It is said that a lie travels around the world, while the truth is still busy tying its boot laces. And no wonder, since false narratives, unrestricted as they are by facts, are usually juicier and more fascinating than the humdrum and often more boring reality. Take the controversy surrounding the depiction of British Queen Charlotte as black in Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton. Or the widely accepted but false notion that the Aztecs thought the Spanish Conquistadors were gods. Following are thirty things about those and other popular historic facts that are untrue.
30. A Hit Series That Became as Greatly Controversial as it is Wildly Popular
Producer Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix historical romance hit series Bridgerton has been a runaway success. With a viewership of over 82 million households as of March 2021, Bridgerton has catapulted to Netflix’s # 1 spot in about 80 countries, and has become the giant streaming service’s most-watched series, ever. However, the show’s depiction of racial relations in nineteenth century Britain has made it as greatly controversial as it is wildly popular. For some reason, many people cannot get over the series’ depiction of Queen Charlotte as a black woman.
To be sure, the depiction of Queen Charlotte as black – even though she might have had black ancestry – is historically false. However, Bridgerton’s show runners have made no pretense of claiming that their series is historically accurate. Indeed, they have gone out of their way to describe the show as a light, escapist fantasy, essentially taking place in an alternate universe. In that alternate reality, nineteenth century Britain is a race blind – or at least racially progressive – country. One in which nobody bats an eyelash at a black queen, and in which racial discrimination is no barrier to the free movement and advancement of people of color.
The claim that Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744 – 1718) is black rests on her descent from a Madragana Ben Aloandro (born circa 1230). Madragana, described in the earliest available historic sources as having been Moorish or Mozarab, was a mistress of King Afonso III of Portugal. She bore him at least two children, one of whose distant descendants, fourteen generations later, included Queen Charlotte (see chart, below). In 1999, writer Mario d Valdez y Cocom popularized in a website developed for PBS Frontline the claim that Charlotte was black.
Valdez’s interest in the British queen’s African ancestry began with his belief that she “looked black” in her portraits. As he put it, Charlotte had a “negroid physiogomy” [sic] and an “unmistakable African appearance“. Others have had a hard time seeing that in Charlotte’s portraits, which do not stand out from portraits of other royal and aristocratic women of her era. Valdez eventually expanded his claims to include the assertion that Charlotte inherited her blackness from what he described as “a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House“. However, he furnished no evidence to support that assertion, and his theory of Queen Charlotte’s blackness is rejected by most scholars. As seen below, even if Madragana had been black, it would not make Charlotte black.
28. Whether the Assertion that Queen Charlotte Was of Mixed Race is True or False Depends on How Small a Trace of Black Ancestry is Necessary to Make Somebody Black or Mixed Race
Queen Charlotte’s distant ancestress Madragana is described in the earliest sources as having been Moorish or Mozarab, not black African. However, even if Madragana had been 100% black African, the fact that she was 15 generations removed from Charlotte would render the queen’s black ancestry insignificant. Assuming no intermarriage among their descendants, the number of our ancestors doubles with each generation, and each ancestor’s share in our makeup is halved. Applying that to Charlotte, a black ancestress 15 generations in her past would make the British queen 1 part in 32,768 parts black.
Set aside the racist premise that a small trace of black ancestry makes somebody black, as if blackness is a defect or disease that irrevocably negates other ancestry. Even by that assumption, 1 part black in 32,768 parts could not make Charlotte black. Even the notoriously racist “One Drop Rule”, which deemed mixed race people with small traces of black ancestry as black, only stopped at 1 part black in 32. To consider Queen Charlotte to have been black, one would have to take the One Drop Rule’s racist formula, and multiply it by – literally – 1000.
27. The False Notion That the Aztecs Thought the Spanish Conquistadors Were Gods
One of the more pervasive narratives about the European conquest of the New World has it that the Native Americans thought that the strange new arrivals were gods. For example, it is often bandied about that the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs was helped by the natives’ belief that Hernan Cortes and his men were deities. That is false. It is true that the Aztecs were extremely religious, and had many notions that might strike us as weird today. However, they were not so idiotically naÃ¯ve that they believed that the Conquistadors were gods.
