Previous: Misconceptions About the 1920s
Next: Tub Trivia: The Mental Floss Quiz Show | Ep. 1



View count:39,057
Last sync:2024-04-14 17:30
Taxes raise a lot of questions: How do I pay my taxes? Why did tax day change this year? And most importantly: Can I deduct that 15-pound tub of body oil? Erin (@erincmccarthy) isn’t an accountant, but she’ll touch on those questions and more in our list of 25 fascinating tax facts.

We’ll dive into the history of taxes, and tell you about the first tax on record. We’ll discuss some of the weirdest taxes ever, like the beard tax imposed by Peter the Great. And we’ll mention some celebrities (and at least one transcendentalist writer) who got in trouble for not paying taxes.

For some more tax info that they didn’t cover in school, check out our list of 8 Tax Terms You Need To Know:

In case you forgot, The List Show is a trivia-tastic, fact-filled show for curious people. Subscribe here for new List Show episodes the first and third Wednesday of each month:

Did you know that a former IRS Commissioner was sentenced to 5 years in prison for tax evasion?

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of, and welcome to The List Show ... from my living room. In 1952, Joseph Nunan, who was the IRS Commissioner from 1944 to 1947, was busted for evading over $90,000 in taxes.

Among the transactions that he failed to claim was $1,800 in winnings from a wager that Harry Truman would beat Thomas Dewey in the presidential election of 1948. And that’s just the first of 25 tax facts we’re going to share with you today — all of which will be waaaay more interesting than working on your own taxes, I promise. So, speaking of tax evasion!

You probably know that mob boss Al Capone was ultimately taken down over his taxes instead of any of his other involvement with crime. You may even know that Willie Nelson made a whole album just to help cover his massive tax debts. (It was called the IRS Tapes, and all proceeds went to the IRS.) But did you know that Henry David Thoreau went to jail in 1846 for failing to pay taxes? It was a poll tax, which just means a tax levied on every individual, regardless of income.

Poll taxes were once typical in much of New England. Paying the tax was typically a requisite to be able to vote, so they often functioned as a form of de facto discrimination against poorer citizens. Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax was his way of protesting slavery.

Someone paid the tax on Thoreau’s behalf, however, and he was released the next morning. Enough about skirting taxes. Let’s back up to the basics: Who had the bright idea for taxes, anyway?

Uh, thanks, Horus. We can trace documented records of taxation all the way back to Ancient Egypt, sometime around 3000-2800 BC. Apparently there was a biennial event called the Following of Horus, when the Pharaoh went around collecting taxes in his dual roles as head of state and living incarnation of the god Horus.

Taxation is even described in the Bible, when Joseph tells the people of Egypt to give a fifth of their crops to Pharaoh. OK, so who had the bright idea for federal income tax here in the States? Uh, thanks, Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Revenue Act in 1861, which imposed the first-ever federal income tax. To drum up funds for the Civil War, Lincoln and Congress enacted a modest 3% tax on income over $800, which would be roughly $23,000 today. The law was almost instantly replaced with a new revenue act and would be repealed a decade later, but the relief obviously didn’t last: In 1913, the 16th Amendment established the federal income tax system we all know and love today.

But Lincoln’s income tax wasn’t the first tax ever imposed in the U. S. Fans of the Broadway musical Hamilton probably remember the line, “Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey.” What happened was the Whiskey Rebellion, which was largely due to a tax that A [dot] Ham imposed on—you guessed it—whiskey.

As you might imagine, people were extremely unhappy about it, especially small producers of whiskey, who, because of the way the tax was structured, had to pay nine cents per gallon in taxes, while larger producers were able to get as low as six cents. (Some things never change.) Violence quickly broke out. Tax officers were assaulted and tarred and feathered for trying to do their jobs, and several people were killed during riots. The Rebellion was eventually quashed in 1794, and the whiskey tax remained in effect until 1802, when Thomas Jefferson repealed it.

Now, why is Tax Day in the United States April 15? At least on normal years … Well, it originally wasn’t. When the modern federal income tax was established, lawmakers set March 1 as the looming deadline.

Although they gave no reason for this particular date, it was presumably to give people a couple of months to gather paperwork and crunch numbers after the end of the year. By 1919, the government tacked a couple of more weeks on to help panicked filers, making March 15 the date. That date stood until 1955, after Congress acknowledged that doing your taxes was getting more complicated by the year.

