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10 Surprising Secrets From New York City’s History

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City Secrets is a new mental_floss feature sharing fascinating facts and stories from the histories of famous cities.

Beneath the ever-changing surface of New York City, there are many stories that have been overlooked by the march of time. We spoke with some of the city’s biggest history buffs—including folks from the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and elsewhere—to learn about some of the most interesting bits of Gotham history.

1. BROOKLYN ALMOST WASN’T PART OF NYC.

Brooklyn came very close to not being part of greater New York City. “There was an ardent anti-consolidation movement in the days following up to the vote,” Greg Young, host of the Bowery Boys podcast and blog about New York City history, told mental_floss.

In the 1890s, a legislative push was made to consolidate the five boroughs, raising major criticisms from many in Brooklyn who were concerned about how joining Manhattan would impact their independence and taxation. The anti-consolidators made a compelling case, and almost won the day when Brooklyn voted in 1894. The final tally was 64,744 votes for consolidation, 64,467 votes against.

“Had 278 people stayed home that day, Brooklyn would have retained its independence (at least in that vote),” Young says.

2. THERE ARE SKELETONS EVERYWHERE.

The African Burial Ground National Monument, located near City Hall, memorializes a site where free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans were buried for over a century. After the site closed to burials in 1794, the bones were more or less forgotten about until excavation began on a federal office building in 1991, and shovels began striking skeletons.

Today, there's more to the area than meets the eye. “The African Burial Ground memorial actually marks a very small area of the burial ground,” Young says. “Many of the surrounding buildings were actually built on top of the burial ground in the 19th century, including America’s first department store, owned by A.T. Stewart, at 280 Broadway, which is still there.” (The building, anyway.)

While the site contains the reinterred remains of more than 400 people, some 15,000 men, women, and children are estimated to have been buried in the cemetery’s grounds, which once covered more than 6.6 acres. The memorial itself extends just over a third of an acre—which means there’s still plenty of bodies around.

And this isn't the only recent discovery of human remains in New York. This November, construction workers digging a water main under Washington Square Park discovered a pair of burial vaults dating back to the early 19th century. Dozens of coffins and skeletons, likely belonging to the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church that once stood nearby, were uncovered. Though archeologists are working to learn more about the remains using high-resolution photography, no one will be disturbing the vaults, for a water main or otherwise. 

3. THE STATUE OF LIBERTY HAS CHANGED COLOR.

The Statue of Liberty used to be dark brown. For the first two decades after it was erected in 1886, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s masterpiece was the color of the hammered copper "skin" of the statue. Over the years, it naturally turned green as a result of age and harsh weather conditions. By the time color photographs could accurately capture Lady Liberty’s color, she had turned the familiar hue we know today.

4. THE CENTRAL LIBRARY USED TO BE A RESERVOIR.

Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Before the New York Public Library and its famous stone lions occupied the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the site was home to the Croton Distributing Reservoir. Completed in 1842, the reservoir sourced water from Westchester’s Croton River, and was a main source of drinking water for the city for half a century. The four-acre lake, contained in 50-foot-high granite walls, held up to 20 million gallons of water. But as a second reservoir was constructed in Central Park and the Croton reservoir began leaking, most decided it had “outlived its usefulness,” as a letter to The New York Times put it in March 1891.

In 1898, removal of the reservoir began, making way for the grand public library’s opening in 1911. A historical plaque describing the reservoir can still be seen in the subway passage connecting the 7 train stop and B/D/F/M stop, and remnants of the reservoir’s foundation remain in the library’s South Court.

5. AARON BURR DIED HERE ALONE.

Many people know how Alexander Hamilton died, but less frequently discussed is how the victor of that famous duel ended his days in New York. “Aaron Burr died all alone in 1836 in a boarding house in Staten Island,” Young says. The building was known as the Port Richmond, but was later renamed first as the Continental and then as the St. James Hotel. The building was demolished in 1945, but a plaque recognizing Burr’s death remains there.