For example, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II was fully aware that the Spaniards who had landed in Mexico were humans who came from far away lands. Indeed, Moctezuma was sufficiently informed so as to know that Hernan Cortes was not acting with the consent of his king, Charles V (Charles I of Spain). The Aztec ruler even tried to go over Cortes’ head, by attempting to negotiate directly with king Charles. He failed, but it is clear that Moctezuma knew that he was dealing with people, not gods.
26. Did Hitler Invade the Soviet Union to Preempt a Soviet Attack on Germany?
Among the many false World War II narratives is one, peddled by some conspiracy theorists and fringe scholars of the Eastern Front, asserting that Hitler attacked the USSR in 1941 as a preemptive strike. Supposedly, Stalin was about to invade the Third Reich, so the Fuhrer simply beat him to the punch. The theory originated with Viktor Suvorov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to Britain in 1978. He contended that Stalin had lowered the conscription age to ramp up the Red Army’s manpower, and issued maps of Germany to soldiers in the field as a prelude to an imminent invasion. Most historians dismiss Suvorov’s thesis outright, for lack of any historic support.
In 1941, the Red Army was in bad shape, and Stalin knew it. His 1930s Military Purge had wrecked the senior command: victims included 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of the 9 most senior admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 corps commissars. The results were visible in the Red Army’s dismal performance in the 1939-1940 Winter War against tiny Finland. Between that and observing the frightening effectiveness of the German blitzkrieg in Poland and Western Europe, the Soviet military was in the midst of a massive overhaul in 1941, to modernize its obsolescent equipment and tactics.
25. The Flaws of a False Narrative Intended to Depict the Nazis in a Softer Light
Stalin and the Soviet leadership estimated that modernizing the Red Army would last into 1943 or 1944 before it could defend against a German attack, and until 1945 or 1946 before it could attack the Germans. The Soviets’ recent farcical experience in fighting Finland had demonstrated that the Soviet military was poorly led, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. As such, attacking Germany was the last thing on their minds. Indeed, Stalin went out of his way to eagerly – even obsequiously – appease Hitler, to avoid giving him any excuse to attack the USSR.
Stalin went to such lengths to please Hitler precisely because he knew that the Soviet military was in no shape to fight a major war in 1941, let alone go on the offensive and invade Germany. Nonetheless, Viktor Suvorov’s assertion that Stalin was about to invade Germany in 1941 was eagerly embraced by the fringe. Hitler apologists, neo Nazis, and assorted white supremacists were eager to accept anything that portrayed the Fuhrer as having merely been defending his country against imminent communist aggression. However, there is no historical evidence to support Suvorov’s thesis.
24. The False Depiction of Ninjas in Popular Culture
Say “ninja”, and you conjure up an image of masked warriors, all in black, scaling building walls and assassinating people all over feudal Japan. In modern popular culture, people think of ninjas as covert killers, using exotic blades, throwing stars, and smoke bombs to carry out assassinations, all while locked in a feud with the more honorable samurai. In reality, those kinds of super cool ninjas never existed. The ones who did exist looked and acted nothing like popular perceptions of what ninjas are supposed to have acted and looked like. Far from having any feud with the samurai, many ninjas were themselves samurai.
Ninjas did not go around in black outfits as part of a group uniform getup. At least no more than the average Japanese people of the period wore black clothes. What we consider ninjas were simply scouts, spies, and mercenaries, hired by various armies in feudal Japan. To carry out their tasks, they blended into the local population. They did not use throwing stars, but did use thrown poisoned darts known as bo shurikens. They did not have a blood feud with samurai. Indeed, there was nothing to prevent a samurai from being a ninja, and quite a few ninjas were actually samurai.
