The history of the US spans fewer than 250 years, but no matter what we know, there's always more of it out there. Some of the facts we learned in history class, while others come from our own curiosity-driven investigations. Either way, many things about the US are pretty clear, well-known, and generally accepted as true.
But then there are happenings from American history that sound so incredible that they just can't be real. They don't even make you do a double-take: they require a full-on triple-take. Surprising, absurd, and bizarre, these facts require a little extra digging to ensure they're accurate.
We learned some new US history facts that we can't believe we'd never heard before. A president serving wieners to royalty and a congressman promoting "lake cow bacon" are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical American facts that made us do a triple-take.
The bomb that fell out of the skies above Lakeview, OR, was attached to a balloon. When Elsye (or Elsie) Mitchell and five children found the object in the woods while picnicking on May 5, 1945, they inadvertently detonated it, and all lost their lives.
Elsye's husband, Reverend Archie Mitchell, was in the car and watched it happen. He later described how he "hurriedly called a warning to them, but it was too late. Just then there was a big explosion. I ran up - and they were all lying there dead."
The children ranged in age from 11 to 14; Elsye was 31. The bomb had been launched at some point in 1944 or early 1945, one of thousands sent from Japan. At the time, news of the event was censored by the US government. The passings of Elsye, Eddie Engen, Jay Gifford, Sherman Shoemaker, Dick Patzke, and Joan “Sis” Patzke were the only known civilian deaths in the continental US during WWII.
The official estimate of people who gathered at one time on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge during its 50th anniversary celebration on May 24, 1987 is approximately 300,000. Authorities estimate as many as 800,000 individuals may have stepped onto the bridge throughout the day as celebrants rode bikes, walked, and even pogo-sticked on the structure.
The large crowds made for an "extremely unpleasant" experience, as participant Winston Montgomery recalled:
While trapped shoulder to shoulder in the mob, unable to move for more than two hours, I remember discussing with my wife the real possibility that we were about to participate in one of the 20th century's landmark disasters.
A disaster was averted, but the bridge itself lost some of its bend under the weight of the masses. Again, Montgomery described it:
The Golden Gate Bridge, all 419,000 tons of it, groaned and swayed like an old wooden plank thrown across a ditch... Frightened and seasick people vomited on their shoes... There were cheers as some people started to hurl bicycles over the railing... A stroller tumbled down and sank beneath the waves 220 feet below.
The bridge temporarily sagged an estimated seven feet that day. Engineers later assured the public that the structure was designed to do so, and there was no threat that it would have collapsed.
Before Johnny Cash made his mark on the country music scene, the "Man in Black" served in the US Air Force as a radio intercept officer. After his training in Texas, the Air Force sent him to Landsberg, West Germany, where he monitored Soviet radio traffic.
I was the ace. I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin's death. I located the signal when the first Soviet jet bomber made its first flight from Moscow to Smolensk; we all knew what to listen for, but I was the one who heard it....
This made him among the first Americans - if not the first - to know about the demise of the Soviet leader.
Aaron Burr married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost, during the early 1780s, and they remained married until her passing in 1794. The couple had one daughter, also named Theodosia, who perished in a shipwreck in 1812.
In 1833, Burr remarried; his bride was Eliza Jumel, a wealthy socialite who'd met Burr years earlier. She described him as:
The perfection of manhood personified... In a word, he was a combined model of Mars and Apollo. His eye was of the deepest black, and sparkled with an incomprehensible brilliancy when he smiled; but if enraged, its power was absolutely terrific... I do not believe a female capable of the gentle emotions of love ever looked upon him without loving him.
By the time they married, however, Burr was 77 years old and in dire financial straits. The union only lasted four months, and when Jumel decided to divorce Burr, she chose Alexander Hamilton, Jr. as her attorney.
Decades earlier, the younger Hamilton lost his father during a duel with Burr. Perhaps still bitter about Burr's role in his father's demise and in the adultery scandal that had upended his family as well, Hamilton accused Burr of adultery and financial mismanagement. Both were true (or at least were alleged by Jumel), and divorce proceedings lasted for three years. The end of the marriage between Burr and Jumel was finalized on September 14, 1836 - the same day Burr died.
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The name "Fido" for a dog may have been popularized by Abraham Lincoln, but the President's canine by that name met a tragic fate similar to that of his owner. With a moniker that means "fidelity" in Latin, Fido was a yellow-haired mutt the Lincoln family took in about 1855.
Fido was a companion to Lincoln in Springfield, IL, but remained in the Midwest when the Lincoln family went to Washington, DC. Carpenter John Eddy Roll watched Fido during that time, and according to a letter he sent Lincoln in 1862, the dog was "doing well."
The faithful canine attended Lincoln's April 1865 funeral in Springfield and spent the rest of his days there. His life was cut short at some point in 1866:
One day the dog, in a playful manner, put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing [who] in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido... So Fido, just a poor yellow dog, met the same fate as his illustrious master - assassination.
The drunken man was Charlie Planck, and in the immediate aftermath of the event, Fido went behind a nearby church, where the Rolls found him. They carried him home, buried him, and covered his grave with flowers.
While serving in the US Navy, future US President Jimmy Carter worked on building the nuclear propulsion system for the Sea Wolf submarine. Stationed in New York state, Carter's experience and proximity to the partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, made him a candidate to respond to the emergency.
In December 1952, Carter took a 23-person crew to Chalk River, where they worked to clean up nuclear material. He had full access to the facility and went into the reactor - which he described as "extremely radioactive" - several times at 90-second intervals:
We would dash in there as quickly as we could and take off as many bolts as we could.... Each time our men managed to remove a bolt or fitting from the core.
Carter and his team successfully cleaned up the material, but despite being "fairly well instructed," they were exposed to "probably a thousand times more radiation than they would now. It was in the early stages and they didn't know." Carter also noted that for about six months after the incident, "for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine."