Fact-Checking Philly History Tours: Truths, Half-Truths and Truthiness

Ten years after the city tried to crack down on BS-spewing tour guides, things have gotten better. But you still can’t believe everything you hear.

Photograph courtesy of Lee Foster/Alamy Stock Photo

Recently I learned about Philadelphia history the way our Colonial forefathers did: by riding around with a pretty date and a La Colombe coffee in a horse-pulled buggy. The driver was congenial and the horse handsome, and vice versa, and though it was a cold and gray winter afternoon, there was something romantic in the air as our driver slowed the clop-clop of his steed’s hooves near Dock Street and turned around to confide: “We have the oldest sewer system in America.”

Sightseeing tours of historic Philadelphia are like blizzards of candy factoids raining from the sky. As the landmarks whiz by, guides shower visiting pilgrims with history-book facts, anecdotes about the founding fathers, incredible backstories about public art, impressive and begging-for-fact-check firsts and biggests and oldests. During my recent incognito sampling of sightseeing tours by double-decker bus, horse carriage, Segway and foot, I heard a flurry of eye-opening historical allegations:

Broad Street is America’s broadest street! John Hancock was a smuggler. Pennsylvania Hospital used to sell tickets to watch the surgeries. The colonists ate so many oysters, they could have paved the roads with shells. Betsy Ross “had a thing for” Polish-American patriot Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

Wow, cool! Wait — what?

There was more. On a bus tour, our engaging guide informed passengers that LOVE sculpture artist Robert Indiana chose not to “patent” the design “because he was going through his fourth divorce and didn’t want to share the proceeds with his soon-to-be-ex-wife.”

Really?!! Well, no. Apparently Indiana neglected to copyright the design initially, then later regained rights, but according to a spokeswoman for the artist whom I contacted afterward, “Mr. Indiana has never been married and certainly was not going through a divorce.”

It turns out not every truth, at least when it comes to Philadelphia history tours, is self-evident. Based on my small sample size, I’m putting it at about 83 percent. That means — good news! — our city sightseeing tours are mostly accurate. But there’s still a fertile area of dare-you-to-disprove sketchiness and just enough whacked-out face-palmers to keep the city’s vital tourist audience entertained. What could be more American?

Ten years ago, Philadelphia City Council passed a law, and mayor Michael Nutter signed it, that said anybody who wanted to give a paid sightseeing tour in Center City had to pass a Philadelphia history test to get a license. That ordinance remains on the books, and this April we celebrate the 10th anniversary of its never being enforced.

Retired Daily News reporter Ron Avery put democracy in action by bothering people enough to get the law created in 2008. As evidence that it was necessary, Avery amassed a list of 92 wrong things that Philly tour guides told unsuspecting tourists, including whoppers like Ben Franklin having 69 illegitimate kids and Betsy Ross owning three cats named Red, White and Blue.

Avery argued that New York and other cities had tour-guide licensing laws. “I was in Budapest taking a tour on the bus. The guide said it was six months of training, and then the test was both written and oral,” Avery tells me when I call to ask about his intentions. “Philadelphia’s real history is fascinating. You don’t have to make this bullshit up.”

Sightseeing before 2008 really could get wacky. George Boudreau, the gregarious author of the book Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia, recalls one day when he was sweeping the steps outside the Colonial-era Powel House on 3rd Street, where he worked, and a carriage driver made a misstatement about its architecture. Boudreau says he walked up, “took the reins of the horse,” and offered to share original property documents.

Almost immediately after it became Philadelphia law, the license requirement was challenged by three local tour guides, represented pro bono by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm out of Arlington, Virginia. The regulation-battling lawyers presented the law as a First Amendment issue. They played up the crazy irony of the government restricting free speech in the birthplace of American liberty. Philly tour guides could be fined for “unauthorized talking,” the attorneys complained.

Actually, the law never prohibited anyone from saying anything illicit. Guides could be fined for touring without a license, not for sexing up Ben Franklin’s private life. No matter — the plaintiffs won a temporary injunction that has in effect lasted forever, because the city never bothered to create a test or try to enforce the law. Probably never will. “As soon as they take the first steps toward creating a test, that would open them up to suit, and that would in all likelihood be the end of it,” Institute for Justice lawyer Robert McNamara informs me.

