Presidents, monarchs, and other notable individuals appear not just in history books and news media, but also in movies and television shows. As a result, facts about historical figures are pretty familiar - even to the extent we feel like there's nothing left to learn.
That's exactly when a new tidbit, story, or detail about them emerges and blows our minds.
This year, we found out a lot of new information about individuals whose names we know. These facts took us by surprise and really left us feeling like we should have known them sooner. Take a look - which facts are new to you, too?
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.
Historian Mark Kramer noted, “The Soviet Union remained a repugnant dictatorship, but it was a very different place after Stalin was gone.” Another historian, Voljtech Mastny, put it this way:
The death of Stalin was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
While serving in the US Navy, future US President Jimmy Carter worked on building the nuclear propulsion system for the Sea Wolf submarine. Carter was stationed in New York state, so his 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 a long-term effect: "For about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine."
In April 1933, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, and their associates stole a car in Ruston, LA, that belonged to H. Dillard Darby, an undertaker in town. Darby chased after the group in another vehicle owned by Sophia Stone.
Darby and Stone ultimately came face-to-face with Clyde, who abducted them and forced them into the car that had once been Darby's. Bonnie reportedly enjoyed talking to Darby and Stone. She even asked Darby if he would embalm her and Clyde when they passed:
I know you would enjoy embalming us.... Promise us you will.
After driving into Arkansas, Bonnie and Clyde released Darby and Stone, gave them $5 to get home, and, according to Darby, "neither of us is much worse for the experience." In a twist of fate or irony, Darby did end up embalming the couple after they were slain the following year.
It's not entirely clear how many bullets authorities fired at Bonnie and Clyde's car on May 23, 1934. According to sheriff's deputy Ted Hinton, he and other officers collectively fired around 150 shots, and "when all was said and done, they weren't nothing but a bunch of wet rags."
Some reports indicate Bonnie had 26 entrance wounds, while Clyde had 17; others have numbers as high as 25 and 23, respectively. The sheer number of bullet holes made it difficult to keep embalming fluid in their bodies. As a result, when Darby arrived to identify the bodies - having been one of their hostages - he was enlisted to assist undertaker C. F. "Boots" Bailey with the task.
Another use for embalming fluid, however, was in keeping enthusiastic fans at bay. Thousands of people had gathered around Conger's Furniture Store and Funeral Parlor in Arcadia, LA; and to keep them at a distance, Bailey squirted embalming fluid at them.
Mel Brooks has made a name for himself over the past 75 years as one of the greatest creators of farces and parodies, including The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World, Part I, and Spaceballs. He's one of the few celebrities to earn EGOT status, meaning he's won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
In 1944, Brooks was 18. Like many young men of his generation, he was drafted and shipped off to the European theater. Because he scored well on his aptitude test, he trained as a combat engineer. In November 1944, he arrived in France, and a short time later, made his way into Belgium. He was then transferred to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, which took part in the Battle of the Bulge. During the monthlong campaign, Brooks's unit worked to clear land mines to ensure the Allied troops' safety as they pushed through the Ardennes to blunt the surprise German offensive.
Brooks's unit was forced into several firefights during this time, and suffered heavy losses. Once they made it into Germany, Brooks and his comrades built the first bridge across the Roer River. Later, they built bridges over the Rhine. When WWII ended, Brooks was given an honorable discharge.
Since then, the comedian hasn't spoken much about his experiences, though he has talked about seeing starving Jewish refugees who escaped concentration camps in the spring of 1945. Being Jewish himself, Brooks said this left an indelible impression on him, making him feel lucky to be an American. Two years after WWII ended, Brooks began his comedy career.
When Brooks has spoken about his time in WWII, he always makes sure to add a touch of humor: “War isn't hell... War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing.”
When his son asked him what he thought about rebuilding Europe after WWII, Brooks responded:
You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night, how you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without some German sniper taking you out. You didn't worry about tomorrow.
Mimi Alford was a 19-year-old press intern when she began a relationship with President John F. Kennedy that she described as "tender, funny, and loving." According to Alford, she and Kennedy took a lot of baths after which they ate, played music, and, if it was late, she would stay the night.
Alford said Kennedy "had a collection of little yellow rubber ducks, and they were in the bathtub, and rubber ducks sort of became part of the game."
The rubber ducks were said to have been a gift from a friend who heard Vaughn Meader impersonate Kennedy listing children's toys on The First Family comedy album. Alford wrote in her memoir that "every time [Kennedy] saw the ducks, it kick-started a playful side of him," and one of her friends later commented, "You didn't have an affair with the president... You had a playmate."
In his Natural History, first century Roman author Pliny the Elder relayed a story about Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and two very large pearls. According to Pliny, Cleopatra and Antony were dining one evening when she ordered her servants to bring her vinegar. Prior to the meal, Cleopatra told Antony she would hold a celebration that cost 10 million sesterces - a huge sum at the time.
Pliny described what happened when Cleopatra got the vinegar:
She was wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature known as pearls. So while Antony was wondering what in the world she was going to do, she took one pearl from her ear, plunged it into the vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it.
Because the pearl was worth so much, Cleopatra contended she just drank 10 million sesterces worth of liquid and won the bet.
Future historians and scientists contest the likelihood that vinegar could have dissolved a pearl quickly unless it was pulverized first. The acid of the vinegar mixed with the calcium carbonate of the pearl would have bubbled in a way that resembled a drink like Champagne.
The same type of beverage could have also been used as an antacid, but the concoction Cleopatra drank may have been intended to serve as an aphrodisiac.