It is time, once again, to take 10 well-known persons from the past and explore the things that everyone thinks they did, that they didn’t actually do. In other words, 10 more myths about historical figures.
10. Ben Franklin and Daylight Saving Time
Undoubtedly, Benjamin Franklin was a pretty smart guy. In fact, there is a long list of useful things that he either invented or helped improve, but because he was such a prolific inventor, he is often also credited with things he had no business with. One such example is daylight saving time, the practice of setting the clocks forward by one hour during spring to make full use of the sunshine and then setting them back during the fall.
The notion that this idea came from the Founding Father dates back to 1784. At that time, the 78-year-old Franklin was living in Paris, where he was serving as an American envoy. He published an essay in the April 26 edition of the Journal de Paris where he wrote that Parisians would save a fortune on candles if they got up with the sunrise.
Here’s the thing, though. Franklin’s essay was clearly satire. He wrote how he was the first person in Paris to discover that the sun rises so early after being mistakenly woken up at six in the morning by a random noise and finding his room bathed in sunlight. He also wrote how he told his friends and they refused to believe that such a thing was possible.
Furthermore, Franklin made no mention of setting the clocks forward. Instead, the solutions he proposed (again, as satire) were to tax windows that had shutters and kept out the light, to limit the sale of candles to one pound per week per family, to ring the church bells every morning at six, and last, but not least, to fire cannons in the street to wake everyone up.
9. Fidel Castro and Baseball
Fidel Castro wore many hats in his lifetime: activist, revolutionary, political radical, guerrilla leader, ruthless dictator… And according to one enduring myth, he almost donned another hat – that of a New York Yankee.
There is no denying that Fidel Castro was a big fan of baseball. He was also decent at it, having played the sport during his college years in Havana. However, there’s a very big gap between “decent” and becoming a Yankee. At no point was Castro good enough to turn pro, but the popular story claims that he was once a prospect with the Yankees during the 1950s, occasionally changed to the Washington Senators.
As with many good myths, this one might’ve had a seed of truth that helped it take form. It is possible, although by no means certain, that Castro could have taken part in a mass tryout staged in Cuba by Joe Cambria, a famed baseball scout who was responsible for bringing scores of Cuban players to America. Even if this happened, Castro would have never been seriously considered, but he liked the story and he certainly never made any efforts to discourage it.
8. Charles Lindbergh and the Transatlantic Flight
Charles Lindbergh might be the most famous aviator in history, but if you were to ask people what made him so famous, a lot of them would probably give you the wrong answer. They might say that Lindbergh performed the first transatlantic flight, back in May 1927, when he boarded the Spirit of St. Louis and flew from New York to Paris.
There is no denying that Lindbergh’s flight was a landmark moment in aviation history and even human history, for that matter, but it came with two important caveats that people tend to leave out – it was the first solo and nonstop transatlantic flight. That meant that Lindbergh flew straight from point A to point B without any stops along the way and he did it all alone. It’s still a remarkable feat, but it detracts from the fact that dozens of other people flew across the Atlantic before him.
If we are looking for the first nonstop transatlantic flight, then that honor belongs to John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who successfully finished their journey in June 1919, eight years before Lindbergh. And if we are looking for the first transatlantic flight ever, we only have to go back a few weeks earlier, to May 1919, when the crew of the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat commanded by Rear Admiral Albert Cushing Read did the flight in 19 days, after making multiple stops for repairs.
7. Cass Elliot and the Ham Sandwich
As grim as it may be, celebrity deaths are always a rich source of myths and urban legends. For example, did you know that Cass Elliot, better known as Mama Cass from her time with the Mamas & the Papas choked to death on a ham sandwich? Well, it’s not true, but the story appeared soon after her untimely death in London on July 29, 1974, and has stuck around ever since.
Who exactly was responsible for this idea is still uncertain. Some point the finger at a careless Met officer who opened his mouth to the press. Others say the first physician on site was to blame, as he, too, spoke to the media when he shouldn’t have, and mentioned that a half-eaten ham sandwich was present next to the body and could have been relevant to the cause of death. Since Cass Elliot’s weight had long been the subject of jokes in the media, this was all that some unscrupulous journalists needed in order to fashion a cruel but compelling demise for the singer.
A third alternative source for the rumor was Elliot’s manager, Allan Carr, who intentionally planted the story, although he had nobler intentions in mind. Besides her weight, Cass Elliot also had a pretty serious drug habit, so as soon as Carr heard that she had died suddenly, he assumed it was an overdose and thought that the ham sandwich story was a less shameful way to go.
Eventually, British pathologist Keith Simpson performed the autopsy and found that the cause of death was a heart attack. No drugs or ham sandwiches were presented in Elliot’s system, but by then, the rumor had already become fact.
6. Ronald Reagan and Casablanca
Most people know that Ronald Reagan was an actor before turning to politics and, eventually, becoming President of the United States, but did you also know that, during his film career, Reagan almost played the lead in Casablanca?
This little piece of movie trivia is often presented as a fun “what if” of Hollywood history. What if Humphrey Bogart missed out on his most iconic role? Would Casablanca still have become a hit without him? Would the success of the movie deter Ronald Reagan from entering politics?
Just like before, the story of Reagan and Casablanca simply isn’t true, but on this occasion, we actually know exactly how the myth got started. It was the result of a press release put out by the Warner Bros. publicity office in early 1942, which stated that the movie would feature Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan. But this was so early in pre-production that work on the screenplay hadn’t even started yet and no casting decisions had been made. These kinds of press releases that didn’t convey any concrete information were relatively common back then, and they were simply intended to garner some extra publicity for the studio’s stars.