To help accommodate all of those changes and give people adequate time to file, the date was bumped by another month - but the change wasn’t entirely altruistic. The IRS acknowledged that the extra month would help their employees as well, spreading the workload out across another 30 days. This year, as you probably heard, the federal income tax deadline has been pushed back to July 15th in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The amount of time we spend doing our taxes every year suggests that the repeated date changes may have been justified. According to the IRS, the average taxpayer spends about 11 hours doing record keeping, tax planning, form submission and other super fun tax-related activities. Of course, if you break it down even further, the amount of time changes based on the type of form the filers use.

Business filers spend about 20 hours, including 10 hours on record-keeping alone. Ugh. While we’re talking averages, the average American gets about $3,000 back from their tax refund each year.

This ebbs and flows a little bit every year based on the economy, fluctuating consumer incomes, and the IRS’s withholding tables, which suggest how much employers should deduct from employee paychecks to account for income tax. It’s worth pointing out that a huge tax refund isn’t necessarily a great goal: It basically means you gave the government an interest-free loan that year. And getting money back isn’t just limited to personal taxes.

Let’s go all the way back to 1836, a year when the federal government had a tax surplus in the neighborhood of 30 million dollars. I know! Congress gave most of the money back to the states, and each state was able to decide how to handle it.

Maine decided to give back to the people, which meant that every single resident received a whopping $2. A woman named Salome [Sal-O-may] Sellers used her money to buy a pair of fancy candlesticks. As she told the New York Star Tribune in 1902, when she was about to turn 101 years old, quote, “Many people put their share of the surplus into flimsy finery . . . but I bought something that would keep to remember those good times by.” Today, those surplus sticks are in a museum.

Isn’t tax history fun? I’ve got some more for you. This one’s from Russia, where, in 1698, Peter the Great introduced a beard tax.

After embarking upon what he called a “Grand Embassy” across Europe to observe more about Western cultures and processes, Peter came back with a number of reforms designed to bring Russia up to speed—and one of those reforms impacted facial hair. The tsar noted that “modern” Western Europeans eschewed beards, and he wanted to emulate the trend within his own borders. If that doesn’t seem strange enough, wait until you hear how he unveiled his new anti-beard beliefs: At a big state reception, the tsar whipped out a massive barber’s razor and proceeded to shave his guests’ beards.

Although Peter was originally against beards entirely, he eventually decided to make money off of his ban by allowing facial hair, but taxing it. Nobility and merchants were charged significantly more than commoners, by the way. I don’t know of any taxes on facial hair these days, but unusual taxes still abound.

In England, shelled nuts are subject to a 20% value added tax. And India’s “entertainment” tax can be even worse. Movie tickets are taxed anywhere from 18-28 percent depending on the price of the tickets.

This is actually an improvement - before the government launched the Goods and Services tax, it was left up to each state to set their own entertainment tax. In Jharkhand, the tax was 110%. And let’s talk about the cow flatulence tax.

Cow farts—well, really more like cow burps—are no laughing matter. The methane they produce is contributing to climate change in a big way. To help offset some of these drawbacks, many EU countries are looking at introducing a cow tax to tax producers for cow flatulence.

How about a special hat tax? From 1784 to 1811, British citizens had to pay a tax on their hats. To prove they paid the tax, a stamp was pasted inside of the hat.

If the hat police caught you wearing a stamp-less hat, you’d be hit with a hefty fine. Seem extreme? It gets worse.

In 1798, a man named John Collins was caught using a printing press to forge the stamps, which would allow people to skirt the tax. He was sentenced to death. There are always people who get creative with their tax deductions.

While most don’t pass muster, the Tax Court, a court of law dedicated to tax-related disputes and issues, does occasionally find in favor of some pretty unusual claims. For example, TurboTax tells the story of a professional bodybuilder who successfully claimed his supply of body oil as a professional necessity. However, the court wasn’t a total pushover — he also tried to claim buffalo meat and vitamin supplements, which they nixed.

Now I’m reconsidering writing off that life size cutout of Theodore Roosevelt...which I needed...for work. Do you live in New Mexico? Have you lived there for at least a century?

