Red, White & True Mysteries
Syndicated weekly newspaper columnist, NIE vendor and author
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Below are eight stories from the RED, WHITE & TRUE MYSTERIES series. The stories reveal the interesting little-known stories behind the men and women who shaped American history. The stories are available in printed form, as well as in video form for newspaper websites. The stories are from Paul Niemann's syndicated newspaper column, which has appeared in more than 110 newspapers nationwide since it made its debut in six newspapers on January 3, 2003.

Enjoy the sample stories below.

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Paul Niemann
Office: 800-337-5758
Cell: 636-477-8000

Bonaparte, Washington and Jefferson known for all the wrong reasons

He was a general, born hundreds of years ago. His first name was so unique that he probably didn’t even need to tell people his last name. Or his middle name, for that matter, as it is known throughout the whole world. Yet he was as American as baseball and your mom’s apple pie.

He led his troops in a well-known war that you learned about in History class.

His name?

Napoleon Bonaparte. And he wasn’t really exiled to the island of Elba. He wasn’t married to a woman named Josephine, either. 

He had something in common with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but it had nothing to do with being the leader of his country.  

You probably didn’t know that George Washington was an agricultural chemist long before he was so well known. In fact, he created many new products from plants. He is responsible for axle grease, meat tenderizer and talcum powder, among many other products. He also was the director of Ag Research at Tuskegee University at age 36.  

Like Napoleon and Washington, there are several things that you might not have known about Thomas Jefferson.  

He had a daughter who went on to become a first lady, married to a United States president. You didn’t learn that in History class, did you?

Before you think that I’m trying to rewrite history, let me clear things up a bit.  

The George Washington who created new products from plants and led the ag research department at Tuskegee University in Alabama was George Washington Carver, the well-known “plant doctor.”  

The Thomas Jefferson whose daughter went on to become a first lady was Thomas Jefferson Taylor. The descendent was actually his daughter, Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor, who married Lyndon Baines Johnson.  

And it wasn’t that Napoleon Bonaparte who was mentioned at the beginning of this story, but rather Napoleon Bonaparte Buford. He was born in 1801 in Kentucky , and the well-known war that you learned about in History class was the Civil War. Buford was a general in the Union army, yet he remains unknown throughout history.  

Until now.  

So what exactly did Napoleon Bonaparte Buford do to earn a spot in this column?  

It was his first and middle name that did it for me.

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The good doctor was no doctor at all

Ted was born in Springfield in 1904. Like the hometown of The Simpsons, his home state is irrelevant to this story. In case you’re wondering, though, there are 35 states that have a Springfield.  

His parents were Theodor and Henrietta Geisel, and he had two sisters. He was known by his title of doctor, and was beloved by kids everywhere for his work. In fact, nearly everyone knew his name, but it wasn’t his actual name. He wasn’t a doctor, either.  

Ted’s mother ran a bakery before she married Ted’s father. When she had trouble getting him to sleep, she would use a certain rhythm to chant the names of the pies that she had baked. This type of rhythm stayed with Ted all his life, and it influenced his work to the point where he would use this rhythm all throughout his career.  

While a student at Dartmouth College, Ted was the editor of the school’s humor magazine. His father and grandfather were both brewmasters, but that probably had noting to do with the fact that Ted once got in trouble for throwing a drinking party.  

As a result, he was forced to resign his post as editor. In order to continue writing for the magazine, he signed his work with a disguised identity. He simply dropped his last name and used his middle name instead, which was also his mother’s maiden name.  

Ted attended Oxford University to become a professor. When a fellow American student named Helen Palmer saw some of his drawings, she advised him to give up his goal of becoming a professor and to instead become an artist. He took her advice – and then he married her. She was a writer, too. After she died in 1967, Ted remarried.  

After working briefly as a cartoonist, Standard Oil offered Ted a job in their advertising department. When a competitor offered him a similar position, he made his decision by flipping a coin. Hmmm, there’s a lesson in here somewhere. His first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” was rejected at first – by all 27 publishers that he pitched it to!  

Ted went on to publish 44 books from 1957 to 1996, and several of them have been adapted into films and animated TV shows. Twenty-four of his books became best-selling children’s books.  

