Right Now in Stuff You Missed in History Class

Tomorrow, one of history's greatest playwrights would've turned 445. We think. Not that we can be sure, but many Shakespearean scholars think that his birthday was April 23, 1564. They also can't be entirely sure that he's due credit for all those plays he wrote, but for the sake of birthday fun, we're rolling with those two assumptions. If you live in the Windy City, brace yourself: Mayor Richard M. Daley has designated tomorrow as Talk Like Shakespeare Day. I've already called my best friend, Mandy, who lives in Chicago, to ask if anyone's been practicing for the big day. She's heard nary a peep. Then again, she works in the financial district, and I presume there's a bit more corporatespeak there than bard banter. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has built a Web site to help Chicagoans get their prose in order. You can visit the site for speaking tips as well as to read Daley's "official proclamation."

A new study says that the Great Wall of China is 180 miles (about 290 kilometers) longer than was previously thought, the AP reports. The study was able to locate hidden parts of the wall using such mapping technologies as GPS and infrared range finders. Sandstorms supposedly covered these portions of the wall, which remained hidden from sight by hills and rivers. This now pegs the estimated length at about 3,900 miles (about 6,276 kilometers). If you've heard the podcast Candace and I did on the Great Wall China, you know why determining its exact length has been a problem for scholars. Natural events, like the sandstorms that hid these portions, and human destruction of the wall have been wearing on it throughout its history. Recently authorities have been trying to curtail encroaching commercial building close to the wall as well as tourists taking tokens of stones with them.

How Joan D'Arc Worked

Joan of Arc was a startling, larger-than-life figure, and she had a very strange trial. Learn why the Joan of Arc trial is so contentious -- along with much more -- in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

The Vatican has said pish posh to vicious swirling rumors regarding a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Prince Charles in Italy. According to the BBC, the chief Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Frederico Lombardi, has denied reports that the pope would present Charles with a facsimile of a 1530 document that outlines Henry VIII's plea for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This would be a particularly suggestive gift. The boorish monarch fought hard with the Vatican to dissolve his marriage, but Henry's appeal to Pope Clement VII was futile. The Vatican refused to honor Henry's request, so he married Anne Boleyn anyway. Then, under the new Act of Supremacy, Henry declared himself the ruler of the Church of England.

Millvina Dean, the last remaining survivor from the Titanic disaster in 1912, has been auctioning off her memorabilia to pay for her nursing home fees. But sadly, the most recent auction didn't rake in as much as she needs. Dean was nine weeks old when her family tried to move to America on the Titanic. Her father had bought a house in the Midwest and had aspirations to open a tobacco store there. Millvina's parents originally booked a trip on a different ocean liner, but as fate would have it, a coal strike prevented that ship from getting fuel, and they were rescheduled for the Titanic. When the ship hit an iceberg on the night of April 14th, she, her mother and brother secured a spot in a lifeboat, while her father stayed behind and went down with the ship. Millvina became the youngest survivor of the infamous shipwreck.

Recently, podcast listeners Ashley and Jason asked us to address some myths about the first black president of the United States. Both had heard different rumors claiming that Barack Obama isn't the first to hold the distinction. Ashley heard that one black man was sworn in and briefly held the position during drunken celebrations after Reconstruction. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to come up with anything about that particular myth, so please comment below if you've heard of it or know where it came from. Jason had heard a different myth that I was able to get to the bottom of, however. He'd heard that the first president of the United States was not George Washington, but actually a black man named John Hanson. Dick Gregory, a black comedian and activist, seems to have started (or at least perpetuated) this myth. His article claims that Hanson was both black and the first president.

It's Monday, and we could all probably use some salacious gossip. SYMHC listener Paul has a juicy question: Was J. Edgar Hoover a cross-dresser? This is a rumor that likely came out of Anthony Summers' biography "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover." Summers cites Susan Rosenstiel, who claims she saw Hoover in drag on two occasions. Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope credits Esquire's Peter Maas for poking holes in Rosenstiel's claim; apparently, she was a vengeful divorcee who thought Hoover was helping out her ex-husband by having FBI agents follow her. In the similarly titled "Puppet Master: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," author Paul Hack describes a man with complex motives. Hoover reformed the FBI and instituted fingerprinting, crime labs and a more selective process for recruiting agents. He kept information on anyone who was anyone filed away on thousands of index cards. More strangely, he once wrote to MLK, suggesting that the civil rights leader kill himself. And Hoover had nude photographs of Eleanor Roosevelt and footage of Marilyn Monroe performing oral sex on a man supposed to be John F. Kennedy.