One happy offshoot of the legal skirmish was the birth of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, which offers educational sessions, a 260-page handbook of verified facts, an exam for guides, and a badge for passing it. I attended their February meeting in a Headhouse Square tavern, where about 35 history buffs and working guides heard a randy Valentine-themed talk on “Sex and the American Revolution” by president Ed Mauger. (He didn’t mention Betsy Ross lusting after Kosciuszko.) I also met Thomas Smith, a William Penn reenactor who insisted he didn’t name Pennsylvania after himself.

Still, the association is voluntary. “The people who join that organization are the good guys who want to do a good job, and the schmucks that don’t care don’t join,” Avery says. Anybody can be a Philadelphia tour guide, the same way anyone can be Batman in Times Square.

Tourism is a local industry worth protecting. Visit Philadelphia’s 2017 annual report said the city hosted a record 42 million visitors in 2016, an estimated 88 percent of them for leisure. They spent $6.8 billion, mostly on food, drinks and lodging. And some on sightseeing. Centipede, an operator of group tours, says it serves some 35,000 people a year.

The industry has consolidated at the top. The Big Bus Double Decker tour, Philadelphia Trolley Works, Franklin Footsteps Walking Tours and 76 Carriage Tours are all part of the same company. The duck boats are gone. Last year, 76 became the lone carriage-tour operator when Philadelphia Carriage shut down in the face of allegations of horse mistreatment. But smaller tours are proliferating. Through Airbnb, moonlighting locals have offered tourists dozens of guided adventures, including a Fishtown brewery tour, a Rocky Run, and a street art tour with cocktails.

The serious operators do their own quality control to keep their Yelp and TripAdvisor ratings healthy. Pamela McMahon, who’s in charge of training new guides at Philadelphia Trolley/Big Bus, gives new employees research materials and practice tours before they can go out, then rides along incognito, like I did. “I’ve been trying to wean the older guides from some of the old [fake] stories,” she says. David Cross, a former trial attorney and history buff who started Bow Tie Tours in 2015, administers a 100-question exam that covers not just landmarks but also precursors to America’s independence and Jefferson’s Enlightenment-age readings.

But guides do need to keep their audiences entertained. In a country where Facebook friends share bogus political news composed by Russian teenagers and nearly 10 percent of respondents to a 2016 poll believed that Judith Sheindlin (a.k.a. Judge Judy) is on the Supreme Court, tourists really aren’t signing up for an AP History lecture. Cross says that while trying to optimize his tour-company website for search engines, he was distressed to see the number of Google searches declining annually for terms like “George Washington” and “American history.” Maybe people aren’t looking for, like, a million percent accuracy.

Take enough tours, and a pattern does emerge of particular ways in which guides get things not quite right. The number one problem might be reaching for Number Ones — those oldests, firsts, biggests. Yes, City Hall is the largest municipal services building in America. But Broad Street isn’t the country’s broadest street.

The nation’s oldest sewer system?

“Well, that’s not true,” says Adam Levine, historical consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department (a.k.a. the foremost authority on Philly’s sewer history). “What people usually try to claim is that Philadelphia had the first water system in the country, and that’s not even true.”

Was Christ Church the nation’s tallest building at one time, as many tours say? Neil Ronk, senior guide there, thinks probably, but hedges: “I believe we are safe to say that we were the tallest building built in the 13 colonies, and we were the landmark along the waterfront of the City of Philadelphia for over a century.”

“It’s scary how little you can prove,” he adds. Ronk is a thoughtful scholar who once had a blog titled History Made Fresh. History evolves, he says. The church used to tell visitors that one particular pew was where Betsy Ross sat. Then they weren’t sure and made the pew simply an opportunity to talk about Ross. Ronk understands that people often prefer the good old facts. (“It’s comfort food.”) Or “facts” that support their beliefs. Some visitors, he says, latch onto the tour-guide probable inaccuracy that every founding father attended Christ Church as proof we’re meant to be a Christian nation.

