Wednesday, July 10

The Debunker: Was Napoleon Short?

by Ken Jennings

The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic celebration, a festival of fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France (apart from March 26, Jerry Lewis’s birthday). But even the Francophiles among you might be surprised at how little you really know about the birthplace of ballet, Brie, baguettes, and body odor. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.

French Myth #1: Napoleon Was Short.

Psychologists, armchair and otherwise, often trot out the “Napoleon complex” to explain why the disproportionately short among us are also disproportionately scrappy. You know, Ted from accounting who yells sometimes in meetings, or that Gary guy who goes extra hard on “D” during pickup basketball games—they’re the modern descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte, overcompensating for his lack of height by conquering Europe. But there’s at least one problem with this theory: Napoleon wasn’t as short as you think. Au contraire - he was actually of average height for his time.

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Tuesday, June 18

The Debunker: Did Pirates Make Treasure Maps?

by Ken Jennings

June is the time of year the United Nations observes World Oceans Day and the U.S. celebrates National Oceans Month, so we’ve asked Skipper Ken Jennings to navigate us through four maritime myths that refuse to die. It turns out that none of them really hold water.

Ocean Myth #3: Pirates Made Treasure Maps.

Of course the bloodthirsty buccaneers of the Spanish Main drew treasure maps, right? How else would they find their way back to their hard-earned booty? We can probably even picture these historical maps: one hundred paces from the beach to the skull-shaped tree, follow its shadow at noon twenty paces, X marks the spot, et cetera et cetera. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

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Tuesday, April 30

The Debunker: Was the Civil War Fought Over States' Rights?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #4: The War Wasn’t Really About Slavery.

A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War produced this shocking finding: only 38% of respondents said they believed that slavery was the war’s main cause. Nearly half—48%—opined that “states’ rights” was the real issue, while a wishy-washy 9% blamed both equally. Even more remarkably, younger people were more likely to be slavery skeptics than older ones!

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Thursday, April 25

The Debunker: Did the Emancipation Proclamation End Slavery?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #3: The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves.

Say what you will about the recent work of Steven Spielberg, at least it’s helped to shoot down a lot of historical myths about Abraham Lincoln. For example, most Americans dimly remembering their tenth-grade history class probably assume that slavery in the Republic was ended by the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. But as the movie Lincoln makes clear, abolition didn’t actually happen for almost three more years, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

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Tuesday, April 09

The Debunker: Did the Monitor Fight the Merrimack?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #2: The Ironclad Warships Monitor and Merrimack Faced Off in 1862.

Perhaps the most important naval engagement of the Civil War was fought on March 9, 1862, off Hampton Roads, Virginia. But the Battle of Hampton Roads is rarely known by its proper geographic name, since schools tend to teach it as “the battle of the Monitor and Merrimack.” These two ironclad ships fired on each other at close range for over three hours, but neither was able to sink (or even do much damage to) the other. The repercussions of the game-changing battle were felt as far away as Europe, where naval powers like Britain and France immediately abandoned the construction of wooden-hulled ships in favor of the ironclad warships that still plow the seas today.

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Wednesday, April 03

The Debunker: When Were the First Shots of the Civil War Fired?

by Ken Jennings

The month of April is inseparably connected with the American Civil War. The traditional bookends for the war—the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865—both took place in early April. But even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #1: The First Shots of the War Were Fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Since the north never recognized the Confederacy as a foreign government, but only as a “belligerent foreign power,” there was no formal declaration of war in 1861. As a result, historians tend to date the beginning of hostilities to April 12, 1861, when Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his batteries in Charleston harbor to fire on the besieged Union garrison of Fort Sumter. The fort surrendered before any casualties resulted, but the exchange led to a massive military build-up in the north and more secessions from the south. The war had clearly begun.

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Tuesday, March 12

There Can Be Only Pun: Historical Celebrities

by Sean Adams

You guys, I have an addiction. I'm addicted to puns. I need them. I can't get enough of them. I HUNGER FOR THEM. That's why I've set up this weekly blog feature: so you guys can feed my addiction. Every week, I'll name the topic, give you some examples, and then you'll pun away in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter. I'll choose the best ones and post them here next week. Sound good? Good! Let's do it!

THIS WEEK'S EPISODE: Celebrities, Past & Present!

So, maybe these are more mash-ups than puns, but here's how it works. You take a celebrity. You take a historical figure. You put em together, cleverly. For example:

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Tuesday, December 04

There Can Be Only Pun: Historical Eats

by Sean Adams

It seems like I face some new, frustrating dilemma almost every day. For a while, I tried to solve each one on my own, but I just can't do it anymore. I'm in over my head, and I need your help, Wooters! So, each week, I'm going to reach out to you guys, and you're going to provide me with the puns I need to get by. That's right: logic is secondary; puns are the primary goal here. I'll choose the best pun and announce it in next week's post.

THIS WEEK'S EPISODE: Historical Restaurants!

Alright guys, I'm opening a restaurant. But here's the thing: I want it to be be themed after an event in history. Here are a few ideas I'm considering:

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Tuesday, November 27

The Debunker: Was David Rice Atchison President for a Day?

by Ken Jennings

Every schoolchild learns how John Quincy Adams used to deliver the State of Union address wearing only an oversized diaper and a velvet sash reading “BABY NEW YEAR 1823.” My fellow Americans, that’s just not true! And neither are the other four presidential misconceptions author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings will impeach this month.

Presidential Myth #4: In 1849, a Senator Named David Rice Atchison Was President for a Day.

Ah, the roll call of legendary American chief executives: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Atchison. Wait, Atchison?

David Rice Atchison was a Kansas lawyer and anti-abolitionist leader who represented his state in the U.S. Senate for twelve years, from 1844 to 1855. But today his fame mostly hinges on the historical claim that he, not Zachary Taylor, was the actual 12th President of the United States. In this version of history, Atchison is said to have served his term in office for twenty-four hours, between James Polk and Zachary Taylor. Also, the little guy was really tuckered out, so he spent most of his term asleep.

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Tuesday, November 20

The Debunker: Did Kennedy's Inauguration Make Hats Uncool?

by Ken Jennings

Every schoolchild learns how John Quincy Adams used to deliver the State of Union address wearing only an oversized diaper and a velvet sash reading “BABY NEW YEAR 1823.” My fellow Americans, that’s just not true! And neither are the other four presidential misconceptions author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings will impeach this month.

Presidential Myth #3: John F. Kennedy Killed the Hat by Going Bare-Headed on Inauguration Day.

During the first season of the TV series Mad Men, the series’ fedora-wearing (and Nixon-voting) ad execs prophetically ponder the specter of a Kennedy presidency. “He’s inexperienced,” says Roger Sterling. “He doesn’t even wear a hat,” replies Bert Cooper.

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