“History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”—George Santayana
Right after a historic moment, we revel in the details. We want to know everything that happened and how it went down and who was there. As years pass, these moments get chopped down into one-sentence sidebars in textbooks. This chapter seeks to correct this injustice with stories about insignificant or just plain weird moments from history’s footnotes, what-ifs, and greatest hits.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a pivotal point in history—sending several countries into a war that would become known as World War I. Perhaps all of that war nonsense could have been avoided if Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t made a wrong turn.
On June 28, 1914, Ferdinand and his wife were in a motorcade in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where tensions were high and Ferdinand wasn’t very popular. At one point a bomb was thrown at his open-topped car. It bounced off and detonated behind them. Ferdinand is known to have shouted, “So, you welcome your guests with bombs!” Later, while either attempting to rush out of the city or to visit those injured in the blast earlier in the day, his driver made a wrong turn and began backing up right near one of the conspirators, Gavilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old Slavic Nationalist. While the car slowly backed up not five feet away, and with a second chance just fallen into his lap, Princip drew his pistol and shot the Archduke and his wife.
SIDE NOTE: If you don’t like the idea of blaming a wrong turn for the start of World War I, consider this: The Archduke was such a perfectionist about the cut and fit of his military uniform that he had a one-piece garment sewn on to him each day. So when doctors attempted to examine his wounds after he was shot, they realized the buttons didn’t work, and by the time they figured out they had to cut the uniform off, the Archduke was dead.
The US Congress passed and ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. But before that, some women did have the right to vote in elections. After the American Revolution, women in New Jersey could vote until 1807. And, before Utah was granted statehood, women were given the right to vote (without even really asking for it) expressly to help make polygamy illegal, which would then make Utah a more desirable candidate for US statehood. Once polygamy was finally outlawed, women lost the right to vote once again … presumably to make Utah a more desirable candidate for US statehood.
SIDE NOTE: Two women, Victoria Woodhull and Belva Ann Lockwood ran for president of the United States before 1920, even though, under law, they couldn’t vote for themselves.
Listen to Mother
Today we take for granted women’s right to vote; however, the vote in Congress that fateful day in 1920 was too close for comfort. Thirty-six of forty-eight states were needed to ratify, and the Nineteenth Amendment was one vote shy. Its only hope was Harry Burn, a Republican from Tennessee. He was firmly in the “no way” camp until receiving a letter from his mother. It said, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Signed, your mother.” He changed his vote and later explained, “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” Bet you he got an extra cookie in his lunch after that!
United States of France?
Napoleon had big plans for the vast territory that France held in North America. In 1802 he sent an army to take control of New Orleans and open the doors for a new wave of French colonists to populate a New France. The army’s first stop, however, was Haiti. There, troops were ordered to reestablish French rule after a slave rebellion. While the Haitians were no match for French troops, something far more menacing attacked: mosquitoes. More specifically, mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Of the original twenty thousand troops sent, only a few thousand lived. Napoleon responded by sending reinforcements. Thousands more perished—up to fifty thousand troops by some estimates. Meanwhile, the largely immune local population renewed the fight with guerilla-type attacks. The few living French soldiers soon surrendered and returned to France. With most of his expeditionary force completely destroyed, Napoleon gave up on his dream of a New France and sold his empire of the Mississippi Valley to the United States
Notes on the Declaration of Independence
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress, meeting in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, approved the Declaration of Independence. There are lots of fun stories about the Declaration, although many of them are in dispute or outright incorrect. (For example, Ben Franklin did not add to an early version of the document, “kiss our collective arse.”) Let’s set the record straight:
The Declaration of Independence is the document that severed the colonies’ ties to the British Crown and set in motion the American Revolution … right? Well, yes, but it was meant more as a press release for the colonists since the Lee Resolution (aka the Resolution of Independence), which was passed on July 2, 1776, declared the United Colonies to be independent of the British. John Adams even thought July 2 would be the day future Americans celebrated. He wrote to his wife: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival … It ought to be celebrated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations …” Well, at least he got the pomp and parades right.
