Hear how the bargain was made for the West: With her shivering children in zero degrees, Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest, Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed, And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day. And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored, A hundred years of your statesmen have felt it's better this way.
(Buffy St. Marie, “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying”)
It is a good song and a moving story but there is no evidence that it is true.1 The most detailed version, by Ward Churchill about the Smallpox epidemic in 1837 among the Mandan Indians, was published in at least six different versions inconsistent with each other and with demonstrable historical facts.2 The closest thing to a real case I have been able to discover occurred before the American Revolution and involved an attempt to spread smallpox from a British fort under siege: two blankets and a handkerchief given as gifts, not blankets for land. It is not known if it worked.
The story that Columbus stood up for the scientific truth of a spherical earth against flat earth orthodoxy, sailed west in defiance of warnings that he would fall off the edge, is complete nonsense. By Columbus’s time a spherical earth had been the accepted scientific doctrine for well over a thousand years and the Greeks had produced a reasonably accurate estimate of its size. Combine that with what was known about the width of Asia — by the end of the Fifteenth Century quite a lot of people had gotten to China and back — and it was possible to calculate that Columbus would run out of food and water long before he reached "The Indies." His defense against his critics consisted of fudging both numbers, claiming the earth to be much smaller than it was and Asia much wider.
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Both of these are stories that survive and spread because people want to believe them. The first is a false story that teaches a true lesson — the U.S. did treat Amerinds unjustly in a variety of contexts, although the massive die off as a result of the spread of Old World diseases was a natural result of contact, not deliberate biological warfare. The second lets moderns feel superior to their ignorant ancestors; most people like feeling superior to someone.
Another example of that, deliberately created by a master, is H.L. Mencken’s bathtub hoax, an entirely fictitious history of the bathtub published in 1917:
The article claimed that the bathtub had been invented by Lord John Russell of England in 1828, and that Cincinnatian Adam Thompson became acquainted with it during business trips there in the 1830s. Thompson allegedly went back to Cincinnati and took the first bath in the United States on December 20, 1842. The invention purportedly aroused great controversy in Cincinnati, with detractors claiming that its expensive nature was undemocratic and local doctors claiming it was dangerous. This debate was said to have spread across the nation, with an ordinance banning bathing between November and March supposedly narrowly failing in Philadelphia and a similar ordinance allegedly being effective in Boston between 1845 and 1862. … Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was claimed to have campaigned for the bathtub against remaining medical opposition in Boston; the American Medical Association supposedly granted sanction to the practice in 1850, followed by practitioners of homeopathy in 1853.
According to the article, then-Vice President Millard Fillmore visited the Thompson bathtub in March 1850 and having bathed in it became a proponent of bathtubs. Upon his accession to the presidency in July of that year, Fillmore was said to have ordered the construction of a bathtub in the White House, which allegedly refueled the controversy of providing the president with indulgences not enjoyed by George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, the effect of the bathtub's installation was said to have obliterated any remaining opposition, such that it was said that every hotel in New York had a bathtub by 1860. (Wikipedia)
Writing more than thirty years later, Mencken claimed to have been unable to kill the story despite multiple retractions. A google search for [Millard Fillmore bathtub] demonstrates that it is still alive. Among other hits:
The first bathtub placed in the White House is widely believed to have had been installed in 1851 by President Millard Fillmore (1850-53). (The White House Bathrooms & Kitchen)
The desire of moderns to feel superior to their ancestors, helps explain a variety of false beliefs about the Middle Ages including the myth, discussed in detail in an earlier post, that medieval cooking was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat.
Medieval witch hunts: Contrary to popular belief, large scale persecution of witches started well after the end of the Middle Ages. The medieval church viewed the belief that Satan could give magical powers to witches, on which the later prosecutions were largely based, as heretical. The Spanish Inquisition, conventionally blamed for witchcraft prosecutions, treated witchcraft accusations as a distraction from the serious business of identifying secret Jews and Muslims, dealt with such accusations by applying serious standards of evidence to them.
Chastity Belts: Supposedly worn by the ladies of knights off on crusade. The earliest known evidence of the idea of a chastity belt is well after the end of the crusades, a 15th century drawing, and while there is literary evidence for their occasional use after that no surviving examples are known to be from before the 19th century.