One of WWII’s most dramatic sporting stories revolves around a soccer match that took place in Nazi-occupied Kiev on August 6, 1942. Pitting Ukrainian side Start FC, composed mainly of Dynamo Kyiv and Lokomotyv Kyiv professional players, against German team Flakelf, the match ended with the locals winning 5 to 1. The sides met again three days later, and the Ukrainians beat the Germans once more, 5 to 3. The Germans proved to be sore losers: upset that Slavic untermenschen had trounced Aryan ubermenschen, they had the Ukrainian players liquidated.
The story of what came to be known as “The Soccer [or football for most of the world outside America] Death Match” is quite gripping. However, it is also quite false. Two matches did take place on August 6 and 9, 1942, between German side Flakelf and Ukrainian team Start FC, whose players worked in a factory operating under Nazi management. About a week later, the Gestapo arrested eight Start players, and five of them were executed. However, as seen below, the arrests were unrelated to the match against Flakelf.
22. Soviet Authorities Knowingly Pushed a False Narrative About the “Death Match”
The misfortune that befell the Ukrainian Start FC soccer players was, indeed, triggered by sore losers. However, they were Ukrainian sore losers, not German ones. Members of another Ukrainian team, that had been whipped by Start 8 to 0, informed the Germans that several Start players were former NKVD – the dreaded Soviet secret police, and a forerunner of the KGB. Of the eight Start FC players picked up by the Gestapo, five were eventually murdered. However, their deaths were unrelated to their performance on the pitch, and had more to do with their activities off the pitch.
Some of the arrested and murder Start FC players, being former NKVD, were suspected of having engaged in recent partisan sabotage activities against the German occupation. Engaging in resistance activity against the Nazi occupiers was heroic in of itself, but not as dramatic as the “Death Match” narrative. Soviet authorities, eager to portray the heroism of the civilian populace during the war, chose to jazz up the story and went with a false narrative. After the war, the “Match” inspired a popular Soviet novel, and a hit movie, Third Time. As to the murdered Start FC players, they are commemorated in various monuments, including a statue in front of Dynamo Kyiv’s stadium.
21. The False Depiction of the Mob’s Aversion to Drugs
One of the more pervasive – and false – narratives about the Italian-American mafia claims that it was hostile to narcotics. In reality, it was anything but. Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962) was a visionary crime mafia boss who founded today’s Genovese crime family – one of New York City’s five mafia families. He is also credited with establishing The Commission – a committee running the Italian-American mafia and arbitrating its internal disputes to avoid bloody gang wars that could disrupt business.
Lucky Luciano is considered the founding father of the Italian-American mafia, and the key architect who created modern American organized crime as we know it. He was also America’s biggest drug dealer. A criminal since childhood, Luciano emigrated to America when he was nine. By age ten, he was involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion. When he was nineteen, Luciano was sentenced to six months for selling heroin. In 1920, he joined Joe Masseria’s crime family, and became his chief lieutenant, running his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations.
20. Rather Than Avoid Drugs, Mobsters Were America’s Biggest Drug Traffickers
Pioneering mobster Lucky Luciano became America’s biggest narcotics trafficker and distributor. Contra the false notion popularized by movies and works of fiction that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics, dealing drugs was one of the Italian-American mafia’s biggest moneymakers since its earliest days. It is often asserted that the mafia had a long-standing prohibition against drug trafficking – either because of morality, or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is as false as false gets. The notion that the mafia stayed away drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather.
In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, pioneering mafioso Lucky Luciano became America’s – and one of the world’s – biggest narcotics kingpins. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine replaced heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top billing as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
19. The Roman Empire Did Not Actually Fall in 476 AD
The year 476 AD is commonly assumed to be, and is widely accepted as, the traditional end date for the Western Roman Empire, as well as the end of Ancient Rome. It is a false assumption. The Western Roman Empire’s end was not abrupt: it was a gradual process. In 476, contemporaries hardly noticed that anything special had happened. What did actually happen that year was that a military strongman, Odoacer, beat another military strongman, Orestes, to become the power behind the throne.