But perhaps more odd than Burr’s death was the response of those at the boarding house to the former vice president’s death. When the landlady discovered the vice president’s body, a fellow lodger appeared in the doorway with materials in hand to create a death mask. (It's now on display at the New York Historical Society.) “For years afterwards, guests requested to sleep in the room he had died in. There was even a sign hung over the mantel, ‘Aaron Burr died in this room,’” adds Young. It seems Burr had become more interesting in death than he was during his final years of life. 

6. IT WAS ONCE HOME TO LITTLE GERMANY.

Those with even a casual understanding of New York City know about neighborhoods like Little Italy and Chinatown. But Little Germany may be less familiar.

“During the mid-19th century, the Lower East Side was known as Kleindeutschland (or Little Germany) because it was predominantly populated by immigrants from what is today Germany,” says David Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs and the Hebrew Technical Institute Research Fellow of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Most—though certainly not all—of the German population left Little Germany by the late 1880s and early 1890s, especially after the General Slocum disaster of 1904 killed over 1000 people and destroyed what was left of community cohesion. Meanwhile, large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Russia, Austria, and Romania, moved in. Today, NYC is home to ethnic enclaves from Nolita’s Little Australia to Little Guyana in Richmond Hill, Queens.

7. MAIL USED TO BE DELIVERED WITH TUBES. 

Image Credit: Library of Congress via Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The city’s Post Office Department used to transport a large portion of its mail underground. Beginning in 1897, miles of pneumatic tubes were installed under the city, connecting the major postal stations, which shuttled the letters packed into metallic canisters throughout the city. In 1913, the postmaster installed new, 24-inch-wide tubes between the Grand Central and Pennsylvania Terminals, which were built large enough to carry 100-pound bags of mail.

At its peak, the tubes transported almost 100,000 letters daily—about 30% of the city’s mail. But when the U.S. entered World War I, the high cost of operating the tubes was seen as too expensive, since funds were needed for the war effort. The underground delivery system ended permanently in 1953, although remnants still exist throughout the city. 

8. THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AREA ONCE LIVED UP TO ITS NAME.

Before the Twin Towers were constructed, that area of downtown Manhattan was home to the biggest market in the country—Washington Market. First built in 1812 as a few dozen stalls, over the next century it expanded to become the largest market in the U.S.—and was practically a city itself. Stretching across the lower west side of Manhattan, the market enticed visitors with the smells of cheese, eggs, fruit, and more unusual offerings such as calf skins, sweetbreads, terrapin, green turtles, elk, llama, and bear paws.

After a complete renovation in 1915, the Washington Market continued for several more decades, but faced competition from smaller, cleaner markets popping up throughout Manhattan. The city demolished large swaths of the market in the late 1960s, making room for the World Trade Center, and Washington Market soon faded into history.

9. IT HAS ITS OWN WALKS OF FAME.

Los Angeles may be the city we associate with stars and handprints embedded into the sidewalk, but New York has its own answers to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The sidewalk in front of Theater 80, at 80 St. Marks Place in the East Village, boasts its own collection of celebrity prints, including Joan Crawford’s hands, Gloria Swanson’s shoes, and Myrna Loy’s right hand. The prints were arranged by theater owner Howard Otway, who talked a number of his famous friends into leaving their marks during an opening-night party for a new musical film revival series in 1971. The theater is still owned by Otway’s son, Lorcan, in a building that also houses the Museum of the American Gangster. 

But that’s not the city’s only Walk of Fame. Just a few blocks northwest of Theater 80, pedestrians can stroll over a series of gold-metal stars embossed with the names of Jewish theater legends—the Yiddish Walk of Fame. Though they now sit in front of a Chase bank, for more than half a century these stars marked the entrance of the East Village’s beloved Second Avenue Deli, whose owner, Abe Lebewohl, installed the walk as a tribute to the area’s once-bustling Yiddish theater district. (Today, a part of the original deli sign has been preserved at the City Reliquary in Brooklyn.)

