Here's What Happened to 15 Key Players in Hamilton After the Duel

Wikimedia Commons (Portraits) // Public Domain // Collage: Chloe Effron
Wikimedia Commons (Portraits) // Public Domain // Collage: Chloe Effron

The death of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton—murdered by Vice-President Aaron Burr in a duel on July 12, 1804—shocked a young nation and laid bare partisan tensions that make modern politics look like a badly acted reality show. Hamilton’s bitter adversary, President Thomas Jefferson, was chillingly silent (at least publicly) about the death of his fellow Founding Father, while Hamilton’s erstwhile rival in Constitutional disputes, James Madison, was only concerned his death might stir sympathy for the moribund Federalists. The grand old man, George Washington, dead since 1799, would probably have mourned his brilliant young aide-de-camp, along with his own vision of a virtuous, non-partisan Republic.

But what about the other men and women whose paths had crossed with Hamilton’s, inspired by his vaulting ambitions and submerged in the wake of his tragic flaws? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece Hamilton tells their story up to his death—but what happened to them in the aftermath?

1. AARON BURR

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The most controversial (read: “shady”) Founding Father, whatever was left of Burr’s political career went up in smoke with the murder of his former friend-turned-political adversary Alexander Hamilton after their July 11, 1804 duel—which is ironic, considering the duel was meant to restore Burr’s reputation, and with it his political fortunes. While dueling was a common way of settling “affairs of honor”—itself a fairly foreign concept in today’s world—duels very rarely actually got to the point of shooting, with various efforts being made to prevent it from getting that far. Actually killing your opponent was considered bloodthirsty in addition to being illegal (at least in New York; the authorities in New Jersey, where the duel took place, had a reputation for looking the other way).

After the duel, Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey and fled the area, going into hiding (still as Vice-President!) in Georgia—not quite another country, but close enough in an age when trains were maxing out at 10 miles per hour. Burr then returned to Washington, D.C. to finish his term as Vice-President, where he was immune from prosecution while presiding over the Senate, and benefited once again from his uncanny political luck: After the election of 1804, the victorious Democratic-Republicans and defeated Federalists decided the whole Hamilton affair was a needless political obstruction and the charges were quietly shelved. In fact, as the lame duck, VP Burr enjoyed a political swan song, presiding over the Senate’s impeachment trial of the Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, stemming in part from his previous handling of the trial of notorious muckraker James Callender (the Senate voted to acquit Chase).

Facing creditors in New York City, like so many other down-on-their luck, disreputable, or plain ol’ murderous men in U.S. history, Burr decided to try to revive his fortunes by heading to the Western frontier—which, at that time, meant Louisiana. In 1805, Burr leased 40,000 acres on the Ouachita River from Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch businessman with connections to the Spanish crown, and recruited scores of followers as he journeyed west. According to one version, Burr, anticipating a war between the U.S. and Spain in the near future, wanted first crack at the vast fertile lands of Texas when the U.S. kicked the Spaniards out, or possibly even planned to precipitate the war with his own private invasion (a practice known as “filibustering”). According to another version, Burr wanted to mount a rebellion against the U.S. government in the Louisiana Territory and form a new nation, perhaps with help from Britain.

Although it’s not clear what Burr’s plans were, what his former boss President Thomas Jefferson saw was a disgraced politician setting up a fiefdom on the borders of the United States with his own private army, and Burr’s notorious opportunism made the charges sound plausible enough—especially after one of his collaborators/“co-conspirators,” Louisiana Territory governor James Wilkinson, ratted him out (ironically, Wilkinson himself was in the pay of the Spanish crown, though this was only discovered after his death). Other statements Burr made to the British ambassador to Washington, Anthony Merry, certainly seem to indicate he was planning to detach the new western territories from the U.S.

Convinced that Burr was plotting rebellion in the Louisiana Territory, planning an illegal invasion of Spanish territory, or both, Jefferson ordered him arrested in 1806, and the next year, Burr was hauled back to Virginia to stand trial on charges of treason and high misdemeanor. Burr denied the accusations categorically and noted his long patriotic service to his country; meanwhile, Wilkinson was shown to have altered a key piece of evidence for the government’s case, a letter from Burr supposedly detailing the plans for rebellion. With no evidence beyond the fact that Burr was headed somewhere with a band of armed men, Chief Justice John Marshall found Burr not guilty in spite of overwhelming pressure from Jefferson, an important early statement of judicial independence.