Who exactly signed the Declaration, and when? Historians still argue over this. Most say it was actually signed on August 2, 1776, and not on July 4, even though Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams all wrote that it was signed on July 4. In 1796, one of the signers disputed this by pointing out that some of the signers weren’t even in Philadelphia on July 4—including some who weren’t even elected to Congress at that time. These days, it’s thought most signed the Declaration in August.
Thomas Jefferson loved telling people that the final vote on the Declaration was approved quickly because a swarm of flies from a nearby stable invaded the session, forcing a quick vote. Other stories state Jefferson actually complained about the flies at the Graff House, where he wrote the Declaration.
Richard Stockton of New Jersey, one of the original signers of the Declaration, violated his oath to his new nation when he was taken prisoner and tortured by the British. He was starved and left exposed to freezing temperatures before being let go after signing an oath swearing allegiance to George III.
The most famous version of the Declaration of Independence is a handwritten copy that’s signed by all the delegates. It’s generally regarded as the official document, and it’s the one on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It’s important to note that this wasn’t the original document.
The Dunlap broadsides were the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence. They were printed on July 4, 1776, and around two hundred were printed. Only twenty-six are known to survive. In 1989, a flea-market bargain hunter found one inside a framed painting he bought for $4.00. It was sold for more than $8 million.
The original handwritten Declaration (signed by John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress) was used by the printer to set type to print copies. It hasn’t been seen since.
What’s really written on the back of the Declaration of Independence? No, it’s not a secret code like in the movie National Treasure. It says, “Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776.” Nobody knows who wrote it.
Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration had an antislavery paragraph in it that was deleted so South Carolina and Georgia would approve it.
Actor Reese Witherspoon claims to be a descendant of John Witherspoon, a signatory of the Declaration.
Return to Sender
The historic flight of the Friendship 7 was the first to put an American in orbit. The lucky American was John Glenn. Upon learning that it may take up to three days to retrieve him after landing back on earth, and that the likely landing sites were Australia, New Guinea, and the ocean, Glenn became worried about a hostile response from aborigine populations he might encounter. Think about it. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, when suddenly a metal contraption comes from the sky, lands on your hut, and from it emerges a shiny silver creature. Glenn had the following message translated into several languages:
I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader, and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity.
It would be rare for you or me to be invited to a presidential inauguration party at the White House—we’re just regular people. Andrew Jackson, however, thought that since regular people voted for him, they should be invited to the party. So, after the swearing in, thousands followed him back to the White House. I’ll let Margaret Bayard Smith take it from here (from Smith’s The First Forty Years of Washington Society): “But what a scene did we witness … The President, after having been literally nearly pressed to death and almost suffocated and torn to pieces by the people in their eagerness to shake hands with Old Hickory, had retreated through the back way or south front and had escaped to his lodgings at Gadsby’s … Cut glass and china to the amount of several thousand dollars had been broken in the struggle to get the refreshments … Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses, and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe—those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows.”
A few ingenious waiters decided to place giant tubs of punch on the White House lawn. Once lured outside, the rabble was locked out. The White House suffered thousands of dollars worth of damage. No one can say Jackson didn’t earn his moniker, King Mob, honestly.
You’ll Catch Your Death
When William Harrison became president in 1840, he ran on his reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Seeking to prove he still had it, he took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, a cold and rainy day. Wearing neither a coat nor a hat, he proceeded to deliver the longest inaugural address in American history. It took him two hours to read it. Soon after, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia and pleurisy. He was dead thirty days after becoming president. Today, medical professionals agree that exposure to the elements doesn’t cause respiratory illnesses; however, the common perception remains that Harrison died because he didn’t wear a coat at his inauguration.
On June 4, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers, inventors of the first hot-air balloon, demonstrated their invention to a crowd at the market square in the French village of Annonay. A bonfire fed the tethered thirty-three–foot taffeta contraption, and then one of the brothers cut the tether and set the balloon free. It traveled six thousand feet into the air before landing in a field several miles away … where it was attacked by peasants with pitchforks, who thought it was a beast from the sky come down to attack them. They tore the balloon to pieces and tied it to the tail of a horse.
“Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force.”—British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North, on dealing with those pesky rebellious American colonies, 1774
“The automobile will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”—Literary Digest, 1899
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”—H. M. Warner, head of Warner Bros. Studios, 1927
“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”—Charles Darwin, in The Origin of Species, 1869
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”—Economist Irving Fisher, 1929
“It will be gone by June.”—Variety magazine on rock and roll, 1955
“Displays no trace of imagination, good taste or ingenuity. I say it’s a stinkeroo.”—Film critic Russell Maloney on The Wizard of Oz, 1939
“There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.”—General George Custer, 1876
“If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women.”—David Riesman, social scientist, 1967
“It’s a great invention but who would want to use it anyway?”—Rutherford B. Hayes, after a demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, 1876
“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”—The New York Times, 1936
“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”—Charlie Chaplin, 1916
“The problem with television is that the people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.”—The New York Times, 1939
“So many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”—Committee advising King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella regarding proposal by Christopher Columbus, 1486
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”—Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
Putting on Hairs
Nearly anyone who thinks about Abraham Lincoln pictures him with a beard, which is interesting since he went beardless nearly all his life. However, while campaigning as the Republican nominee for president in 1860, Lincoln received some fashion advice in a letter from an eleven-year-old girl named Grace Bedell. She wrote, “I have got 4 brothers, and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Lincoln took her advice and won the presidency. During his trip to the White House in 1861, he met up with the young letter writer and said, “You see, Grace, I let my whiskers grow for you.” Who knows what would have happened if Grace had never written to Lincoln?
Lincoln’s Last Laugh
On April 14, 1865, Lincoln and his wife, Mary, attended the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Mary had complained of a headache and was thinking of not going. Lincoln, feeling a little tired himself, decided they should go because he said he needed a laugh. Before leaving for the theater, he had pronounced it the happiest day in his life. The Civil War was over, and he had just given Secretary Stanton the order to end the draft. During the play, actor Edward Sothern appeared onstage with the heroine, who had a shawl over her shoulder. She said, “Me lord, will you kindly throw my shawl over my shoulders—there appears to be a draft here?” Sothern, glancing directly at Lincoln gave this impromptu line: “You are mistaken, Miss Mary, the draft has already been stopped by order of the President!” Lincoln joined the audience in what ended up being his last laugh.
Have a Cigar
During the Civil War, on September 13, 1862, General George McClellan and his Union troops were moving to intercept Robert E. Lee’s forces in Maryland. They stopped at a campsite where Lee’s army had stayed a few days earlier. Two soldiers relaxing on the ground found three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper. Right before tossing the paper and sharing the cigars, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell decided to take a look at the wrapping. And good thing he did, for on it was written Lee’s battle plans, including the fact that Lee had divided his army in order to attack near Antietam Creek. It turned into a bad day for the Confederates as they were beaten at the Battle of Sharpsburg in what was the single bloodiest day of combat in American history. Incredibly, even though McClellan said, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home,” things would have gone even worse for Lee if McClellan hadn’t waited nearly a full day before deciding to take advantage of the found information.
NOTE: McClellan wasn’t known as the most aggressive general of the Civil War. In fact, at times “Young Napoleon” was criticized for being downright passive. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln said of McClellan, “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”
Henry VIII, he of the six wives, didn’t set out to start his own church. In fact, when he wanted to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he sent Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of his most important government ministers, to appeal to the Pope. All was going well, and Wolsey had the annulment in hand, when he kneeled to kiss the Pope’s toe. Unfortunately, Wolsey’s greyhound,
Urian, who for some reason was in attendance, ran up and bit the Pope’s foot. The Pope ended negotiations and refused to grant the annulment. The English Reformation soon followed.
