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Myth and mystery continue to cloak Sir Walter Raleigh

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On a recent sunny afternoon, wind blew droplets of water from the fountains outside the Raleigh Convention Center on Salisbury Street onto passersby as they drew on their own founts of knowledge regarding the North Carolina capital's namesake. Near the iconic and oft-relocated statue of Sir Walter Raleigh, men and women on the street showed that though they could easily name the man in whose image the statue was built, they had trouble separating the truth about his life from the stuff of myth and legend.

Contrary to unscientifically gathered popular belief (or logical assumption, perhaps), Sir Walter Raleigh did not found or help establish our fair City of Oaks, as several people posited. In fact, Sir Raleigh never stepped foot in North America at all.

Questions about Sir Walter Raleigh elicited answers (excuses?) that exemplify the diversity of what Forbes has designated as the fastest-growing city in the nation. Two police officers could say that they knew from doing their rounds that "[the statue] gets dressed up a lot," but their knowledge of Sir Walter ended there. They were transplants from Virginia and New Jersey, the policewomen hastened to add; other passersby hailed from Boston, New York City and Pennsylvania.

"I want to say that he has to do with the colony that was started up in Roanoke," said one gentleman on his way to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. "He's obviously a significant figure and that's pretty much a precedent, a lot of places name themselves after somebody who meant a lot to the area."

This was probably the most astute comment of the day, yet also the most evasive.

"Wasn't there a brand of cigarettes named after Sir Walter Raleigh?" another gentleman pondered. Apropos to this bit of marketing strategy, Sir Walter Raleigh is known to have indulged in the pipe. "I think he financed the Lost Colony trip," said the man's friend. "And Raleigh was named after him because the Lost Colony was in North Carolina. I think he lost his head. And he put down his coat for the queen to walk through a mud puddle. I can't remember what else."

Losing his head, tobacco, the Lost Colony and something to do with the queen: This is Sir Walter's legacy after all these centuries. A whippersnapper on a smoke break took all speculation one step further: "Didn't Sir Walter Raleigh give the queen a STD," he asked, "and that's why he got beheaded?"

Sir Raleigh had a reputation as a lover of the ladies, to be sure, but it was a different Elizabeth who stole his heart. Someone should let that young man know: Elizabeth I isn't called the Virgin Queen for nothing.

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