It was not a big deal: by then, Western Roman emperors had long since been reduced to puppets. After his victory, Odoacer forced Orestes’ son, the sixteen-year-old Emperor Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate. Augustulus’ imperial regalia was then sent to the other Roman emperor in Constantinople, who confirmed Odoacer as ruler of Italy in the now-sole Roman Emperor’s name. On the ground, little changed in Italy or the rest of the Western Roman Empire. Most people who lived in 477 would not have noticed anything particularly different from 476.
Edward Donald Slovik (1920 – 1945) was a delinquent and troublemaker from early on. Fighting, stealing cars, breaking into and burglarizing homes, were just some of the crimes he did, and did time for. Indeed, his record was so bad that when he tried to enlist in the Army in 1942, he was designated 4F on grounds of being morally unfit for service in the military, and rejected. A year later, by which time Slovik had gotten married, the military began to feel a growing manpower crunch, and had second thoughts about people like Slovik. So he was reclassified as fit for service, and drafted.
Eddie Slovik was sent to France in August, 1944, where he was assigned to Company G of the 28th Infantry Division’s 109th Infantry Regiment. On the way to join his unit, Slovik came across a Canadian military police unit, and ended up staying with them for six weeks. He finally reported to his assigned unit on October 7, 1944, and promptly decided that serving in a front line infantry company was not for him. The following day, he asked his company commander for reassignment to a unit in the rear.
Slovik threatened that he was prepared to run away if he was assigned to a rifle unit on the front lines. His captain told him that if he did that, it would count as desertion, denied his transfer request, and assigned him to a rifle platoon. The next day, October 9th, Slovik deserted. He walked several miles towards the rear until he reached a headquarters detachment. There, he approached one of their cooks and provided him with a prepared note, confessing to desertion.
As Eddie Slovik confessed: “I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital.
The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. âSigned Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415“.
15. Contra the False Narrative of Being a Victim of Injustice, Eddie Slovik Had Concocted a Cynical Scheme to Manipulate the System
Contra the narrative that Private Eddie Slovik had been an innocent ground down by an unforgiving system, his desertion and confession were part of a cynical scheme. Slovik seems to have figured that confessing to desertion would get him sent to jail. As a former jailbird who had done multiple stints behind bars, jail held no terrors for him. As he saw it, staying safe, sound, dry, and well fed in a military prison was preferable to risking life and limb, and dealing with the cold and mud and other hardships of front line combat.
To be sure, desertion could be punished with death. However, nobody during the war had been executed for that offense. Slovik’s logic seems to have run along the lines of let the other suckers get shot up or maimed. By inviting the military to punish him, and embracing that punishment, he would achieve his goal of avoiding hazardous duty, and sit out the war in safety behind bars in a military prison. It was a foolproof way to game the system and manipulate it for his benefit. Or so Slovik thought.
14. Eddie Slovik Rejected Multiple Opportunities to Save Himself
Eddie Slovik’s confession made its way to his commander, who read it and told him to destroy it and avoid arrest. He declined. He was taken to a higher ranking officer, who told Slovik that if he tore up the confession and returned to his unit, no further action would be taken. Immune to good advice, he refused. He was then instructed to write another note on the back of his confession, stating that he understood the legal ramifications of deliberately incriminating himself, and that his note could be used against him during a court-martial.
Slovik, seemingly impervious to good counsel, went ahead and did that. He was then arrested and taken into custody. A Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer offered Slovik a last chance, promising to drop all charges if he returned to his unit. He even offered a transfer to another infantry regiment, where no one knew what Slovik had done, thus enabling him to start over with a clean slate. The oblivious GI rejected the final chance to save himself, and stated: “I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take my court-martial“.
It was unfortunate for Private Eddie Slovik that he had chosen the worst possible moment to try and get cute with the US Army. In the fall of 1944, Allied casualties in France were soaring, morale was at an all-time low, and desertions were at an all-time high. To restore order and discipline, the authorities needed to make an example of somebody. Along came Slovik: a jailbird thinking he was smarter than he actually was, openly defying the US military and daring it to do its worst. So it did.