Freedom at Any Cost
Henry Brown was a slave in Virginia who, despondent over his wife and children being sold to a slave trader, decided to seek freedom any way he could. Along with the help of Samuel Smith, a white shopkeeper sympathetic to his cause, Brown devised an ingenious escape. He mailed his way to freedom. Brown paid $86 to have himself shipped to Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim. On March 23, 1849, Brown had himself packed into a 3 x 2 x 2.6 box (hopefully labeled “This Side Up/Handle with Care”) with a bottle of water. He was loaded onto a wagon, and then a train … a steamboat … another wagon … another train … and finally, the delivery wagon, which dropped him off at McKim’s residence approximately twenty-seven hours later.
Brown went on to have a successful career as a speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society and was given the not-so-clever nickname “Box” at a Boston antislavery convention in 1849. Outrage over his and other slaves’ escape stories led to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which declared that all runaway slaves must be brought back to their owners. This forced Brown to move to England, where he toured an antislavery panorama he called “Mirror of Slavery” for ten years. He returned to the United States after the Civil War in 1875 with a family magic act. (He had remarried while in England.)
SIDE NOTE: In 1914, four-year-old May Pierstorff of Grangeville, Idaho, was to visit her grandmother in Lewiston. Her parents, figuring it was cheaper to mail her than to put her on a train, pinned fifty-three cents to the young girl’s coat (they were charged the chicken rate—it was legal to mail chickens back then) and handed her to the mailman. May traveled the entire distance in the train’s mail compartment and was delivered safely to her grandmother by the mail clerk on duty. It took another six years after this for mailing your kid to be considered illegal.
Houston, We Hate the Number Thirteen
Here’s one for the “What in the world were they thinking?” category. Sure, scientists are supposed to be objective, and you can forgive them for not being superstitious about black cats and knocking on wood. However, Apollo 13, the ill-fated lunar launch, was the thirteenth scheduled lunar space exploration mission, scheduled for liftoff at the thirteenth minute after the thirteenth hour, with the lunar landing scheduled for the thirteenth day of April. Come on! That’s just asking for trouble. When did things go all to hell? On the thirteenth.
E Pluribus Yum Yum
The Latin phrase E pluribus unum (out of many, one) was adopted by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson as the motto for the Second Continental Congress. It was also later chosen to grace the Seal of the United States. At the time of the American Revolution, this exact phrase appeared on the title page of a popular magazine, The Gentleman’s Magazine. The phrase is attributed to Virgil, the Roman poet. The poem in which the phrase appeared was about … salad, and the phrase describes the blending of colors into one.
Strange but True
President Lincoln was the first president to be photographed at his inauguration. The photo was taken at his second inauguration in 1865. In the photo, John Wilkes Booth can be seen standing close to Lincoln.
In 1859, the United States minted a new coin, which has just about always been known as the Indian-head penny. Unfortunately, there’s no Indian on it. The engraver, James B. Longacre, modeled Lady Liberty wearing a “feather bonnet.”
Thomas Jefferson once introduced a compromise bill in Congress that would have barred slavery in all future states admitted to the Union. It could very well have prevented the Civil War; unfortunately, it was defeated by a single vote.
Strange? Yes. True? I hope so. In April 1939, Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye’s hemorrhoids kept him from attending an important Cabinet meeting with his Minister of Foreign Affairs, which led to a misunderstanding about a US peace proposal that may have contributed to Japan’s entry into World War II.
British POWs in World War II were allowed care packages, and in many of these packages were games of Monopoly with secret silk maps hidden between the boards of the game, real money, a small compass, and even some tiny files.
Junius Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth, sent a death threat to President Andrew Jackson in 1835.
The whole Salem, Massachusetts, witch fiasco of 1692 (where more than 150 people were arrested, nineteen were hanged, and one man was crushed to death under heavy stones) wasn’t the only witch activity during colonial times in the United States. Where Salem quickly dissolved into one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, in other colonies, cooler heads usually prevailed.
