We all sat through history classes in school, and, mostly, we pretty much believed what our teachers taught us. But how often are accepted historical “facts” anything but true? How about a president’s wooden dentures, horns on Viking helmets, a cow that started the Great Chicago Fire? Truth is, they’re all historical facts that need a good trashing. Read on to discover 40 of the most pernicious “truths” from history that are actually entirely false.
40. Vikings had horns on their helmets
It’s well-known fact that when Vikings went raiding, a favorite pastime for them, they wore metal helmets accessorized with large horns. But it turns out that this is one of those “well-known facts” that is utter nonsense. Historians and archaeologists have hunted high and low for evidence of horned Viking helmets. Outside of Wagner operas, they’ve never found any.
39. George Washington never told a lie
It’s a bold claim for any human being to make: never telling a lie. Fair enough, George Washington was hardly your average person. Even so, it’s not too hard to expose the total truthfulness of the first U.S. president as a myth. Let’s take just one example. When Washington led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he had no problem with double-dealing and falsehood. He made an art of feeding false information to his British enemies in the pursuit of victory.
38. Shakespeare wrote the plot of Hamlet
Some doubt that William Shakespeare wrote any of his plays, but that’s a fringe view mostly held by cranks. Most scholars accept that the Bard of Avon wrote what’s recognized as one of his most powerful works, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. But the play’s narrative is actually lifted from an ancient legend. It tells the story of a prince plotting revenge on the uncle that murdered his father, as does Hamlet.
37. Jewish slaves built the pyramids
There’s a fixed idea that Jewish slaves built Egypt’s ancient pyramids. But there are two problems with this “fact.” First, recently uncovered archaeological evidence had shown that the people who did build the pyramids were not enslaved. They were rather paid laborers and craftsmen. The second point is even more compelling. In 2013 Professor Amihai Mazar of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told newswire Associated Press, “No Jews built the pyramids because Jews didn’t exist at the period when the pyramids were built.”
36. Ninjas wore all-black body suits
We all know the black suits that ninja warriors wear. Or at least we think we do because of all the martial-arts movies that we’ve seen portraying the costume. But in 2017 entertainment website HuffPost reported that the folks at Japan’s Ninja Museum of Iga-ryū begged to differ. They said that the stereotypical view of ninja costume was actually, “a mistaken image of the ninja introduced by movies and comic books.” And they should know.
35. Iron maidens were fiendish torture devices
Horror films have taught us all we need to know about iron maidens. They were horrific torture devices from medieval times. The apparatus consisted of a coffin-shaped chamber with sharp blades on the inside. Once a terrified victim was place into it, the lid was shut causing horrible and probably fatal injuries. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the fiendish torture gizmo ever existed.
34. Napoleon was short
We’re often told that Napoleon Bonaparte, who turned the established order of Europe on its head in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was a little guy. A condition known as the Napoleon complex is said to identify short men who over-compensate for their stature with aggression. Certainly, at five foot five inches, Napoleon wouldn’t be judged as tall in the modern era. But in fact the average male height in France was around five foot five inches in his time. So by the standards of his day, Napoleon wasn’t especially little at all.
33. Edison invented the light bulb
It’s a well-known fact that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. But like so many well-known facts, it’s not true. He did indeed finesse the technology of the electric light bulb and successfully brought it to market. But there were earlier versions of devices that used electricity to produce light. Humphry Davy, for example, invented a rudimentary electric light as early as 1802.
32. Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets on a horse
Lady Godiva, the tale goes, rode through the English city of Coventry as naked as the day she was born. She did this, according to the story, because her husband, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, promised to abolish local taxes if she performed the nude horse ride. The two characters in the story did exist in the 11th century. But did the infamous ride really happen? Almost certainly not. The tale first appeared around a century after Godiva’s death in the writings of a notoriously unreliable English monk, Roger of Wendover.
31. Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey instead of the bald eagle as the U.S. national bird
Benjamin Franklin is said to have expressed a desire to replace the bald eagle as a national symbol with the turkey. It’s true that in a 1784 letter to his daughter Sally, he wrote that the bald eagle was “a bird of bad moral character,” and that he wished it had not been selected as America’s national bird. Plus he asserted that the turkey was “a much more respectable bird.” But this was merely light-hearted banter in a letter to his daughter. He never seriously campaigned to replace the eagle with the turkey.