Some bloopers from Ron Avery’s list cling on, passed down faithfully like tour-guide heirlooms. It’s common on tours to learn why Philadelphia has a Front Street instead of a First Street. William Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme, as Quakers, supposedly didn’t want to place anything “first before God.”

“It seems a little bit fishy to me, because Quakers say ‘First Day’ to mean  Sunday, and that doesn’t bother them as being ‘first before God,’” says Lynne Calamia, director at the Arch Street Meeting House. “Sometimes it feels like Quaker history is 75 percent legend.”

Another Avery-era tale I heard more than once: You see how some old brick houses have plaques out front that show clasped hands? Those “fire marks” were proof you had fire insurance. If the fire department came and didn’t see one on your house, they’d let it burn down!

“Thanks so much for checking — it’s a complete fallacy,” says Carol Smith, historian at Philadelphia’s Fireman’s Hall Museum.

Frequently, the dubious sightseeing points could benefit from rewording — a nuanced “one of the first” or “believed to be” disclaimer. Or a news update. It was interesting to hear that the former Family Court building on the Parkway is being turned into a “fancy hotel, the first to be owned by an African-American.” Recent tax law changes put that project in jeopardy. And, umm, it’s entirely possible that other fancy hotels have been owned by African-Americans.

I enjoyed it when guides speculated on the state of mind of the figures depicted in statues. Is the nameless Colonial “Signer” memorialized in bronze at 5th and Chestnut really looking into outer space “to spread democracy throughout the universe”? “Never heard that one,” says George Boudreau. “It does look like he’s doing Pilates or something.”

Probably the most creative misinformation swirls around Ben Franklin and our other celebrity founders. The mythologizing starts when we’re kids: Washington hacked down the cherry tree, Franklin flew a kite to discover electricity. I consider the embellishment of such exploits to be fan fiction: These guys belong to us now, and we can imagine them however we want. The movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made $116 million.

Betsy Ross’s own descendants helped create the legend about her making the American flag, which is only partly, maybe, true. “Any story that comes to life 80 years later, you have to question,” Cross says. “How often do you lie to your kids? Betsy Ross may have told stories, and then it’s history. My daughter swears I told her Bill Clinton wrote ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

I tried but couldn’t find any source to support my carriage driver’s tabloid scuttlebutt that Ross had a crush on Thaddeus Kosciuszko. At the Betsy Ross House, they shook their heads. Koz isn’t even mentioned in Betsy Ross and the Making of America, Marla Miller’s 400-page biography.

And yet some tour-guide nuggets that sound totally nuts actually are true, because hey, this is Philly. Pennsylvania Hospital did have a “lunatick ward” in the basement, it did sell tickets to surgeries, and yes, doctors would offer to knock out surgery patients with a mallet, confirms Stacey Peeples, the hospital’s curator and lead archivist.

A few weeks after my carriage ride, I hunt down my driver for a recap. He says he must have read in a book that Betsy Ross had a crush on Kosciuszko. He’s been doing this for 20 years. He takes care of his horse. He gives a good ride. “Nobody’s perfect,” he confesses.

I will say that I enjoyed all of my tours. And it was awesome riding through the Italian Market on a Segway, like a kind of cyborg Rocky.

Patrick Spero, the librarian at the American Philosophical Society on 5th Street, figures he could get upset by the liberties being taken with history right outside his door. But he’s philosophical about it.

“You often need a good character to get people interested,” he says. “Sometimes you need some, I’m going to say, creative license.”

And I realized that some of the tour-guide patter is just … jokes. For a lot of visitors, a sightseeing tour is the show before dinner. Not everybody can afford Hamilton tickets to learn American history. When my carriage guide called William Penn “the friendliest guy in Philly” because he named his ship the Welcome, it was a laugh line.

“See the statue with flags?” he said later, pointing into Washington Square. “There’s a tomb in there. It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. So there’s a tomb, with a soldier from the Revolutionary War. But he’s unknown.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Published as “Ye Old Fake Newse?” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.