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Napoleon Was A Shrimp

Momma done led you astray again: While Napoleon wasn’t exactly a big man, he wasn’t “tiny,” either. So, how’d the myth start? Pretty simple, really. The French foot measured 1.067877 English feet, or roughly 13 inches. So, in the French system of measurement, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but in the British system (which Americans still use today), he stood roughly 5 feet 6 inches, or about 168 centimeters. At the time, that wasn’t much shorter than the average man, who stood about 5 feet 8 inches. All the stuff about Napoleon being so “little” may also stem from the fact that his royal guard was made up of 6-footers, making him look small by comparison. Political critics in France liked to perpetuate the idea that he was little (he also had a slight build) while simultaneously making the fun of his short military-style haircut. They called him le petit tondu (“the little crop-head”). The exaggerated notion of his diminutive stature may also be rooted in the contempt in which he was held by his enemies. After all, victors to tend to write history.

There Are People Buried in The Hoover Dam

It’s a good, spooky story. And with more than 100 fatalities occurring over the five years of its construction, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one of them fell into the wet concrete and now rests there for all eternity, right? Nope. The construction of the Hoover Dam was notoriously devoid of safety considerations for the 16,000 workers who built the incredible structure. Men died from falls, rockslides, carbon monoxide poisoning (from the gasoline-powered dump trucks in the tunnels), and heat prostration (during the summer of 1931, the temperature routinely reached 140 degrees). But, oddly enough, the pouring of 3,640,000 cubic meters of concrete went relatively smoothly. Nobody fell in. Well, nobody who didn’t get out again, anyway. So the next time someone tells you there are people buried in the Hoover Dam, look them in the eye and tell ’em with confidence, it’s just a dam lie.

If The Slot Machine Hasn’t Paid Off All Day, It’s Due

Sorry, Mom. You’re a victim of what math professors call the “gambler’s fallacy.” And while it’s possible that some olden-days mechanical slot machines may have responded to continuous play, today’s computer chip-driven slots have no “memory” of previous plays. That means every pull is a brand-new game. Slot makers even claim their machines could pay off 19 times in a row, or not for years. A corollary to the gambler’s fallacy is that things that happen in the long run should also happen in the short run. It ain’t so. Oh, and for those of you still a little green to the machines, a “95% average payback” doesn’t mean everyone who puts in $100 gets $95 back. Just think on it for a sec: a player who puts in $10 and wins $100 has a 900% payback. That means a lot of other players on the same machine are going to have a very small, or no, payback just to get the percentage back down to 95. There’s a reason the house always wins.

All Authors Are Cads

No matter what your momma (or your swooning lit teacher) told you, not all authors suffer from odd fetishes or omnivorious appetites. D.H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterly’s Lover was so scandalous that it was banned in Britain until 1960, was happily and faithfully married (although his wife was, briefly, a bigamist, having failed to divorce her first husband before eloping with Lawrence). And some noted authors barely had sex at all. Most notable among them was the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw didn’t lose his virginity until his 29th birthday (July 26, 1885), when he slept with a 44-year-old widow. It may have been the only sexual encounter of his life. He married Charlotte Townshend in 1898, not because he loved her but because Shaw thought he was dying and wanted to offer his friend Charlotte the social and financial benefits of widowhood. As it turns out, the two were married – happily, but most likely celibately – for 45 years.

Chastity Belts

So, about those chastity belts . . . did they really exist or are they nothing more than a Victorian myth? Well, the fact is, the jury’s still out. Thought to have been invented in Italy during the 14th century, the urban legend of the belts became popular in the rest of Europe. The antithesis of anything PC, the belts were basically used to maintain sexual control over women by covering the private area and keeping it under lock and key. And while many a suspicious husband may have lauded the invention, there’s recent evidence that suggests the chastity belt may have been more of a Victorian myth than a reality. In 1996, two British historians reported that there was no medical evidence from the time of Chaucer through the Victorian period that chastity belts existed or were commonly used. Of course, they had the weight of the British Museum of London behind them. Agreeing with the two historians, the museum removed an alleged chastity belt that had been on exhibit since 1846.

