A Brief History
On May 30, 1883, panicked public people pushed, prodded, poked, and pummeled each other in a mad dash to get away from the Brooklyn Bridge when an unfounded rumor circulated that collapse was imminent. Unfortunately, 12 people were stampeded to death because of this reckless and stupid rumor. Here we list 10 false rumors that spread through the public, often with decidedly negative effects, sometimes just a sad reflection on how gullible people can be.
10. Brooklyn Bridge Collapse, 1883.
Open only 6 days earlier, this mighty bridge cost 27 lives during its construction only to have another dozen wasted so needlessly. In order to restore faith in the soundness of the bridge, circus maven PT Barnum paraded elephants across the bridge to show the public the structure was not going to fall.
9. A Gun in the Home is 43 Times More Dangerous to the Owner, 1986.
This ridiculous rumor started when Kellerman and Reay published an amateurishly flawed “study” that claimed a gun in the home was 43 times more likely to kill the owner or someone the owner knows than an intruder. (Sometimes you know the murderer or bad guy.) The sample size was a 6 year analysis of only 1 county, and did not take into account non-fatal uses of the firearm. In fact, about 25,000 to 30,000 people per year are killed by guns in the US, while numerous studies by Time-CNN, Kleck, Field, Mauser and Hart have shown between 600,000 and 2.4 million uses of a firearm in a defensive manner per year in the US, meaning you are actually around 20 to 30 times more likely (at a minimum) to use your gun in defense than you are to get killed by it. Of course, most of the deaths caused by personal firearms to their owner were suicides. This falsehood is repeated over and over as if it were gospel, but it is in fact, a lie.
8. Jamie Lee Curtis, Hermaphrodite, 19??.
Just how this started is unknown, but this successful actress and television commercial star is married with 2 children (adopted). Although there is no definitive proof that the rumor is false, there is no evidence at all that it is true. Either way, who cares?
7. Walt Disney Cryogenically Frozen, 1966.
Although Disney was cremated after his 1966 death from lung cancer, rumors that his body or sometimes just his head are frozen and stored under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. In fact, the first ever cryogenically frozen person did not take place until weeks after Disney’s death. This one is incredibly persistent and widely believed to be true. It is not.
6. Sterilizing Muslims with Polio, 2012.
A vaccination campaign in Pakistan was met with persistent rumors that the vaccine was really a secret American plot to sterilize Pakistanis. In only a week, 9 vaccine workers were murdered to prevent men from becoming “less manly” and women from becoming “less bashful.” As Pakistan was 1 of 3 countries still with Polio, this refusal to accept the vaccine is undoubtedly costing lives. Similar rumors about vaccines have also circulated in Africa and in American prisons, (although previous medical “experiments” in US prisons on African-Americans make this not so far fetched in the big house).
5. Obama’s Concentration Camps, 2009.
Glenn Beck reported on Fox News that he looked into rumors that President Obama was building FEMA concentration camps to house conservative enemies of his administration, and he was unable to “debunk” them. Of course, he could not provide any evidence of the planning or building of such camps, either, because they did not and do not exist.
4. Rod Stewart Stomach Pump, 1971-72.
For some reason, Stewart was the target of a persistent and gross rumor that he had passed out on stage, was rushed to a hospital and had his stomach pumped, of around a quart or so of semen! Somehow, this stupid rumor was an extension of a prior rumor rampant around colleges and high schools that a popular cheerleader had suffered the same indignity, and the rumor got conflated to position Stewart as the unfortunate victim. I remember this one being passed around quite solemnly and seriously, accepted as fact for years. In his 2012 autobiography, Stewart felt compelled to deny the rumor. Other variations concerning male or female singers and actors also persist.
3. Ammunition Shortage, 2008.
We are still feeling the effects of this one, though it is somewhat relieved (finally!). As it became apparent Barrack Obama or Hillary Clinton would likely win the presidential election, the rumored imminent nature of future gun and ammunition bans caused firearms and shooting enthusiasts to stockpile guns and ammunition, resulting in severe shortages of both, especially ammunition. Somehow .22 long rifle ammo became the hottest commodity on the shooting market, with prices rising from a buck or two per 50 rounds to $10 or more. Rumors that the US Government was buying up all available military and self-defense type ammunition abounded, and despite repeated denials by ammunition industry leaders and even NRA spokesmen, the public did not believe it and kept hoarding ammo. Stores would find their shipment sold out within minutes of hitting the shelves, or even before, as “inside” employees made sure their friends and relatives got first dibs on each shipment. Internet sales at greatly inflated prices drove hoarders to buy ever more ammo, aggravating the problem. Supply seems back to normal now, but prices are still much higher than before.
2. Toilet Paper Shortage, 1973.
Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight Show, joked about a purported toilet paper shortage, and with his huge audience the public quickly took up the joke as if it were an established fact. Frenzied buying of toilet paper resulted in an actual shortage as panicked customers found store shelves bare. Carson apologized in 1974 for starting the panic with his joke. Americans apparently take wiping their butts quite seriously.
1. Barack Obama is a Muslim, 2008.
When Obama became the Democratic nominee for President of the US, unfounded rumors meant to undermine his candidacy were unleashed on the electorate. A widely believed rumor was that Obama was in fact a Muslim, when in reality he had been born of atheist parents and raised later by Christian grandparents. Plus, he was a member of a Christian church in Chicago, the same church he was married in. This one is matched only by the equally ridiculous rumor that Obama was actually born in Kenya and his records of birth in Hawaii were somehow falsified at the same time he was born, presumably to make way for a presidential bid 47 years later.
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For more information, please see…
Charles River Editors. The Brooklyn Bridge: The History of New York City’s Most Famous Bridge. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
McCullough, David. The Great Bridge : The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Simon & Schuster, Incorporated, 1982.
Shapiro, Mary J. A Picture History of the Brooklyn Bridge. Dover Publications, 2013.