10. PARK SLOPE WAS ONCE THE SITE OF A BLOODY PLANE CRASH.

Though now known as the center of hipster parents and artisanal everything, the sidewalks of Park Slope were once the site of a horrific tragedy. On December 16, 1960, a pair of commercial airplanes collided in mid-air, with one plane (a TWA flight flying in from Ohio) crashing on Staten Island, and the other (a United Airlines plane en route from Chicago), crashing at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place and the brownstones nearby. Six people on the ground and all 128 of the passengers were killed. No memorial marks the site of the crash, but a keen-eyed observer will note the bricks at the top of 126 Sterling—damaged in the tragedy—are a different color than the rest of the building.

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19 Must-Visit Stops on Mexico City's Metro

About 5 million people ride the Mexico City subway every day—but most commuters don’t realize how much there is to do and see without ever having to go above ground. From piano stairs to a space tunnel, exploring the attractions hidden within the metro just might be the most fun you can have for 5 pesos (about $0.25 USD). These Mexico City metro stations settle the old question once and for all; it’s both the journey and the destination.

1. TALISMAN

Talisman station (line 4) has a mammoth logo for a reason: Mammoth fossils were unearthed during construction of the metro, and you can see the bones—which date back to the Pleistocene—on display there.

2. LA RAZA

space tunnel at La Raza station
Sharon Hahn Darlin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

How do you make a long transfer fly by? Transform it into a walk-through space tunnel illuminated by a glow-in-the-dark night sky, the highlight of the science museum located within La Raza station (lines 3 and 5).

3. VIVEROS

Viveros (line 3), a station named for the nearby nursery, is in full flower: It was recently given a jungle makeover complete with imitation palms, jaguars, and snakes to raise awareness for the preservation of southern Mexico’s Lacandon Rainforest.

4. PINO SUAREZ

Complement your day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan with a stop at the Pino Suarez station (lines 1 and 2), where you can see a 650-year-old pyramid dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind. Tens of thousands of users go through the station daily, making the pyramid one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico. (Though it's referred to as Mexico’s smallest archaeological zone, the National Institute of Anthropology and History doesn't consider it a "proper" archaeological zone "due to its size and the fact of being located in a Metro Transport System facility.")

5. HIDALGO

Hidalgo (lines 2 and 3) may be the most miraculous of all of Mexico City’s metro stations: In 1997, someone (possibly a street vendor) discovered a water stain in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe in one of its floor tiles. The apparition attracted so many pilgrims that metro authorities eventually had to remove the tile, which is now enshrined just outside one of the exits (follow the signs for Iglesia), near the intersection of Paseo de la Reforma and Zarco. And if you happen to visit this station on the morning of the 28th of any month, you’ll be swarmed with pious commuters carrying figurines of Saint Judas Thaddeus—patron saint of delinquents and lost causes—who is venerated at the nearby San Hipolito Church.

6. AND 7. BELLAS ARTES AND TEZOZOMOC

No time to visit the vast National Museum of Anthropology? You can still catch reproductions of Mesoamerican statues at the Bellas Artes (lines 2 and 8) and Tezozomoc (line 6) stops.

8. ZOCALO

miniatures on the Mexico city subway
Randal Sheppard, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Miniature maniacs shouldn’t miss the scale models of Mexico City’s main plaza at the Zocalo stop (line 2). They depict, in tiny form, the metamorphosis of the capital from the Aztec Templo Mayor to the present-day Metropolitan Cathedral. (And bonus points to anyone who can spot the cat who lives in this station.)

9. DIVISION DEL NORTE

The music-themed Division del Norte station’s (line 3) free karaoke corner draws a crowd gathered to watch fellow riders belt out boleros and ballads on their way to work. The unassuming abuelitas laden with bags from the market always have the most impressive pipes.

10. POLANCO

piano stairs at Polanco station
Victor.Aguirre-Lopez, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t take the escalators at Polanco station (line 7), because the stairs are a giant musical piano keyboard. Finally, here’s your chance to live out Tom Hanks’s piano dance scene from the movie Big.

11. GUERRERO

The Guerrero stop (lines B and 3) is a tribute to the legends of lucha libre, with costume displays and murals dedicated to 45 of Mexico’s finest masked fighters.

