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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.

Cleveland’s National Weather Service Issued an Unofficial 'Small Dog Advisory’ Due to High Winds

iStock.com/eve_eve01genesis
iStock.com/eve_eve01genesis

The National Weather Service in Cleveland is reminding people with mini dachshunds, Yorkshire terriers, and other little dog breeds to keep an eye on their pooches this windy winter. According to WTOL 11 News, an unofficial “small dog warning” was in effect in several parts of Ohio and Northwest Pennsylvania Wednesday, as two-legged and four-legged locals alike braced for gusts of up to 50 mph.

This is formally known as a Wind Advisory, and it’s issued when sustained winds reach between 31 and 39 mph, or when gusts reach speeds between 46 and 57 mph. Conditions like these can cause minor property damage as trees fall and untethered items get whipped around in the wind. The list of untethered items that can potentially blow away includes small dogs, too, according to a tweet from NWS Cleveland.

But can your dog really blow away in the wind and end up in Oz like Toto? There are some reports of this happening, but the conditions are typically a little more extreme than what Ohio is expecting right now. In 2009, a 6-pound Chihuahua named Tinker Bell was plucked up and carried away by 70 mph winds. There’s a happy ending, though: Her owners found her unharmed (partly thanks to a pet psychic, they claimed). More recently, a Yorkshire terrier named Toshka was blown away in Siberia during a snowstorm last year. The dog was later found frostbitten, but alive, 3 miles from home.

However, instances like these are rare, and the greater danger is that a flying object could injure your pooch. Plus, if they're outside without a leash, they can run away if they become frightened or break free if a fence in your yard blows over. To keep your pup safe during blustery weather, The Humane Society of Central Oregon recommends bringing them inside, leashing them when they need to go outside, and double-checking all gates and fences.

[h/t WTOL 11]

11 Bizarre Things Done in the Name of Love

iStock.com/Kemter
iStock.com/Kemter

Love. It can make you do crazy things, or so the saying goes. And there are plenty of recorded incidents of people doing really crazy things, purportedly in the name of amore, that back that cliché up. Here are 11 of them.

1. Fake your own death

Alexey Bykov must have wanted to be sure that his future bride would take the whole "'Til death do us part” thing seriously. In 2012, the Omsk, Russia native hired a team of filmmakers to help him fake his own death. Right in front of his girlfriend. As part of an elaborately choreographed wedding proposal. “We'd arranged to meet at a certain place but when I arrived there were mangled cars everywhere, ambulances, smoke, and carnage,” Irena Kolokov, his lucky gal pal, told the Daily Mail. "Then when I saw Alexey covered in blood lying in the road a paramedic told me he was dead and I just broke down in tears.” Wait for it ... surprise! Just when Irena thought all was lost, Alexey sprang into action and asked her to marry him. Perhaps most surprisingly, she said yes.

2. Cohabitate with a corpse

A corpse's foot with a toe tag at the morgue
iStock.com/nico_blue

“'Til death do us part” wasn't good enough for Carl Tanzler. In 1940, the radiologist was charged with “wantonly and maliciously destroying a grave and removing a body without authorization” when police discovered that he was in possession of the corpse of Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos, a young woman who had died of tuberculosis in 1931. (In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s a full nine years earlier.) Tanzler’s obsession with Hoyos began in 1930, when she was a patient at the United States Marine Hospital in Key West, Florida. Though there is no evidence that she reciprocated his feelings, Tanzler fought desperately to save Hoyos's life. Following her passing on October 25, 1931, Tanzler became a regular visitor to her above-ground mausoleum, which he had paid for and to which he had a private key. After two years of snuggling with the corpse, he removed her body and brought it home with him, which is where it remained until Tanzler’s arrest a full seven years later.

3. Rob a Waffle House

Forget breakfast in bed—Marquis Baldwin will bring you the entire Waffle House. Well, at least whatever’s in its cash register. In 2013, the then-22-year-old Pensacola resident was arrested on four counts of armed robbery and six counts of aggravated assault after he held up four businesses with a BB gun, three of them Waffle House restaurants. But the money Baldwin stole wasn’t being saved for a rainy day; he used it to pay off his girlfriend’s probation fees. Awww.

4. Register a URL

In the age of online dating, it only makes sense that a twenty-something would take to the Internet in order to connect with the girl of his dreams. In the case of former Vimeo employee Patrick Moberg, that meant registering a website—NYGirlOfMyDreams.com—in order to track down a cute brunette with fancy braided hair, rosy cheeks, and blue gym shorts with whom he locked eyes on a Brooklyn-bound 5 train in 2007. Within 48 hours, Moberg had found the young lady in question, Camille Hayton, and the two began dating. Two months later, the fairytale was over. "The situation was so intense that we bonded in a way that you could mistake for being more romantic than it was," Hayton said of their breakup. "But I wanted to give it a go, so I wouldn't later wonder, 'What if, what if?'"

5. Cry about it on YouTube

Not to be outdone with using the Web to get what (read: who) you want is Kelly Summers. In 2010, Summers decided to pay a surprise visit to the long-distance love of her life, Keith Tallis, only to meet his roommate: his longtime girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, Tallis paid Summers a visit to announce that he was now a single man, but then took off for home again 10 days later. Reeling from the betrayal, Summers set up The Froglet Diaries, which she described as a “self help video series," on YouTube to help deal with the breakup. It didn’t take long for her videos to gain some dedicated followers, Tallis among them. “I watched each video and I couldn’t believe the devastation I left behind,” Tallis told the Daily Mail on September 10, 2010 of his decision to reconcile with Summers. “I’d never seen such raw emotion, and it made me realize how much I loved her.” On October 7, 2010, Workshop Guardian reported that Tallis had once again returned to his ex-girlfriend.

6. Steal a moon rock

“The simple answer’s to say that I did it for love,” aspiring astronaut-turned-convict Thad Roberts told CBS News’s Mo Rocca when asked about his reasons for stealing a safe containing $21 million worth of moon rocks from NASA scientist Everett Gibson. “I did it because I wanted to be loved,” he continued. “I wanted someone to know that I'd literally cared about them that much. And to have the symbol there to remind them of it.” Unfortunately, the “someone” in question was not Roberts’s doting wife, but the 22-year-old intern who aided him in the heist, whom he had met just three weeks earlier. Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, wrote about Roberts in 2011 in his book Sex on the Moon.

7. Set your loved one's crotch ablaze

When Berlinda Dixon-Newbold wasn’t getting the attention she wanted from her boyfriend, Sheldon Gonzalez, she decided to take matters into her own hands … and set the crotch of his pants on fire while he slept. “You tend to, like, get upset when somebody [is] trying to harm the family jewels,” Gonzalez told Fort Lauderdale’s WFOR-TV of the 2010 incident. “I just felt the heat in my groin area and I just reacted and she was right over me.” Gonzalez was able to extinguish his pants before any serious injury occurred. Which is one way to ensure the end of a relationship.

8. Throw lye in your beloved's face

Getting involved with a married man is always a recipe for romantic complications. Which is a lesson Linda Riss learned the hard way. In 1959, the then-21-year-old began dating lawyer Burt Pugach, a married father of one. Riss knew about his occupation, but not about his family, and promptly dumped him. He allegedly retaliated by paying a few thugs to throw lye in her face, blinding her in one eye and causing permanent scarring. Pugach denied any involvement in the attack, but was convicted and served 14 years in jail for the crime, during which he regularly wrote to Riss. Upon his release in 1974, Pugach divorced his first wife and married Riss. Two years later, they co-wrote a book, aptly titled A Very Different Love Story. In 2007, filmmaker Dan Klores made a documentary about their life, Crazy Love. On January 22, 2013, Riss passed away at the age of 75—with Pugach by her side.

9. Escape from jail

One might describe California’s Santa Cruz County Jail as Craig Souza’s second home. In 2012, the then-34-year-old was being booked for his 22nd stint behind bars at this particular penal institution when he made a not-so-bold escape (he rang a door buzzer, and a guard let him out). His reason? He was worried how his wife might react to all the time he had been spending in the clink. “I want everyone to know that I did it for love,” Souza told local television station KSBW.

10. Go on a fecal rampage

We’ll keep this one short, as the phrase “fecal rampage” sort of says it all. But that’s exactly how police and witnesses described what went down in Staten Island in 2011 when aspiring rapper Rasheen “Illuminati” Harrison stripped naked and defecated in the elevator of his pregnant girlfriend’s building, then—errr, ummm—“decorated” her door before setting it on fire. His explanation? “She stole my cell phone. I had a yellow lighter. I set it on fire,” Harrison told police. Sounds reasonable.

11. Cut off your tattoo ... and mail it to him

Gloved hand holding a surgical scalpel
iStock.com/ra3rn

If Johnny Depp’s romantic history has taught us anything, it’s that getting your loved one’s name tattooed on your body is no way to ensure the relationship will last. While Depp’s solution was to simply morph “Winona” into “Wino,” 26-year-old Londoner Torz Reynolds came up with a more gruesome plan: take a scalpel to her own arm to remove the tattoo entirely. Reynolds then sealed it in a jar, wrapped it up nice and pretty, and mailed it to her ex. The worst part? The tattoo was big—it read “Chopper’s Bitch.” Next time she might want to consider dating an Ed.

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