10 Things You Might Not Know

- May 15th, 2013

This is a mash-up of a couple of pieces I wrote in early 2009. I was trying to track down something else in an old blog post and came across two “Things You Probably Don’t Know” pieces from back then that I found quite interesting — since I had forgotten a lot of the stuff in them. I work on the principle that bits and pieces of information I find interesting might interest other people too, so  I’ve put them all together in this one piece for your perusal.


1. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandnephew.

Charles Joseph Bonaparte was the grandson of Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome, and American heiress Betsy Patterson. According to the FBI’s official history, he is the only authentic member of royalty to have ever entered American politics.


Charles Joseph Bonaparte

Bonaparte, a long-time friend and colleague of Teddy Roosevelt, entered Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1905, first as Secretary of the Navy and a year later as Attorney General.

While Attorney General, Bonaparte established the Bureau of Investigation in 1908 to pursue cases the Justice Department was prosecuting. That small group of special agents, who originally investigated mainly land fraud cases in the American West and interstate prostitution, quickly grew in size and scope of responsibility as a national U.S. police force.

The Bureau of Investigation was renamed the United States Bureau of Investigation in 1932 before finally becoming the FBI in 1935. J. Edgar Hoover became the first head of the FBI but five other men had preceded him as head of the Bureau of Investigation — the original “G-Men.”

2. Hound Dog was recorded by Elvis Presley on July 2, 1956, and released 11 days later with Don’t Be Cruel (also recorded in the same July 2 session) as the flip side. Hound Dog became the best-selling Elvis single of all time and was also the first song in history to top all three (at that time) Billboard charts — pop, country & western and R&B.

But Elvis wasn’t the first singer to have a hit with Hound Dog. He wasn’t even the second. Or third.


Big Mama Thornton

Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Hound Dog first became a hit for blues singer Big Mama Thornton in 1952. Hers was a much slower, bluesier version. Within months, the song was covered by a number of country bands.

Freddie Bell and the Bellboys recorded a faster pop version 1955.

To appeal to a broader, crossover market, Bell had changed a number of Big Mama’s original suggestive lyrics about her unfaithful lover coming around for Mama’s treats to something tamer. “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more,” for example, became “ You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.” (Both good, although I actually think Bell’s lyrics are better.)

Elvis and his band were appearing in Las Vegas in spring 1956 as a lounge act while Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were headlining at another casino down the strip.

Elvis caught Bell’s show many times, loved his version of Hound Dog, and finally asked Bell’s permission to record it.

The rest is history. Thunk ya, thunk ya var much.

3. Just as people are left-handed and right-handed, we are also left-eared and right-eared.

About 60% of people are right-eared. That means we predominantly hear language with the right ear and music and background noise with the left ear. For the other 40% of the population, it’s the reverse.

The finding that the left and right ears process sounds differently is based on a 2003 UCLA study of 3,000 babies.

4. Roswell, New Mexico, was space-age long before the infamous Roswell UFO incident of 1947 and subsequent stories of alien spacecraft and bodies being secretly stored in “Area 51” at Roswell Army Airfield, as it was known at the time.

Roswell got its first space shot in 1930 when American scientist and inventor Robert Goddard moved there. Goddard invented the first liquid-fuel-powered rocket in the 1920s, the basic advance on which all modern rocketry is founded — from intercontinental ballistic missiles to Mars space missions.


Robert Goddard with his first liquid-fuel-powered rocket in 1926

Goddard’s early work was done in his native Massachusetts, but his rocket launches were so noisy and disruptive, he was forced to move to a more remote area — thus his arrival in the dusty little town of Roswell, New Mexico.

Funded on and off by the Guggenheim Foundation, Goddard made enormous strides in his rocket development. Area residents became used to strange, whizzing objects passing overhead.

Goddard worked in isolation in Roswell throughout the 1930s. Repeated attempts to demonstrate the military potential of his rockets were rebuffed by the U.S. Army although the Navy showed some interest.

One person who did take an interest was Werner von Braun, head of Nazi Germany’s rocket development programme. Von Braun used Goddard’s work, as presented in scientific journals, to develop World War II’s terrifying V-2 rockets.

Goddard died relatively anonymously in 1945, two years before the UFO incident put Roswell on the international map. Seized by American forces at the end of the war, von Braun went on to head the NASA space programme that put Americans in space and on the moon.

5. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy who seized the English crown in 1066, was immensely fat. “Morbidly obese” is the right phrase, since his weight finally killed William in a strange way.

William was a large, tall, commanding presence at the time of the Norman Conquest, but his vast appetites had turned him into a corpulent caricature of the Conqueror in his later years.

French King Philip I, William’s enemy, mocked him as looking like a pregnant woman. Even William’s friend and flunky William of Malmesbury conceded “the protrubance of his belly deformed his royal person.”

When William had become so heavy that his favourite warhorse could no longer carry him, the Conqueror decided on a radical diet to lose weight: He locked himself in his bedroom and consumed nothing but wine and spirits for two weeks (Believe me, it doesn’t work.)

I guess he lost enough weight to ride again because, in 1087, he was leading his forces in battle on horseback near Rouen in Normandy. Until the belly strap holding the saddle on his horse broke from the enormous strain caused by William’s weight. Rider and saddle went crashing to the ground, and William suffered fatal abdominal injuries when he landed on the saddle’s large pommel.