12. AND 13. ZOCALO AND PINO SUAREZ

The largest bookshop in Latin America can be found in the long passage between the Zocalo and Pino Suarez stations. The underground emporium known as Un Paseo Por Los Libros sells titles from textbooks to manga and also hosts free workshops, lectures, and movie screenings.

14., 15., AND 16. COPILCO, TACUBAYA, AND AUDITORIO

murals in the Mexico City subway
Thelmadatter, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Any visitor to Mexico City should check out Diego Rivera’s murals—but on your way, don’t forget to look up at the murals that decorate many metro stations. Particularly impressive are Guillermo Ceniceros’s ambitious chronicles of art through the history of time on the walls at the Copilco (line 3) and Tacubaya stations (lines 1, 7, and 9). On the kitschier side, see how many famous faces you can pick out in Jorge Flores Manjarrez’s I Spy-style mural of pop stars at the Auditorio stop (line 7).

17. ZAPATA

A museum of caricatures located inside the Zapata stop (line 12) is an homage to Mexican cartooning, including plenty of satirical interpretations of the mustachioed revolutionary who gives the station its name.

18. CHABACANO

If Chabacano station (lines 2, 8, and 9) feels unsettlingly familiar, it might be because it was used as a shooting location for the subway chase scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall. Legend has it you can still spot splashes of fake blood on the ceiling.

19. MIXCOAC

Museo del Metro de la Ciudad de México
ProtoplasmaKid, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Has this metro adventure turned you into a super fan? Do a deep dive at Mixcoac station’s (line 12) sleek Metro Museum, where you can learn even more fun facts about the subway’s 50 years of history while you wait out rush hour.

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9 Surprising Secrets from Vancouver History
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This temperate and lush port has become one of the wealthiest cities in Canada, but it still maintains an undercurrent of weirdness. Look past the frequent shroud of low-hanging clouds and shiny skyscrapers, and you'll find a city of peculiarities and unusual history.

1. THE CITY MEMORIALIZES A FAMOUSLY TALKATIVE SALOONKEEPER.

Royal BC Museum // Public Domain

Vancouver's oldest neighborhood, Gastown, earned its name from a colorful bar owner, Captain John (Gassy Jack) Deighton. Deighton was born in England in 1830 and spent his early adulthood toiling aboard sailing vessels. At some point in the 1850s, he headed off toward California to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. Like many prospectors of the time, he kept following the gold, and by 1865 he had married a Native American woman, operated a saloon on Vancouver Island, and captained a steamer.

But Deighton entrusted his saloon to a manager for a bit and it quickly fell into debt. Deciding to leave his troubles behind and seek new opportunities, he set off in a canoe with his family, dog, two chickens, two chairs, a large barrel of whisky, and six dollars. He arrived in the Burrard Inlet, on the shores of what is now downtown Vancouver, in an area called Luck Lucky (from a native term meaning grove of sacred trees). Within 24 hours, he had convinced some local mill workers to help him build a makeshift shack that would become his new saloon. In return, the workers got a day's worth of booze and a place to unwind after work. The bar not only became the focal point of the area, but so did Captain Jack. Because he was a lively and talkative fellow, always overflowing with stories, he gained the sobriquet "Gassy," an informal word for a person who liked to blather on. The neighborhood revolved so much around Gassy Jack that it soon became known as Gastown.

Jack died at the young age of 44, but today a bronze statue of him atop a whisky barrel stands in Maple Tree Square, where the famous blowhard opened his historic saloon.

2. EVERY NIGHT ENDS WITH A BANG.

The city of Vancouver has a notable daily ritual that it has executed like clockwork for more than 100 years: the Nine O'Clock Gun. Every night, the tranquility of Stanley Park is shattered by a thunderous explosion when an old cannon is loaded with a pound and a half of gun powder and fired (without a projectile). The tradition began in 1898 for a practical reason—to allow the general populace to accurately set their clocks and provide a way for nearby ships to calibrate their chronometers (time-measuring devices). The cannon replaced a nightly dynamite explosion, which was deemed ineffective.

Even as timepieces became more reliable over the years, Vancouver carried on the tradition. Many people who grew up in the city near Stanley Park said the blast served as their curfew warning—when the Nine O'Clock Gun blasted it was time to scurry home. The cannon was only quiet for an extended period during World War II, when the city thought residents might mistake it for the sounds of a Japanese attack. It also fell silent for a short time in February 1969 when students from the University of British Columbia stole it and held it for ransom until a donation was made to the local children’s hospital. (Local businessmen raised a thousand dollars and the cannon was returned.) The cannon also once caused some damage: In May 1964, some troublemakers managed to toss a rock into the barrel, and when the cannon went off, the stone hurtled out and bashed into a fueling station barge anchored offshore, giving it a minor blemish.

Vancouver is not alone in this practice of marking time with a cannon blast, by the way—Cape Town (South Africa), Zagreb (Croatia), Hong Kong, and Edinburgh (Scotland) all uphold the tradition. And if you desperately need to sync your watch to nine o’clock Vancouver time, the cannon is on Twitter.

3. THE CITY IS HOME TO A REPUTEDLY HAUNTED ISLAND.

Dead Man's Island in the early 20th century. Image credit: Vancouver Archives // Public Domain

Just to the south of picturesque Stanley Park, connected by a narrow causeway, lies Dead Man's Island. The site, which is closed to the public, maintains an eerie aura thanks to a long history linking it with death. Legend has it that the island was once the site of a fierce battle in which one group of natives captured 200 women, children, and seniors. These were exchanged for 200 young warriors from the other group, who were executed immediately.

Much later, when one of Vancouver's earliest white settlers, John Morton, arrived there in 1862, he was astonished by an unusual sight: Tied to the tree tops were hundreds of red cedar coffin-size boxes. The region’s Squamish people often raised their dead high above the ground, lashing them to tree limbs. Morton eventually learned that this island was a "tree-burial" ground for the local natives.

About three decades after Morton's discovery, a smallpox outbreak swept through Vancouver. During the epidemic, Dead Man's Island became a "pest house" (a hospital for people suffering from infectious diseases). Many of those put into quarantine on the island were left there to die. In addition to First Nations people and smallpox victims, a number of sailors, pioneers, squatters, and loggers are buried there.

In 1942 the island became home to a naval station, and since that time many supernatural sightings and eerie phenomena have been reported. Some claim to have heard unexplained clanging, hurried footsteps, otherworldly sobs, and the sound of chains being dragged in the dead of night. A woman stationed on the island once felt a hand on her back, although she was completely alone. Others have witnessed an unearthly glow through the trees that eventually coalesces into a human form. For an island that has had so many troubled souls pass through it, it may come as no surprise that many believe Dead Man's Island is still haunted.

4. MARGARINE WAS ONCE ILLEGAL THERE.

iStock

Margarine has been around longer than you might think. First concocted by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869, it was being commercially produced as early as the 1870s as a less perishable and cheaper alternative to butter. Although first made from beef fat and sometimes whale oil, vegetable oils eventually replaced those ingredients, and the product was thought to be healthier than butter.

Dairy farmers worried that this non-dairy alternative would cut into their butter business. The dairy industry successfully pushed to have margarine declared illegal across Canada in 1886. The ban would remain (with a brief gap during World War I) until 1948, when Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that such bans were a provincial issue, not a federal issue. Despite an attempt to start making margarine in British Columbia, the region soon banned it. In 1949 the ban was lifted and Vancouver became the first new place to produce margarine in Canada (although while the ban was in place, margarine-hooked Canadians got smuggled product from Newfoundland, which had yet to join the Canadian Confederation). In another law designed to help butter producers, Quebec maintained a ruling that margarine (which was naturally white) could not be colored yellow, in imitation of butter. When this restriction was lifted in 2008, butter-colored margarine spread throughout the entire Great White North.

