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Urban Legends
William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States (1909-1913), was a large man. He reportedly weighed 355 pounds while in office, and according to rumor, he was so large that he once got stuck in the white house bathtub. The experience supposedly so rattled him that he ordered the installation of an extra-large tub big enough to hold four ordinary men.


William Howard Taft

The story of him getting stuck in a tub has been frequently repeated in books and newspapers, but is there any truth to the tale? Constitution Daily recently investigated the rumor, scouring through newspaper archives, documents from the National Archives, and Taft biographies, and concluded that "the entire 'stuck in a tub' story appears to be pretty leaky." There are no primary sources or first-hand witnesses who can confirm that such an incident occurred.

What is true is that Taft had some extra-large bathtubs made for him. One was installed on the U.S.S. North Carolina in 1908. A second extra-large tub was installed on the presidential yacht Mayflower in 1910. From what I gather, these tubs were extra-large partially to accomodate his size, and partially because they were built with high sides to prevent water from sloshing out while at sea.

A picture was taken of four workers sitting in the North Carolina tub. This picture may have been one source of the 'stuck in a tub' rumor. But Constitution Daily also notes that "Roosevelt's supporters made fun of Taft's weight in the bitter 1912 election. The story could have grown from there."

Categories: Politics, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 07, 2013
Comments (1)
Here's an example of a rumor that swept through an African community back in 1959. The story appeared in The Bakersfield Californian (Nov. 10, 1959).


Slave Girl For $7.14 All A Hoax
MOMBASA, Kenya (UPI) — Crowds of Africans who wanted to buy wives for $7.14 each have been told by the government that those stories about slave auctions were only rumor.

Local official W.P.M. Maigacho had to issue an official denial of the rumors after men from outlying tribes twice gathered in the town of Tononka, expecting to take part in a slave auction.

According to the rumors, native girls from a local mission were being sold for the equivalent of $7.14. The purchaser could take the girl to Mombasa and marry her, the rumors said.

I don't know what $7.14 would be in present-day money. Nor do I know what $7.14 would have been in East African Shillings, which was the currency in use in Kenya in 1959. However, one can assume it was a bargain rate for a wife. It seems like a strangely specific number. Why didn't they round down to $7.00?

Of course, perhaps this news story was itself a hoax — something dreamed up by a bored reporter in Africa. I haven't been able to find any other accounts of the rumor to verify that it occurred.
Categories: Sex/Romance, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 28, 2013
Comments (1)
A Lausanne-based researcher, Pedro Pinto, has developed an algorithm that can quickly trace rumors back to their original source. From eurekalert.org:

"Using our method, we can find the source of all kinds of things circulating in a network just by 'listening' to a limited number of members of that network," explains Pinto. Suppose you come across a rumor about yourself that has spread on Facebook and been sent to 500 people – your friends, or even friends of your friends. How do you find the person who started the rumor? "By looking at the messages received by just 15 of your friends, and taking into account the time factor, our algorithm can trace the path of that information back and find the source," Pinto adds.

I wonder if this algorithm will finally confirm what's long been suspected — that the folks at Snopes have been the ones all along starting the internet rumors.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sun Aug 12, 2012
Comments (1)
Recently a graphic began circulating on facebook, pinterest, etc. suggesting that the lines on Solo Cups were intended to indicate proper sizes for popular alcoholic drinks (liquor, wine, and beer):


The Solo Cup company responded by posting a message on its facebook page, explaining that it never intended the lines to mean any such thing. Although it conceded that the lines could be used for this purpose. Evidently it was worried about being seen as promoting binge drinking, so it offered some non-alcoholic drinks that the lines could also be used to measure, such as water, juice, and chocolate milk. (click to expand image)

Categories: Food, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sun Jun 17, 2012
Comments (3)
In his column on latimes.com, Brian Cronin examines the legend that Hall of Fame football coach George Allen got sick and died after being doused in gatorade by his team following a winning season.

