Historical “Facts” That We’ve Been Getting Wrong For A Long Time

We’ve been told since elementary school that the victors write our history. While that statement may be partially true, even the victors often spread myths that somehow turn into well-known “facts.” Did Paul Revere ride through the streets to warn the colonials that the British were coming? Did the Pilgrims host the first-ever Thanksgiving? These are just a few examples of facts about history that you’re probably getting wrong. How many of these “facts” have you believed for your entire life?

Napoleon Bonaparte Was Short

Picture of Napoleon
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Although Napoleon Bonaparte is described as a military genius with a “little man complex,” he wasn’t as short as we’re led to believe. Although Napoleon stood at 5 feet 2 inches, in pre-French Revolution Units, that’s around 5 feet 6 inches by US standards.

Furthermore, at the time, that’s taller than the average height of males in France, which was around 5 feet 5 inches. Even though Napoleon was given the nickname “Le Petit Caporal” (The Little Corporal), it’s believed that this was a term of endearment among his soldiers.

The Spanish Influenza Originated In Spain

Picture of a flu hospital
American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Initially known as the “three-day flu,” this pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people in the year 1918 alone. It became known as the Spanish Influenza most likely because Spain was one of the first countries to get hit significantly hard early on. The flu even managed to affect Spain’s king who fell ill.

Although it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly where the Spanish Flu originated, John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, has proposed that the first case actually occurred in Haskell County, Kansas.

Abner Doubleday Invented Baseball

Picture of Doubleday
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1907, the Mills Commission ruled that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, back in 1839. Today, the city is the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Museum. However, professor of history George B. Kirsch explains in his book that Doubleday was, in fact, at West Point in 1839 and not Cooperstown.

Furthermore, Doubleday never left any evidence behind that he was associated with the sport. In 1938, Congress recognized Alexander Cartwright as the creator of the sport. Not only was he the founding father of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, but he came up with the diamond shape.

Christopher Colombus Discovered North America

Picture of Christopher Columbus
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Christopher Columbus never actually discovered North America, only ever exploring the Caribbean, Central, and South America, never finding himself in North America. Nevertheless, there is a United States holiday proclaiming that he did. Furthermore, there is proof that Europeans arrived in North America 500 years before Columbus, and they were Vikings.

There are eight Viking buildings on the Canadian island of Newfoundland that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s believed this was a winter stopover point where the Vikings would use the surrounding trees to repair ships and wait out bad weather.

Albert Einstein Failed Math

Picture of Albert Einstein
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The supposed fact that Albert Einstein failed math is nothing more than a story that people tell each other, so others don’t feel bad about not being good about something. On the contrary, Einstein excelled at math, and the false rumor was started on the unreliable Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

Einstein would go on to respond to the claim stating, “I never failed in mathematics. Before I was 15, I had mastered differential and integral calculus. His matriculation certificate, which he received at 17, also shows he had the highest marks in Algebra and Geometry.

The Vikings Wore Horned-Helmets

Picture of a Viking
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Nawrocki/ClassicStock/Getty Images

In popular culture, Vikings are often portrayed as big men with bushy beards, horned helmets, and wielding massive battle axes. However, there is no archaeological evidence that these Norsemen wore horned helms. What has been found, however, is that Viking warriors wore no helmet at all or leather headwear.

This false image of Vikings wearing these particular helmets dates back to the 1800s when Swedish artist Gustav Malmströmstems included them in his work. This idea was further established in some of Wagner’s operas which had Viking characters wearing horned-helmets.

The Jews Built The Pyramids

Picture of Jews building Pyramids
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Amihai Mazar, a professor at the University of Hebrew in Jerusalem, recently concluded that the Jews did not build the Egyptian pyramids. Mazar claims that this myth was introduced by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin when visiting Egypt in 1977. Mazar explained that “No Jews built the pyramids because Jews didn’t exist at the period when the pyramids were built.”

According to Dieter Wildung, a former director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, further archeological evidence has shown that “The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood […] The world simply could not believe the pyramids were built without oppression and forced labor, but out of loyalty to the pharaohs.”

The Pilgrims Hosted The First Thanksgiving

Painting of Thanksgiving
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

People have been led to believe that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims in 1621. However, it’s been cited that they had eaten numerous meals of giving thanks prior, as well as the Spaniards in Florida as documented in 1565.

Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln didn’t make Thanksgiving a national holiday until 1863, on the last Thursday of every November. Then, for a period of time, President Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of the month to make more time for shopping to boost the economy until it was eventually changed back.

Marie Antoinette Proclaimed, “Let Them Eat Cake”

Painting of Marie Antoinette
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In his novel Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that “a great princess” said, “Let them eat cake” when referring to France’s starving poor. Many people assume these words were spoken by Marie Antoinette, although there’s no evidence to support this.

Biographer Lady Antonia Fraser claims that another French princess proclaimed this almost 100 years earlier, stating it was likely Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV. This quote, or something similar, has also been attributed to several other royals, even some ancient Chinese dynasties.

Cleopatra Was Egyptian

Picture of Cleopatra
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Despite that Cleopatra was the last ruler of Egypt, she wasn’t Egyptian. Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family descended from the Greeks that ruled over Egypt after Alexander the Great. Even as rulers of Egypt, the dynasty refused to learn the language, although Cleopatra was the first to do so.

