It sounds like a straightforward trivia question: Was the flush toilet invented by a Victorian Englishman named Thomas Crapper, and is his name the source of the slang expression for that invention? The simple answer is no. Or rather, no and yes. Crapper was indeed a real person, and his story is a fascinating example of how misinformation can assume a life of its own once it appears in print.

Most of the confusion about Crapper is the fault of a New Zealand-born author named Wallace Reyburn, who wrote Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper in 1969. An odd semifactual biography, it falsely claimed that Crapper invented the flush toilet (in reality, the first flush-mechanism patents were issued in the mid-1770s, some 60 years...

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