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5 Towns That Had to Change Their Names

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many towns have undergone name changes at some point in their history. Usually it's because the land the town is on has come under new rule, or has outgrown its old designation. Because of the military overseeing westward expansion, there are scores of towns in the U.S. that used to be named “Fort __,” and for centuries most of Europe bore Roman names in honor of their conquerors. But some towns have had more unique reasons for changing their names. Scandal, shame, confusion, or just because the name sounds wrong can all be reasons to spur a community toward a new name. Here are five examples of towns that felt it necessary to present a fresh identity to the world.

1. Berlin, Ontario, Canada, became Kitchener

A lot of German immigrants settled in Southern Ontario in the 19th century, and the town of Berlin was named as homage to their motherland. Then the motherland started bombing allies of their current homeland. That, combined with the large population of pacifist Mennonites in Berlin, spelled trouble for the town. All the pacifists meant that men from Berlin weren’t signing up for the war effort, and other towns began to look at the heavily German populated Berlin with suspicion.

Soon there was a referendum (not supported by the majority) to change the name of the town. Citizens were given many options of new names, but there was no space on the ballot to keep Berlin “Berlin.” Anyone who supported the status quo was, according to National Archives of Canada, “immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and sympathizers with the enemy.”

Violence, riots, and intimidation followed. Only 892 people out of a population of 15,000 voted on the referendum, and only 346 votes in favor were enough to change Berlin to Kitchener, named after Britain’s Minister of War. A petition with 2000 signatures was not enough to stop the change.

2. Pile-Of-Bones, Saskatchewan, Canada became Regina

Today, Regina is a city 200,000 people strong. In the 1880s, it was barren grassland frequented only by buffalo and the Cree Indians who hunted them. The old adage that Indians used all parts of the buffalo appears to have been true, except for the bones. These they piled about 2 meters high and 12 meters in diameter, in hope that the buffalo would return to visit the bones. The first settlers and trappers kept the obvious name.

Then, in 1882, the wife of Canada’s governor general, Princess Louise, suggested they change the name to honor her own mother, Queen Victoria. Regina is Latin for “Queen,” and all female monarchs sign their name using it. Thus Saskatchewan was elevated out of the boneyard to royal heights.

3. Wineville, California became Mira Loma

Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie made a movie called Changeling, about a mother who is sure the kidnapped son returned to her is not actually her boy. It was based on true events, and those events are why the town of Wineville, California has been called Mira Loma for the last 80 years. The real-life kidnapped boy, Walter Collins, was likely murdered in Wineville, along with at least three other boys, by Gordon Stewart Northcott. The case became known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as that is the area of Northcott’s ranch where the partial remains of his victims were uncovered. Northcott was hanged in 1930, and the town sought to escape its appalling notoriety by changing its name in 1931.

4. Staines, Surrey, became Staines-Upon-Thames

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Americans have come to loathe or love Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat or Bruno. In his native UK, he was first known as the character Ali G, an obnoxious wanna-be white boy British rapper. Part of Ali G’s background is that he grew up in the mean ghettos of Staines (in actuality a lovely little middle-class town in Surrey). His fame was such in the UK that the people of Staines didn’t appreciate being associated with his image, and changed their name to the more elegant Staines-upon-Thames—partly to distance themselves from Ali G’s obnoxious antics, and partly to advertise their proximity to the river Thames to encourage tourism. Says town Councilor Colin Davis describing the change, "I regard Ali G as someone who put Staines on the map, we're just telling people where it is."

5. Gay Head, Massachusetts, became Aquinnah

On the western edge of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is an outcropping of craggy, brightly tinted rock. The white settlers of the 1600s wrote of them as the “gaily colored cliffs,” and the name soon stuck to the settlement that grew near them. The town of Gay Head was born. It was laid to rest 400 years later, when the town of Gay Head successfully voted to change its name to Aquinnah in 1997. As many of the town’s residents are in some way related to the original holders of the land, the Wampanoag tribe, the name change was meant to reflect its Native American heritage.

Although many people might hear of this change and think, “Well yeah, no wonder. That name makes me think of a sex act,” the people behind the name change want the world to know their decision had nothing to do with homosexual connotations. Said the tribesman who started the petition in 1991, Carl Widdiss, "I guess it's simple. An Indian place should have an Indian name."

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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