It was an illustration of “be careful what you wish for”. Slovik was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty, and got his day in court on November 11, 1944. His confession was presented to the military tribunal, and he chose not to testify. Slovik was not surprised when he was convicted – it was what he had counted on. He was unpleasantly surprised, however, when the court sentenced him not to the relative safety and comfort of a military prison, as he had hoped, but to death.
12. A Scheme That Backfired in Spectacular Fashion
Too late, Eddie Slovik discovered that he had bitten more than he could chew. His death sentence was reviewed and approved by his division commander, who noted: “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved itâif I had let Slovik accomplish his purposeâI don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.” A stunned and terrified Slovik, aware that other deserters had been punished with prison and a dishonorable discharge, wrote General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, pleading for clemency.
Eisenhower rejected Slovik’s plea. On the morning of January 31, 1945, the condemned private was strapped to a post near the French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. At 10:04 AM, a firing squad of twelve soldiers from Slovik’s regiment shot him with M1 Garand rifles, killing him instantly. He was the only American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. During WWII, over 21,000 Americans had received varying sentences for desertion, including 49 death sentences. Slovik’s was the only one carried out.
11. The False Notion That Alexander the Great Conquered History’s Then-Greatest Empire to Date
One of history’s greatest generals, Alexander the Great is widely credited with conquering history’s greatest empire until then. Alexander, a sublime military genius and a fascinating character to boot, was undoubtedly great. However, the notion that his empire was the greatest that the world had seen until then is false. When Alexander died in 323 BC, history’s largest empire until then was still the Persian Empire. The map above is of Alexander’s empire at its greatest extent. The map below is of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under Darius the Great (490 BC).
The empires of Alexander and Darius mostly overlap. However, the territory that Darius did not rule in Greece and Thrace is more than made up for with territories he ruled in Arabia, Central Asia, Libya and the Caucasus, that Alexander never conquered. The difference amounts to about 300,000 square kilometers in favor of the Persian Empire at its peak: 5.5 million square kilometers, vs 5.2 million for Alexander’s realm. It took another two and a half centuries after Alexander’s death before the Achaemenid Empire’s size record was finally bested, by China under the Han Dynasty.
In 1940, The Battle of France ended in a humiliating defeat – more of a debacle, actually – for the Western Powers. In just six weeks, the Germans did what they had been unable to do in four years during World War I, by routing the British and French armies, and forcing France to surrender. By late May, the rampaging Germans had pushed the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) into an ever shrinking pocket surrounding the port of Dunkirk, and seemed on the verge of annihilating the defenders.
Then, seemingly inexplicably, with a decisive victory over the British in his grasp, Hitler ordered his panzers to halt, and left the task of reducing the surrounded forces to the Luftwaffe. The British took advantage of the breather, and managed to pull off a miraculous evacuation. That gave birth to a false narrative to explain what came to be known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk”. In it, Hitler’s halt decision was depicted as a gesture of goodwill, by which he deliberately allowed the British, whom he admired, to escape. As seen below, it is as false as false gets.
9. Far Fetched Reasoning to Explain a Seemingly Inexplicable Act
In late May of 1940, some German panzer formations were just a few miles from the disorganized British milling about the beaches of Dunkirk. That was when Hitler ordered them to halt for 48 hours in order to rest and refit. The Fuhrer’s generals loudly protested the halt, but to no avail. What happened next proved them right: the British made use of the breather to organize a defense that eventually allowed them to evacuate about 338,000 Allied soldiers to safety.
Casting about for an explanation for a seemingly inexplicable act, some have claimed that Hitler deliberately let the British go to demonstrate that he did not wish them ill. However, credible mainstream historians give short shrift to the fanciful notion of a merciful Fuhrer letting the British go as a sporting gesture: there is no evidence to support the assertion. Nonetheless, crackpot revisionists have persisted in peddling the false notion that Hitler intentionally let the British escape in order to look magnanimous, and thus draw Britain into peace negotiations.
