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A land of wild bandits, train robberies, and damsels in distress. How exciting! Well, maybe not so much. Let's break some common misconceptions about the Wild West.

Misconceptions: A curious show where we debunk common myths, mistakes, and misconceptions about the world.


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Hi, I'm Elliot and this is mental_floss video and today I am going to talk about some misconceptions about the Wild West. Ye haw. And I'm sorry.

Misconception #1: Cowboy hats were all the rage. When you think Wild West, you probably think of cowboys and their iconic hats.  Well, it turns out that most men in the Wild West preferred top hats and bowler hats.  Hollywood is still blamed for the association between cowboy hats and the Wild West.  They started putting them in movies in the 20s and the myth grew.  Liars!

Misconception #2: Everyone owned guns.  Actually, you could argue that we have less strict gun laws in the US right now than they did in the Wild West.  Back then, guns were illegal in many towns and you often had to give your gun to the sheriff when you arrived in a town.  The Wild West was actually a much less violent place than we usually picture.

Misconception #3: There were a lot of bank robberies.  There wasn't that much crime in the Wild West at all, robberies or otherwise.  Expert Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier wrote about this phenomenon.  He claimed: "A look at two frontier mining towns--Aurora, Nevada and Bodie, California--illustrates these points.  The tons were home to a considerable number of homicides, but they were remarkably free from most crime: robbery, theft, and burglary occurred infrequently and bank robbery, rape, racial violence, and serious juvenile crime seem not to have occurred at all."  What happened to us?

Which brings me to misconception #4: It was a violent place to live.  That quote from McGrath mentions the considerable number of homicides, but even that seems to be an exaggeration.  A lot of the writings about the violent Wild West are based on assumptions.  Some experts even claim that the Western frontier was less violent and chaotic than current conditions in the United States.  There were private detective agencies that kept societies in order and helped bring justice when there was conflict.  It was a utopia.

Misconception #5: It was just cowboys and Indians.  There were many different ethnicities represented in the Wild West during the late 19th century.  In addition to Indian-Americans and anglo-americans, a town might contain people from Latin, Asian, and African backgrounds.  People spoke all different languages and celebrated different cultures throughout the Western frontier.

Misconception #6: Only men owned land there.  There are a few examples of women who owned land on the Western frontier.  Women with opportunities were able to own property, though they were most likely white widows who inherited it from their husbands.  Spanish women in the Southwest actually experienced the most freedom at the time.  They were able to maintain their own property even if they were married.

Misconception #7: The famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place in an actual corral.  This is considering the most famous gunfight in the Wild West and the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, AZ, a group of cowboys got into a shootout with a group of lawmen and unfortunately, much of it is myth, though the event is said to have occurred in 1881, it didn't become well-known until the 1930s, which means a lot of it got exaggerated.  For instance, the shooting happened in an alleyway down the street from the O.K. Corral and the gunfight wasn't representative of some long conflict between outlaws and lawmen.  Instead, one of the outlaws had just received a $25 fine for illegally carrying his gun in public, then there was a resulting shoot out.  Both sides are believed to have had political agendas as well.

Alright, so let's finish up with some myths about famous figures in the Wild West.  Misconception #8: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died in Bolivia.  This has been debated for decades and we still don't actually know where or when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died.  Experts are certain that they spent time in Bolivia, but some believe that they survived and moved back to the US.  There are uncovered letters written by the Sundance Kid that prove he was trying to return to San Francisco with his wife, but there's no evidence that he actually made it there.  There's also a claim that Butch Cassidy moved to France where he got plastic surgery and then returned to the US, but that seems to be a myth.  But no matter what, that famous scene in the movie where they go running into the Bolivian army probably didn't happen.  The official story is that when they were cornered, Butch shot the Sundance Kid and then shot himself.

Misconception #9: Annie Oakley was loud and outspoken.  This myth was popularized by the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  In the show, Annie is portrayed as rambunctious, but according to real accounts, she was actually on the shy side.  Poor Annie.

Misconception #10: Billy the Kid was left-handed.  For a long time, it was believed that Billy the Kid was left-handed because he has a holster on his left side in one photograph, but people eventually figured out that the picture was probably a mirror image, meaning it was on his right side after all.  The belief now is that he was ambidextrous because there was a newspaper article from 1881 that claims, "He shoots with his left hand as accurately as he does with his right."

Thanks for watching Misconceptions on mental_floss video.  If you have a topic for an upcoming misconceptions episode that you would like to see, leave it in the comments and I'll see you next week.