Then why did he use the title of doctor in his name? It was because his Dad always wanted a doctor in the family! His full name was Ted Seuss Geisel. You know him as Dr. Seuss.  

Here are a few little-known pieces of trivia about Dr. Seuss you can use to impress your friends ....  

In case you’re still wondering where Dr. Seuss was born, it was Springfield, Massachusetts.

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Mr. Tatanka Iyotaka really is a household name

With a name that is unfamiliar to most Americans, Tatanka Iyotaka became a legend among the native Lakota Sioux Indians. He fought alongside them as they tried to prevent the American government from claiming their land.  

His people even fought General George Custer. Yes, Tatanka Iyotaka was pretty well-known in his day, and he’s just as well-known 117 years after he died. Later in his life, he performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show alongside Annie Oakley. In fact, it was Tatanka who gave Annie Oakley the nickname of “Little Sure Shot.”  

Born in 1831 near the Grand River in the Dakota Territory in what is now known as South Dakota, Tatanka Iyotaka fought many battles, but always in defense.  

And just what was he doing fighting General Custer?  


Because the battle in which he inspired the Sioux Indians against George Custer was the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. This turned out to be the Sioux Indians’ greatest military victory. It was also the beginning of the end for Tatanka Iyotaka.  

He was regarded as a holy man among the Sioux Indians, and his biggest contribution to the Battle of Little Big Horn was spiritual. He was not present at this historic battle; however, during a sun dance ritual, he had a vision which inspired the others – a vision in which he saw hundreds of fallen cavalry soldiers.  

One year after the Battle of Little Big Horn, Iyotaka and his men fled to Canada. Facing starvation, they returned to the United States after four years, and the U.S. government assigned Iyotaka to a reservation in South Dakota. He was a prisoner for two years.  

In 1885 Iyotaka had another vision. In this vision, a bird landed on a hill beside him and said, “Your own people, the Lakotas, will kill you.”  

In December of 1890, five years after his vision, Indian police came to arrest the 59-year-old Iyotaka for supporting the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance was intended to get rid of white people, hence the name “Ghost Dance.”  

But things went terribly wrong when a few of his people threatened the Indian police. One of his men fired a shot at the police, and when the police fired back, they hit Iyotaka in the head and chest, killing him instantly. Twelve more Indians were killed in the gunfight, along with three others that were injured.  

It might seem a bit odd that Tatanka Iyotaka was killed by Indian police because he was Indian himself. In fact, it was his Indian name by which you know him … Sitting Bull.  

But you knew that all along, didn’t you?

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Nine-year-old girl supports family with her hunting ability

Phoebe Moses lived an interesting life. As a nine-year-old girl, she hunted for food to support her family. As a teenager, she starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. When she was 21, she beat a man in a shooting contest and then married him. In 1903, she was accused of having a cocaine habit. She also spent her entire fortune on the charities that she supported.  

There’s one other thing about her that’s significant:  If she hadn’t been such a good shot, there might never have been a World War I (known then as “The Great War” since it was the only world war up to that point in history).  

Phoebe (that’s pronounced “Phoebe”) was her given name, but it was her stage name by which you know her.

Phoebe was the fifth of seven children born in a log cabin to Jacob and Susan Moses in 1860, a Quaker couple living in rural western Ohio. She couldn’t read, but she sure could shoot.  

She lost her father when she was just six years old. A few years later, she began hunting for food to help feed the family. She was such a good aim that she could shoot the head off a running quail.  

She was so good at hunting that she was able to support the family by selling her game to local residents. Local hotel owners preferred the animals that Phoebe shot because she always shot it in the head, meaning that there would be no buckshot left in the animal. She did well enough to pay off the mortgage on the family home in just three years!

This petite woman – who stood only five-feet tall as an adult – went on to become one of the Wild West’s biggest celebrities. She could split the edge of a playing card with her first shot, and then shoot five more holes in that same card before it hit the ground.  

In 1881, the spunky little Phoebe competed against a famous shooter named Frank Butler in a contest near Greenville, Ohio. Now, Frank Butler was considered one of the top three marksmen in his day, but he was no match for Phoebe Ann Moses. He lost when he missed his 25th shot, but things still turned out well for him. Frank and Phoebe began dating, and they married the following year.  