5. FEET KEEP WASHING UP ON NEARBY SHORES.

iStock

As you walk along some of the beaches near Vancouver, you may find the expected debris of shells, driftwood, and various discarded items, such as sneakers. Normally a running shoe washed ashore wouldn't be a big deal, but for the past ten years, a number of these footwear have contained feet. The first one found, a man's right foot inside an Adidas sneaker, was discovered in August 2007 by a young girl vacationing on Jedidiah Island, about 40 miles from Vancouver in the Strait of Georgia. Six days later, another man's right foot was found on Gabriola Island in the Strait. Over time, there were others, and in February 2016, Charlotte Stevens and her husband encountered a severed foot along a beach in Vancouver Island. This discovery brought the count of detached human feet found along Northwest shores to 16.

This relatively significant number of disconnected feet has caused alarm and speculation about whom they belong to: Theories include victims of murder, plane crashes, or a tsunami far across the Pacific. While not all the owners have been identified, forensic research has revealed that two of the feet were from a woman who committed suicide by jumping off greater Vancouver's Pattullo Bridge. Some suspect that several other shoes were from people who committed suicide in a similar way. Three other victims were said to have died from natural causes. So why are feet, specifically, being found? Some scientists say it has to do with the natural effects that the ocean would have on a corpse: The push and pull of the ocean water would cause feet and hands to fall off first, and rubberized running shoes serve as perfect floatation devices.

6. FIVE-PIN BOWLING REMAINS A UNIQUE PASTIME.

Five-pin bowling is a distinct type of bowling that was invented in Canada around 1909, and many Vancouverites play it to this day. Thomas F. Ryan devised the game specifically for folks who found normal bowling too taxing (mostly kids and the elderly). The game features pins that are about 25% smaller than normal pins and a small ball that fits in the hand without any finger holes (similar to a bocce ball). The alleys are also narrower, and players get three balls per turn rather than the standard two. Two of the older establishments that still offer the game are Commodore Lanes and Billiards (838 Granville Street), which opened in 1930, and Grandview Lanes (2195 Commercial Drive), which opened in 1947. (The game is also popular in other Canadian cities.)

7. IT’S HOME TO THE WORLD’S NARROWEST COMMERCIAL BUILDING.

The Sam Kee Building in 1937. Image credit: City of Vancouver Archives // Public Domain

The Sam Kee Building (sometimes called the Jack Chow Building) on West Pender Street is renowned as the “narrowest commercial building in the world.” Sam Kee (whose birth name was Chang Toy) had bought the land some time prior, but in 1912 the City of Vancouver decided to widen Pender Street, leaving Mr. Kee only a narrow strip of land. Rather than abandon the land or sell it, the determined Kee decided to construct a building on what he had left. The building was renovated in 2010 to include animated storyteller shows featuring neon lights and music.

8. PARTS OF THE WINDOWS IN ONE LOCAL CHURCH ARE FAR OLDER THAN THE CITY.

Some of the stained-glass windows at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church at Nanton Avenue and Granville Street in Vancouver are made from shattered fragments of 11th century stained glass from England’s Canterbury Cathedral. The cathedral had been bombed during World War II.

9. THE AUTHORITIES HAVE REPEATEDLY CRACKED DOWN ON “INDECENCY.”

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Vancouver seems like a fairly liberal, open-minded place to live. But since officially becoming a city in 1886, the metropolitan hub has had episodes of cracking down on indecency, many of which seem tame by today's standards. In 1914, the mayor of Vancouver banned performances by Marie Lloyd, a hugely popular English music-hall performer and comedian. Why was she so scandalous? At one point in her show, she lifted her floor-length gown two inches off the ground to reveal a watch on her ankle— an act deemed far too shocking for Vancouverites to handle. On June 9, 1933, Vancouver did appear to loosen up a bit, however. On that date, the city council voted to allow men to go topless on city beaches.

Still, the city remained ever vigilant when it came to decency. On January 16, 1953, police raided the Avon Theatre on Hastings Street, where Erskine Caldwell’s play Tobacco Road was being staged. The cast was arrested on charges of presenting an indecent public performance. The crimes: skimpy outfits, blasphemy, and one of the cast members appeared to be peeing in a cornfield! Books weren't beyond reproach either. In October 1961, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided Vancouver bookstores and the main public library and seized copies of a lewd piece of literature—Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, which features graphic sexual language. (To be fair, Tropic of Cancer is among the most frequently banned or challenged books in history.)

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