Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses when they claim to be such gung-ho Christians? I’ve heard this comes from a Scottish ritual of some sort, but I shudder to think that a down-home American tradition like the Klan has actually been a subversive plot by wily Scotsmen. –Anonymous, Madison, Wisconsin

The Scotch apparently originated cross burning, but you can thank your friends in the media for selling the idea to the KKK. The Scottish romantic writer Sir Walter Scott, a great admirer of ancient Scottish traditions, first brought the “fiery cross” to modern attention in his 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake. In the poem the cross is set ablaze on the hilltops to summon the Scottish clans. Scott’s work was extremely popular in the American south, where much of the populace was of Scotch-Irish extraction.

The original Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in 1866 and disbanded a few years later, didn’t burn crosses, but that didn’t stop author Thomas Dixon from saying they did in his pro-KKK novel The Clansman (1905). “The Fiery Cross of old Scotland’s hills!” a character in the book announces. “In olden times when the Chieftain of our people summoned the clan on an errand of life and death, the Fiery Cross, extinguished in a sacrificial blood, was sent by swift courier from village to village.”

While reasonably successful, The Clansman didn’t become a national phenomenon until Dixon sold the movie rights to the pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who used it to make his ground-breaking film The Birth of a Nation (1915). In a dramatic scene, the movie’s hero rears up his horse and brandishes a flaming cross to summon the Klans to drive out the black oppressors and their northern white allies who controlled the south during Reconstruction. Meanwhile the movie theater’s orchestra (remember, this was the silent era) struck up Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Southern white audiences generally went nuts at this point, clapping and cheering.

Knowing a good idea when he saw one, William J. Simmons, the founder of the Klan in its second incarnation (1915-1944), cobbled together a cross and burned it at a meeting of the newly established Knights of the KKK on Thanksgiving night 1915, on Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Flaming crosses have been a Klan trademark ever since.

This probably leaves just one question in your mind: where did the name Ku Klux Klan come from, anyway? Seems the men who founded the original Klan were tossing out ideas for a name when somebody came up with kukloi, plural of the Greek kuklos, circle. Whoa, said somebody else, what if we twist kuklos into Ku Klux? Kool, said the others. Klan was added later for alliteration.

Why are there 360 degrees in a circle? –Listener, NPR

One of Cecil’s disciples got this question the other day on a radio talk show and, predictably, had no clue. However, from long experience we have learned that when in doubt blame it on the Babylonians. Sure enough, when we looked up “degree” in our Oxford English Dictionary, we read, “this division of the circle is very ancient, and appears to have been originally applied to the circle of the Zodiac, a degree being the space or distance travelled by the sun each day according to ancient Babylonian and Egyptian computation, just as a sign represented the space passed through in a month.”


OK, Quayle bashing is fun, even if a little dated. But I’m shocked that you of all people would perpetuate the myth of Quayle supposedly saying that Latin Americans spoke Latin [April 16]. He never said it! It was a Jay Leno joke! –Paul Vander Woude, Chicago

Actually, according to Charles Halevi, who researched this for a Chicago journalists’ newsletter, the joke was made up by Republican U.S. Representative Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island. Many publications reported it as fact during late April and early May 1989, including Newsweek, where I saw it. Serves me right for believing what I read in the mainstream press.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.