24. Wishful Thinking Transformed a Legend Into a Strong Belief
Over the years, and with repeated retellings, the legend of El Hombre Dorado, the Golden Man, was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together. The story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered a lot of gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South America.
They reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior. In due course, many Spanish Conquistadores and other European adventurers who heard the more ridiculous El Dorado story version describing a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. The lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city fueled numerous expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them discovered the nonexistent city of gold, and most of them found nothing but suffering and grief in a futile quest to find a myth.
23. Ridiculous Faith in the Existence of an Imaginary City Spawned Serious Suffering In Quests to Find It
Those who bought into the ridiculous belief that there actually was a city of gold out there somewhere were disappointed. However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the El Dorado story, about tribal chiefs who dropped golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than that partial success, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.
The more famous jinxed searches included those undertaken by English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, Raleigh was too enfeebled by age to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. It ended in utter disaster, and in the demise of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
22. The Introduction of Rail Technology Gave Rise to Ridiculous Beliefs
The arrival of new technologies, as with the arrival of many unknowns, often gives rise to fears about their possible negative impacts. Unsurprisingly, human imagination being what it is, some or many of those fears turn out to be irrational and ridiculous. A prime example of that occurred when the then-new technology of trains operating on railway lines made its appearance. Although there was widespread optimism about the new technology, there were also widespread fears. Some concerns were reasonable. Others… not so much.
When steam locomotive passenger trains entered service in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were widespread fears that their high speeds – at least high by the standards of their era – would prove lethal to passengers. Not lethal in the way most people today might picture, however. New locomotives, such as the pioneering Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, were capable of maximum speeds of 28 miles per hour. Quite slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds. So beliefs cropped up that the very act of moving at such unprecedented velocity was dangerous in itself.
21. Replacing One Ridiculous Train Phobia With Another
In the nineteenth century, the perceived risk of the unprecedented velocities afforded by trains was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers theorized that the bodies of human beings were simply not adapted to or capable of withstanding travel at speeds faster than those of galloping horses. Anticipating the concerns about G forces in the era of powered flight, train alarmists reasoned that passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially fatal results.
Such ridiculous fears eventually simmered down as train travel became common, with no reported fatalities from people getting their hearts or lungs flattened against their backs. However, they were replaced by yet another ridiculous fear, this one of a danger to the mind instead of the body. By the 1850s, Victorians worried that steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, were causing injuries to passengers’ brains, and driving people insane. Just like today, the nineteenth century had no shortage of sensationalist media, and it did its best to whip up the frenzy about the risks to sanity posed by train travel.
20. When Crazy Acts on Trains Were Blamed on Train Travel
An illustrative example of the ridiculous belief that trains drove people insane occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England. An armed passenger went crazy and started attacking windows to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern of going wild while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.
Contemporary newspapers and mental health professionals linked that passenger’s bouts of madness to train travel. However, instead of reasoning that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel was the cause of his mental illness. The belief persisted, well into the 20th century, that something about the speed or motion of trains made people go nuts, and the pattern of flawed analysis, confusing causation with correlation, kept repeating itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a moving train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed for causing the craziness.
19. “The Father of History” Was Also “The Father of Lies”
Ancient Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (circa 484 – circa 425 BC) is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he is credited with writing the first great historical narrative of the ancient world. He traveled widely, or at least claimed to have done so – some glaring errors in describing places he supposedly visited have cast some claims in doubt. Herodotus collected the stories he gathered from his own travels, or from the hearsay of other travelers, into The Histories, a record of ancient politics, geography, and cultures.
The Histories is considered to be Western literature’s founding work of history. However, “The Father of History” is also known to critics as “The Father of Lies”, because his writings included not only some wrong details but also some ridiculous jaw dropping whoppers. Not only modern scholars, but even some of Herodotus’ contemporaries, scoffed at his claims. Today, many questions whether Herodotus had ever traveled beyond Greece, and had instead simply penned The Histories by collecting stories from people he encountered at home.
18. The Ridiculous Whoppers Told by “The Father of History”
There are plenty of ridiculous whoppers in Herodotus’ Histories, which he passed along as fact, that earned him the nickname “The Father of Lies”. One such was his narrative about a struggle between giant one-eyed Cyclopes and half-eagle, half-lion, griffins, who inhabited northern Europe. According to Herodotus, the griffins roosted over and guarded stockpiles of gold, which were frequently raided by the one-eyed giants. Herodotus did not narrate this story as the retelling of a myth, but as an event that he believed to be gospel truth.
Another Herodotus tall tale was about giant, gold-digging ants. As he told it, ants the size of foxes lived in the Persian Empire’s eastern provinces, in deserts whose sands abounded with gold dust. As they dug their anthills, mounds, and tunnels, they unearthed the gold dust, and the locals grew wealthy from sifting through the giant ants’ excavations. Few if any Greeks had ever been to the faraway lands described by Herodotus, so for centuries, the Greeks, and later the Romans, treated Herodotus’ ridiculous tales of far-fetched weirdness in distant lands as literal truths.