The man who had the final say on the casting, producer Hal Wallis, later stated that he never seriously considered anyone other than Bogie for the role, although it is true that he initially wanted Ann Sheridan instead of Ingrid Bergman.
5. Albert Einstein and School Math
The name “Einstein” has become synonymous with “genius,” and given his larger-than-life presence, it is no wonder that multiple myths have spawned regarding him. The most famous one of all was, of course, that Einstein failed math in grade school. It’s a popular story because it makes us all feel better about our own mistakes and failures, and gives us hope that one day we can turn it all around.
While that last part is certainly possible, the bit about Einstein isn’t, although there is a kernel of truth in there. Albert Einstein was gifted in geometry, physics, and algebra from a young age, and by the time he was 11, he was already studying them at a college level. It is true that he failed an exam, although it wasn’t in grade school, it was the entrance exam to the Zurich Polytechnic. Einstein first took it when he was only 16, and he failed because the tests were in French, and that was a subject that young Albert did struggle with. He still nailed all the maths questions, though.
Another possible source of the myth was a reversal in the grading system of his school. Anyone going through Einstein’s academic record would notice that, at one point, he started getting loads of 6s, which should have been the lowest mark whereas 1 was the highest. However, Einstein didn’t suddenly get dumb. The school simply reversed the order of the grades, making 6 the highest. So sorry, but any way you slice it, Einstein has always been a child prodigy.
4. Gene Simmons and the Cow Tongue
The band KISS is known for several things: rock and rolling all night, partying every day, and staging outrageous and theatrical live performances. There are rockets, pyrotechnics, smoking guitars, fire-breathing, and, of course, makeup. On top of all that, bassist Gene Simmons became well-known for his prodigious tongue, which he proudly showed off at every opportunity. In fact, his tongue became so famous that people started having doubts that it was completely genuine. The rumor soon appeared that Simmons had enhanced his look by surgically replacing his own appendage with a cow tongue.
This is absurd, of course, for multiple reasons. Besides the fact that tongue transplants were medically impossible back when KISS first made it big in the early 70s, a cow’s tongue is almost 20 times larger than that of a human’s, so the difference would have been quite noticeable. Furthermore, although Simmons’ tongue is large, it’s not like it’s the largest ever or anything like that. It is simply larger than normal.
Lastly, the myth was debunked by the man himself. He referred to this story as his “favorite KISS rumor,” but confirmed that his tongue was 100 percent Gene Simmons.
3. George Washington Carver and Peanut Butter
George Washington Carver was a scientist whose efforts were integral to the agricultural economics of the United States, particularly the South which was entirely too reliant on cotton crops. And yet, he is mainly remembered as the “peanut butter guy,” which not only belittles his accomplishments, but it’s not even true.
Born into slavery, Carver wanted to help black sharecroppers who were perpetually indebted to white plantation owners by making their farms more productive. Cotton was, by far, America’s most profitable crop, but it was also very demanding on the soil. Since most black farmers barely scraped by on paper-thin profit margins, they had no choice but to plant the most valuable crop. But growing cotton season after season depleted the soil of nutrients, which was why Carver wanted them to practice crop rotation and alternate between crops to give the soil time to heal. But farmers were only willing to do this if they could actually profit off those other crops, which was why Carver started coming up with hundreds and hundreds of uses for soybeans, sweet potatoes, and, of course, peanuts.
Carver came up with over 300 uses for peanuts alone, ranging from shaving cream to glue to shampoo to all sorts of foodstuffs. And yet, peanut butter was not one of them because it already existed. The Aztecs and the Incas both made a paste out of roasted peanuts centuries earlier, and in modern times, several people applied for patents related to peanut butter, including Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.
2. George Crum and the Potato Chip
The story of how one of the world’s most popular snacks came to be is one of spite and happenstance. One day in 1853, a man visited Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, and ordered fried potatoes. When his food arrived, the man promptly sent it back, complaining that the fries were too thick and not salty or crispy enough.
The chef at the restaurant was a man of Native and African American descent named George Crum aka George Speck and he didn’t take kindly to fussy eaters. His potatoes were too thick? Fine, he sliced them as thinly as possible. They weren’t crispy or salty enough? Fine, he cooked them until they became crunchy and bathed them in salt. To his surprise, the patron loved them, and that’s how potato chips, or Saratoga chips, as Crum called them, were born.
To make the story even more fantastical, some versions claim that the patron was none other than railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to suggest that any part of the story is true. Crum was considered one of America’s master chefs of his day, and yet nobody hailed him as the inventor of the potato chip in his lifetime, not even Crum himself. This was a story that spread after his death, and the true inventor remains up for debate.
1. Walt Disney and the Frozen Head
Cryonics is the practice of freezing a human body soon after death, in the belief that future medical advances would allow us to bring it back to life. Sometimes, the entire body isn’t even needed; just the head. Surely, by the time medical science has advanced enough that resurrections have become possible, we would have overcome our need for a body and would be able to stick our brain into a computer, an android, a smart toaster, or something like that. There are plenty of people who have placed their hopes for a long-lasting life in cryonics including, if the myth is to be believed, its most famous patron, Walt Disney.
According to a popular urban legend, the head of the Head of the Disney Company is currently on ice, waiting for science to bypass the whole “death” thing. Some even say that it is stored in a freezer underneath Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.
There is no evidence to suggest that Walt Disney had any interest in cryonics, let alone that he froze himself. His own daughter debunked the myth, and records show that Disney had his body cremated after death. Some say that the rumor was started by a few rascally Disney employees, while others pin the blame on a reporter for an old tabloid called The National Spotlite.