Myth America

The following is reprinted from Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader.

More of the stories we now recognize as American myth, but were taught as history for many years. These might surprise you.


The Myth: In 1626, Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Canarsee Indians for $24 worth of beads and other trinkets.  

The Truth: Minuit did give 60 guilders (roughly $24) worth of beads, knives, axes, clothes, and rum to Chief Seyseys of the Canarsee tribe “to let us live amongst them” on Manhattan Island—but the Canarsee actually got the best of the deal…because they didn’t own the island in the first place. They lived on the other side of the East River, in Brooklyn, and only visited the southern tip of Manhattan to fish and hunt. The Weckquaesgeeks tribe, which lived on the upper three-fourths of the island, had a much stronger claim to the island, and were furious when they learned they’d been left out of the deal. They fought with the Dutch settlers for years until the Dutch finally paid them, too.


The Myth: The Liberty Bell, which rang at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, has always been a precious symbol of our nation’s heritage.

The Truth: The bell, installed in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1753, was almost bartered off as scrap metal in 1828 when the building was being refurbished. According to one account, “The Philadelphia city fathers…contracted John Wilbank, a bell maker from Germantown, Pennsylvania, to cast a re-placement for the Liberty Bell. He agreed to knock $400 off his bill in exchange for the 2,000-pound relic. When Wilbank went to collect it, however, he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. ‘Drayage costs more than the bell’s worth,’ he said.” The city of Philadelphia actually sued to force him to take it. But Wilbank just gave it back to them as a gift, “unaware that he’d just bartered away what would become the most venerated symbol of American independence.”


Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851)

The Myth: Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting is a dramatically accurate portrayal of General Washington’s famous crossing.

The Truth: According to Scott Morris, there are inaccuracies.

• “The crossing was in 1776, but the Stars and Stripes flag shown wasn’t adopted until the next year.”

• “The real boats were forty to sixty feet long, larger than the rather insubstantial ones shown.”

• The soldiers wouldn’t have pointed their guns in the air, because it was snowing.

• “Washington certainly knew not to stand—a pose that would have made the boat unstable, and put him in danger of falling overboard.”

• The river in the painting isn’t the Delaware. Leutze worked in Dusseldorf, Germany, and used the Rhine River as his model.


Burr-Hamilton duel by J. Mund

The Myth: Alexander Hamilton, who was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804, was too decent a man to shoot his rival. So he shot in the air instead…and died when Burr paid him back by shooting to kill.

The Truth: “For nearly two centuries,” Steve Talley writes in Bland Ambition, “history saw Hamilton as something of a martyr who…never meant to harm Burr. But it now appears that he lost the duel…because he tried to use an unfair advantage to kill the vice president.” Talley continues: “As part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration, the Smithsonian Institution decided to have the pistols used in the Burr-Hamilton duel restored. What they found was that the guns—which had been provided for the duel by Hamilton—had several features that were not allowed on dueling pistols…most significantly, a special hair-trigger feature. By surreptitiously setting the trigger so that only a half pound of pressure—instead of the normal ten to twelve pounds—was needed to fire the gun, a duelist could gain an incredible advantage, since both men were to fire at the same time. Instead of displaying nearly godlike mercy, Hamilton planned to kill Burr before Burr had a chance to fire. But in his nervousness, Hamilton apparently held the gun too tightly, firing it too soon, and the shot struck the leaves over Burr’s head.”

Reprinted from Uncle John’s Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader. ©1999 by the Bathroom Reader’s Press.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader. This special edition book covers the three "lost" Bathroom Readers - Uncle John's 5th, 6th and 7th book all in one. The huge (and hugely entertaining) volume covers neat stories like the Strange Fate of the Dodo Bird, the Secrets of Mona Lisa, and more... Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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Sorry, but the information about the Burr-Hamilton duel is not accurate. In fact, accuracy concerning the shots fired in the duel is not possible; hence it is very misleading to use the idea of a myth statement followed by the "truth" of the event.

Hamilton's second, Nathaniel Pendleton, is said to have asked Hamilton if he should set the hair trigger, to which Hamilton supposedly replied, "not this time." Furthermore, Hamilton had written a letter the night before resolving not to fire at Burr. That doesn't prove he didn't, but neither does the presence of the hair triggers prove that Hamilton used them to his advantage.

In the end, we cannot NOT know for certain what actually transpired during the few seconds when the shots were fired, a point made very professionally and eloquently by Joseph Ellis in Founding Brothers. Therefore, to suggest that there is a prevailing myth concerning the duel that one can conclusively debunk is uniformed or, worse, disingenuous.

And this one example brings into question these other examples of "myths" debunked and "truths" presented.
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