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Entries in urban legends (17)

Tuesday
Aug112009

Killed, Wounded, or Survived?

So class, can anyone tell me from the photo below if the person riding the horse was killed in action, was wounded, or lived to ripe old age?

For those not familiar with it, the legend maintains that if the horse has two feet up, the rider died fighting; if the horse has one foot up, he (or possibly she) was wounded but survived; and if all four feet are on the ground, they lived, presumably not for ever.

Although I hear this urban legend from my customers quite often, the main culprits are, sadly, my fellow tour guides. We hand this story out as if we get a commission for every tale told.

First off, let's set the record straight: it's not at all true. Sorry. Renowned urban legend killer snopes.com even used Washington, DC as it's example to debunk this persistent myth. They found that ten out of roughly thirty equestrian statues in DC matched the story, or right about what a random spread would get you.

Just to prove I'm not a total buzz kill though, there may be a grain of truth to the story after all. Not here in DC, but a couple hours away in Gettysburg, PA, the scene of one of the greatest Civil War battles, and worthy of it's own trip. If you disregard the recent 1988 statue of James Longstreet, the rest of the statues in the park correspond to the legend if you define "killed" as "killed at Gettysburg, and not later". Coincidence? Possibly, but Gettysburg's statues were built during a much shorter time frame (later half of 19th Century) than, say, Washington, DC's and largely by sculptors who would, at the very least, been familiar with each others work, if not actively collaborating. I've not run across anything that points me to this being an actual "code", formal or informal, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable telling this tale in Gettysburg than I do in Washington.

Oh and the picture above? Despite the inability of his horse to get another hoof off the ground, Gen. James McPherson was the highest ranking Union officer to be killed in the War, at the Battle of Atlanta.

Monday
Aug102009

Urban Legends and the Nation's Capital

Often, when one walks the streets of Washington, DC, you end up with a sense that there is more to the story than what's apparent. This city, and especially it's Monumental Core, is so deliberately laid out, so inorganic in feel, and so obviously structured that, obviously, there must be a back story you're not hearing about. What is the "truth" behind what's in the guide books? How did this place really come to be, and what stories are reflected in the grand promenades and statues looking down upon us?

It's a fertile ground for the rise of urban legends, and we don't disappoint. I'd be hard pressed to name another city as jam packed with un-truths, half truths, and mis-truths as Washington, DC. Some of these are created by people pushing a particular viewpoint. Some by those using the city as a giant Rorschach test, seeing what they want to see in the Nation's Capital. And some are just fun tales, without motive.

Tour guides are to blame as well. I've never heard of a tour guide deliberately making up a story, but I suppose it could happen. No, our real sin are as vectors, infecting bus loads of eighth graders year after year. We are no more responsible for the creation of urban legends than mosquitoes are of malaria, but without us, it's unlikely the spread would be as wide or as deep. Oh, and the Internet does it to.

In our (my) defense, I am a storyteller and an entertainer as much, if not more, than a historian or an academic. While I like to think I rigorously fact check everything I say, and cast a critical eye before I pass on good tale; I cover my rear with wiggle words such as "legends say" and "the story goes", and if you ever take one of my ghost tours, all bets are off. But I don't let the truth get in the way of a good story. After all if you are relying on me as a substitute for sleeping in 9th grade civics, you shouldn't be voting.

So, perhaps in atonement, let me spend the rest of the week debunking some commonly heard and spread urban legends. In choosing which to talk about, I relied on two criteria: that I've having heard them from both visitors and from other professional tour guides. So let's have some fun with it, and if you catch a tour guide in one of them, feel free to call them on it. Unless it's a ghost tour.

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