History under the Microscope…Again
1. The Great Fire of London Stopped the Black Death
Back in 1666, London experienced a major fire within the center of the city that took out the residences of over 70,000 people. It was, indeed, a catastrophe but, weirdly enough, pretty soon people started claiming that it had an unexpected benefit – wiping out the plague. At that same time, the city of London was experiencing what would eventually become the last plague epidemic in England. Roughly 15% of the city’s population was killed off by the disease but here comes the fire that supposedly destroyed the slums and killed off the rats that were spreading the disease.
This was a commonly held belief for a long time and, to be fair, some historians still consider it valid. However, others consider that the fire had little to no impact as the plague epidemic had already been, more or less, dealt with by the time of the fire. It is true that the Black Death reached its peak around September 1665 and, up until the fire, the number of weekly deaths was steadily going down. It is also true that the most infected areas were the slums and the parishes which were actually located outside the walls of London and these were not seriously affected by the fire.
2. The Great Chicago Fire and Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow
Moving on from one fire to the next. 1871 saw Chicago fall victim to a huge fire, one that would kill 300 people and leave 100,000 homeless. The famous cause of this fire was established as being a simple cow belonging to a Mrs. O’Leary who kicked over a lamp onto a pile of hay, setting fire to the stable. These alleged actions haunted Mrs. O’Leary for the rest of her life. Even if an inquiry that took place back then failed to find her culpable, she remained guilty in the eyes of the public.
To this day, the real cause of the fire remains unknown. There is still a small (very small) chance that a fiendish cow did start the fire, although a newspaper journalist called Michael Ahern who was working for the Chicago Republican at the time of the fire confessed (40 years later) that he made up the story with a few other journalists to sensationalize the event. Eventually, in 1997, the Chicago City Council officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow of any wrongdoing.
3. Ronald Reagan Almost Starred in Casablanca
Some of you will probably know that Ronald Reagan was a B-list actor before becoming the President of the U.S. In one of the most pervasive “What Ifs” of Hollywood, the story goes that Reagan almost got the part of Rick Blaine in Casablanca instead of Humphrey Bogart. It might sound like an intriguing story, but it’s just that. Reagan was never seriously considered for the role. Hal Wallis, the man who produced Casablanca and who had creative control always maintained that Bogart was his first choice and insisted to Jack Warner that he had to play Rick Blaine.
Reagan became connected thanks to some leaflets that were distributed, promoting him and Ann Sheridan as starring in the upcoming Casablanca movie. However, this was done simply as a way of garnering some extra publicity for the two stars who were then appearing in another movie together called King’s Row. It was just a PR stunt, nothing more.
4. Vincent van Gogh and His Severed Ear
I cannot tell you with certainty what happened because there are two stories floating around. However, the oft-repeated notion that van Gogh cut his ear off and gave it to a prostitute as a gift is not completely accurate. Even if this version is true, van Gogh never chopped off his ear – he just cut his lobe…and gave it to a prostitute as a gift. Totally different!
Modern historians have a different take on what happened. They say that van Gogh actually lost that bit of his ear in a fight with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. When the two eventually reconciled, they decided to make up a story in order to keep Gauguin from being prosecuted.
5. Salieri and Mozart’s Feud
You have probably heard of Salieri and you definitely heard of Mozart, especially if you saw the movie Amadeus. However, in that movie Salieri plays the villain, perpetually jealous of Mozart’s success and talent. The truth was a bit different. While it would appear that there was some tension and competitiveness between the two, there is no account that would indicate that it ever went farther than a rivalry between two talented artists. After all, back in their day, both Mozart and Salieri were successful, respected composers. Salieri had no way of knowing the level of fame that Mozart would achieve in the centuries to come so there was no reason to be envious of him.
6. George Washington’s Wooden Teeth
There are a few true notions in this story. Yes, Washington did have teeth problems for most of his life. In fact, by the time he became president, he only had one real tooth left. It is also true that Washington used a variety of dentures throughout his life, but none of them were made of wood. They were much more snazzy, typically made out of ivory with real animal or human teeth held in place by gold wires and lead or brass screws.
7. The Iron Maiden in the Middle Ages
We all have this view of the Middle Ages as a primitive, backwards time in our history highlighted by superstitions and gruesome torture. Put the words “Middle Ages” and “torture” together and one thing is bound to pop into your head – the Iron Maiden. A gruesome device that trapped a person inside of it and pierced them with spikes, supposedly placed in strategic places so it wouldn’t kill them, but prolong the torture for days and days.
That sounds gruesome and, unfortunately, people have fell victim to the Iron Maiden, but not in the Middle Ages. Earliest record of this device is 1793 and it really didn’t become a common sight until the 1800s. And the story of how the Iron Maiden came to be might be even stranger than that. The earliest mention of it is attributed to a German writer and philosopher called Johann Philipp Siebenkees who wrote of a device like the Iron Maiden being used to execute (not torture) a coin forger in the 16th century. However, modern historians dismiss his story as a hoax done to illustrate the barbarity of Medieval times. Even so, during the 19th century, replicating and rebuilding old torture devices became all the rage (mostly for exhibits, not torture, fortunately) and someone read the story and thought that the Iron Maiden would make a great attraction so they built one. One notable example is the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg which was displayed as far back as 1802 but was subsequently destroyed during WWII.
8. Marie Antoinette and Cake
We’ve talked about this one previously here so go have a look at a list of famous historical quotes that were (probably) never said. Basically, the story is that when Marie Antoinette heard that her people were starving and didn’t have bread, she said “Let them eat cake”, showing how out of touch she was with the plights of the common folk. However, the entire story was actually anti-royalist propaganda and never actually mentioned Marie Antoinette by name.
9. The Middle Ages and Life Expectancy
We’ve all heard stories about how hard life was for peasants during the Middle Ages. Basically, if you lived to see 30, you were lucky. There is some truth to this, but the facts, as most people understand them, are pretty skewed. It’s true that life expectancy, overall, was low, but the average was brought down significantly by infant and child mortality rates. There were, indeed, bad…very, very bad. However, if you managed to survive childhood your life expectancy rose sharply and you could be expected to live within your 50s.
For women it was a bit different. During early childhood, they actually had a better chance of survival, but this declined very fast once they reached child bearing age (somewhere around 14). During this time, their life expectancy was significantly lower than that of men. As soon as they managed to pass that age (around the age of 40), their life expectancy increased again.
10. Benjamin Franklin and the Wild Turkey
There is this story going around about Benjamin Franklin who wanted the wild turkey to be used as a symbol for the Great Seal instead of the American Bald Eagle. It is actually partially true – Franklin did prefer the turkey over the eagle, but he never expressed this idea publicly, he merely wrote about it in a letter to his daughter. Franklin didn’t like the eagle because it was “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly”. He was referring to how the eagle steals food from other birds after they caught it. Franklin did, indeed have an official suggestion for the Great Seal, but it was that of Moses going against Pharaoh.