Was Lucrezia Borgia really a passionate poisoner?

Some people believe that Lucrezia Borgia had slept with and killed an incredible number of men.

The belief probably originates from Victor Hugo’s play from the 19th century, and the opera based on it. In actuality, there is no proof that Lucrezia Borgia killed anyone; the deaths around her are connected to her father (Pope Alexander VI) and her brother (Cesare Borgia).

Lucrezia Borgia was born and raised in a monastery within the Vatican, where she acquired considerable knowledge about art and literature. At the age of 13, her father arranged a marriage between her and Giovanni Sforza, who cheated on her on a regular basis.

Before long however, the Borgia family no longer needed the Sforza’s and the marriage lost its value. Giovanni soon fled Rome fearing for his life. The Sforza family wanted to avoid an open conflict with the Borgias, so they eventually convinced Giovanni to admit to being impotent, so that the marriage could be annulled. While Giovanni eventually signed the confessions of impotence, he also accused Lucrezia of regularly sleeping with her brother and father.

According to some rumors, Lucrezia was pregnant during the “annulment negotiations”. While this was never confirmed, the alleged father, Pedro Calderon, was later found dead in the Tiber in 1498, less than a year after Lucrezia’s marriage was annulled. Some think that Cesare Borgia was the one who ordered the killing.

Lucrezia then married Alfonso of Aragon in 1498, who was the Duke of Bisceglie at the time. They were happily married for two years until Alfonso was murdered; supposedly the work of Cesare Borgia once again. Lucrezia was reportedly heartbroken, and vowed to never marry again.

However, she did eventually marry Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Ferrara. In Ferrara, she lived an exemplary life; she supported artist and hospitals. During her 30’s, she became deeply religious and prayed multiple times a day. When she eventually died to illness in 1519, the whole of Ferrara mourned her death.

Could you really survive a free fall in an elevator by jumping before impact?

An idea that has decent face value and is tested by very few; the two hallmarks of a wide-spread urban legend.

In the U.S., there are an estimated 900,000 elevators, each serving an average of 20,000 people per year. Collectively, U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips per year. Those trips result in about 27 deaths annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Even among these, very few are results of free-falling elevators. This is because they are held in place by 4 (or sometimes 8) cables, of which even 1 could hold the elevator. Even if all the cables were cut somehow, an automated emergency brake system would step in and stop the fall.

However, with a free-falling elevator the jumping method wouldn’t help, even if you managed to jump just before impact (which in itself should be extremely difficult, as you don’t see the ground). Jumping would only change our relative positions to the bottom of the elevator and you’d hit the ground at the same speed as the elevator does.

How Stuff Works recommends that if you find yourself in a free-falling elevator, you lie down. By doing this you stabilize yourself and spread the forces that act on your body upon impact (don’t expect this to be pain-free though!).

The MythBusters also tested this myth. Buster (their testing dummy) didn’t take the test too well.

Did Jack Kerouac really write his masterpiece in 3 weeks?

Rumors have it that Jack Kerouac wrote his cult classic, On the Road, in three weeks while heavily under the influence of various drugs. While there is some truth to this legend, on the whole it is more false than true.

There are a number of legends surround On the Road. Some say that Kerouac was possessed the Holy Spirit when writing it in 1951, while others say that he was just under the influence of various drugs, and that he wrote the entire book on napkins, with no punctuation.

While some parts of these legends are probably exaggerations, it is difficult to know what the truth of the matter may be. What we know is that after a sports injury Kerouac quit Columbia and started traveling around the country. Eventually, he sat down to write a book, and 20 days later On the Road was born.

Kerouac insisted to not have taken drugs; he said that he was consuming coffee at near-supernatural levels, which is what gave him the energy finish his book so quickly.

Furthermore, we now know that the original script of On the Road did have punctuation. The famous “20-day period” was more of a stich-job – Kerouac used the best sentences from previous versions of his work in order to create On the Road.

However, even this version wasn’t final. The publisher required a number of changes in order to make the book appealing to a wider audience. Kerouac agreed, and made a number of changes between 1951 and the book’s eventual publishing in 1957. He toned down the language, expanded on certain episodes, and refined some of the metaphors used in the book.

In light of this, the characterization of On the Road as a spontaneous masterpiece seems a little far-fetched.

Photo: John Cohen

Do people really stay conscious after being decapitated?

This is a question that people with various qualifications have been trying to answer for centuries.

While the question had reportedly occurred to Julian Jean Cesar Legallois (a French psychologist) in 1812, the first confirmed experiment regarding decapitation took place in 1857, when Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard tried to keep the head of a decapitated dog alive with blood transfusion. Apparently, he managed to prolong the animal’s life for a couple of minutes, before it died amid excruciating pain.

A couple decades later Jean-Baptiste Vincent Laborde tried to revive a death row inmate with fresh blood. His experiment ended in failure, although he attributed this to the apparently “outrageous” amount of time that passed between the death of the inmate and Laborde getting access to the body. He requested a second test subject, whom he claimed to have kept alive for a full minute; although the inmate never regained consciousness after the execution.