17. Ancient Romans’ Mixed Feelings About Gladiators
The people of Ancient Rome had what can best be described as mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. Not only were gladiators decidedly low-brow brutes whose presence offended polite society, they were also potentially quite dangerous low-brow brutes. A prime example was the gladiator uprising led by Spartacus in the 70s BC, which terrified Rome and Italy for years.
On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes. Because of their constant training, gladiators were often impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles coating bronzed bodies that glistened in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that combination of lethality and high physical fitness made gladiators the objects of explicit fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. It also gave rise, as seen below, to some ridiculous beliefs about the healing properties of gladiators’ bodily fluids.
16. Rich Roman Women Paid Ridiculous Sums For Gladiator Sweat
Many ancient Romans – at least those who were in a position to do so – gratified their fantasies with gladiators. If the gladiator fantasy could not be gratified directly (such as social barriers), it might be gratified in a different manner. Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought-after commodities in Ancient Rome. Ridiculous as it might seem today, wealthy Roman women were willing to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators.
A curved metal blade called a strigil, used by Romans to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing, was used to scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. The scrapings were then collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers often applied the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their mugs, as a type of facial cream. Others mixed the vials’ contents with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of high-status ladies. Roman women also sought gladiator blood.
15. The Ridiculous Belief in the Healing Properties of Gladiators’ Bodily Fluids
Many Roman women used the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accouterments or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as especially virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using gladiator blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine and ingested that way. The use of gladiator blood was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also believed to have healing properties, particularly in treating epilepsy.
As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink he warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”
14. The Ridiculous Hoax That Ensnared Sherlock Holmes’ Creator
It might be reasonable to assume that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes, must have been one of those hard to fool skeptical types. In reality, however, the author was nothing like his famous character. Late in life, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism. In his eagerness to credit anything that would support his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a ridiculous hoax perpetrated by two little girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley.
There, nine-year-old Elsie Wright and her sixteen-year-old old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed, so to prove it, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”. When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. That should have been the end of it, but as seen below, it was not.
Two years after Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffith photographed “fairies” in Cottingley, things took off. The pictures started going viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them pronounced them crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of Fairies dovetailed with some religious tenets of the Theosophical Society. So the society’s members – who included prominent British figures – began spreading the photos and vouching for their authenticity.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the photos’ existence. He was initially skeptical, and went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before he had received a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author was vouching for the photos’ authenticity, en route to becoming a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. It was the start of an awkward journey.
In December, 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a cringe-worthy article, in which he urged the public to accept that fairies actually exist. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. None of that dissuaded Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, describing even more fairy sightings. A year later, in 1922, he capped it off by publishing his most embarrassing book, The Coming of the Fairies.
As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. In 1983, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith published an article, in which they confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had kicked off the prank to get back at adults who teased them for “playing with fairies”. The joke snowballed, however, and got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, they could not think of a graceful way to back out, so they just kept the hoax going, before finally coming clean, six decades later.
In the early nineteenth century, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquires during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. For example, if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. The theory became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It eventually became clear that Lamarck was wrong: traits are passed on through genes that are hard coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation.
The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps. By the late nineteenth century, Lamarck’s theory had been thoroughly debunked, and only had a limited following within a circle of ridiculous quacks. Then the theory made a surprising comeback in the twentieth century in, of all places, Stalin’s USSR.
10. Reviving Discredited Nineteenth-Century Pseudo-Science in the Twentieth Century Soviet Union
The discredited nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific theory of Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd twentieth-century revival in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, a quack Soviet biologist and agronomist named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and that weeds could be transformed into grain crops. It was gobsmacking ridiculous, but he got away with it.
Lysenko’s take might have been laughably ludicrous, but in a sinister twist, he found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist Soviet Union, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that if you knew what was good for you, you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin.
9. When Bad Science Was Elevated to Political Faith
In the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s, criticism of the ridiculous Lamarckian Inheritance theory was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling, and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Trofim Lysenko. Trofim Lysenko endorses Lamarckism – or at least his take on Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge seeking to sabotage the USSR.
Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the dreaded NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. They were brutally interrogated, tortured, and sent to the gulag where many died or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. The Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It was revived after Stalin’s end in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.
The harmful effects of tobacco are well known and understood nowadays in most of the world. However, ridiculous as it might sound to modern ears, there was a time in centuries past when not only was tobacco not seen as a negative, but was instead viewed as absolute positive. Back then, tobacco’s ills and risks were unknown, and it was actually considered healthy and good for you. When tobacco was first brought from the New World to the Old, it was lauded as a cure for many ailments.
The supposed health benefits of tobacco were not lauded only by quacks and charlatans, but also by respected members of the mainstream medical establishment. Tobacco was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish, circa 1528. From early on, it was described as a “sacred herb” because of its supposed medicinal properties, as claimed by various Native Americans. Before long, European medical practitioners were treating the newly introduced plant as a miracle cure for sundry ailments, from headaches and colds to cancer.