Ius Prima Noctae aka Droit de Seigneur was the supposed right of a medieval lord to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. Versions of the institution are asserted in a variety of sources going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, but while it is hard to prove that it never existed in the European middle ages it was clearly never the norm.
The Divine Right of Kings: Various rulers through history have claimed divine sanction for their rule but “The Divine Right of Kings” is a doctrine that originated in the sixteenth and seventeenth century with the rise of absolute monarchy — Henry VIII in England, Louis XIV in France. Medieval rulers were absolute in neither theory or practice. The feudal relation was one of mutual obligation, in its simplest form protection by the superior in exchange for set obligations of support by the inferior. In practice the decentralized control of military power under feudalism presented difficulties for a ruler who wished to overrule the desires of his nobility, as King John discovered.
Some fictional history functions in multiple versions designed to support different causes. The destruction of the Library of Alexandria has been variously blamed on Julius Caesar, Christian mobs rioting against pagans, and the Muslim conquerors of Egypt, the Caliph Umar having supposedly said that anything in the library that was true was already in the Koran and anything not in the Koran was false. There is no good evidence for any of the stories. The library existed in classical antiquity, no longer exists today, but it is not known how it was destroyed and it may have just gradually declined.
A false historical factoid set a little earlier is the belief that galleys in antiquity were rowed by slaves condemned to the galleys. Galley slavery as a punishment appears to be a Renaissance invention.3 That one may be best explained by its value as a plot device, including a story by Rudyard Kipling and a variety of Hollywood movies. Coming forward to the nineteenth century there is the belief that family names in foreign languages were changed to something more familiar by immigration officials in Ellis Island. The immigration officials got the names from the passenger lists of the ships that brought the immigrants; any name changes were done later by the immigrants themselves.
Other bogus historical factoids function as fictional evidence for or against a political position. An example is the claim that Herbert Hoover responded to the beginning of the Great Depression by cutting government expenditure,4 the precise opposite of what really happened. By the end of his term Hoover had increased federal expenditure by about 50% in nominal terms, 100% in real terms (allowing for the fall in prices), 200% measured as a share of national income (which, of course, had fallen). By that standard he makes Obama, Bush and Trump look like skinflints.
Insofar as that bit of history is relevant to current policy disputes about how to avoid a depression, it is evidence for the opposite of the position it is offered for, since it is false as a story about Hoover but accurately describes Warren Harding’s actions a decade earlier. From 1920 to 1921
the unemployment rate increased by 6.5 percentage points; prices fell by more than 10 percent. Seen without the benefit of hindsight, it obviously was the beginning of a depression. Comparing the increase in unemployment and decrease in prices from 1920 to 1921 to the almost identical figures for 1930 to 1931, it was going to be a Great Depression.
Harding acted as Hoover is supposed to have acted. By 1923, federal expenditure had been reduced to about half its 1920 level. The unemployment rate that peaked at 11.7 percent in 1921 had fallen by 1923 to 2.4 percent. The country endured one year of high unemployment instead of, under Hoover and then Roosevelt, eleven.
A historical factoid common in arguments over antitrust policy is the claim that Rockefeller defended his monopoly by selling below cost to drive out competitors. The classic article on the subject, "Predatory Price Cutting: The Standard Oil (N.J.) Case" by Professor John S. McGee, found no examples of predatory pricing by Standard Oil.
You now have most of my current collection of bogus historical anecdotes. I look forward to at least one commenter telling me that I have one or more of them wrong, that my bogus factoid is true and my correction itself bogus.
Hopefully with good evidence.
As a commenter on this post pointed out, there is good evidence that Buffy St. Marie’s claim of native American ancestry is also false.
Thomas Brown, “Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians? Fabrication and Falsification in Ward Churchill's Genocide Rhetoric.”
My source is Casson, Lionel. 1971. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2010: “Threatened with the exhaustion of its gold supply, the government felt it had no choice: It had to close the budget deficit. So, in the throes of a severe downturn, the U.S. government did exactly the opposite of what economists would otherwise advise: It cut spending and raised taxes - capsizing the economy even deeper into depression.”