So she became Phoebe Ann Butler, the greatest American woman to ever shoot a gun, right?  

Wrong. This woman, who would go on to perform with Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, would take a nickname of her own; actually, it was more of a stage name than a nickname. She took her stage name after the Cincinnati neighborhood in which she and Frank lived.  

Phoebe Moses became known as Annie Oakley.

After they were married, she worked as Frank’s assistant in his show, but they both realized that Annie Oakley had more talent than he did (their first clue should have been when she beat him in the shooting match earlier). So he became her assistant.  

You’ve heard the story of William Tell shooting the apple off of a man’s head? Well, Annie Oakley once shot a cigarette out of the lips of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, prompting one person to sarcastically remark that if she had been a worse shot, there might never have been a World War I.  

And what ever happened with the accusation that she had a cocaine habit?  

Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst published a story that Annie Oakley was arrested for stealing to pay for cocaine. It turned out that a burlesque performer was the guilty one and, when arrested, she told the police that her name was Annie Oakley. When the real Annie Oakley took Hearst to court and won, he refused to pay up. She went on to win 54 out of 55 libel suits against newspapers who re-printed the story.  

Why only 54 out of 55? It turns out that Annie Oakley was better at shooting guns than she was at winning lawsuits.

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Former USC football player Marion Morrison becomes national icon

His name was Marion Morrison, and he was born in Winterset, Iowa, exactly one hundred years ago. I wasn’t sure where that was, so I looked it up. Turns out that it is between Missouri and Minnesota. (As for Winterset, it is roughly 30 miles southwest of Des Moines.)

His father, Clyde, was the son of a Civil War veteran. Clyde and Mary had one other son, named Robert, and they were of Irish descent. The family moved to Glendale, California, which is Not too far from the Rio Grande, when he was 11 years old.  

His great-nephew, Tommy Morrison, is a professional boxer, who starred in one of the Rocky movies. I think it was Rocky 16, but I could be mistaken. 

Marion’s voice was as distinctive as Paul Harvey’s, but he wasn’t a radio star. No, Marion Morrison was an actor. In fact, his father ran a drugstore that was housed in the same building as a movie theatre, and young Marion was allowed to see several movies a week as a boy, for free. This no doubt instilled in him a love of movies.  

He became one of the most popular actors of all time, and there probably isn’t a person in this country who hasn’t heard of him. He made more than 175 movies in his 50-year career which began in the 1920’s with silent movies, and some of his movies are still being shown on TV, more than 30 years after he made his last movie in 1976.  

He won an athletic scholarship to play football at USC. I don’t know what his team’s record was when he played, but I do know that his team wasn’t one of The Undefeated. An injury cut short his college football career. Marion was too scared to tell his coach how he injured himself – it was a bodysurfing accident – and he lost his scholarship and had to get a job in order to pay for school.   

While he was in school in the late 1920’s, he worked at a few of the local film studios. He then went to work as a prop man, earning $75 per week.  

In 1930 he got his first starring role in a western movie, The Big Trail. He went on to become nearly synonymous with western movies, and he still went by the name of Marion at that point. This first film was a box office failure, but something good came out of it. The director and the studio head gave him his stage name that is now known all over the world – and Marion wasn’t even at the meeting when they gave him his new name!  

Marion ’s movies required him to occasionally ride in a Stagecoach; since he stood about 6’4” and loved riding horses, you could say that he always stood Tall in the Saddle. Speaking of horses, his friend James Arness also rode one in the TV show, Gunsmoke. It was Marion Morrison who recommended James Arness for the role of Matt Dillon.  

Marion became such a star that he even had an airport named after him (in Orange County, California), as well as an elementary school (in Brooklyn, New York) and a trail (in a state park in Washington ).  

Marion was married three times, all to Hispanic women. He was divorced three times, too. He had four daughters and three sons, and these seven kids produced 18 grandchildren. 

There are many things for which Marion Morrison is known, but you know him by both his nickname and his stage name: The Duke, John Wayne.  

He starred with legendary actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Maureen O’Hara. It was O’Hara who once said, “No other description for John Wayne is necessary than this: American.”  