7. When Blowing Smoke Up the Rear Was Not Just a Figure of Speech
Today, when somebody scoffs at another that “you’re just blowing smoke up my a**“, it is a figure of speech that the addressee is insincerely complementing the scoffer, telling him what he thinks he wants to hear. However, centuries ago, blowing smoke up one’s rear end was meant literally, to describe a medical procedure in which a tube or rubber hose was inserted in a person’s behind, through which tobacco smoke was blown. In the 1700s, doctors routinely used tobacco smoke enemas, in the mistaken belief that they had healing properties. Blowing smoke up the behind was thought to be particularly useful in reviving drowning victims.
The nicotine in tobacco was thought to make the heart beat faster, thus stimulating respiration, while smoke from the burning tobacco was thought to warm the drowning victim from the inside. It made intuitive sense: the drowned person was full of water, so blowing air, in the form of tobacco smoke which was full of healing properties, would expel the water. Hiccup was when the water was in the person’s lungs, which are not connected to his or her bum. Thus, blowing air up the drowning victims’ rears and into their bowels did little to expel water from their lungs.
6. The Ridiculous Belief That Tobacco Enemas Could Revive Drowning Victims
When doctors back in the day practiced medicine by blowing tobacco into people, some preferred sticking a smoking tube directly into the lungs through the mouth or nose. However, most doctors preferred to shove a tube up the patient’s rear end, instead. Although medically useless, belief in the effectiveness of tobacco smoke enemas in reviving drowning victims, or even those presumed dead, was widespread. So widespread, that medical kits for blowing smoke up the behind were found at routine intervals along major waterways, such as the River Thames. There they waited, like modern defibrillators, ready for use to revive the drowned and bring the (presumed) dead back to life.
Blowing smoke up the behind was used to not only revive the drowned, but to also treat colds, headaches, hernias, abdominal cramps, and even heart attacks. Tobacco smoke enemas were also used on typhoid fever victims, and those dying of cholera. While the treatment was useless for the patient, it was quite dangerous for the doctor, especially if he blew smoke up the patient’s rump with his mouth instead of using a bellows. If a doctor inhaled instead of exhaled, or if gases in the patient’s bowels escaped (i.e.; if the patient farted) fecal particles could get blown back into the doctor’s mouth or his lungs. Such a mishap, particularly when treating a cholera patient, could prove fatal for the doctor.
5. A Ridiculous Explanation for a Mysterious Phenomenon
A strange new phenomenon cropped up in 1976 in Wiltshire, England. It started with crops in a local wheat field getting flattened in a circular pattern. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery. Theories ranged from secret weapons testing, to restless spirits and ghosts acting out, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, expressing her distress at what humanity had done to her planet.
Early on, one of the more ridiculous explanations – and one that gained the greatest currency – revolved around space aliens. Presumably, extraterrestrials had created the crop circles and left them behind as a means of communicating with humanity in some as yet un-deciphered code. That line of reasoning of aliens being behind the circles was supported by the fact that only a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, labeling them “[flying] saucer nests”.
Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge. It is a region rife with ancient burial mounds and marker stones. New Age types had long that claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths. For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear in its vicinity.
It was not long before ridiculous theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism. In reality, however, the crop circles had been the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, he had been drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, and the two got to talking about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. Midway through the conversation, Bower suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“.
3. Revealing the Truth Behind Crop Circles Wrecked Some Ridiculous Careers That Had Been Based on Explaining a Not-So-Mysterious Mystery
As friends, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed in 1991, when they finally revealed the mystery of Wiltshire’s crop circles to assembled media, it had all been incredibly easy. As they demonstrated to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in just minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line. That was all there had been to the mystery that became central to the lives of many for years on end: a pair of pranksters out for a laugh.
A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him when it was revealed that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987. Then other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined in on the fun.
Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) advanced the notion that the essence of the universe is constant change. To that end, he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“. It illustrates that everything, like the ever-moving droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not readily perceptible. He also advocated a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with those things exhibiting contrary properties. Unfortunately, Heraclitus is better known today for his ridiculous demise than for his contributions to philosophy.
A highly introspective man, Heraclitus did not come by his philosophy through learning at the hands of another philosopher, but was self-taught. Critical of other philosophers, had a dim view of humanity, loathed mobs and democracy, and preferred rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that the ideal ruler would be a philosopher-king. Deeming wealth as a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they would be cursed with wealth as punishment for their sins.
Given his views on the rest of mankind, Heraclitus was a misanthrope. That misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“. His ridiculous end came as a result of his affliction with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities.
Doctors could offer neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus, the self-taught philosopher, sought to apply his self-teaching skills to medicine and heal himself. He tried an innovative cure by covering himself in cow dung, on the theory that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to be immobilized by the cow dung drying around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs which came upon him and ate him alive.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading