Right Now in Stuff You Missed in History Class

It's Passover -- and a pretty significant one at that. This year, the holiday coincided with a solar-spiritual phenomenon that occurs every 28 years. The sun completed the machzor gadol (long cycle), returning to the place scripture says it was when the Earth was created. When this occurs, Jews recite the Birkat HaChama to bless the sun. What's unique about this Birkat Hachama is that it occurred the day before Passover, and this occurrence has happened only once before in the course of six centuries. And while you could argue that every Passover is historical (it's based on a historical event, after all), there's one in particular that stands out to a history-lover like me. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the fifth day of Passover. Celebration turned to mourning for the president who'd reversed Grant's General Order No. 11, driving out all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Many Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War tried to keep up religious traditions on the battlefield -- including the Seder.

Today, we think of philosophy as something reserved for higher education, if then. It has a reputation for being intimidating -- or even useless in the "real world." But, over in the UK at least, there's a growing trend to teach philosophy to kids as young as five. A story from the Daily Mail relates the debate going on about whether teaching such deep issues to impressionable children is a good idea. Critics say that the school system is struggling enough, and philosophy shouldn't take time away from the much more important skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, supporters of introducing philosophy to young children say that it only aids a student's progress in these other areas. For instance, a 2007 psychological study found that 10-year-olds who had studied philosophy did better in verbal, numerical and spatial ability tests. The idea is that teachers use the Socratic method, asking the children questions such as whether it's always wrong to lie.

Randy Cohen has a new blog called Moral of the Story. In it, the renowned ethicist deconstructs the morals behind the news. Monday, Cohen blogged about Madonna's failed attempt to adopt another Malawian child. If you've not been keeping up with your hard-hitting celebrity news, a judge refused Madonna's application to adopt Chifundo James (known as "Mercy"). Malawi's adoption laws require prospective parents to take up residence in the country for 18 months prior to adoption; the law exists to curtail the crime of child trafficking. (On a side note, I've seen this judge's name spelled at least four different ways. Cohen says Esmie Chondo, but I've also read Esme Chombo, Esimie Chondo and Esme Chondo. Anyone have the definitive spelling?)

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the day explorers recorded reaching the North Pole. And yet, after a century, the issues about who reached the spot first remains a point of contention. Arctic explorer Robert Peary is usually credited with having reached the elusive spot on April 6, 1909. When he got there, he was accompanied by his long-time associate/partner, Matthew Henson, an African-American from Maryland. The accomplishment met controversy from the beginning. When the team got back, they found that another explorer, Frederick Cook had already claimed the credit. However, since then, Cook's story has been discredited. Nevertheless, other questions persist. An article published this week at The Root discusses how some evidence suggests that Henson, and not Peary, was technically the first to arrive at the pole. The two were traveling in separate dog sleds during their pursuit and taking turns forging ahead.

Originally, Spanish silver was meant to stabilize the Louisiana territory -- but the ship carrying the necessary funds sank in the Gulf of Mexico. Find out more about the El Cazador shipwreck in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

With Mother's Day around the corner (May 10 -- buy your cards and order your flowers now, before you forget), the media is all abuzz about Mrs. Robinson's room at the White House. Reporters were excited back in January, when Marian Robinson indicated she might give up her beloved Chicago bungalow for the stately Washington mansion. And, they're excited now that she's given "her first major interview since moving into the White House." Who got the much-coveted press time? Angela Burt-Murray, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. The interview took place in February and will run in the May issue.

Candace and I talked about the Knights Templar and their controversial end in our podcast "How Knights Work," but a recent discovery has revealed how the Medieval religious order secretly hid the Shroud of Turin for more than a century. For a quick refresher -- the Templar order was originally established to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land in the First Crusade, but was later accused of corruptions by its debtor, the king of France. After a trial, the pope agreed to have them forcibly disbanded, and many were burned at the stake in the 14th century. According to a story in the Times Online, a recently discovered document from the Vatican's secret archives has revealed that the knights hid and venerated the Shroud of Turin. The shroud is a linen cloth that displays the image of a man -- many believe this is the cloth Jesus was buried in, and that it is an image of him.

You've had the whole weekend now to mull it over. Was it or was it not appropriate for first lady Michelle Obama to hug Queen Elizabeth? Synopses of The Touch read almost like a 13-year-old girl's diary entry for a Friday night group movie date. "He put his hand on my back for a second, so I put mine on his. Before I knew it, we were hugging!!! And then he pulled his arm away but I didn't wanna stop, so I sorta rubbed his shoulder. Then it was over, but I guess it was OK with him because we kept talking like nothing happened." Doubt me? Read Mail Online's version of The Touch, complete with play-by-play photographs. Taking things more lightly is The Christian Science Monitor, which compares it to a scene from "Tommy Boy." No matter your stance on The Touch, it was a breach of protocol -- generations-old protocol that clearly mandates no one is to touch the queen.

Christopher Columbus was far from perfect, but he was no anthrax-spreader, says a new study. It was previously thought that European explorers inadvertently introduced the anthrax disease to American Indians. However, National Geographic News writes that a new study published in the journal PloS One comes to a different conclusion. Based on the examination of DNA evidence, the authors of the study believe the disease was present in America long before Columbus and spread from north to south, not vice versa as was assumed in the original theory. Specifically, they now think that the disease (which has its origins in Africa and the Middle East) was brought over with the very first Americans from Asia and over the Bering land bridge 13,000 years ago. These ancients probably found and ate the carcasses of animals who had died from the disease. Columbus' reputation is tainted enough without the Anthrax claim, however.

I picked a listener question for today that seemed easy enough to answer. It wasn't. But I'm not blaming you, Maryam. Maryam wrote to us about the story of Anarkali and asked whether there was any historical basis for it. It took a half-dozen film reviews, a handful of scholarly papers comparing the legend to films, an archived piece from Tribune India and the help of my very sweet co-workers, Vizzy and Vasavi, to get the story. And I'm still not sure how it ends. Consider this: It's the late 1500s in Mughal India. The courtesan is alive and well. She is an accomplished dancer and a refined, educated woman -- well-versed in traditional music and poetry as well as an exceptional conversationalist. One of these devadasis (temple dancers) was Anarkali ("pomegranate bud"), born Nadira.

While rifling through all the fantastic suggestions in our fan mail, I found one that just begged for a blog post. Hearkening back to our fact-or-fiction roots, Mark asks whether Walt Disney's head is really frozen in a lab somewhere. And if it's fiction -- how did the rumor get started? It's a great question. I've heard this Disney legend several times -- but because it was always discussed facetiously, I never thought about it long enough to fully accept it or reject it. The rumor states that Walt Disney, the renowned animation genius and pioneer, had his dead body cryogenically frozen in hopes that future generations could revive him when they find a cure for his sickness. If this is true, perhaps this world hasn't seen the end of his genius after all. First of all, the official record states that Disney was cremated. However, the rumor lives on as a conspiracy theory.

A five-part article -- blog post, actually -- titled "Whose Father Was He?" has been running in The New York Times since Sunday. It's a series written by filmmaker and essay-writer Errol Morris. Hundreds of readers have been commenting on the unraveling Civil War mystery. I just found the story today, and I devoured the four posted installments. (It's dreary in Atlanta, and that makes for good mystery-reading weather.) Morris' story begins like this: "The soldier's body was found near Gettysburg with no identification -- no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary." The only artifact on his person was an ambrotype (primitive photograph, not too dissimilar from a daguerreotype) featuring three young children. A tavern patron named Benjamin Schriver wound up with the picture; he turned it over to Dr. J. Francis Bourns, who was passing through town on his way to Gettysburg.

Before Jack Johnson the mellow, surfer-musician, there was Jack Johnson the African-American boxer who broke as many barriers as necks. In 1908, he became the first black fighter to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world and was an instant sensation. "The Great White Hope" (a play and film) tells a fictionalized account of his life. As a black celebrity in an age wrought with discrimination and segregation, he had to deal with the contempt of racist media and crowds. He wasn't easily discouraged, however, as he married, not one, but two white women, which fanned the flames of his racist critics. His enemies got the best of him in 1912, when courts convicted Johnson of violating the Mann Act, which banned bringing women across state lines for "immoral purposes." He was traveling with a white woman who would eventually become his wife.

Approximately 7,000 clay soldiers guard the burial site of Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first emperor. Learn more about the emperor's mysterious army in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

If you've read one of the many prank-posts on the HowStuffWorks.com blogs today, you know it's April Fool's Day. We have a history here of indulging in fake stories -- read last year's prank about "How the Air Force One Hybrid Works." But we're not alone. In 1996, Taco Bell fooled the nation in what has got to be one of the all-time best April Fool's jokes. The Museum of Hoaxes website tells how on April 1 of that year, the fast-food company issued a full-page ad in several major newspapers proclaiming that it had negotiated a deal to buy the Liberty Bell from the Federal Government to reduce the national debt. If you're looking for the real history of the day, we have an article that explains some of the possible origins of April Fool's Day, but I wanted to go over a great prank about its history.

I know a little about Australia's Stolen Generation, but NPR's article titled "Thousands of Children Stolen During Franco Rule" was the first I'd heard about Spain's. According to reporter Jerome Socolovsky, more than 12,000 Spanish children were taken from their homes during Francisco Franco's dictatorship. Franco's regime was noted for being suspicious of Spanish women, many of whom were embracing the new rights and roles afforded them by the Republican government that held power prior to the Spanish Civil War. Socolovsky cites historian Richard Vynes, who says that a state psychiatrist devised a theory that these liberated women were "morally degenerate, and should not be allowed to raise children." Children were placed in orphanages or in the homes of pro-Franco families. Their mothers' fates are unclear; some were killed, others imprisoned or sent to labor camps.

The Obamas are redecorating the White House -- and they're paying for it themselves. CNN credits New York Magazine with getting this scoop first. Virtually every first lady makes changes to the White House. After all, it's going to be her family's home for the next four years. It's a nod to our economic state that the Obamas will absorb the expense. However, they're not cofirming how much it'll be. The White House is tight-lipped; since the Obamas are refusing public donations as well as the $100,000 allotted for the task, the cost will remain confidential.

It would take six women to overshadow the enormous Henry. Historian David Starkey recently commented that female historians writing for female audiences have "feminised" history by focusing too much on the wives of Henry VIII, reports Telegraph. Starkey is a popular Tudor expert in England who has such a reputation for being rude that Will Kinmount has called him a "highbrow Simon Cowell." As an American Idol fan, I can clearly hear Simon's voice as I read Starkey ripping apart the BBC's popular "Tudors" series. When he isn't ridiculing other shows, however, Starkey is busy promoting his own -- "Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant," which premieres next week. As part of the promotion of the new show, Starkey complains that historians are often "subjugating the history of Henry... to that of his wives." As an author of the book "Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII," Starkey isn't really one to talk -- and he knows it.

From the Opium Wars to the Boston Tea Party, the British East India Company had a profound effect on the course of history. Tune in and learn more about the influence of the British East India Company in this podcast from HowStuffWorks.com.

Here in the United States, Americans covet the part of the First Amendment which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." And, although we may argue over the constitutionality of allowing prayer in public schools, we fully appreciate significance of the rule when we look across the pond at Britain, which is still struggling to make sense of a state-run religion. The British Parliament is considering reforming the Act of Settlement -- a 308-year-old act that still governs the rules of royal succession. In 1700 (more than 150 years after Henry VIII cleansed the country of Catholicism and established himself as the head of the Church of England), the crown was yet again in danger of turning over to a Catholic. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a sick William III had no direct heir while the Catholic king he deposed, James II, and his supporters waited in the wings.