Then I’ve got great news for you! You don’t have to pay state taxes. The Land of Enchantment provides a major tax break to all centenarians.

But considering there are only 80,000 100-plus-year-olds in the entire United States, New Mexico isn’t exactly losing out on major money by providing this perk. The IRS is a notorious stickler for on-time filing — which no one knows better than Jack Swigert, the command module pilot for Apollo 13 who joined the crew at the last minute. He was mid-mission when he realized that he was going to miss the April 15 deadline, so he radioed Houston to request an extension.

Although the ground crew laughed at what they presumed was a joke, Swigert was dead serious. According to NASA transcripts, he said, "Hey, listen, it ain't too funny; things kind of happened real fast down there, and I do need an extension. I didn't get mine filed, and this is serious." This sort of thing happens more than you might expect, by the way.

In 2005, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao was commanding the 10th expedition to the International Space Station when Tax Day reared its ugly head. He prevailed upon his sister, an accountant, to file an extension of his behalf, and he got right on it when he returned to Earth on April 24. The President of the United States isn’t exempt from taxes.

In fact, the POTUS is expected to pay their rightful share, though there are a few nice perks, including a nontaxable travel account worth $100,000 and a nontaxable entertainment account with a $19,000 limit. Of course, those policies can always change. The IRS updates tax requirements on a regular basis, and with the Reform Act of 1986, they started requiring taxpayers to list their dependents’ Social Security numbers for the first time.

When citizens were forced to provide this evidence, several million children mysteriously “disappeared” from tax returns. As of 2018, only 10% of people were still filing paper tax returns. Not only does this mean that those people will wait longer to get any refunds back, it also increases their chances of screwing things up: Paper tax returns are around 40 times more likely to contain mistakes compared to online filing.

And since most of us are filing online now, here’s a great tip: There’s a good chance you can file your taxes for free. If your adjusted gross income is less than $69,000, you’re eligible to use IRS Free File. 70 percent of filers qualify, which works out to 100 million Americans. If your adjusted gross income is more than $69,000, you can still use Free File.

But it’s not going to walk you through the process step-by-step like the other version, so you have to feel pretty comfortable doing your taxes. One guy not comfortable with taxes, specifically with collecting them: Founding Father Sam Adams. Adams was elected to Boston’s tax collector post in 1756, but he wasn’t terribly interested in the job.

He was prone to overlooking tax debts from people having financial or medical difficulties, which made him a bit like Robin Hood to working class Bostonians. The problem was, the tax collector was personally liable for uncollected taxes — and by 1765, he owed more than £8,000 — equivalent to nearly £1.5 million today. He did end up trying to go after some of the uncollected taxes, but apparently without much success.

According to the New England Historical Society, his well-to-do friends ended up covering most of Adams’s debt. Finally, let’s talk about the time Vermont declared war on Germany for tax purposes. In the lead-up to the United States entering World War II, Vermont lawmakers voted to give residents serving in the military a $10-a-month bonus.

If the raise was instituted during peacetime, though, everyone would have been hit with a new tax. In order to avoid it, the bonus needed to be issued during a time of armed conflict. War hadn’t officially been declared yet, but President Franklin Roosevelt had issued orders for the U.

S. Navy to shoot first if they came across German ships in waters “necessary for our defense.” Vermont lawmakers decided this order was enough for them to basically declare we were at war with Germany in September, 1941 — three months before the United States did. Hey guys.

Before Erin wraps things up, just wanted to share a quick message. Hello. My name is Justin.

Welcome to my bathroom. You can see my on our shows Misconceptions and Food History, but if you happen to be watching this episode the week of April 15th, 2020, you can check me out this Friday when we go live for the premiere of our new series, Tub Trivia. It's kinda like pub trivia, but...with one...major...difference.

It's gonna be super fun, so if you like trivia, make sure to check it out. Friday the 17th, 7pm, Eastern Standard Time, right here on the Mental Floss YouTube channel. Now if you'll excuse me, I actually have to finish conditioning.

Our next episode is about Child-Rearing Tips from the 1800s. We had planned to film that episode a while ago, but rearranged our schedule when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. On that note, if you have any lists you’d particularly like to see while you’re quarantining, let us know in the comments.

Also, feel free to take bets on when I’m going to start cutting my own bangs. We’ll see you soon!