Gullibility Test: History and Culture
CLAIM: Sir Thomas Crapper invented the toilet.
ANSWER: FALSE. Thomas Crapper was a real person, who operated a plumbing business in 19th century London, but he didn’t invent the flush toilet. This is credited, instead, to Joseph Adamson, who took out the first patent for a flush toilet in 1853. A 1969 book by Wallace Reyburn, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper, has helped to propagate the myth that Crapper was the inventor of the toilet. Reyburn’s biography of Crapper is simply a fabrication.
CLAIM: The Eskimo language has over 100 words for snow.
ANSWER: FALSE. The Eskimo languages have two root words for snow: ‘qanik’, which means snow in the air, and ‘aput,’ which means snow on the ground. Modifying nouns can be added to these root words to create more words, but root words in any language can be modified indefinitely by adding new endings. Think of snow in English (snowfall, snowdrift, snowshoe, etc.). The idea that Eskimo languages have more words for snow has been traced to a 1940 article by Benjamin Lee Worf in Technology Review in which he said that there were seven different words for snow in Eskimo (he never said what those words were). The concept that Eskimo languages have a very large number of words for snow grew from there.
CLAIM: Early Dutch traders acquired the entire island of Manhattan from a Native American tribe for a few goods worth around $700 in today's currency.
ANSWER: TRUE. This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth, but as far as historians can tell, it’s actually true. A 1626 letter exists in which a Dutch merchant reports having heard that representatives of the West India Company ‘purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.’ 60 guilders was approximately $24 in 1846, when a historian first dug up this reference. It's closer to $700 in present-day currency. It sounds like the Europeans got a pretty good deal for such a valuable piece of property, but the real joke was on the Europeans. It turned out that the Indian tribe that sold Manhattan to the Dutch didn't live there, so by Indian custom they didn't have the right to offer the Europeans any kind of use of it. In other words, the Europeans were conned out of $700 by an Indian tribe that just happened to be passing through the area.
CLAIM: When the English pilgrims landed in the New World they were surprised to discover that one of the first Native Americans they met had lived in England for many years.
ANSWER: TRUE. The story of Squanto, the English-speaking Native American whom the Pilgrims met when they disembarked from the Mayflower, is one of the stranger tales American history has to offer. Squanto had been taken from his village by a British captain around 1605. He lived in England for nine years and was sold into slavery in Spain in 1614. He eventually made his way back to England, and from there back to Massachusetts in 1619. By that time he had crossed the Atlantic a total of six times, making him far better traveled than the Pilgrims who arrived soon thereafter. By the Pilgrims' own admission they would have had difficulty surviving their first years in Massachusetts without the help of Squanto.
CLAIM: Mud throwing was an official event at the 1904 Olympics.
ANSWER: TRUE. The 1904 Olympic Games, held in St. Louis, Missouri, easily remain the most bizarre on record. They were only the third summer games ever held, since the modern Olympics began in 1896, and their organizers were uncertain which sports to include. They decided to set aside certain events to allow 'primitive' tribes, such as Pygmies and Patagonians, to compete separately. The 'primitives' were allowed to reach for Olympic glory in events such as mud fighting, greased-pole climbing, rock throwing, and spear throwing. The dates set aside for the 'primitive' events were referred to as the 'Anthropology Days.' The 1904 summer games proved to be such a fiasco that the Olympic committee decided to rehold the games just two years later in Athens in order to get the festival back on a proper, more dignified footing.
CLAIM: There is a lake in Massachusetts called Lake Chargoggaggoggmanchaugagoggchaubunagungamaug. The name is a Native American word that means 'You fish on your side, I'll fish on my side, nobody fish in the middle.'
ANSWER: FALSE. There is a lake in Massachusetts that goes by that name. But the explanation of its meaning is incorrect. Larry Dale, editor of the Webster Times, made up the fanciful etymology for an article he wrote in 1921. He meant it as a joke, but people took his story seriously and continue to repeat it to this day. The long name actually means something like, 'the fishing place at the boundaries and neutral meeting grounds.' The body of water in question is more commonly referred to as Lake Webster.
CLAIM: When Columbus sailed to America in 1492, most Europeans believed that the earth was flat.
ANSWER: FALSE. Very few people alive anywhere in the world in 1492 believed that the earth was flat. After all, you can see the curve of the earth simply by looking at the horizon. Washington Irving, in his 1828 biography of Columbus, first popularized the myth that most Europeans in 1492 believed the earth to be flat.
CLAIM: The ancient Sumerians worshiped Ninkasi, a goddess of beer.
ANSWER: TRUE. Archaeologists discovered a 3,800-year-old recipe for beer on a clay tablet in Sumeria. The recipe appeared as part of a hymn to the goddess Ninkasi. Apparently beer played a major role in Sumerian culture. Those who have brewed the Sumerian recipe report that it produces a beer with a taste similar to hard apple cider but retaining the fragrance of dates. It should be no surprise that there was a goddess of beer. After all, the Greeks worshipped Bacchus, the god of wine.
CLAIM: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of America's founding fathers, both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
ANSWER: TRUE. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were friends during life, did die within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. Jefferson was at his home in Virginia, and Adams was at his home in Massachusetts. Americans were fascinated by the coincidence and read great meaning into it. John Quincy Adams, who was President at the time as well as being son of John Adams, declared the twin deaths to be a 'visible and palpable' sign of heavenly favor. Their work was done, it was thought. So they departed together into the afterlife, fifty years to the day after founding the country.
CLAIM: Marco Polo introduced ice cream to Europe after watching it being made in China.
ANSWER: FALSE. Legend has long connected Marco Polo with the introduction of ice cream to Europe, but no evidence supports this idea. Leaving aside entirely the question of whether Polo actually visited China, there is the fact that ice cream only began to be made in Europe during the seventeenth century. This was three hundred years after Polo died. Furthermore, there is nothing in Polo's Description of the World that even vaguely resembles a description of ice cream.