It’s believed that the misconception about her nationality may have come about how she dressed and represented herself in public, more or less as a reincarnation of Isis, an Egyptian goddess.

Paul Revere Yelled “The British Are Coming”

Picture of Paul Revere
Interim Archives/Getty Images
Interim Archives/Getty Images

A classic story from the start of the American Revolution, Paul Revere making his famous ride is nothing more than a tall tale. He never went around from town to town shouting at the top of his lungs.

His knowledge of the British and passing that information along had to be done discreetly since a large number of British soldiers were hiding in the Massachusetts countryside. On top of that, the colonials at the time still considered themselves to be British, so he would have referred to them as “Regulars,” a term used to describe British soldiers.

A Cow Kicking Over A Lantern Started The Chicago Fire

Picture of Mrs. O'Leary's cow
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned for more than three square miles of the city over the course of two days and killed approximately 300 people. There is a myth that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern, which was written by a journalist, who later admitted that he had fabricated the story.

Although the fire did begin in a neighborhood southwest of the city, the fire is attributed to a period of hot, dry, windy conditions, causing wood in the city to catch on fire naturally.

Wall Street Workers Started Jumping Off Buildings After The Crash Of 1929

New York in 1929
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

After the crash of the stock market in 1929, rumors began to circulate that men that worked on Wall Street had begun jumping off buildings to their deaths. However, while the president of County Trust Co. and the head of Rochester Gas and Electric did both kill themselves, they didn’t jump; they used guns.

Comedians such as Will Rogers helped further these rumors, claiming that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of.” Although New York’s chief medical examiner tried to say otherwise, the rumors continued to spread.

People During Columbus’ Time Thought The World Was Flat

Picture of man with the Earth
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Many people believe that around the time Columbus “discovered” America half a century ago, that most people still believed that the Earth was flat and that Columbus’ expedition would result in him falling off the edge of the world.

However, the idea that the Earth was flat had been refuted as far back as the ancient Greeks. What Columbus did think was that if he sailed west from Europe, he would reach East Asia. This is why he thought he had come across the East Indies; he referred to the native people as “Indians.”

Vincent Van Gogh Cut His Ear Off In A Period Of Madness

Portrait of van Gough
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

One of the best-known stories about acclaimed impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is that he cut his own ear off and mailed it to a French woman. This resulted in one of his most famous works, which shows van Gogh with a bandage over his ear.

Yet, in 2009, a pair of German art historians found a book titled Pact of Silence, in which Van Gogh’s close friend and rival Paul Gauguin admits that he sliced off van Gogh’s earlobe with a fencing rapier. They had a falling out after this, and they decided to keep silent about the matter, although Gauguin concocted the story about mailing it to a woman to make Van Gogh seem crazy.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed The Slaves

Picture of Abraham Lincoln
Stapleton Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
Stapleton Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Although a lot of people grow up being taught that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves during the Civil War, that’s not the case. It only applied to the Confederate states, and because the North had no power to enforce the proclamation, it really didn’t accomplish what many people believe it accomplished.

The Proclamation also didn’t free slaves in the Northern states, and although slavery was rare after that point, it was still legal. It was only illegal to buy and sell slaves in the North, not to own them.

Lindenberg Was The First Pilot To Fly Across The Atlantic

Lindenberg in a plane
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although Lindenberg gained popularity for being the first pilot to fly over the Atlantic in 1927, he was far from the first. The first were the two British pilots, Alcock and Brown, who had made the crossing in 1919 using a repurposed RAF bomber.

The two men flew from St. John’s Newfoundland to Galway, Ireland in just under 16 hours, paving the way for transatlantic aviation. Just a few weeks later, in a British airship R34, a couple of dozen crew and passengers on board made a double-crossing, which took four days.

Thomas Crapper Invented The Flush Toilet

Picture of Thomas Crapper
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

Although this false fact has been making children giggle for decades, unfortunately, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. While he was a 19th-century plumber and manufacturer who made a popular brand of “water closets” in England, he did not invent flush toilets.

This great invention had already been accomplished by the time Thomas Crapper had started his plumbing internship as a child in the 1840s. Furthermore, the word crappe is a 13th-century term for waste, so Crapper can’t take credit for that either.

George Washington Carver Invented Peanut Butter

Picture of George Washington Carver
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although botanist George Washington Carver used peanuts to help the American South’s economy and discovering uses for the nut, contrary to popular belief, he did not invent peanut butter. Incredibly, peanut butter has actually been around since 950 BC, in which the Incas in South America would smash peanuts to make a paste.

Furthermore, the first modern patent for peanut butter was in 1884 when Carver was around twenty years old. In Carver’s 1943 New York Times obituary, there’s also no mention of Carver inventing peanut butter.

Benjamin Franklin Suggested The Country’s National Bird Should Be A Turkey

Picture of Benjamin Franklin
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Something that the ghost of Benjamin Franklin will never let down is that he claimed that the turkey should be the national bird over the bald eagle. However, the only time that Franklin mentioned bald eagles and turkeys together is in a letter to his daughter.

In the correspondence, he mentions the military group, Society of the Cincinnati, whose eagle seal he criticized for looking more like a turkey than an actual eagle. Although he mentions that he didn’t want the bald eagle to be the national bird, he never suggests that that he prefers a turkey.