6 Historical Myths You’ve Lapped Up As Fact

6 Historical Myths You’ve Lapped Up As Fact
One of the profoundly horrifying things you discover when reading history is that nobody really knows what happened. What we call “history” is a bunch of stories relayed by people with agendas, edited (or outright suppressed) by other people who also had agendas, and repackaged into a simplistic story that an elementary school child can understand.

That means that from the most pivotal moments of massive wars to fun little factoids about historical figures, a little digging reveals that nothing played out exactly the way your history books claim. For example …

6. Myth: The Alamo Was A Heroic Last Stand That Turned The Tide Of A War

Robert Jenkins Onderdonk

The Legend:

It’s one of the great tales of America’s long battle for freedom against tyranny — white settlers in Mexico-owned Texas wanted a taste of that sweet democracy just over the border, so they rebelled against Mexico. Famous heroic figures like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie (of knife fame) led an army of ragtag rebels who were forced to make their last stand inside a crumbling old building called the Alamo.

There, those brave souls stood up against an overwhelmingly superior force until they finally went down in a hail of gunfire … but not before doing to the Mexicans what the Greeks did to the Persians in 300. It’s no wonder that “Remember the Alamo” became an American rallying cry and not just a reminder that Mexico used to have a really shitty army.

Percy Moran
Which seems odd, since they were absolutely not fighting for America.

The Reality:

Despite the fact that the battle of the Alamo seems to be remembered as some kind of turning point in the Texas Revolution, it’s been said that what the rebels did at the Alamo had, at best, no impact on the war and possibly even made things worse. Historians whose vision of the event isn’t blurred by freedom tears see it as a catastrophic military blunder caused by the rebels refusing to take the advice of smarter men.

The commander of the Texas forces, Sam Houston, never wanted to bother trying to defend San Antonio in the first place, considering it was too far from the American settlements, its citizens were too sympathetic to the Mexican government, and it didn’t hold much strategic value. He decided that they should pack the hell up and retreat to somewhere that’s actually worth fighting for.

Patrick Bronson/iStock/Getty Images
In your face, beautiful and historic River Walk.

The problem was that Houston’s troops took orders about as well as a herd of cats at a laser disco. They were notorious for ignoring the orders of Houston’s predecessor, and Houston himself had just as much luck. They listened to him right up until he got to the word “retreat,” and everything else out of his mouth sounded to them like “blah blah blah I’m a big weenie coward who doesn’t love America.” Instead of following Houston’s orders to evacuate, the rebels fortified the Alamo and holed themselves up inside. When Houston sent Colonel Jim Bowie back to convince the army to leave, Bowie took one look at the shitty fort, wiped away a patriotic tear, and joined them instead. Houston thought, “Sure, whatever, fuck it,” and left them to their fate.

George Eastman House
“Fine, stay. We’ll see who ends with ‘Metropolis Namesake’ on their resume, dipshit.”

The rebels put up an impressive fight, but probably not as impressive as Hollywood and the Texas school curriculum would have you believe. Far from going down in a hail of gunfire atop a pile of dead Mexicans, Jim Bowie was killed while lying sick in bed, and there’s no record of what happened to Davy Crockett. And although the Alamo is considered a shrine to freedom today, right after the war it was seen as a kind of embarrassing footnote that they tried to sweep under the rug.

5. Myth: Fidel Castro Could Have Had A Promising Professional Baseball Career

Via Wikimedia

The Legend:

American baseball players and journalists agree that Fidel Castro was once a talented southpaw, scouted by numerous Major League teams and offered a pro contract, before he decided to give it all up to become a communist dictator. The legend is supported by numerous photographs of Castro playing the sport, and we all know that photographs taken in repressive communist regimes never lie.

Nothing says “baseball prodigy” like calf-high leather boots.

It has become one of those great “What if?” scenarios of history, like “What if Hitler had gotten accepted into art school and grown a normal mustache?” If Castro had just been given a chance, could he have wound up pitching for the Yankees instead of bringing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation?

The Reality:

Castro was, at the very least, a pretty dedicated fan of baseball, but by all serious accounts, he was never particularly good at it, and his playing was limited to photo ops, first pitches, and a single documented one-off exhibition game. To be fair to everyone repeating this story (including us!) it is one of the most elaborate pranks in sports history.

John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images
Right behind getting people to spend $99.95 on Mayweather/Pacquiao.

