Myth Trivia: Sooners, guillotines and Portland, Oregon

Boston, Oregon does not have the right ring to it - and what would have happened to our favorite quirky show, Portlandia? That and other trivia.


CHARLOTTE, N.C., March 18, 2015 – It’s that time again to venture into our weekly excursion into misinformation and interesting facts we thought were common knowledge or we never knew.

1 – Portland, Ore., could have been called Boston

It all happened at a family dinner party in 1845, when Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove got into a dispute about what to call Oregon City, as it was known at the time. Most of the family tree was rooted in New England, but Pettygrove was from Maine and Lovejoy hailed from Massachusetts.

As Joseph Gaston chronicaled in his 1911 book “Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders,” the disagreement continued for quite some time with no solution in sight. Lovejoy wanted to name the city Boston while Pettygrove preferred Portland.

Eventually it was decided the matter should be resolved by tossing a “copper.” An old-fashioned copper penny was revealed and a best two of three competition ensued.

As it turned out, “heads” came up once for Boston while “tails” landed twice. The town has been called “Portland” ever since. Whether or not the term “a penny for your thoughts” was an offshoot of the wager is unknown, but it is a “dickens” of a story for Oregon’s “tale of two cities.”

The Oregon History Society is now in possession of the infamous penny.

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2 – The Guillotine was a humane device

Until ISIS renewed the custom of beheading, most of us thought of execution by decapitation as a medieval practice or a product of the French Revolution. In reality, the country of Saudi Arabia still uses beheadings and stonings as a primary means of capital punishment.

Adolf Hitler made beheading by guillotine the state method of execution in the 1930s, and the guillotine was not banned in France until the 1970s.

The first prototype of the French guillotine resulted from a proposal by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in late 1789. Though he was an opponent of capital punishment, Guillotin’s idea was to create a machine that would make beheadings quicker, cleaner and more efficient than the traditional means of using an axe or a sword.

Guillotin was aware that many medieval beheadings had been botched by inexperienced executioners who sometimes used two, three or, even, four strikes to accomplish the task.

Guillotin’s idea had many early predecessors but, much to his horror, his contribution allowed his name to be attached to the device.

From September 1793 until July 1794, the “Reign of Terror” enveloped France with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette among the most notable victims what became dubbed the “National Razor.”

During that time, executions almost became sporting events; they included souvenirs, programs listing the names of the victims and even a nearby restaurant called “Cabaret de la Guillotine” for last-minute pre-execution cuisine.

For a short time, one of the most popular children’s toys was a fully operational guillotine, which kids used to cut the heads off their dolls or to decapitate mice and rats.

Aristocratic youth were even known to throw “victim balls” in the late 18th century to pay homage to anyone with relatives who were victims of the dreaded blade. The events became so popular that some people even lied about their victimized relations so they would receive an invitation.

Citizen Guillotin’s invention was inspired as an effort to make executions more humane; yet, in the end, he never even got severance pay.

3 – Why are Oklahomans called “Sooners”?

Each year during college football season the Oklahoma Sooners are a perennial powerhouse that consistently ranks among the top ten. But what exactly is a “sooner” anyway?

We can trace the history back to the Indian Appropriation Act of 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison opened up land in the region for settlers who would race to stake their claims for property. These land runs were portrayed in several movies, perhaps the most noteworthy being the 1992 production of “Far and Away,” starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

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During the land races, the participants claimed what was termed “unassigned lands.” The name “sooner” derived from unscrupulous settlers who went out before the land races took place and made illegal claims for the property ahead of the racers. Thus a “sooner” was someone who took unfair advantage of the process by making claims “sooner” than they legally could. A “sooner” was a derogatory expression that carried a somewhat more sinister meaning than might first be expected.

As an added note, there was another group called “boomers” who believed that Indian lands belonged to the whites and used raids on the native tribes to force them to yield their land. It was partly because of the illegal invasions by the “boomers” that the need for land runs arose.

In the meantime, we’ll be back with more “trivial pursuits” “sooner” than you think.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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