There’s one other thing that you should know about the Duke: His drawl and the way he walked were not natural. The man born as Marion Morrison made them a part of his character when he became an actor.  

And how did he get the nickname of Duke? That was the name of the dog he had as a child. The dog was known as “Big Duke” while Wayne was known as “Little Duke!”

As for all the italicized words in this story, those were the titles of some of his most popular movies. 

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Eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin created a monster in England  

While this column usually reveals the “little-known stories behind well-known inventions,” we occasionally go off on a tangent, like the story in this column about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that ran a few months ago.

Whether the story is about inventions or about other creations, we like to include an educational aspect to each story. So feel free to share this column with the kids. Today’s story is not about an invention or an inventor, but rather an 18-year-old girl whose creation is known the world over.

As usual, there is more to the story than what you learned in school. And as always, there is a story behind the story. That’s where we begin with the story of 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.   

While you might not recognize her name, you’ve heard about her creation – that is, unless you live in a cave. Or, in this case, a laboratory.  

Mary was born in 1797 in London, England, the first and only child of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother was an author while her father was a philosopher. Mary followed in her mother’s footsteps and became an author.  

Mary’s mother died ten days after Mary was born, and she was raised by a stepmother who she did not like. Ironically, the stepmother also was named Mary (actually, it was Mary Jane). I wonder if she referred to her stepmother as “the evil stepmonster.” You’ll know what I mean when you reach the end of this story.  

When Mary was just 18 years old, she created a fictional character who she named Victor. Then Victor created a character who became world-famous and has been the subject of a number of horror movies. In the film versions of this story, the monster was often mistakenly referred to by Victor’s last name. In 1931, Boris Karloff became the first actor to portray the monster in a movie.  

While he was known as a monster, he started out in life as a gentle creature who just wanted to be loved and accepted. A monster who was eight feet tall with yellowish skin and scary eyes, to be exact, but a gentle creature who just wanted to be loved and accepted nonetheless.  

Awww, what a sweet monster, you say. Which he was at the beginning, until he learned evil from a society that shunned him.  

What monster did Mary’s character (Victor) create?  

Mary never officially gave the monster a name in her novel, which was first published in 1818, when Mary was only 21. Instead, she referred to him as “my hideous pregeny.” She did, however, once refer to him as “Adam” when she was telling her story.  

Then who was Victor, the man in Mary’s story who created the monster?  

Victor Frankenstein! As in Frankenstein’s monster.  

If you didn’t recognize the name Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, it’s probably because she went by her married name of Mary Shelley. Her fictional story of Frankenstein’s monster (which is why I wonder if she referred to her stepmother as her stepmonster) was probably the world’s first science fiction story.  

And why were there electrodes attached to the neck of Frankenstein’s monster?  

Mary Shelley created the story of Frankenstein’s monster at a time when experiments in electricity were taking place, in the early 1800’s. It would be another 60 years before Thomas Edison would use electricity to power his incandescent light bulbs.  

But you knew that all along, didn’t you?

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Find out who really discovered North America

Today’s story is about a European explorer named Liev. His father was Erik Thorvaldsson, an explorer who was expelled from Iceland for murders that he had committed. Prior to that, Erik’s father Thorvald was also expelled from his home country of Norway for a murder that he had committed. Losers.  

It was common in Scandinavian countries during this era for a son to take the first name of his father, and add the word “son” onto it to form his last name.  

Known for his red hair, Erik, in what may be the greatest example of branding success of all time, discovered and colonized a land to the west of Iceland that was more than 85 percent covered in ice. He named it Greenland; his logic was that if people thought the land was green and beautiful, then they would want to come.  

It worked!  

Meanwhile, Liev met King Olaf on a trip to Norway. King Olaf knew Liev’s father well and took a liking to the son. King Olaf converted Liev to Christianity, while Erik remained a pagan all his life. It was the son Liev who spread Christianity to Greenland after the father Erik had colonized the new territory.  

Liev had also heard of a land farther west than Greenland. He bought a boat from his friend Bjarni Herjulfsson and sailed with his crew to the west, where they soon landed on an area which seemed like one huge slab of rock. This area is believed to be Baffin Island, near the coast of Canada. He and his crew then landed on the eastern coast of Canada, in what is believed to be Labrador.  