The earliest possible origin of the story began with a silly joke by a Washington Senators scout named Joe Cambria. During the Cuban strongman’s first U.S. visit, in 1959, Cambria playfully asked if he’d help his team beat the defending champs, the New York Yankees. This was the closest to a contract Castro would get. Not only was he never exactly baseball’s equivalent of Good Will Hunting, Castro was never seriously scouted by anybody.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Aside from CIA assassins, of course.

The story didn’t take off until a Sport magazine beat reporter named Myron Cope roped washed-up pro ballplayer Don Hoak into the gag. Hoak claimed to have witnessed the student activist during a winter league game in the early ’50s. Castro, then a fiery law student protesting the government that he’d later overthrow, was so caught up in the moment that he supposedly stormed the field mid-game and swiped the ball from the pitcher to take a few throws himself. (Note: Historians point out that Castro was actually in jail at the time.)

Castro was such a talent, the story goes, that he turned down a lucrative contract with (depending on the source) the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, or New York Giants because he did not want to be an imperialist lackey (which makes sense if we’re talking about the Yankees, but the Pirates?). An alternate telling describes Castro’s turn to radical Marxism after being rejected by Cambria, the Senators scout mentioned above.

“I figured, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Cuban baseball historians and other researchers can’t find any evidence the law student turned guerrilla ever played professionally at all, only a lone intramural game in college — which he lost. That is, if he even is the F. Castro mentioned in the lineup — it’s hardly an uncommon name. Also, Castro is described, depending on the source, as either having good control but lacking speed or pitching something like vintage Randy Johnson. Shit, this makes us wonder if Kim Jong-Il actually wasn’t the best golfer in history after all.

4. Myth: The Hoover Dam Is Full Of The Corpses Of Construction Workers

Bureau of Reclamation

The Legend:

The Hoover Dam is one of America’s greatest feats of engineering, and, as with any great human endeavor, it demanded sacrifice. The popular legend is that the foundations of the dam are packed with the bodies of unfortunate workers who fell into the wet concrete during construction, to be forever entombed within the mighty display of American engineering superiority. It even has a sculpture to mark their resting place.

“Giving them safety harnesses would have been an insult to their legacy!”

It’s one of those stories that works specifically because it’s so perfectly symbolic. The unnamed working Joes literally gave up their bodies to create something magnificent. And their deaths meant so little that construction couldn’t even stop long enough to fish out their broken corpses.

The Reality:

There are probably no corpses buried inside the Hoover Dam’s mighty walls. As for how the rumor came about, there are several possibilities that combine to transform into a Voltron of misinformation.

miflippo/iStock/Getty Images
Don’t let us get your hopes up with that; there are no giant robot cats either.

First of all, it’s thought that people are misremembering facts they learned about the construction of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Six workers actually did get buried inside that one during a landslide, and it’s possible that people who learned this fact got their dams mixed up, because the Hoover Dam is probably the only one that most people know by name anyway.

Then there’s the fact that several men who worked on the Hoover Dam did recount that there were bodies entombed within the concrete like a Han Solo cosplay festival. The problem is that they reported this in 1986, several decades after the construction, and none of them were present for any of the supposed accidents or knew the names of anyone involved. In other words, they were basically just spreading rumors they had heard on the job site.

assistantua/iStock/Getty Images
“Also, I heard there’s penis-enlarging gold in the foundation. Get a pickaxe.”

Now, there was one worker who fell into the concrete during the dam’s construction, one W.A. Jameson, who broke his back in the fall. But his body was fished out before the concrete dried, because that’s what you do if you don’t want your fucking dam to be haunted.

Bureau of Reclamation
Plus, a hydroelectric plant seems like a pretty shitty place to get stuck haunting,
even by old-timey ghost standards.

“But wait,” you say, “isn’t there a memorial to the dead right there on the dam?” Oh, don’t get us wrong — a whole bunch of people did die during the Hoover Dam’s construction, as this was still an era when basic worker safety was for pussies. But not a single one is recorded as having suffocated in concrete. In fact, experts dismiss such a case as next to impossible. For one thing, they didn’t just pour the whole dam together in one gloopy mess like a toddler might imagine; they did it in small increments that were so shallow that anyone who fell into it would only need to stand up to escape.

Also, a bunch of soft bodies riddled throughout the dam like blueberries in a giant muffin would be devastating to the structural integrity of a wall designed to keep back billions of gallons of water. So the very fact that Las Vegas hasn’t been flattened by a tidal wave of water, concrete, and skeletons is proof enough.