30. King Henry VIII was fat, evil, and hated for his whole reign
King Henry VIII has perhaps the worst profile of any member of Britain’s royal family. After all, he ruthlessly disposed of wives he didn’t want, and he was grossly obese and generally obnoxious. There’s certainly much truth to that image, especially as the king aged. But it’s worth remembering that he was a fit and slender youth of just 18 when he succeeded to the throne. What’s more, he was actually a popular monarch in the earlier days of his reign. So the idea that he was evil, hated, and fat throughout his years on the throne is actually wrong.
29. A cow caused the Great Chicago Fire
There’s no doubt that the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 happened. It was a tragic event in which thousands of buildings were burnt out, and some 300 citizens died. But was it really started when a cow kicked over a lantern as popular legend has it? The cow has even been identified in legend as belonging to a Mrs. O’Leary. But 40 years after the event, a journalist called Michael Ahern admitted that he’d made the whole tale up.
28. The U.S. declared independence on July 4, 1776
There’s no doubt that the Continental Congress declared independence from the British in 1776. And most of us, if asked, would pinpoint the date as July 4. It is after all the day when the independence declaration is celebrated every year. But in fact Congress had actually voted for independence two days earlier on the 2nd of the month. And the declaration wasn’t signed off by Congress until August.
27. George Washington Carver invented peanut butter
Peanut butter sandwiches, the staple of millions of school lunchboxes, have fueled generations of young Americans. And it’s widely believed that we have George Washington Carver to thank for inventing the toothsome spread. Although he did develop many products using peanuts, peanut butter was not one of them. The truth is that we have to back some 3,000 years before Carver was born to find the true origin of a paste made from peanuts. It was the ancient Incas who first came up with peanut butter, or something resembling it.
26. Columbus wanted to prove the world was round
It’s sometimes asserted that one of Christopher Columbus’s aims on his ambitious exploratory journeys 500 years ago was to prove once and for all that the Earth was round. But that is highly unlikely for one simple reason. The ancient Greeks had already conclusively shown that our planet was not flat but round centuries earlier. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle showed Earth was round by observing the planet’s shadow on the Moon. Columbus would surely have known this.
25. Einstein was a poor student and failed math
Somehow, a widely believed story that Einstein was a poor student and even that he wasn’t much good at math has circulated widely. It seems that this is because of a misunderstanding about the grades system at his school, the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, Switzerland. In Einstein’s last year at the institution in 1896, the school flipped its system so that a grade 1 became a grade 6. Previously, grade 6 had been a fail, now it was the highest pass. Some researchers, seeing lots of grade 1s from the old system, apparently missed this subtlety.
24. Paul Revere shouted “the British are coming”
It’s widely known that American patriot Paul Revere rode through the night to warn the citizens of Massachusetts with his famous cry, “The British are coming!” In fact, he did set off after dark on April 18, 1775, riding from Boston to Lexington to warn two revolutionaries that the British planned to arrest them. But there’s no evidence that he hollered that famous phrase as he rode.
23. Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”
When she was told that the peasants were starving for lack of bread, many believe that the French queen, Marie Antoinette, said, “Let them eat cake.” It’s perhaps one of history’s worst cases of the rich dissing the poor in history. But she never said it. In fact it seems a different, earlier French queen, Marie-Thérèse, uttered the callous words. And she didn’t even say “cake.” Instead, she said “brioche.”
22. Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic
It’s common knowledge that in 1927 Charles Lindbergh was the first pilot to fly his plane across the Atlantic. He even won a $25,000 prize for the feat. But the truth is that two British fliers had actually made the crossing years earlier. In 1919 British airmen Arthur Brown and John Alcock flew from Newfoundland to Galway in Ireland. Lindbergh’s prize was specifically for being the first to fly from New York to Paris.
21. An apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head
The story that Isaac Newton discovered gravity after an apple fell on his head has gained traction with generations of schoolchildren. In fact, the story is not entirely without merit. It seems that Newton did indeed watch as apples fall to the ground and wondered why they always fell downwards. This observation brought him to the concept of gravity. But there’s no evidence that an apple actually dropped onto his head.
20. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree
Many of us have been taught the tale of George Washington taking an axe to a cherry tree. The second part of the story goes on to relate how he owned up to his father because he couldn’t tell a lie. In fact the entire tale was made up by one of the president’s biographers, Mason Locke Weems, in 1806. So this is one time that the charge of fake news is entirely correct.
19. Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast caused panic.
In 1938 Orson Welles broadcast on radio a fictional story about aliens invading Earth: War of the Worlds. But he narrated it as if it was actually happening in real time. Thousands of Americans panicked, believing that aliens really were invading from outer space. Or did they? Not according to Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow writing in Slate website in 2013. They say that “almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”
18. Van Gogh cut off his ear
Vincent van Gogh was one of the 20th century’s greatest artists but also a notoriously unstable individual. So unstable in fact that he cut off his own ear. That, at any rate, is the legend. The truth is that van Gogh lost only a part of his left earlobe. Plus, at the time of the alleged ear-chopping, van Gogh was living with fellow-artist Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was a keen fencer, and perhaps he sliced off the ear after an argument that turned violent. The two were known to have a highly volatile relationship. In any case, van Gogh only lost a relatively small bit of ear.
17. Walt Disney single-handedly created Mickey Mouse
In the eyes of many, Walt Disney’s greatest achievement was to create that lovable rodent, Mickey Mouse. Except he didn’t, at least not on his own. When the mouse first appeared, it was thanks to the work of Disney and a key collaborator: Ub Iwerks. At first, the two called the mouse Mortimer. But according to one part of the mythology surrounding the famous mouse, Disney’s wife couldn’t stand the name, so he became Mickey.
16. Nero fiddled while Rome burnt
In A.D. 64 a terrible fire broke out in the imperial city of Rome, causing huge damage. As the flames destroyed much of the city, the Emperor Nero looked on, apparently unconcerned as around half of the population lost their homes. He showed his callous disregard for his fellow citizens by playing his fiddle as Rome burned. There’s one major problem with this story. No one invented the fiddle, or violin, until 1,500 years afterwards.
15. The Pilgrims hosted the first Thanksgiving
The Pilgrim Fathers, we’ve often been told, hosted the first Thanksgiving in 1621 in Plymouth. But it wasn’t the first time settlers gave thanks for what the Lord had provided in this new land. As early as 1565, Spanish colonizers held a thanksgiving event in Florida. And more than a year before the Plymouth event, English settlers kneeled on the banks of the James River and gave thanks to God.
14. Spanish flu started in Spain
A terrible pandemic broke out in 1918 and killed as many as 100 million people around the world. It came to be known as the Spanish flu. But it’s actually highly unlikely that the contagion originated in Spain. This disease took the name Spanish flu because the outbreak was at first only widely reported in Spain. Other counties were still fighting in WWI, and press reports of the pandemic were suppressed. But things were different in neutral Spain. In fact, the disease may first have appeared in the U.S.
13. Cleopatra was Egyptian
It seems logical enough that Cleopatra must have been Egyptian since she was the ruler of the country from 51 to 30 B.C. But she was actually the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty of rulers, and their origins were in Greece. In fact, it’s said that this dynastic family refused even to learn the Egyptian language, choosing to stick to Greek. The one exception to that was Cleopatra, though, who did go to the trouble of learning the language of the country that she ruled.
12. Witches were burned at the stake in Salem
The Salem witch hunt of 1692 has gone down in history as a shameful example of persecution fueled by delusion. The trails of the alleged witches resulted in 20 death sentences, and it’s commonly believed that the guilty were burnt at the stake. But in truth 19 of the unfortunate victims were hanged, while one was crushed to death with rocks. It may be that the legend of burning arose from the fact that supposed witches in many European countries were indeed burnt at the stake.
11. Pasta came to Italy from China
You might well have heard this “fact,” that pasta arrived in Italy from China, confidently asserted. But it’s untrue. It seems to have arisen because the famous 13th-century traveler Marco Polo wrote of a tree he saw in China which produced something akin to pasta. It was most likely a sago palm. But Marco Polo journeyed to China in the 1270s, and an Arab explorer, Al-Idrisi, had described seeing pasta in Sicily a century earlier.