Macbeth Was A Good-For-Nothin’ Social Climber

Forget everything Shakespeare told you about Macbeth. The real Macbeth was a political genius who united the disparate Scottish lords and set Scotland on the path to nationhood. He was also beloved by the common people for his charity and piety and the fact that, unlike his predecessors, he preferred to rule in peace rather than involve them in disastrous wars abroad. In 1054, Malcolm, son of Duncan I (a hated egotist whom Macbeth had defeated fair and square in battle, not murdered in his sleep as Shakespeare would have it), invaded Scotland with an army of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries looking for land and power. Macbeth fought a three-year war against the invaders but was ultimately killed. As for Malcolm (III), he became one of Scotland’s worst kings, and that’s saying a lot; he fought numerous wars against England, losing every time, taxed the commoners to ruin, and put hated Sassenachs (Englishmen) in positions of power. Overall, one of the worst trades in the history of the British Isles.

Remember The Maine

In full, the U.S. Battle cry during the Spanish-American War of 1898 was “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” It referred to the sinking of the U.S. Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in February of that year. But it’s never been shown that Spain – then fending off a Cuban independence movement – attacked the ship. Sent to protect U.S. Interests, the Maine was preparing to leave when it exploded. In reality, though, Spain had nothing to gain by provoking the United States, and much to lose. Many think the onboard explosion was accidental. Or maybe Havana rebels planted a bomb, hoping to bring America into their fight. If so, the tactic worked. U.S. Newspapers – especially those owned by mogul William Randolph Hearst – took up the “Remember the Maine!” cry and agitated for war. It worked out well for the U.S. Government, though . . . the United States came out of the fight with the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, while Cuba was happy to win its independence.

Don’t Throw Rice (Throw Butterflies?)

Under the sway of the widespread but ridiculous myth that wedding rice poses a threat to birds, thousands of newlyweds have sought out rice alternatives, with questionable results. One of the more popular, ostensibly eco-friendly solutions is butterflies: they’re pretty, they’re totally natural, and they’ll make you – a terrorist? So say the generally genial folks at the North American Butterfly Association, who argued in 1999 that releasing butteflies into the wild amounted to “environmental terrorism.” Nonnative butterflies can cause a host of problems – introducing new parasites to native populations, interbreeding, and messing up migratory patterns. Some lepidopterologists (yes, there’s a word for butterfly scientists) have even expressed concern that the growing popularity of butterfly releases has led to over harvesting of wild monarchs, the world’s most popular butterfly species. Popular alternatives for true environmentalists include bubbles and rose petals. Or, you know, rice also works.

New Year’s Day Was Always January 1

The new year begins on January 1, right? It’s always been that way. Wrong. In fact, the selection of the date has been a little more like getting everyone to convert to the metric system – some people love it, but there’s plenty of resistance. The Romans traditionally celebrated the beginning of their year on January 1, but the early Christian Church actually thought otherwise. So, in the seventh century, the church decided that one of its major religious festivals should signify the start of the new year, and Christmas was selected. This lasted only until the 12 century in most of Europe. In the ninth century, however, parts of southern Europe had already splintered and began celebrating the new year on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. Then starting in Italy in 1522, the date for New Year’s Day reverted back to the Roman date of January 1, but it took almost another 225 years for the majority of European countries to adopt this day. England and its American colonies didn’t switch over until 1752, just think what a computerization mess Y1K would have been.

The “Surprise” Protestant Reformation

Teachers often describe the Protestant Reformation as if it came out of nowhere, but Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli were hardly the first to take stabs at reforming the increasingly corrupt Catholic Church. From about 1300 until the rise of the Protestant movement, would-be reformers popped up everywhere – John Wycliff in England, the fire-and -brimstone Savanarola in Florence, and Jan Huss in Bohemia. Though they tried to effect change from within the Church, most of these folks ended up burning at the stake or meeting some other sticky end. Simony (buying a position in the Church), nepotism (riding on your relatives coat-tails), and indulgences (buying forgiveness for your sins) all continued unabated, eventually sparking the Reformation and the splintering of Western Christianity.