8. How Self-Serving Spin by German Generals Gave Birth to a False Narrative
There is no historic support for the false notion that Hitler had intentionally allowed the British to escape from Dunkirk. Even for a figure as notoriously irrational as Hitler, deliberately letting the British escape would have been too irrational. For somebody who wanted to bring Britain to the peace table, holding hundreds of thousands of British soldiers as POWs in Europe – which would have happened if the Germans overran the British at Dunkirk – would have been quite a bargaining chip. More so than if those soldiers were back in Britain, armed and defiant.
Additionally, the fatal halt order to halt the German panzer divisions had not even originated with Hitler. A panzer unit commander who had lost half his armored forces and needed time to regroup, requested a halt from Army Group A’s commander, Gerd von Rundstedt. Rundstedt agreed, and passed it up to Hitler, who rubber stamped the order to halt. After the war, German generals – including Rundstedt himself – pinned the blame on Hitler instead of on themselves for ruining the opportunity to win the war in 1940.
7. The Depiction of These Dogs Conducting Alpine Rescues With Kegs of Brandy Strapped to Their Necks is False
Saint Bernards were immortalized in Stephen King’s horror novel Cujo. The ginormous dogs are named after the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, an Alpine monastery atop the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy. The monks bred Saint Bernards in the Swiss Alps, and used them as rescue dogs. Long before Cujo, Saint Bernards were known in popular culture as the dogs that conducted Alpine rescues, with a small keg strapped to their necks, full of warming brandy for stranded mountaineers.
While that image is captivating, what it depicts is, unfortunately, false. While the giant Swiss dogs were actually employed in rescue operations, the monks who bred and used them never sent them out with brandy barrels tied to their necks. The first time a Saint Bernard rescued somebody with a barrel of spirits strapped to its neck did not occur in Switzerland. Instead, it took place in England in 1820, in the art studio of then-seventeen-year-old Edwin Henry Landseer (1802 – 1873). He depicted it in a painting entitled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.
The false belief that Saint Bernards ran around the Swiss Alps with kegs of brandy strapped to their necks owes everything to an English teen prodigy. Edwin Henry Landseer was reportedly ambidextrous, and could paint with both hands simultaneously. While one of his hands painted a dog’s head, the other would be busy painting its tail, and both would meet in the middle. The creator of the Saint Bernard and brandy kegs myth had actually never been to the Alps. However, Landseer had seen and was impressed by a Saint Bernard – which had not yet gained that name – that had toured England on an exhibit.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass, birthplace of the dog breed that became famous the world over, has been used to cross the Alps for thousands of years. The Romans built a temple for Jupiter there, and in 1049, Saint Bernard of Menthon, patron saint of the Alps, built a hospice atop the temple’s ruins as a shelter for travelers. Monks maintained the hospice, took care of guests, and guided people through the pass. They also formed search and rescue teams for lost or injured Alpine travelers.
5. Saint Bernards Traced Their Roots Back to Giant Roman Mastiffs
Monks of the Alpine monastery founded by Saint Bernard of Menthon began training large farm dogs for rescue work in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The big canines were descended from mastiff-type Molossian hounds, that had been introduced to the region by the Romans. Those dogs were strong, had weather-resistant coats, and possessed an exceptionally good sense of smell. That made them well-suited to guide and rescue travelers. The dogs were accompanied by monks, who sometimes carried flasks of brandy and shared them with travelers.
That might have started the association between Saint Bernard Pass rescues and brandy. It eventually grew into the false notion that it was the dogs themselves, not the monks, that carried kegs of brandy. Over a period of hundreds of years, from the sixteenth or seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice bred an excellent search and rescue dog. However, severe winters from 1816 to 1818 saw an unusually high number of avalanches that killed many of the breeding dogs during rescue operations.
