It wasn’t always that way, the custom can be traced back to Ancient Rome, when the Freedom of the City allowed certain restrictions to be waived so that certain people could cross the boundary of the city. During the Middle Ages being granted the Keys to the City allowed certain visitors to the town given the award rights they would ordinarily not enjoy since they were not residents. Such rights might have been permission to engage in business or trade.

It also granted the recipient the protection of the city, should for example magistrates from another city arrive demanding an awardee be surrendered because he was wanted elsewhere. It is still commonly practiced in the western world as an honor, distinguished visitors are granted the Key to the City, usually by the local mayor, city manager, or the council. It carries no legal status or privileges. Which was a fortunate thing during the administrations of the two Presidents Bush. Their mutual adversary, Saddam Hussein, held the Key to the City of Detroit, Michigan, which was granted the Iraqi dictator in 1980 by Mayor Coleman Young.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Violet Jessop survived the sinking of the Titanic and of another White Star liner, Brittanic, during her career. Wikimedia

12. The unsinkable Violet Jessop survived the Titanic sinking and other nautical disasters

In 1911 RMS Olympic, then the largest ship afloat, collided with the Royal Navy cruiser Hawke. Aboard Olympic was a young stewardess named Violet Jessop. Both ships were damaged, but neither sank and Olympic returned safely to port. Jessop was uninjured. The following April she joined the crew of RMS Titanic, in time for that vessel’s ill-fated maiden voyage. She was loaded into a lifeboat as the ship went down, and was one of the survivors rescued later in the day by RMS Carpathia. Having survived two ship accidents unscathed, Jessop remained in the employ of White Star Lines, which operated both of the ships.

In 1916 she joined the crew of HMHS Britannic, a White Star liner which had been transferred to His Majesty’s Navy as a hospital ship. In November, 1916, Britannic was operating in the Aegean Sea when it was ripped apart by an explosion, whether from a mine, a torpedo, or another cause has never been determined. The ship sank in less than an hour. Although Jessop suffered a slight head injury, she survived the sinking. Jessop returned to the White Star Line following the war, and worked for other British shipping lines until her retirement in 1950, though she had no further misadventures involving the loss of the ship’s in which she served.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Charles Lightoller (standing, center) with the other officers who survived the sinking of Titanic. Wikimedia

13. Another Titanic survivor rescued British troops at Dunkirk

Charles Lightoller was the most senior member of Titanic‘s crew to survive its loss in April 1912. He remained onboard as the ship went down, was tossed free by some quirk of the ship breaking up, and ended up, with some 30 other survivors, riding out the night on an overturned collapsible boat which had not been deployed in time to be filled. During the First World War Lightoller commanded a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Garry, when it rammed and sank a German U-boat. The German and British accounts of the sinking differ, with the Germans accusing the British of attacking survivors in the water, a topic which Lightoller refused to subsequently address.

In 1940, as the British Army was reeling towards complete destruction at Dunkirk, Lightoller, then retired, refused to allow the Royal Navy to seize his personal motor launch to assist the evacuation of British troops. Instead, he piloted the boat, which he had named Sundowner, across the Channel himself, assisted by his son and one of his friends. Together they rescued 127 British troops from the shores of France (Lightoller’s elder son was in the British Army at Dunkirk, but had already been evacuated) and carried them safely to England. Likely none of them were aware that they were rescued by a survivor from Titanic, sunk 28 years earlier.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Percival Lowell established the Arizona observatory which eventually discovered Pluto after his death. Wikimedia

14. Pluto never completed an orbit during its time designated as a planet

The existence of Pluto was suspected based on the application of Newtonian Mechanics for many decades before astronomers began combing the sky to find the ninth planet. In 1906 Percival Lowell, the founder of Arizona’s Lowell Observatory, began an extended search for the planet in the regions of the sky where he expected it to be found. He died in 1916, having failed to establish its presence. The search did not resume until 1929, due to legal complications between the observatory and Lowell’s widow. When it did a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh was assigned to the task. By early 1930, Tombaugh announced the discovery of the planet had been confirmed.

It was a worldwide sensation during the early 1930s. It was named for the god of the underworld, Pluto, and the fame of its name influenced Walt Disney to name a new character, Mickey Mouse’s dog, after the planet. A newly created element – plutonium – was so named in its honor. But 76 years later, following the discovery of numerous previously unknown orbiting bodies, the International Astronomical Union changed the definition of what can be called a planet. Pluto didn’t qualify. It became a dwarf planet. During its entire period of being known as a planet Pluto did not complete a single orbit around the sun – or even half of one. On earth it was a planet for 76 years, on Pluto less than one.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the Lunar lander while on the surface of the moon. NASA

15. The Christian rite of communion has been taken on the moon

During the Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the surface of the moon, carried with him the means to take communion while on the lunar surface. Aldrin was an elder of the Presbyterian church, and he carried with him as personal equipment a communion kit which had been prepared by his pastor. Neil Armstrong, his companion in the lunar module, stood by but did not take part in the rite. NASA was aware of the activity planned by Aldrin, and allowed it to go forward, but it kept the act quiet at the time. An earlier mission, Apollo 8, had included a bible reading by the astronauts as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, which had led to a lawsuit against NASA.

