Right Now in Stuff You Missed in History Class

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.

I took my morning coffee with a piece of Cold War history. There's an essay on NPR.org titled "Nixon, Khrushchev And a Story of Cold War Love," and it recounts how the author's parents met in the summer of 1959 at an exhibition of American goods in Moscow's Sokolniki Park. Essayist Gregory Feifer explains that the exhibition was American capitalism on parade. Everything from Pepsi-Cola to the Ford Thunderbird and the latest kitchen appliances were on display. America guides stationed at each booth were prepared to answer questions about the goods; however, Feifer reports that they fielded more inquiries about American life. And he's got a pretty good source: His own father, George, was one of the guides. George Feifer is quoted in the story, attesting, "There was this great sea of affection for the American people."

It's Friday, and you know what that means: fan mail! SYMHC listener Kendra wrote to us about Lady Jane Grey, specifically, whether Lady Jane really had a nine-day reign. Jane Grey (1537-1554) was named after Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Henry VIII's long-awaited male heir, Edward. When she was nine years old, she went to live at court to study under Queen Catherine Parr. Lady Jane was noted for her acute intelligence and steadfast devotion to her Protestant faith. While at court, she became acquainted with the duke of Northumberland and lord chamberlain, John Dudley. The lord chamberlain, like Jane and the reigning monarch -- Edward VI -- was Protestant. With Edward so sick, it was a very real possibility that Henry VIII's daughter Mary Tudor, a Catholic, would become queen.

It's Fan Friday, and today I wanted to discuss a topic suggested by loyal podcast listener Paul. An artist himself, Paul wanted us to address an art history subject. His suggestion of the Nazi "Degenerate Art" show immediately piqued my interest. Candace and I have done a podcast on the Nazi propaganda machine, but we didn't go into this particular aspect of it. Plus, the subject of Nazi art theory is especially timely: Next month, a collection of Adolf Hitler's paintings (including his first self-portrait) will go up for auction, reports Telegraph. As Hitler himself was an artist, and (as we mentioned in the podcast) the Nazis actually tried to ban jazz music in Germany, it should come as no surprise that they had certain ideas about art. They attacked almost all schools of modern art, including Expressionism, Art Deco, Cubism, Purism, De Stijl and Dada, which Candace covered in a recent post.

The New York Times reported on the growing number of tents and lean-tos in Fresno, Calif., in the article "Cities Deal With a Surge in Shantytowns." It's a throwback to the Hoovervilles of Depression-era America, writer Jesse McKinley says. McKinley clarifies that these shantytowns exist "on a far smaller scale" than Hoovervilles, but they're becoming a very real part of the landscape in such places as Nashville, Olympia, Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla. It's a grim reality. While some American families are dealing with foreclosures, some never had a McMansion to begin with. And perhaps the situation is most dire in Fresno, just judging from the numbers. Out of a city population of 500,000, nearly 2,000 homeless citizens have been counted. The city has more than three established encampments. Fresno officials hope to clear them and move the residents into permanent living areas. Maybe it's just really hopeful reporting or a bit of fairy dust, but McKinley's piece didn't leave me hanging my head, wondering where the justice is. There's pride in the voices from the article, people who put in a day's work and go home to a structure that they made from their own two hands. One man featured in the article, Guillermo Flores, assesses the conditions of his lean-to and says, "The only problem I have is the spiders."

Someone up there must like Tsutomu Yamaguchi -- who is very likely the luckiest man in the world. The Japanese government has recently certified him as a survivor of both atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the United States. Though a few others have been known to be victims of both blasts, the 93-year-old Yamaguchi is the first to be certified as a double survivor. A story from the Independent relates how, as a twenty-something engineer on a business trip, Yamaguchi happened to be in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the bomb (known as "Little Boy") on the city. Not only was he in the city, but he was within two miles of Ground Zero. As a result, he suffered from temporary blindness, damage to his left eardrum and severe burns on the upper half of his body. Seeking refuge the next day, Yamaguchi departed for his home in Nagasaki.

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... No -- It's a distraction from the economy! Here at HowStuffWorks.com, one of our all-time favorite topics is superheroes. That's why I jumped at the chance to blog about it when I ran across this CNN piece, which discusses how the first superheroes were born out of the Great Depression. At the tail end of the Depression (and as war was starting in Europe), Americans created such larger-than-life characters as Superman and Batman. In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center is holding a new exhibit of these classic superheroes. Curators of the exhibit say that the characters were a form of escapism for a public who was losing faith in the American Dream. A similar thing was already happening in America's movies at the time. Throughout the Depression era, Hollywood produced lavish flicks that historians often chalk up to "escapism" to distract from the tough economic times.

As a native Marylander, I've had many discussions with friends about whether we can call it a Southern state. You could say it's in "Dixie," which (according to one historical interpretation from this Civil War fact book) means south of the Mason-Dixon Line. One could also argue that because it fought for the North in the Civil War, Maryland should be considered a Northern state. However, we can't forget that Maryland was a slave state that was chock full of Southern sympathizers during the war. For evidence, just look up the official state song that remains on the books. You might be surprised (or perhaps offended) at the lyrics. According to this NPR story, a group of active fourth-graders were certainly offended when Linda Tuck, a school library "media specialist," led their study and discussion of the song. After the children wrote letters in protest, a bill is in the works to change the lyrics.

Although moviegoers love period pieces, filmmakers are notorious for getting the details wrong. Tune in as our resident history buffs take a look at historically inaccurate movies -- from Pocahontas to The Bridge on the River Kwai -- in this podcast from

Recently, Jane and I dedicated a podcast to the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi ruled over ancient Babylon, and he had some pretty strict laws. And there were a lot of them. You can get the full story in Jane's article, titled, "What's so important about the Code of Hammurabi?" As Jane explains, the code is one of the most "well-preserved" and "comprehensive" sets of "ancient laws in existence." Never heard of the Code of Hammurabi? Well, if you've heard the expression, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," you've got the basic idea. As much as history scholars tout the importance of the code, I wondered (aloud, in the podcast) whether it's something that law students still actively study. In short, is the code still relevant? Or can we learn something from it that's applicable to codes of conduct today?