After the trial, Burr spent several years in Europe, perhaps plotting another invasion of Mexico with help from Britain or France, and then in 1812 returned to New York City, where he worked as a lawyer and suffered the loss of his beloved daughter Theodosia at sea in 1813. After practicing law for two decades, in 1833, at the age of 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, reputedly the wealthiest widow in America. She accused him of mismanaging her finances and filed for divorce not long after (her lawyer: Hamilton's second son, also named Alexander). Their divorce was finalized on September 14, 1836—the same day Burr died in a boardinghouse in Port Richmond, Staten Island, age 80. Shortly before his death Burr heard that American colonists in Texas had rebelled against the Mexican government, is said to have exclaimed: “What was treason in me 30 years ago is patriotism now!” He is buried in Princeton, New Jersey.

2. ELIZABETH SCHUYLER HAMILTON, A.K.A ELIZA OR BETSEY

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Hamilton’s devoted and long-suffering wife, Eliza, endured a barrage of losses around the time of the duel, including the deaths of her mother Catherine, and, three years before, the deaths of her sister Peggy and her son Philip, who was also fatally wounded in a duel. The strong-willed widow, who never remarried, now found herself scrambling to manage her late husband’s substantial debts (the former Secretary of the Treasury and the force behind the First Bank of the United States was not so great with his own money). Friends and family tried to help out, but she was forced to give up their house, The Grange—which was completed just two years before Hamilton’s death—in a public auction. Not long after, she was able to repurchase it because of yet another tragedy, the death of her father Philip just four months after her husband, which left her a modest bequest.

Although Eliza had secured their family home, she would spend most of the rest of her life in (relative) poverty. Nonetheless, she played a major role in securing her husband’s legacy and contributing to the young country’s civic life. Over the next five decades, she corresponded with all the leaders of the Federalists as well as their associates and descendants, flattering, coaxing and pleading with them to turn over important papers and letters written by Alexander over the years, most of which are now held by the Library of Congress. Among the items curated by Eliza was a letter from her husband to George Washington, proving his authorship of part of the first president’s famous Farewell Address.

Eliza also helped found the first public orphanages in New York City and Washington, D.C., serving as the director of the New York orphanage from 1821 to 1848. She also successfully lobbied Congress to have Alexander’s army pension, which he had waived, reinstated. She spent the last six years of her life living in Washington, D.C. with her widowed daughter, also named Eliza, where she helped another Revolutionary widow, Dolley Madison, raise funds for the Washington Monument. After her death in 1854 she was buried alongside her husband in the Trinity Church cemetery in New York City.

3. ANGELICA SCHUYLER CHURCH

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Eliza’s older sister Angelica—who dazzled New York society, carried on a lifelong flirtation (and possibly affair) with her brother-in-law Alexander, and was a close friend of both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette—lived only 10 more years after Hamilton’s death. During that period, her husband, John Barker Church, had received 100,000 acres of land on the Genesee River in western New York State as repayment of a loan to Robert Morris, famous as “the Financier of the Revolution.” Her son Philip founded a town on the land, which he named Angelica in her honor; John built the family mansion, Belvidere, there. She divided her time between Belvidere and New York City until her death at the age of 58 in 1814; she is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery in New York City.

4. MARIA REYNOLDS

After Hamilton’s ill-advised affair with Maria Reynolds—which her husband James used to blackmail Hamilton before the whole thing blew up with the Reynolds Pamphlet scandal—Maria paid the heavy penalty of any woman of “ill fame,” in keeping with the double standard of the time. Before the affair became public knowledge, Maria divorced her husband (her lawyer: Aaron Burr), and married James’ co-conspirator, Jacob Clingman, before divorcing him in 1800. Reviled as a prostitute, she lost her daughter Susan, who was taken away by the courts to be raised in foster care, although this doesn’t seem to have helped much: In 1803, Susan eloped with a certain Francis Wright, who dumped her a few weeks later, and she wound up in a brothel, another victim of her mother’s infamy. Maria herself died in 1832 at the age of 64.

5. JAMES REYNOLDS

Not much is known about Maria’s lowlife husband, who pretty much disappears from the pages of history after the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet in 1797. It’s not hard to imagine James Reynolds assuming a new identity and disappearing into the crowd, aided by the lack of official records, identity papers, photographs, or electronic communication of any sort in early 19th century America. The young Republic was a good place to be a career criminal.

6. SAMUEL SEABURY

The Anglican bishop—who, in the musical, Hamilton memorably mocks in "The Farmer Refuted"—initially opposed independence but later played a central role in the founding of the Episcopal Church in America. By the time of his death in 1796, Seabury had helped craft the Episcopalian liturgy and established continuity between the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, healing the religious rupture caused by the Revolution and thus maintaining the direct line of succession running back to the early Apostles. Among other contributions, Seabury persuaded the American Episcopal Church to adopt the Scottish Prayer of Consecration rather than its shorter English counterpart. Today the anniversary of his consecration in Aberdeen, Scotland, on November 14, 1784, is a feast day in the Episcopal Church.

7. GEORGE EACKER

The New York City lawyer who killed Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip in November 1801 only ended up outliving him by a few years. Eacker, a supporter of Burr, insulted Hamilton senior in a speech by implying he was open to treason against the Jefferson administration, causing Philip and his friend Richard Price to demand satisfaction (a.k.a. an apology). Instead, Eacker cussed them out, an insult to their honor that could not be overlooked. The fracas resulted in two duels on November 22 and 23, 1801, both held at the same popular dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Burr and Hamilton would later duel. First Eacker faced off against Price, with the expected result—two shots fired, no injuries, honor maintained. The next day, Eacker killed Philip in the second duel. Eacker didn’t get to savor his victory for long, however: He died, likely of consumption (tuberculosis), on January 4, 1804, six months before Burr killed Alexander Hamilton.

8. CHARLES LEE

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Considered by some a traitor to the Revolutionary cause, the hard-drinking Lee (who sings "I'm a General, wee!" in Hamilton) never achieved the notoriety of Benedict Arnold because his attempt at treason (if that’s what it was—he wrote to William Howe about the best way to defeat the Americans) never really went anywhere. After his capture by British forces in 1776, Lee was freed in a prisoner exchange and returned to service in 1778. He led—or rather, failed to lead—the Continental attack at the Battle of Monmouth later that year, when he ordered his troops to retreat and left Washington to sort it all out.

Some historians claim his disobedience was a deliberate gambit hatched with the British during his captivity, while sympathetic biographers note that Washington’s orders were vague and Lee’s troops outnumbered 2-to-1. Whatever the truth was, Washington was furious and relieved Lee of command on the spot. Lee demanded a court martial to clear his name. He was found guilty, and retreated to live in his Virginia (now West Virginia) estate Prato Rio—then earned himself even more disfavor by attacking Washington’s character, resulting in a duel with Washington’s aide John Laurens.

While at his estate, he drew up plans for a utopian society without clergy, in which citizens would cultivate virtue through music, poetry, and philosophy. He died of fever in Philadelphia in 1782. In his will, Lee—a Deist who made no secret of his scorn for organized religion—specified: “I desire most earnestly, that I may not be buried in any church, or church-yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting-house; for since I have resided in this country, I have kept so much bad company when living, that I do not chuse [sic] to continue it when dead.” So they buried him in the churchyard of Christ Church in Philadelphia. Fort Lee in New Jersey is named after him.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE

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The elegant, idealistic young French nobleman led an equally adventurous life after the American Revolution, including a star role in another, far more violent uprising across the Atlantic. After returning to France a military hero for his role in the American Revolution, in 1791, during the first, moderate phase of the French Revolution, Lafayette helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with help from Thomas Jefferson, elaborating on the idea of universal rights set forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

When the Revolution took a radical turn, however, Lafayette’s noble status became a liability, as the Jacobins led by Robespierre accused him of secret monarchist sympathies for defending the royal family from a mob. In 1792, he fled to the Austrian Netherlands (today Belgium), where he was promptly arrested by the Austrians as an anti-monarchist, proving sometimes you just can’t win (if anyone cared to ask, he wanted a moderate constitutional monarchy).

After spending five years in an Austrian prison, during which the Revolution burned itself out, Lafayette was freed at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte—then busily laying the groundwork for (another) dictatorship—in 1797. Disagreeing with Napoleon’s authoritarian tendencies, Lafayette wisely sat out most of the Napoleonic era, grieving the death of his wife Adrienne in 1807 and only returning to public life in 1815 to help force the emperor to abdicate after his second, short-lived return to power.

In 1824, at the age of 68, Lafayette returned to the United States with his son Georges Washington to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of independence. Riding an unprecedented wave of public adulation, Lafayette reunited with Revolutionary War veterans and undertook a 16-month grand tour of the nation he helped create, including a visit to the aging Jefferson and Madison at Monticello, and a separate visit to John Adams in Boston. Before he left, Congress awarded him the stupendous sum of $200,000 along with land in Florida. When Lafayette returned to France, he carried with him a case of American soil, which was later spread on his grave after his death in 1834 at the age of 78.

10. HERCULES MULLIGAN

One of Hamilton’s best friends during his footloose youth in New York City, the Irish-born Mulligan, 17 years Hamilton's senior, helped convert him to the Revolutionary cause and continued to play a central role organizing resistance to British rule in New York during the Revolution, using his position as a tailor for British officers to gather key information which his slave Cato then passed to the rebels. After the Revolution, many Patriots, ignorant of Mulligan’s secret wartime service, accused him of being a British collaborator and wanted to tar and feather him—usually a fatal procedure. Thankfully, George Washington intervened by visiting Mulligan in New York the day after the British evacuated the city in 1783, later employing him as his personal tailor. This endorsement by the Father of the Country was enough to bring Mulligan lifelong fame and prosperity, and presumably a bunch of awkward apologies.

In 1785, Mulligan joined Hamilton in founding the New York Manumission Society, one of the first official organizations devoted to ending slavery, and a predecessor to William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He continued working as a tailor until his retirement at age 80 in 1820, his business doubtless benefiting from the sign reading “Clothier to Genl. Washington” out front. He died in 1825 and was buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, along with his old friend Hamilton.

11. KING GEORGE III

King George III, the “tyrannical” monarch (who was actually fairly conciliatory before Parliament pushed him into open confrontation with the colonists) had his good days and bad days after the colonies went their own way, the latter mostly due to his habit of going nuts for long periods of time. (The lyrics in "You'll Be Back" are a subtle nod to his fits of madness: "When you're gone / I'll go mad ..." he sings.) The king’s madness has often been attributed to porphyria, a genetic condition that also causes the victim’s urine to turn blue, but historians and medical experts have also suggested that he suffered from a mental illness like bipolar disorder, while others point to arsenic poisoning.

Whatever the cause, George III’s bouts of insanity began almost three decades into his 60-year reign from 1761-1820, with the first episode of prolonged derangement recorded in 1788. From then on, he would alternate between periods of apparent normality and increasingly bizarre behavior—talking for hours on end until foam starting coming from his mouth, for example (the story that he shook hands with a tree is a myth, though).

Given the primitive state of medicine in general and mental healthcare in particular, it’s no surprise the treatments tried out on the king proved more or less useless, including harsh chemical applications and forcible restraints. In 1789, Parliament attempted to pass a bill to create a regency, which would allow his son, the future King George IV, to carry out royal duties in his place. But George III recovered before the bill was passed, and the idea was shelved. George III relapsed in 1801 and 1804, and a final relapse in 1810 (possibly aggravated by the stress of the wars with Napoleon) led to the formal creation of the Regency in 1811, which continued until George III’s death in 1820. Despite his madness, King George III was remembered in England as a kind, considerate monarch who was concerned for the welfare of his people.

12. ANGELICA HAMILTON

In Hamilton, the Treasure secretary's oldest son, then 9, raps that he "has a sister but I want a little brother!" That sister was Angelica, the Hamiltons' second child, who was destroyed by Philip's 1801 death. Grief drove her insane, and she remained institutionalized until her death at the age of 73 in 1857. For the rest of her life, she continued to speak about Philip as if he were still alive even as she sometimes failed to recognize her own family members. Her one pleasure was playing the piano, as her father had taught her when she was a girl.

13. AND 14. WILLIAM P. VAN NESS AND NATHANIEL PENDLETON (THE "SECONDS")

Van Ness, who served as the second to Aaron Burr in the famous duel, and Pendleton, who served as the second to Hamilton, became respected judges in later years, despite technically being complicit in the criminal affair of the duel, as they freely admitted. In fact, hours after the duel, they cooperated to write a joint statement giving their combined eyewitness account, which they submitted to the court on July 17, 1804. The statement reads, in part:

The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell. Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew… No farther communications took place between the principals and the Barge that carried Col: Burr immediately returned to the City. We conceive it proper to add that the conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.

15. DAVID HOSACK

The physician who attended both Alexander Hamilton and his son Philip after their duels (and who served as the physician for Aaron Burr and his daughter) continued a long and successful medical and scientific career after their deaths. Motivated by the death of his son Alexander in 1792 and the death of his first wife Catharine during childbirth in 1796, Hosack made the care of pregnant women the subject of lifelong study; he was also an early advocate of the smallpox vaccination, in addition to advancing the treatment of yellow fever. In addition to previous appointments as a professor of natural history and botany at Columbia University, he was named Professor of Surgery and Midwifery, the precursor to obstetrics, in 1807. From 1801 to 1805, Hosack created America’s first botanical garden, Elgin Botanical Garden, in New York City (it was eventually given to New York State, which gave it to Columbia College, who would ultimately lease it to the Rockefellers—who turned the site into Rockefeller Center). He later founded the New York Horticultural Society and recruited a number of luminaries to join it, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette. In 1821, Hosack was honored with membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which today hands out Nobel Prizes—kind of a big deal. Following the death of his second wife Mary in 1824, Hosack married a wealthy widow, Magdalena Coster, and eventually purchased a large estate in Hyde Park on the Hudson River Valley in addition to their Manhattan townhouse. He died in 1835 at the age of 66, apparently due to shock after a disastrous fire destroyed much of his beloved New York City.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

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EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
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Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
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There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
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The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
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These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
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The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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