Any fan of Trivial Pursuit will tell you that knowing random historical facts is one of life’s greatest pleasures. However, the time has come for that rug to be pulled out from under many people because many of those so-called facts are nothing but fiction.
Who didn’t love to play cowboys as a kid? Organizing fake duels? Using your pointer finger and thumb as a gun? It was all harmless fun, but the idea of old-time cowboys busting into saloons, guns a blazing, shooting anyone and anything in their path…not so historically accurate, as it turns out. While the history books and the films of John Wayne would have us believe that having the quickest draw was how the West was won, the truth is, it wasn’t all that dangerous. Most western towns at the time only averaged about 1.5 murders a year. To put that into perspective, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, most major U.S. cities have several times that each year.
In the late 1960s, the feminist movement went mainstream. Women took to the streets declaring that they were women and you would hear them roar. Typically, these announcements were accompanied by the image of women burning their bras. It was meant to symbolize women breaking free from the lace- and poly-cotton-blend-enhanced oppression of a male-dominated society. And truth be told, it kind of worked. Since then, those images have become staples of iconic feminist imagery. Looking back, we assume every female under the age of 40 was wandering around braless, Bic lighter in hand, singing Joni Mitchell songs as she declared her independence. In fact, however, very few bra burnings actually took place. The one main bra burning protest of the time took place at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. A group of women came together and burned a collection of so-called feminine items – magazines, girdles, high heels and, yes, bras. However, Jon Katz, a writer who was covering the event, claimed, “I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished.” It wasn’t until a 1979 protest at City Hall in Toronto that bras were burned en masse.
When you think of the Great Depression, do images of distraught stockbrokers and investors leaping from windows come to mind? According to legend, on what would become known as Black Thursday, the stock market crash of 1929, many bankrupt investors were so devastated by the collapse that they jumped to their deaths from their high-rise office buildings. The idea became so engrained in our national consciousness that references to the instances can be found in everything from Robocop to Occupy Wall Street protest signs. But once again, this so-called historic event was blown wildly out of proportion. Actor/comedian Will Rogers made the crack that, "When Wall Street took that tailspin, you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of, and speculators were selling space for bodies in the East River." In a testament to his popularity and trustworthiness, the quote spread like wildfire and took on a life of its own. In fact, as reported in a New York magazine article about so-called “Wall Street suicide epidemics” written by Michael Idov in 2009, “Judging from newspaper reports and a statement by New York’s chief medical examiner at the time, the immediate aftermath of 1929’s Black Thursday produced fewer suicides than the same period of time in 1928—and just four were high-rise plunges.”
The year was 1938, and actor/director Orson Welles was about to become an overnight sensation with the first airing of The War of the Worlds, a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel of the same name. Lore has it that the show caused such a widespread panic with listeners believing the world was truly under an alien attack that there were riots, attempted suicides and fleeing of entire cities. While there was localized panic in many East Coast communities, most of the evening’s six million listeners simply flipped to another station for confirmation, realized it was just a show, and went on with their evenings as planned. The historical accounts that the show caused nationwide hysteria are as fake as those alien invaders.
These exaggerations remind us that there’s wisdom in the adage, “Believe none of what you read or hear, and half of what you see.”