4. The False But Widely Accepted Belief That Saint Bernard Rescue Dogs Looked Like Today’s Saint Bernards
To save the Saint Bernard breed, the dogs that had survived the disastrous stretch from 1816 to 1818 were mated with Newfoundland dogs, imported in the 1850s. The long fur resulting from crossbreeding with the Newfoundlands – a prominent feature of modern Saint Bernards – made the dogs less suitable for rescue work. The extra fur ended up gathering snow, freezing, and weighing the dogs down. Another false aspect of the Saint Bernard myth is the assumption that the rescue dogs looked like the current ones. As seen in the above painting of Barry der Menschenretter, the most famous Saint Bernard, the original dogs looked significantly different from today’s Saint Bernards.
Original Saint Bernards – the ones that did most of the work in the breed’s heyday as rescue dogs – were about half as big modern ones. They were roughly the size of German Shepherds, had longer snouts than today’s Saint Bernards, and shorter fur. Saint Bernards got so huge because kennel clubs and dog shows concentrated on appearance instead of the dogs’ working ability. As Saint Bernards became bigger and their fur grew longer, they became less suitable for Alpine rescue work. The extra weight caused them to plunge deeper into the snow, while the increasingly longer fur froze and weighed the dogs down even more.
The most famous Saint Bernard of all was Barry der Menschenretter (1800 – 1814). Weighing about 95 pounds, he was significantly smaller than modern Saint Bernards, who weigh between 180 to 300 pounds. He gained the name Menschenretter, which means “People Rescuer”, because he is credited with saving between 40 to 100 people. His most famous rescue was of a little boy, whom he found in an ice cavern. Barry warmed the kid by licking him, then maneuvered him on his back, and carried him back to the hospice.
Barry conducted rescue operations for twelve years. As it does with all, age eventually caught up with Barry. When he ceased to be fit for rescue operations, he was parted from the monks and taken to Bern, Switzerland, for a well deserved retirement. After his death, Barry’s body was donated to the Natural History Museum of Bern, and was preserved by taxidermy as an exhibit. As it stands today, however, it is a false depiction of how Barry actually looked in life. A 1923 restoration had altered his pose, and modified the shape of Barry’s skull to resemble the Saint Bernards of that time.
The days of heroic Saint Bernard Alpine rescues – even without kegs of brandy strapped to their necks – are long gone. They have been replaced with dog breeds better suited to avalanche search-and-rescue work, such as German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. Among other things, those dogs have an advantage over the giant Saint Bernards in that their smaller size allows them to fit more easily in rescue helicopters. The last recorded instance of a Saint Bernard doing search-and-rescue work occurred in 1955.
However, the dogs stayed with the monks for years afterwards. Out of a sense of tradition, the big dogs were kept at the Great Saint Bernard Pass Hospice until 2004. That year, the monks sold their entire kennel of 34 Saint Bernards to local animal associations. They still return to the hospice every summer during tourist season. Nowadays, because the myth of the Saint-Bernard-and-brandy-barrel has become so widespread, the monks actually do outfit the dogs with cute little brandy kegs around their necks.
1. The False Belief That Brandy – or any Alcohol – Warms Up the Body
There is a widespread belief nowadays – which was even more widespread in centuries past – that brandy or other strong spirits can warm a person. Because of that, the notion that a freezing traveler caught up in an Alpine blizzard could be revived and warmed up with brandy makes intuitive common sense. However, a lot of stuff that makes intuitive common sense does not actually work anywhere near as well as common sense says it should. That includes the assertion that alcohol warms us, which is actually false.
Drinking strong spirits like whiskey or brandy does lead to a warming sensation, but that sensation is illusory. What alcohol does is bring our blood closer to the skin, which makes us think that we are warming up. What it does not do, however, is warm up our vital organs, whose failure from excessive cold could seriously harm or kill us. Bringing somebody’s blood closer to the skin in the cold actually speeds up the lowering of our core body temperature, and places our vital organs at greater risk. So it is a good thing that Saint Bernards toting brandy barrels is a myth: otherwise many rescue attempts would have backfired.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading