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William Tell: Myth or Reality?

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, lecturer, and cofounder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.

In medieval Switzerland, the ancient Austrian imperial house of Hapsburg dominated some regions, including the mountainous canton of Uri, which is rich in forests and glaciers. According to one story, a hunter—an honest family man and a skilled archer—lived there. His name was William Tell. On November 18, 1307, Tell traveled with his son Walter to the regional capital, Altdorf.

In the main square, the local representative of the Hapsburgs, bailiff Heinrich Gessler, had a pole on top of which he had placed his hat as a symbol of imperial authority. Anyone who did not bow down to the hat risked death or the confiscation of his property.

Tell, perhaps distracted or because of his mountaineer pride, ignored the hat as he entered the city. Immediately, he was arrested, and in the square, in front of everyone, he was compelled to justify his action. The only way to resolve the situation, Gessler stated, was if with his crossbow Tell was able to pierce an apple placed on top of the hunter’s son’s head. In that case, freedom would be given, otherwise they would both die.

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