Did a Gatorade shower kill George Allen?
latimes.com

After three straight losing seasons, Allen led the Long Beach 49ers to a season-ending victory over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on November 17, 1990 that secured them a winning season.
Allen's team gave him a Gatorade shower (Allen noted that due to the budget issues, the team could not afford actual Gatorade, so it was just ice water). Six weeks later, Allen died. The story is most often told as "George Allen died from pneumonia that he caught from being doused with cold water and continuing to give interviews for a long time after the game."
There are a few problems with that story. First of all, as your middle school science teacher could tell you, being doused with cold water during a cold day does not cause pneumonia. Pneumonia is caused by a virus. It is an urban legend in and of itself that getting wet during a cold day causes pneumonia (or the common cold, for that matter). It does not. So Allen could not have caught pneumonia from the Gatorade shower. That's the first notable problem with that story. The second problem? George Allen did not die from pneumonia. Allen died from ventricular fibrillation, a variation of a cardiac arrest. Allen had a heart arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) and in late December 1990, Allen's heart began to quiver rather than contract properly. This led to his death. This was not caused by a Gatorade shower received more than a month earlier.
Allen himself fed the story a bit by giving an interview soon before his death where he noted that he had had not felt well since the Gatorade shower. Allen's son, former Virginia Senator and Governor George Allen Jr. told Sam Borden of the New York Times, "He got a cold from it, but that was not the cause of his death. He had a heart arrhythmia. It had nothing to do with the Gatorade shower."

It's always seemed to me to be splitting hairs a bit to insist that being cold doesn't cause you to get a cold. It's certainly true that colds are caused by a virus. But being cold can stress your immune system, making you more susceptible to the cold virus. So in that sense it's true that being cold can give you a cold.
Categories: Death, Sports, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Fri May 18, 2012
Comments (0)
If you happen to be a young woman in Namibia, watch out for a middle-aged Indian man who may try to strike up a friendship with you. Before too long, he may whip out his breast-sucking turtle. It happened to Lina Sames (link: informante.web.na):

Sames, a domestic worker, related how the mysterious man suddenly produced a live turtle, no bigger than the average grown up's hand and pressed the reptile against the victim's right breast. "It proceeded to suck, while at the same time growing bigger. I was then forced to drink blood from the turtle," a traumatized Sames said.

And this has happened before!

The folklore surrounding the breast-sucking turtle first surfaced late last year, after a young woman was lured with the promise of a shopping spree into breast-feeding a turtle on the northern outskirts of Windhoek. Although she was rumoured to have been admitted to Windhoek state hospital and later died, this could not be verified.

The story resembles what folklorists call the "bosom serpent" legend. Bosom serpent legends usually involve a woman ingesting the eggs of a serpent (or other scary creature) and then later giving birth to it (or having the creature somehow emerge from her). In the tale of the Namibian turtles, the women aren't giving birth to the turtles, but they are mothering them in a horrifying way. So like a bosom-serpent legend, the tale of the Namibian breast-sucking turtle seems to emerge out of fears and fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood. Why the stories are focusing on a turtle, of all things, I have no idea.

Categories: Animals, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 21, 2012
Comments (1)
If you're a woman, don't expect much help from men during a shipwreck. In fact, the men are likely to be shoving the women out of the way in their eagerness to save themselves. That's the general message of a new study by Swedish economists Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, "Every Man for Himself! Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters."

Women fare worst on British ships — contrary to the tradition of British chivalry. The one exception to this rule was the Titanic, where Captain Smith announced, 'Women and children first.' And he enforced this rule at gunpoint. But apparently, during disasters it hardly ever occurs to captains to insist that women and children should be saved first. The recent Costa Concordia disaster demonstrated this.