There are conflicting stories as to why Liev went so far west; it was either his intention to do so, or his ship got blown 500 miles off course. Either way, they settled on what is present-day Newfoundland , where they found grapes and called it Vinland. Contrary to popular belief, though, Vinland meant “pasture” or “meadow” – not “vines.”  

There’s one other thing that you might find interesting about Liev: He was actually the first European explorer to discover America !  

He came to North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus, in the year 1001 A.D. The spelling of his name changed from Liev to Leif, as in Leif Eriksson.  

Then why is so little known about Leif’s discovery of North America ?  

Leif’s sister, brother-in-law and a small group of settlers were the only ones to return to Vinland . The settlers were killed by Indians, and the only references to the New World were those that were recorded in Norse history. Leif’s nephew was the first European born in North America .   

Then who was Leif’s father, the redhead? Erik Thorvaldsson never used his last name on official business. Instead, he was known by his nickname, Erik the Red.  

In 1964, Congress established October 9th as “Leif Ericsson Day” in America, to honor him as the first European to land on American soil. That date is ironic because we celebrate Columbus Day one day earlier, on October 8.  

But wait – there’s more to this story!  

Even though Leif was the first European to land on American soil, he wasn’t the first person to see it. Remember when I said that Leif bought a boat from his friend Bjarni Herjulfsson?  

Well, Bjarni sailed to Canada in 986 A.D. – 15 years before Leif did – but he never landed because the rocky land didn’t appear to be of any value to him! As a result, Leif Eriksson – and not Bjarni Herjulfsson – became the first European to set foot in North America .  

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       Here’s why you’ve never heard of the OTHER person who invented the telephone

We all know that Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, but did you know that there was another person who tried to patent a different version of the telephone on the very same day as Bell in 1876?

Born in Ohio in 1835, he was a physics professor at nearby Oberlein College, and was a renowned inventor due to the musical telegraph that he invented. Little is known about him because, in what has to be one of the worst cases of being "a day late and a dollar short," he arrived at the patent office two hours after Bell arrived to apply for a patent for his version of the telephone.

His name is Elisha Gray and, as a result of arriving two hours after Bell arrived, most of the world has never heard of him.

What happened?

U.S. patent law states that the first one to invent a new product is the rightful owner of the product, regardless of who applies for a patent first. Adequate records are necessary whenever there is a dispute. Since Bell applied for his patent first, he was initially awarded the patent.

Gray did prevent the issuance of Bell’s patent temporarily, however, pending a legal hearing. Since he did not keep adequate records of his design, however, he lost any possible rights as Bell's right to the patent was later sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest, as they say, is history.

The basis of Gray’s legal action against Bell was that Bell had filed for his patent before he had a working model of his telephone, according to Inventors’ Digest magazine. But the Supreme Court ruled that a person can prove that his invention is complete and ready for patenting even before a working model has been produced, a ruling that later served as a precedent on a similar type of lawsuit years later.

Gray was not the only other person to stake a claim to inventing the telephone. Daniel Drawbaugh, who was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, claimed to have invented the telephone long before Bell filed a patent application in 1875. Drawbaugh didn't have any papers or records to prove his claim, though, and the Supreme Court rejected his claims by four votes to three. Alexander Graham Bell, on the other hand, had kept excellent records.

Elisha Gray did go on to invent other products, such as the facsimile telegraph system that he patented in 1888. Bell, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, became a U.S. citizen in 1882. He went on to become one of the co-founders of the National Geographic Society, and he served as its president from 1896 to 1904.

Elisha Gray, however, has been forgotten by much of the world.

Was Bell's telephone greeted with enthusiasm by everyone at the time?

As is the case with many new inventions, there were those who rejected the telephone for one reason or another. Even President Rutherford B. Hayes was skeptical of the new device when Bell demonstrated it to him at the White House in 1876.

There was also a well-known "investor" who had an opportunity to invest in the telephone directly with Bell, but he rejected the opportunity. According to his writings, he was a big fan of new inventions, but since he had previously invested in several that had failed, he turned down a chance to invest in the telephone. Who was he?

Mark Twain, who patented two of his own inventions.

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© Paul Niemann 2003 -- 2012

The humble scribe, 
Paul Niemann