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Five Discoveries That Reconcile Our Visions of Historical Heroes

They say history is written by the victors. That’s a terrible way of writing history, because Victors are notorious liars. Just last month, CEO Victor Bozzo was indicted, and earlier this year, Victor Clark was sentenced for fraudulently diagnosing children to cheat Medicare.

Who invented this absurd system, of entrusting all historical records to men named Victor? A far better source would be historians, who provide lesser-known facts about famous people, such as...

Abraham Lincoln Wanted Black Americans to Leave the Country

Eighteen months into the Civil War, President Lincoln invited a committee of freedmen to the White House so he could speak about their futures. He did not, as you might imagine, offer his support by saying America would embrace them once the North won. Instead, he called for all Black Americans to leave the country and form a colony somewhere else.


Alexander Gardner

“Emancipate yourselves the hell out of here!”

“You and we are different races,” he said. “We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races.” For the good of everyone, they should leave America, going perhaps to Liberia. Or, they could go to Central America, where he suggested fortune awaited since that place had plenty of coal mines.

It would be difficult on them, but insisting on staying would be “selfish.” For starters, they should consider all the ill effects their presence had on white people. “See our present condition — the country engaged in war! — our white men cutting one another’s throats... But for your race among us, there could not be war.” They should also put their descendants ahead of themselves. Even George Washington, he said, suffered by seeking independence rather than remaining British, but as with him, their forging their own path could lead to better lives for their children and grandchildren.

Lincoln would go on to try to implement this plan, sending an initial contingent to Central America, but this failed when Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica all rejected the plan and threatened war. Lincoln had no idea that, once the Civil War ended, the two races would coexist, leading to — well, not instant racial harmony, but it got better, and it sure beat total segregation through international borders. 

Albert Einstein Didn’t Know the Speed of Sound

In 1921, Einstein visited Boston, and along with various admirers, he was met at the train station by someone offering a challenge. This challenger presented him with a copy of a test that Thomas Edison at the time issued to prospective employees. Today, you can see a copy of the original test, which covered some basic questions in geography and science. We expect you’ll answer most or all of them correctly. By 1921, Edison had switched to new questions, as newspapers had published the original ones.

A translator asked Einstein the questions in German, and one early question stumped him: What is the speed of sound through the atmosphere? This was perhaps one of the harder questions, but you might expect a scientist to answer it easily. Einstein couldn’t, saying he had no need of burdening his memory with this particular fact, since he could easily look it up in any textbook. His wife Elsa backed him up in this brimming rivalry with Edison, saying Edison was merely an inventor, while Einstein occupied his mind with the problems of space and the universe. 

Albert Einstein and Elsa Einstein

Los Angeles Times

“Ask Tom the speed of light in difference reference frames. Does he even know it’s constant?”

Einstein’s ignorance of this elementary info comes across as eerily similar to the limited knowledge of one other figure whose name is now a shorthand for smarts: Sherlock Holmes. In the first Holmes novel, Watson discovers the man does not know the Earth revolves around the Sun. “What the deuce is it to me?” says Holmes. “If we went round the Moon, it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

George Orwell Ratted on Dissenters to Help the Government Make Propaganda

During the Cold War, Britain had an Information Research Department (IRD), a division of the Foreign Office designed to write propaganda. You might call its mission Orwellian. You might also call its name Orwellian, just as contrary to its actual purpose as the Ministry of Truth.

The very word “Orwellian” is also an example of something that sort of says the opposite of what it is. Orwell’s books were about authoritarianism, but the man himself wasn’t, so it’s a bit odd that we dub government overreach Orwellian. We’re not telling you anything you didn’t know with this or saying to stop using the word, just pointing out a quirk of language.

George Orwell


What’s the word for when someone makes you stop using a word?

Except, the IRD really was Orwellian, both in that it created government propaganda and that it was assisted by George Orwell. The department vetted people for possible recruitment as propagandists against communism, and since Orwell knew a thing or two about those who leaned left, IRD employee Celia Kirwan contacted him and asked his help. 

Orwell compiled a list of 38 people “who should not be trusted as propagandists.” He listed suspected communists, noting one as “v. stupid” and another as “very anti-English.” Another was “Jewish?” (reason enough for mistrust, figured Orwell), while one American civil rights leader was “anti-white.” He also put down Charlie Chaplin’s name. A couple years later, Chaplin would be expelled from the United States for suspected communist ties, and he would wisely choose not to return to his native England — he moved to Switzerland instead. 

Annie Oakley Went to Court to Fight Cocaine Allegations

Oakley’s career as a sharpshooter in Wild West shows took a break in 1901, when she was 41 years old. A train carrying her and her husband/co-star Frank Butler crashed, leaving her temporarily paralyzed. It took five spinal operations to get her back on her feet. At this point, she shifted to more traditional theater, acting in a play.

Annie Oakley

Baker's Art Gallery

Playing a frontier woman with a gun. A real stretch for her. 

In 1903, a report came out that she’d been arrested for stealing to fund her cocaine addiction. Cocaine was legal at the time, but theft was not. The report was false. Were the cocaine part true, we’d actually find this story less remarkable, because we wouldn’t begrudge any entertainer a little cocaine to get them through the day. So long as she stayed clean while handling firearms onstage, that would be a win for everyone. But no — the story was false, spread by William Randolph Hearst with the sole goal of selling newspapers.

Oakley sued the newspaper for libel. She sued not just the original paper but various others who repeated the story, winning or settling 54 separate cases. These legal battles took an entire decade. She could instead have simply got her gun and murdered all the newspaper reporters, but that would not have been as satisfying. 

Sigmund Freud Was in the Pocket of Big Cocaine

Not all cocaine allegations are false, of course. In the 1880s, young Sigmund Freud was a huge fan of the stuff. In fact, his early advocacy of coke may have been the single greatest determining factor in its rise as a recreational drug. 

In 1884, he published “Über Coca,” an analysis of the drug based entirely on his personal experimentation. Cocaine helped him with depression and indigestion, he said, and may have applications for people with heart issues. It’s non-addictive, and it increases self-control, though it may not be quite as stimulating as tea or coffee. 

Sigmund Freud

Max Halberstadt

This was as reliable as most psychological studies, actually.

Note that Freud was a pioneering psychologist, not an expert in the science of pharmacology, and he was wrong about a great many things. In his analysis, he gave only the slightest nod to cocaine’s potential for pain relief, which is its strongest application and something hospitals still use it for today. 

Mere curiosity didn’t drive Freud’s interest in cocaine. He was being paid for his endorsement by a journal named Therapeutic Gazette, who supplied him with the drug in addition to paying him cash. This journal was owned by a company named Parke-Davis. Today, Parke-Davis is a part of Pfizer. 

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