Pennsylvania only had one witch trial, and it occurred on December 27, 1683. Two old Swedish women had been accused of witchcraft, but it seems only one stood trial. The proof against Margaret Mattson, known as the Witch of Ridley Creek, was circumstantial to say the least. The first witness testified that he heard that twenty years ago Mattson bewitched several cows. Another witness reported that his mother told him Mattson had bewitched her cow. A third also talked of bewitched animals, although he also threw in a story about a friend’s wife being threatened by an apparition sent by the accused.
Thankfully, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and the Attorney General, presided. His intelligence and sense of fairness prevailed, especially when, because of some confusion (Mattson didn’t speak English), Mattson confessed to being a witch. Penn asked her, “Art thou a witch? Hast thou ridden through the air on a broomstick?” Mattson said, “Yes.” Some accounts of this event say that, thinking quickly, Penn announced that there was no law against riding on broomsticks, and he ordered her discharged. But because of the confession, the jury came back with this ruling: “Guilty of having the Common Fame of a Witch, but not Guilty in manner and Forme as Shee stands Endicted.” (The jury should have been found guilty of gross misuse of the English language.) In other words, she was guilty of being called a witch but not guilty of actually being one. She was released on bail.
Poor Eyesight Saves the Day
Two-time president Theodore Roosevelt decided in 1912 that he wasn’t done with national politics, so he challenged his successor, William Howard Taft, for their party’s nomination. On October 14, 1912, as Roosevelt was about to step into a car that would take him to a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, John F. Schrank went up to him and shot him in the chest at point-blank range. Now, because of a boxing injury, Roosevelt’s eyesight was poor, so he usually wrote his speeches on small sheets of paper with large words and spaces to help him see it better. Hence, his speech manuscripts were often quite thick, and the speech he was to give that day saved his life. The bullet passed through the speech as well as his steel eyeglasses case (both of which were in Roosevelt’s coat pocket) before lodging in his chest. Without the speech impeding the bullet’s progress, the missile would have hit his heart. Undaunted, Roosevelt continued on to the rally and gave his ninety-minute speech in his bloody clothes. He began his speech thusly: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
After a short convalescence, Roosevelt resumed his campaign. He lost the nomination to Taft, but ran as part of the brand-new Bull Moose Party. Taft and Roosevelt both lost in a four-way contest to Woodrow Wilson.
Booth Saves Lincoln’s Life
Okay, not that Booth and not that Lincoln. In an interesting coincidence of history, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert was once saved from serious injury by John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin.
Edwin was an actor like his brother; however, while John was known as a competent-if-not-inspired actor, Edwin was perhaps the finest Shakespearean actor of the nineteenth century. The two brothers were not close. Edwin was a Unionist and staunch Lincoln supporter. When he told his brother he had voted for Lincoln’s reelection, Edwin wrote, “He expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this, I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason.” Another reason for the rivalry between the brothers was that Edwin was perhaps the most famous actor of his day and John was struggling as an actor. A recent book by Nora Titone called My Thoughts Be Bloody asserts that this intense rivalry between brothers led the younger one to kill Abraham Lincoln.
The incident between Lincoln’s son and his assassin’s brother happened on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. And although the exact date of the incident is not known, it probably took place in late 1863 or early 1864—in the midst of the Civil War. Robert Lincoln wrote of the incident in a letter to the editor of The Century Magazine: “The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
Edwin Booth didn’t know who he had saved that day until months later, when he received a letter from a friend who heard Robert Lincoln relate the story. It gave Edwin some comfort after the assassination, knowing he had saved the president’s son, even as his brother took the president’s life. After the assassination, Edwin retired from acting for about a year and worried that he would never be able to perform again. However, when he once again took to the stage, he received a prolonged standing ovation.
SIDE NOTE: Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of Lincoln’s children to survive into adulthood, seems a bit lost in the shadows of history due to his famous father. However, he was President James Garfield’s secretary of war, minister to England under President Benjamin Harrison, and also president of the Pullman Car Company. The Republican Party even briefly considered him a potential presidential candidate.