On Christmas Day in 800 AD, Charlemagne became the emperor of Rome in a coronation headed by none other than Pope Leo III. Learn more about the growth of the Holy Roman Empire in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

If you've listened to this week's podcasts, you know they're about the Harvard commencement speech that saved Europe after World War II and the death ray that Archimedes built to save Syracuse from the Romans. In the former, Jane and I talked about how ironic it is that the Marshall Plan bailed out financially ailing European countries, and now the euro is more valuable than the dollar. Not to worry. If the discussion of the post-World War II bailout hit a little too close to home, we journeyed back into ancient Syracuse for our next topic. Archimedes was a brilliant scientist, sure, but was he wily enough to build a death ray? And by build a death ray, we mean hold enough mirrors at just the right angle to reflect the sun into a super-concentrated beam of light that can cause objects to burst into flame. Maybe. We talked about a few modern experiments that sought to recreate the death ray; a few worked, a few didn't.

In my opinion, there's no pup more precious than a Jack Russell terrier, but pictures of Bo Obama frolicking on the White House lawn with Malia and Sasha are enough to make me melt. The Portuguese water dog joined the first family this week, and The New York Times is already wondering if the fame has gone to his head. Opinions on the matter are mixed. A psychology professor says there's no way a dog can understand fame or vamp for the camera; a veteran dog show competitor says that a canine definitely knows when the world is watching...and he'll step a little lighter and smile a little brighter. All this press coverage of the first dog got me thinking about other presidential pets. Our recent presidents have had pretty traditional pets. There's been Millie (H.W.) Bush (springer spaniel), Socks (cat) and Buddy (chocolate Labrador retriever) Clinton, and Barney and Miss Beazley (Scottish terriers) Bush. The Bushes also had a black cat, Willie, which I'm pleased to brag I petted once! But if you look back in the annals of presidential pet history, these four-legged friends are a real snooze compared to the critters that formerly were permitted to roam the White House.

Yesterday, the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt released a statement saying that they will begin excavating three recently discovered sites that could feature the tombs of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, reports the AP. Radar helped archaeologists discover these sites just last month while they were surveying the temple of Taposiris, which dates back to the third century B.C. and is located near Alexandria. Apparently, they found a few shafts in the temple that could be the burial sites of the infamous Cleopatra and Mark Antony. This excitement comes on the heels of some other recent discoveries related to Cleopatra. Just last year, the same teams unearthed the head of an alabaster statue of Cleopatra in addition to 22 coins featuring her face. This head and these coins aren't the first of their kind that have been discovered, but have recently dredged up the question about whether Cleopatra was the beauty many assumed her to be.

A New Addition to Monticello

It's opening day at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello! This facility is "the 21st-century gateway to Jefferson's timeless Monticello," a modern complement to the famous historical home of our nation's third president. It was designed to reflect the aesthetic and sustainable principles that govern Monticello -- natural sunlight illuminates the interior and the lush, surrounding landscape envelops the structure made from "environmentally sensitive elements" and crowned with "green" roofs.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Nazis confiscated thousands of works of modern art they considered "degenerate" and put them on display to show the German people. But the Nazis didn't just steal the art they didn't like -- they looted works they admired, too. Author Michael J Bayzler says they stole 600,000 works in all, mostly from Jewish collectors. Although the Allies were able to return much of this stolen art to the rightful owners after the war, many works remain displaced and bitter disputes linger. It's a complicated matter to unravel especially because many of the Jewish collectors that the Nazis stole from were killed in the Holocaust. Now their descendants are fighting to get others, including many museums, to relinquish these works. So why would Sir Norman Rosenthal, a prominent art connoisseur and curator, want to see an end to restitution?

During a Harvard commencement speech, Secretary of State George Marshall outlined a plan to assist Europe after World War II. Listen in and learn how this 12 minute speech changed the future of Europe in this HowStuffWorks.com podcast.

