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The Dumb Reasons Behind Two Presidential Deaths

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By Adam Winer, author of How Dumb Are You?

HDAY.pngMy book is full of questions every mildly-educated American SHOULD be able to answer—but often can't. Prior to publication, we ran all the questions past a test audience to see how many people answered each one correctly. Those stats are included in the book, so you can see, on a question-by-question basis, exactly how poorly you stack up against your fellow countrymen. Plus each answer comes with a rip-roaring Fun Fact. For Mental Floss, I'll be taking the best facts from the book and exploring them here in greater depth.

Today's question: John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln were assassinated while in office. But so were two other U.S. Presidents. Can you name either one?

Answers and the stupid reasons they passed away revealed after the jump.

Answer: James A. Garfield and William McKinley. (If you got this wrong, you are dumber than 48% of America.)

The Scoop: After only four months in office, President Garfield was shot in the back while waiting for a train. Modern day experts pretty much agree Garfield's gunshot wounds shouldn't have killed him. If only his doctors had gotten that memo. This was in 1881, back before anyone understood the correlation between germs and disease, so Garfield's doctors stuck unsterilized instruments and even their dirty fingers into the president's body, poking around vainly to find the bullet. What began as a three-inch-deep wound grew into a 20-inch long gash that stretched from Garfield's ribs to his groin. At one point, Alexander Graham Bell even showed up with an early metal detector to try to find the bullet. To his puzzlement, the machine malfunctioned. That probably had something to do with the fact that Garfield was laying on a metal bed—yet another new innovation at that time—and no one thought of mentioning this fact to Graham Bell. Oops. The president went on to die of blood poisoning after 80 days of agony.

Fast forward 20 years to 1901 when McKinley got plugged at the Pan-American Exposition. As the president lay in the hospital on the exposition grounds, doctors were once again unable to find and remove the bullet. This time there was even an experimental X-ray machine on site for the expo—but for some reason no one thought to use it on McKinley.
Thus America lost its third commander in chief in less than 40 years to an assassin's bullet (Lincoln had died back in 1865). Taking the hint, Congress decided that the president should have full time bodyguards. That's when the Secret Service took on the task.
Missed yesterday's column? Check out Adam's terrific post on the strange beginnings to the Civil War here.

Pick up a copy of How Dumb Are You? at your local bookstore or at Amazon.com. For more information, visit stupidityquiz.com.

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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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