Aldrin took communion in both forms (bread and wine) and in 1970 he mused to Guideposts magazine, “It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements”. The lawsuit which resulted from the Apollo 8 mission was eventually dismissed and other religious rites have since been conducted in space, including on Shuttle missions and on the International Space Station. Aldrin later indicated that had he the opportunity to redo the Apollo mission, communion would not have been part of his plans, since it excluded other religions, not in line with the idea of going to the moon “for all mankind”.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has had some embarrassing recalls of its own. Wikimedia

16. The US tried to issue safety warnings which were themselves unsafe

During the Christmas season the US government, through the Consumer Product Safety Commission, creates drives to remind consumers when shopping to exercise caution, particularly for children’s toys. Warnings to ensure toys are age appropriate, or may contain parts which present a choking hazard, or sharp edges, and so on appeared in magazines, posters, and Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on television. Packaging was not yet inundated with similar messages warning of dire consequences, as they are today. In 1974 the CPSC issued lapel buttons, fastened with a pin, which read “For kid’s sake, think toy safety”. About 80,000 were distributed.

Within a few weeks, they had to recall the buttons. They were coated with a paint which contained lead in amounts which were excessive, many had sharp edges from a flaw in manufacturing, and they broke apart easily, creating small pieces which were a choking hazard. The buttons had not yet been distributed to the public, and the recall from CPSC offices was relatively simple, but when the organization attempted to recoup the cost of having them made the manufacturer declined, stating that the specifications had not listed any safety requirements and the buttons complied with the terms of the contract. The national press heard the story, and the nation was duly informed.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
The New York Times fought the spread of crossword puzzles for years, certain they were a passing fad. Library of Congress

17. The New York Times wasn’t always the source of great crossword puzzles

Although there are several samples of word puzzles which preceded it, Arthur Wynne is generally credited with creating the first modern crossword puzzle, which appeared in the New York World on December 21, 1913. At first copied in just a few newspapers, by the early 1920s crosswords had became a craze. Libraries reported that patrons there for legitimate study were blocked from reference books by crossword solvers. The very first issue of The New Yorker commented “…the crossword puzzle bids fair to become a fad with New Yorkers”. In a time when New York had several newspapers competing daily with each other, they all began printing their own. All that is but one.

“This is not a game at all, and it can hardly be called a sport”, sneered The New York Times over the latest craze. It also referred to the hobby as a “sinful waste”. In 1925, the Times continued to scorn crosswords, saying that they were already a dying fad, and in 1929 noted, “The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads”. Not until 1942 did the Times surrender and begin publishing crosswords in its pages. By the end of the 20th century the Times puzzle was published in newspapers across the country, and it had become one of the most popular crossword puzzles in the English-speaking world.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
A search for immortality led to the development of gunpowder. Wikimedia

18. Alchemists invented gunpowder while seeking an altogether different product

Alchemy was the forerunner of the science of chemistry, emerging in Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages, as well as in the Islamic world and the subcontinent of India. Alchemists studied different materials, attempting to reduce them to their essence, and to achieve the perfection of the human body and soul through the creation of a universal essence common to all. It was a universal concept that there were but four basic elements of creation, and nearly all alchemists worked in secrecy, rendering them suspect by religious fundamentalists who linked much of their work with sorcery and witchcraft.

In the mid-eighth century in China, according to existing Taoist texts, and again later in the ninth century, alchemists in China pursuing an elixir of life, believed to give immortality to the body which it would share with the soul, created a compound which they called “fire medicine”. The Chinese mixed saltpeter, realgar (a form of arsenic), and sulfur, bound with honey, and created what later became refined as gunpowder. By the early ninth century it was weaponized, and succeeding centuries saw its use expanded in bombs, rockets, mines, and eventually guns. Gunpowder was discovered accidentally as part of a search for immortality, one of the greatest ironies of human history.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
The Chinese Exclusion Act was derided in the press and by some in Congress, but the Supreme Court upheld it 7-2. Wikimedia

19. The United States once banned all Chinese immigration to its shores

Chinese laborers were once brought to the United States to work in mines and on railroads. Most came without their wives and families, and in the second half of the 19th century many attempted to bring their families to America after becoming settled there. In 1875 the United States banned the immigration of Chinese women via the Page Act. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning the immigration of Chinese laborers. It was signed by President Chester Arthur into law on May 6 of that year, with a scheduled expiration date established ten years later. When that date approached the law was extended for another ten years.

Over the period that the law was enforced, Congress passed additional laws to further limit the ability of Chinese from entering the United States. Those who had been in America when the law was passed and left for any reason were denied the ability to return by legislation. Chinese immigrants who had arrived legally were given the status of permanent aliens, with the opportunity to become American citizens denied them. The Supreme Court upheld the Act as Constitutional (1889) despite heavy criticism from some members of congress. The act was not repealed until 1943, when the United States and China were allies in the Pacific War against Japan.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Maurice Gamelin reviewing Canadian troops before he was captured and held by the Germans after the fall of France. Wikimedia

20. The American Army and units of the German Army fought side-by-side near the end of WW2

Castle Itter, in the Austrian Tyrol, served as a prison camp during the Second World War, where French VIP prisoners were held by the German SS. Near the end of the war in Europe a combined force of American troops, German troops led by a Waffen SS officer, and former French prisoners combined to defend the castle against an attack by about 200 German soldiers of the SS 17th Panzer Grenadiers. The Germans who fought alongside the Americans and French were members of the Wehrmacht, led by an officer who had changed over to support the Austrian Resistance movement in the closing days of the war. The battle took place on May 5, 1945, when Hitler was already dead, just two days before the Germans surrendered.

The allies sustained just one fatality during the battle to defend the castle against the attacking SS troops. He was Major Josef Stangl, the SS officer who had defected with his troops, eleven men, to the American side. The Germans, 16 Americans, and a few of the French prisoners held off the attack until a relief column from the American 104th Infantry Division arrived. Among the prisoners present during the battle was French general Maurice Gamelin, the former prime minister Edouard Daladier, and Charles de Gaulle’s sister, Marie Cailliau. It was the only time in either of the World Wars when German troops fought alongside Americans.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Barbary Corsairs raided as far north as Ireland and well out into the Atlantic in the 17th century. Wikimedia

21. Barbary pirates once raided the coast of Ireland

The pirates and corsairs of the Barbary Coast were known throughout the Mediterranean and the coasts of Africa, Spain, and Portugal, but their reach and their raids extended beyond those waters for centuries. In 1631, pirates from the Barbary Coast raided in Ireland, led by a Dutchman who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Murad Reis the Younger. The expedition he led encountered a small fishing boat, seized its captain, and in return for a promise to obtain his freedom the captain led Murad and his pirates to the village of Baltimore, in West Cork, Ireland. The traitorous captain was later hanged for his perfidy.

The number of villagers captured by the pirates varies according to sources, from 107 to as many as 200 or more. Most of them were English, though some Irish were seized as well, and they were taken as slaves back to the North African states from which their captors hailed. Only three ever returned to Ireland, after their ransom was paid, a common practice of the Barbary leaders. The rest remained enslaved, manning the oars in Muslim galleys, or in forced labors ashore. The women were sent to the harems of the Muslim leaders, which often traded their concubines with each other for favors or tribute. Baltimore remained a deserted village for almost seven decades.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Although torture was prevalent during the Middle Ages, often in the name of the Church, an Iron Maiden was not a device used in medieval times. Wikimedia

22. The medieval Iron Maiden is a myth

Iron Maidens are presented in museums, wax museums, horror films, and other venues featuring presentations of medieval torture in Europe and in the United States. The Iron Maiden of Nuremburg may have been displayed as early as 1802, along with a “history” written by German philosopher and teacher Johann Philip Siebenkees. The fictional story provided for the device indicated that it had been used as early as 1515. Iron Maidens became popular at traveling museums and other attractions in Europe during the remainder of the 19th century, and travelled to the America’s through the efforts of showmen and hucksters there.

There is no mention of their existence in medieval or renaissance literature, including among the prosecutors of the Inquisition, who certainly would have used one had it been available. They first appeared in 19th century literature. Iron Maidens are just one of many myths perpetuated regarding the Middle Ages which have been handed down through the centuries. They certainly could be used as a means of inflicting torture but there is no evidence that their use for that purpose is part of the historical record of medieval history.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Harrod’s had to entice customers to use their new moving stairway when it was installed in 1898. Wikimedia

23. People found early escalators unnerving

It is sometimes reported that the first moving staircase known as an escalator was installed in the London Underground, and a man was hired to ride up and down all day to demonstrate its safe use to hesitant customers. Both are untrue. The first escalator installed in Great Britain was in Harrod’s in Knightsbridge, in 1898. Harrod’s enticed customers to use the escalator by making both smelling salts and fine cognac available as restoratives upon completing the ride between floors. Still, early escalators were regarded with hesitations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as were their vertical counterpart, elevators.