It gets worse.

William’s body was carried to a monastery he had erected in Caen, Normandy, for burial. Knights, nobles and senior clery of the land were gathered in the chapel of Abbaye-aux-Hommes as William’s body was placed in the sarcophagus built especially for his funeral.

The body didn’t fit. The sarcophagus was too small to contain his enormous body, now further bloated by decomposition gases. The bishops conducting the funeral pushed and pushed on his body, trying to force it into the burial tomb so the stone cover could be lowered.

The pushing and prodding was too much for William’s bloated corpse. His abdomen exploded, covering the surrounding clergy in noxious body fluids and releasing a stinking miasma that sent the gathered nobility fleeing into the streets for fresh air.

And that’s how William the Conqueror came to his rather inglorious end.

6. Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrissette and Hillary Rodham Clinton are all cousins.

According to a 2007 report in the Washington Post, they are all descendants of Zacharie Cloutier, a French carpenter who settled in New France/Quebec in 1634. Cloutier had six apparently very fertile children because, by 1800, about 10,000 descendants in Quebec were attributed to him, the most of any early colonist.

The connections can be a little distant. Hillary Clinton and Madonna, for example, are 10th cousins. Clinton and Angelina Jolie are ninth cousins twice removed.

7. The incandescent light bulb was invented in Toronto. Well, one of the earliest efficient light bulbs was invented and patented here in 1874.

Rudimentary forerunners of light bulbs had been created as early 1800 and a few patents for very crude, short-lasting electric lights had been issued prior to the Toronto breakthrough by medical student Henry Woodward and hotel keeper Matthew Evans.

After months of experimenting in a workshop on Adelaide St. W., Woodward and Evans filed a Canadian patent on July 24, 1874, for their lamp with a carbon rod held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen.


Woodward’s 1876 U.S. patent on the light bulb

Two years later, Woodward successfully got a U.S. patent on their light bulb, but the inventors were not able to convince investors that their light bulb could feasibly be brought into mass production.

Finally, in 1879, Woodward and Evans sold their U.S. and Canadian light bulb patents to Thomas Alva Edison for $5,000.

Using their work, Edison was able to file his own U.S. patent later that year for the Edison light bulb that is erroneously thought of as the first light bulb. Edison was the real creator of very few of the thousands of inventions he patented.

8. The electric chair was invented by a Buffalo dentist, Alfred P. Southwick in the early 1880s. The killing machine was designed as a chair because dentist Southwick was used to performing procedures on people in his dental chair. Southwick saw his invention as a more humane means of execution than hanging.

The electric chair was put into use for the first time in August 1890 at Auburn Prison, east of Buffalo. The man being executed was a wifekiller named William Kemmler.


Kemmler frying — literally — in the first electric chair

A short aside: Our old friend Edison was a strong proponent of direct current electricity, while his arch-rival, George Westinghouse, thought alternating current was a much more effective form of electricity. To push his thesis that AC was far more dangerous than DC, Edison pushed hard to make sure the first electric chair was operated on AC — thus reinforcing in the public’s mind that alternating current was a killer. Westinghouse fought hard to block Edison but failed. Used Westinghouse generators were finally acquired to juice the Auburn electric chair.

Back to Kemmler’s execution: Power was ramped up to 2,000 volts and then shot through the condemned man’s body for 17 seconds. When the charge was shut off, Kemmler was still alive, groaning and gasping for breath. The machine was turned back on for over a minute. Smoke rose from Kemmler’s head and witnesses complained of the horrific smell of burning flesh, but Kemmler was finally dead. Blame the dentist.

9. The U.S. Secret Service uses code names to identify the president, his family members, and other VIPS in the American government.

But the code names aren’t so secret.


Rosebud, Renegade, Radiance and Renaissance

The Chicago Tribune reported recently that Barack Obama’s code name is Renegade. His wife Michele is Renaissance. Daughter Malia is Radiance and daughter Sasha is Rosebud.

George W. Bush is Tumbler and his wife Laura is Tempo. Their daughters also have code names starting with T.

Code names for vice-presidents and other top officials start with different letters than the initial letter of the First Family codes.

A few other handles:

Bill and Hillary Clinton: Eagle and Evergreen

Ronald and Nancy Reagan: Rawhide and Rainbow

Richard and Pat Nixon: Searchlight and Starlight

John and Jackie Kennedy: Lancer and Lace

10. What did these three men have in common, apart from being victorious allies deciding the fate of post-war Europe at the Yalta Conference in 1945?


Seated from left: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin

Well, they all had tattoos.

British PM Winston Churchill, who had been a lord of the admiralty in his younger days, had an anchor on his arm. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a tattoo of his family crest. And Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had a death’s head tattoo on his chest. How fitting.

Here are five bonus hits, just in case you knew one or two of the first 10:

11. The oldest classified document in the U.S. is a 1918 report on formulas for making invisible ink. The CIA as recently as last year  2008 blocked a legal bid to declassify the document.

12. Richard M. Nixon applied to be a FBI agent — and was rejected.

13. An individual sperm cell of a squirrel is bigger than the sperm cell of a whale.

14. A blue whale’s testicles can weigh up to 50 kg.

15. In Canada, crematoriums are covered under the same legislation as garbage incinerators.

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