The abstract of Elinder and Erixson's study:

Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of 'women and children first' gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew give priority to passengers. We analyze a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Our results provide a new picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared to men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. We also find that the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior, that the gender gap in survival rates has declined, that women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks, and that there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms. Taken together, our findings show that behavior in life-and-death situation is best captured by the expression 'Every man for himself'.
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 14, 2012
Comments (0)
Another list of urban legends from the BBC. This time it's legal urban legends. All the following laws, though frequently repeated, are NOT TRUE:
  • It's illegal to die in Parliament.
  • It's illegal to put a stamp on upside down.
  • It's illegal to eat a mince pie on Christmas Day.
  • It's legal to kill Welsh people in the town of Chester.
  • It's legal for a man to urinate in public, as long as it's on the rear wheel of his car and his right hand is on the vehicle. And pregnant women can legally relieve themselves in any public place, including into a policeman's helmet.
  • London taxis have to carry a bale of hay in their boot.
  • If someone knocks on your door in Scotland and needs to use the toilet, you have to let them enter.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 09, 2012
Comments (4)
Brian Chapman reports the start of an interesting Olympics 2012 rumor on his Legends & Rumors blog:
Enormous Olympic rings have started popping up in London. There's a set at St Pancras, another recently floated down the Thames, and a third set will be suspended at Tower Bridge.

We're told that there's something special about one of the rings. Someone involved in their construction had a bit of a downer on the whole Olympics in London thing. So he took a shit inside one of the rings. And then had it welded shut.

Categories: Gross, Sports, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 07, 2012
Comments (1)
The BBC has an interesting article about myths associated with the Titanic. The five myths they list, summarized, are:
  1. The unsinkability of the Titanic: "the White Star Line never made any substantive claims that the Titanic was unsinkable - and nobody really talked about the ship's unsinkability until after the event"
  2. The band played Nearer, My God, To Thee: The band probably did play on deck as the ship sank, but there's no good evidence that their final song was 'Nearer, My God, To Thee.'
  3. The Heroic Captain Smith: Captain Smith really wasn't that heroic. In fact, his inaction meant that there wasn't a more orderly evacuation.
  4. The Villainous J Bruce Ismay: Ismay, present of the company that built the Titanic, is traditionally portrayed as a villainous businessman who bullied Captain Smith into going faster, and then jumped into the first available lifeboat to save himself. But he probably wasn't that villainous in real life. He actually helped a lot of people into boats.
  5. Forcibly barring third-class passengers from the lifeboats: There was no deliberate attempt to prevent third-class passengers from reaching lifeboats. However, "Gates did exist which barred the third class passengers from the other passengers. But this was not in anticipation of a shipwreck but in compliance with US immigration laws and the feared spread of infectious diseases." As a result, only one-third of steerage passengers survived.
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Fri Apr 06, 2012
Comments (3)
Apparently it's because the original architects didn't factor in the weight of all the tourists who visit it.

Well, no. Not really. According to the BBC, the real reason is that, "The building's foundations require a steady stream of moisture from the Yamuna River to retain its strength - but the river is slowly drying up." But the headline immediately reminded me of the urban legend of the sinking library.

Categories: Places, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Mar 13, 2012
Comments (3)
Brooke Kroeger and Cary Abrams have an article in the Local East Village analyzing the Great Banana-Smoking Hoax of 1967 -- in which a rumor spread alleging that you could get high by smoking bananas. Or rather, get high by smoking "bananadine," created by scraping the inside of a banana peel, boiling the residue, then drying out the residue and rolling it into a joint.

They try to get to the bottom of who started the rumor. One contender is the staff of the East Village Other magazine. Another theory has the singer Donovan as the instigator, through his song Mellow Yellow. Or perhaps it was the singer Country Joe.



Kroeger and Abrams think Country Joe is the most likely original source of the rumor, though they concede that "the Great Banana Smoking Hoax has many mothers."

Whoever started the rumor, it eventually had the great effect of inspiring the federal government to study bananas to determine any psychedelic properties they might have. Just in case bananas might have to be added to the list of controlled substances.
Categories: Food, Health/Medicine, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 23, 2012
Comments (4)
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