10. George Washington had wooden dentures
It’s widely known that poor old George Washington had to get along with a set of wooden dentures. While it’s true that he did need false teeth, he never had a set hewn from wood. His dentures were made with a variety of materials such as lead, ivory and gold. Lead certainly sounds like a bad idea. Gruesomely, real human teeth – someone else’s – were used in his dentures, as was common at the time.
9. Julius Caesar was born by C-section
It seems quite credible that the man who gave us the term Caesarian section, Julius Caesar, should have been born in that way himself. And that is just what many do believe. But it’s wrong: Caesar’s was a natural birth. The term comes not from the famous Roman ruler but from the name of a Roman law: Lex Caesarea. It stipulated that if a woman died in childbirth, surgeons could save her infant by removing it from the womb.
8. French soldiers shot the Sphinx’s nose off
If you ever take a trip to Egypt and visit the Great Pyramids, you’ll notice that the Sphinx is minus its nose. It’s a commonly held belief that Napoleon’s soldiers were to blame. When the French ruler invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops shot the nose off with cannon fire, the story goes. But evidence comprehensively contradicts this tale. A Dane called Frederic Louis Norden drew the Sphinx in 1737. His drawing shows the Sphinx noseless, yet he sketched it nearly 60 years before Napoleon set foot in Egypt. The true fate of the nose remains unknown.
7. The Victorians were terrible prudes
We all know that the Victorians were extremely prudish, horrified by all matters sexual. In particular, Queen Victoria was just about as tightly buttoned up as it is possible to be about sex. Yet a 2019 art exhibition in England painted a quite different picture. On display were gifts that Victoria and her husband Albert had exchanged. Included were a number of nude pictures. Curator Michael Hunter told U.K. newspaper The Guardian that the works included one that is “full frontal, with a very erotic bevy of semi-clad girls.” Not very prudish.
6. All gladiators were slaves
Ridley Scott’s 2000 blockbuster Gladiator portrays the combatants as having one thing in common. They were all slaves. And it’s a widely held belief that all of those who fought to the death in the Roman arenas were enslaved. In fact some of those who took part did so voluntarily. There were those who were seeking the wealth and fame that came with success as a gladiator. Others wanted to prove their mettle in armed combat.
5. Jesus was born on December 25
In the western Christian religion, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 each year, which is supposed to mark the day that Jesus Christ was born. In fact the Gospels, our main source of information about the Son of God, make no mention of a precise birthdate. The first reference to a celebration of Christ’s birthday comes in a Roman text from A.D. 336. Many historians believe that we mark Jesus’ birthday on December 25 because that’s around the time of the ancient pagan winter solstice festival.
4. Columbus discovered the Americas
The idea that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas is of course ridiculous. The people who were already living there when he reached the Bahamas in 1492 had obviously already found their land. That aside, was Columbus really the first from the Old World to reach the so-called new one? Even that claim is probably wrong. There’s good evidence, accepted by many historians, that Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson actually made it to what is now Canada as early as 1000.
3. Mussolini made the trains run on time
Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, in power until he was executed in 1945, has few fans. The man is recognized as a ruthless dictator, responsible for thousands of deaths during, and before, WWII. But there’s a persistent story that the dictator and his far-right regime did, at least, make Italy’s trains run on time. But he didn’t. Personal accounts by visitors to Italy testified that there were frequent railroad delays.
2. Wall Street financiers jumped from windows after the 1929 market crash
The image of financiers jumping to their deaths from high buildings on Wall Steer is an enduring one. It supposedly happened after Black Thursday in 1929 when stocks plummeted, impoverishing many formerly wealthy speculators. But the truth is different. In his 1995 book The Great Crash of 1929, economist J.K. Galbraith wrote, “In the United States, the suicide wave that followed the stock market crash is also part of the legend of 1929. In fact, there were none.”
1. George Washington wore a wig
A widely held belief has it that George Washington wore a wig. The idea probably comes from the fact that in many pictures of the great man, his hair does indeed look rather implausible. But, it turns out that the wig-wearing allegation is a libelous falsehood. Historian Ron Chernow categorically scotched the myth in his 2010 biography, Washington: A Life. “Contrary to a common belief [Washington] never wore a wig,” the author wrote.