9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences

King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
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Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
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In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle

iStock.com/Orbon Alija
iStock.com/Orbon Alija

According to the EPA, Americans generate approximately 262 million tons of waste each year—and that amount keeps growing. In honor of Earth Day, which we'll celebrate on April 22, here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. Dentures

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Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. Holiday lights

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected.

3. Sex toys

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The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. Hotel soap

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. Mattresses

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You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Because they're equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress could become a cute sundress or even wallpaper.

6. Cooking oil

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When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—nearly half of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, use this online tool.

7. Dirty diapers

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The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDs

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CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. Shoes

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Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards.

10. Animal poop

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Why turn animal poop into fertilizer, manure, or trash when you can make it into a greeting card? Or a bouquet of arficial flowers? The folks at Poopoo Paper do that, plus more—they can transform the poop of a wide variety of animals (cows, horses, elephants, and more) into cards, bookmarks, keychains, magnets, jewelry and more!

11. Trophies

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Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. Human fat (warning; illegal) 

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If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. Aluminum foil

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Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. Crayons

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Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 120,000 pounds of crayons.

15. Dead pets

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When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. Shingles

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The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. Prescription drugs

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You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. Fishing line

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Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. Wine corks

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Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. Pantyhose

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Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. Toothbrushes

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If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. Tennis balls

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The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. Yoga mats

iStock

Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. Defunct currency

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All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? It turns out you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. Pet fur

iStock

All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

This piece was updated for 2019.

There’s a Supermarket in Croatia With UNESCO Protection

The Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia
The Palace of Diocletian in Split, Croatia
iStock.com/majaiva

The Billa store in Split, Croatia, doesn’t look like your average supermarket. There are Roman columns jutting out of the floor, and it’s housed inside a complex that contains a palace dating back to the 3rd century CE. Because of its unique location within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the grocery store is technically protected by the United Nations, according to Atlas Obscura.

Split, which can be reached by ferry from the Game of Thrones-famous city of Dubrovnik, is known among travelers for its beaches and ancient Roman and medieval monuments, but also for its nightlife and modern conveniences. The Billa supermarket is representative of what happens when these two worlds collide.

The store has since been acquired by SPAR grocery, but you can still find it on the ground floor of the Mala Papalićeva Palača complex, which was reportedly built in the 13th century and once belonged to a noble family. The building is part of a larger complex known as Diocletian’s Palace, which Atlas Obscura describes as “a city within a city that comprises the historic center of Split.”

The area became a UNESCO site in 1979, but the ground floor remained privately owned, which allowed the grocery store to legally buy the unit and set up shop in 2014. Some locals were shocked, according to Croatia Week, but officials reportedly had no means of stopping the development. So the next time you want to peruse the cheese selection while admiring ancient architecture, you’ll know exactly where to go.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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