Around the same time, Paul Loye built a guillotine in his laboratory in order to study decapitated dogs. He concluded that while the mouth of a decapitated animal may move for a couple minutes, victims lose consciousness at the moment of decapitation.

Modern science’s take

According to the New Scientist’s article regarding non-natural causes of death, death after decapitation is brought about extremely fast; victims usually lose consciousness after 2-3 seconds. There are other publications that point out that this time may actually be 15 seconds.

A 2011 study investigating the decapitation of rats found that death usually occurs in 4 to 15 seconds from the point of decapitation. While this falls in line with previous findings, the researchers also identified an unexplained spark in brain activity about a minute after decapitation.

Keeping decapitated heads alive

With all that being said, there have been a number of experiments that managed to substantially prolong the suffering life of decapitated subjects. Soviet scientists have managed to keep decapitated dog heads alive for about 3 hours. Furthermore, the head was even shown to be reactive towards external stimuli.

Do the lions of Budapest’s Chain Bridge really have no tongues?

According to a Hungarian legend, the architect had been so embarrassed that he committed suicide.

At the time of its construction, Chain Bridge was considered to be one of the wonders of the world. Chief engineer Adam Clark was supposedly so proud of his masterpiece that he challenged people to find a flaw in it. When it was pointed out that the guardian lions had no tongues, he was so ashamed that he jumped off the Chain Bridge, becoming the first person to kill themselves there.

The lions were sculpted by János Marschalkó in 1852, who also created other iconic sculptures around Budapest. Béla Tóth (a noted collector of Hungarian anecdotes) writes that the lions having no tongues was indeed a popular topic of conversation in 19th century Budapest.

Apparently, Marschalkó let the rumors swirl for a bit before issuing a public challenge: he bet a considerable amount of money that when a lions open their mouths like his sculptures do, their tongues would not be visible. He then took his doubters to a circus, where he proved he was right. According to an article from November of 1897, he then donated the money he won for charitable purposes.

But to address to original legend; neither Adam Clark, nor János Marschalkó committed suicide. And the lions do have tongues – although they cannot be seen from the angle that pedestrians see them from.

Photo: Zsolt Andrasi/flickr.com

The legend of the paperclip

Why did Norwegians wear paperclips during World War II? Did it really become a symbol of resistance because of a misconception?

A blog post on Today I found out delves into the historic significance of paperclips in Norway. During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Norway in order to make the transport of Swedish steel easier. The royal family and government fled to London, and the country was governed by the puppet government led by Vidkun Quisling.

According to the Today I found out article, students of the University of Oslo found an unorthodox way of expressing their hatred of the occupying forces: they started wearing paperclips, paperclip bracelets and paperclip jewellery. Symbols related to the royal family and state had already been banned, and they wanted a clever way of displaying their rejection of Nazi ideas. According to the article, the paperclip was chosen because (in addition to binding things together and signifying unity) it was invented by Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian inventor and patent clerk.

However, the paperclip wasn’t invented by Vaaler. In addition, it’s fairly possible that this misconception had nothing to do with why the students chose the paperclip as their symbol of non-violent resistance.

While Vaaler did indeed file a patent for a certain paperclip design in 1899 (in Germany) and then in 1901 (in the United States); it was never manufactured. This is because there was already a more functional design already being mass produced in Europe.

Despite this, a number of encyclopaedias wrongly identify Vaaler as the inventor of the paperclip, and there have been monuments and stamps created in his honour (depicting a design Vaaler had nothing to do with). The misconception seems to originate from the 1920’s, when Norwegian patent agent Harald Foss identified Vaaler as the inventor of the paperclip, not noticing that he patented a different paperclip design.

However, even though the legend of Vaaler inventing the paperclip originates from the 1920’s, it didn’t become well-known until the 1950’s. Norwegian encyclopaedias from the 1950’s make no mention of the paperclip being chosen because it was invented by Vaaler, and one from 1974 suggests that the idea of the paperclip symbolizing resistance originated from France. Therefore, the assertion of Today I found out is uncertain at best.

Just to illustrate how quickly legends like this begin to mutate: in 1998, high school students from Tennessee decided to collect paperclips in order to commemorate murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. During this campaign, a couple more misconceptions were born. One site referencing the campaign states that “Norwegians wore them on their clothes to show support for Jews during World War II”, while another site wrote that the “symbol of resistance originally honored Johan Vaaler, the Norwegian Jew who invented the paper clip”.

As for who actually invented the paperclip; while there are plenty of claimants, no one is quite sure. In the 1870’s, the British Gem Manufacturing Company has already mass produced them. While it’s uncertain whether these clips were similar to the ones we use today, an advertisement from 1894 depicts one nearly identical to today’s paperclips.

Photo: flickr.com/TRIUMF Lab