I heard about Jesus Malverde from Carl, a loyal SYMHC listener. Malverde is known in Sinaloa as the Angel of the Poor, the Generous Bandit and the "Mexican Robin Hood," to quote Frontline's Sam Quinones. The media's dubbed Malverde the Narco Saint because drug smugglers pray to him for safety transporting their contraband. Malverde may just be a legend. He's believed to have lived during the business boom of the Porfiriato, which lasted from 1877 to 1911. Industry was expanding industry, but most Mexicans didn't reap any profits. Eventually, these conditions would culminate in the Mexican Revolution. But in the meantime, anarchists like Malverde sought social justice by "robb[ing] from the rich and g[iving] to the poor." Historians are inclined to think that Malverde was a product of the Sinaloans' collective imagination. According to lore, he began his lifelong crime spree after his parents died.

Today marks the 144th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theater. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was watching a performance at the theater when John Wilkes Booth, a pro-slavery supporter of the South, snuck in and shot him in the back of the head. You may know the story of how Booth jumped from the balcony onto the stage and temporarily escaped capture, but did you know that Lincoln wasn't immediately killed? They carried Lincoln's body, which was hanging onto life by a thread, across the street to the home of a tailor, William Petersen, and laid him in a bed. Interestingly, Booth had been in the same bed before. Peterson often took in boarders, and actors (like Booth) frequently stayed there because of its proximity to the theater. While Lincoln lie dying on the bed, his head bled on the pillow. Now, some want to examine this blood-stained pillow.

SYMHC listener Bob wrote to us about the origins of the United States' national anthem. Specifically, he wanted to know whether it's really set to the tune of an English pub song. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was one of many broadside ballads that originated in early America. The University of Virginia library explains that "battles, political events, notorious crimes and natural disasters" were set to the tunes of well-known English songs. As you may have learned (or missed) in history class, the poet Francis Scott Key scrawled the first lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry on Sept. 14, 1814. In its original incarnation, the song was called "In Defense of Fort McHenry." According to the Smithsonian, Key was so moved by the unfolding events that he went on to complete four verses that were popularized as a broadside and circulated in 17 cities. "Anacreon in Heaven" provided the melody for Key's patriotic anthem. The song had been borrowed before for other broadsides, notably Robert Treat Paine's "Adams and Liberty." This song is attributed to the Anacreontic Society, a London gentlemen's club named for Anacreon, the Greek poet who wrote in Ionic dialect about erotica and wine.

Archimedes' death ray is one of history's most fabled legendary weapons -- but what was it? Was it even real? Listen in as Candace and Jane sift through the legends and find the facts behind the ancient death ray in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

Out with the old, in with the new! My entries on Friday now will pertain to our most recently published podcasts; Jane and I will address listener questions on Monday. So if you have thoughts or points to make about our podcasts, use the comments section below. (I ask that you kindly refrain from taking jabs at my manner of speaking. Fran Drescher and I need to have cocktails to commiserate.) This week, Jane and I podcasted about the El Cazador shipwreck -- the shipwreck that effectively doubled the size of the United States. This story tells like the best of the best of historical narratives: It's about royal intrigue, revolution, constitutional interpretation and manifest destiny. In a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way, it begins with the seemingly unconnected story of Spain trying to boost the economy of its Louisiana colony. And it ends with the successful negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase. What's your favorite example of weird historical coincidences?

What on earth does a large, anthropomorphic rabbit have do with the resurrection of Christ? And, while we're at it, why would the bunny, who is a mammal, bring eggs of all things? Podcast listener Lee asks us to investigate the history and origins of the Easter Bunny. First, lets talk about the importance of the egg, which actually does have some appropriate Christian history and symbolism attached to it. I found several speculations, including the idea that Christians used to abstain from eggs during Lent, and so eating them on Easter became common. However, we know that ancient pagan cultures recognized the egg as representing "renewal and rebirth," according to Cindy Dell Clark. Historians say Christians just adopted this idea, along with the tradition of painting eggs, which was also a preexisting custom. However, the Christians used red paint to symbolize the blood of Christ. The egg carries over well, as the shell can represent Christ's tomb, from which Christians believe life springs.