In America the first escalators were installed at the Brooklyn Bridge on an experimental basis, using a design which was later incorporated with the subway system in Boston. Some of the escalators were still in use in Boston in the late 1990s. As their use expanded, fears of the devices ebbed, and many riders chose to walk up (or down) the moving staircase, leading to the evolution of escalator etiquette. Standing on the right, and passing on the left, became the generally accepted rule in the United States, where the same procedure applies to driving on a road.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
Goldman patented the shopping cart but had to use subterfuge in order to get people to use them. Wikimedia

24. Shopping carts were not well received when they were invented

The shopping cart is an American invention, created in 1937 by a grocery executive named Sylvan Goldman in Oklahoma City. Goldman envisioned the cart allowing customers to carry a greater number of products conveniently and easily, and thus also being more likely to purchase more. But he found when he introduced the patented design in his Humpty-Dumpty stores that customers avoided the carts. When he sought to find out why such an obvious convenience was treated disdainfully he learned that men found pushing a cart full of groceries to be effeminate. Women on the other hand thought the carts reminiscent of baby carriages.

Goldman decided to promote the use of grocery carts in his stores by hiring greeters in the stores to offer them to arriving customers and explain their use. He also hired models, male and female, to walk about the store, going through the motions of shopping, to demonstrate their convenience and to get customers used to their being seen throughout the store. He likely did not hire people to demonstrate how to block whole aisles with the devices, that was something customers undoubtedly learned on their own. Goldman also invented the nesting baggage carts found in airports and train stations around the world.

Odd Facts and Myths from History
A portrait of John James Audubon in 1826 displays the tools of hunting, rather than painting. The White House

25. John James Audubon was not American, and entered the country under a false passport

John Audubon was born in Haiti, the son of a French naval officer and his mixed-race mistress. He was raised for the most part in France, where his interest in birds developed. In 1803, in order to prevent his son from being conscripted in Napoleon’s armies his father sent him to the United States using a forged passport. His early adventures in the United States included being stricken with malaria and falling in love, but he soon returned to his study of birds. He was one of the first to practice banding birds, in order to observe the migratory habits of some species, including their returning to the same nesting grounds.

To prepare the work of paintings he called The Birds of America in the 1820s, Audubon hired hunters and trappers to catch most of his specimens. He worked, not through sketching birds temporarily perched on a limb, but from dead specimens he killed himself or acquired through aides. After his work became a major success in Britain, he frequently shipped skins and mounted stuffed examples of American birds and animals to acquaintances there. Virtually every painting of a bird he created was from posed dead specimens he collected, making him less of an animal conservationist, and more of a successful hunter and artist.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Vox in Rama”. Pope Gregory IX. Pdf, University of Oregon. Online

“Scold’s Bridle – History of the Branks”. Article, History of Masks. Online

“The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption”. Steven Heller. 2008

“Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two”. Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller. 2009

“The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays”. Kenneth Muir. 2005

“Wellington: The Iron Duke”. Richard Holmes. 2002

“A History of the Arab State of Zanzibar”. Norman Robert Bennett. 1978

“How to eat, drink, and smoke like Winston Churchill”. Will Noble, The Londonist. Online

“Guess Who Got The Key To Detroit?” Associated Press report, CBS News. March 26, 2003. Online

“Titanic Survivor”. Memoir of Violet Jessop. Sheridan House, 1997

“The Second Officer Who Survived Titanic And Saved 130 Lives At Dunkirk”. Article, History.com. Online

“Pluto Fact Sheet”. David R. Williams, NASA. July 24, 2015. Online

“How Buzz Aldrin’s communion on the moon was hushed up”. Matthew Cresswell, The Guardian. September 13, 2012

“Agency’s Safety Buttons Recalled As Hazardous”. The New York Times, November 16, 1974

“The Crossword Obsession”. Coral Amende. 2001

“How Gunpowder Changed the World”. Heather Whipps, Live Science. April 7, 2008. Online

“Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts”. Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“The Austrian castle where Nazis lost to German – US force”. Bethany Bell, BBC News. May 7, 2015

“Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters”. Robert Davis. 2003

“Are Iron Maidens Really Torture Devices?” Stephanie Pappas, Live Science. September 6, 2016

“The department store: a social history”. William Lancaster. 1995

“How a Basket on Wheels Revolutionized Grocery Shopping”. Zachary Crockett, Priceonomics. February 18, 2016. Online