15 Common Historical Myths and Misconceptions
There are a lot of things from the past that people think are true but aren’t. Here are 15 common historical myths and misconceptions that people still believe.
It’s easy for something to be seen as fact when it’s retold enough times, especially when it makes for a better story than reality. That can lead to the creation of legends and heroes – which isn’t always a bad thing – but it can also obscure the truth. And when it comes to history, those who don’t learn from it etc., etc.
We live in a time of fake news and blatant propaganda, from websites lunging after clicks before double checking things to your weird uncle that keeps forwarding emails from sites with a few too many adjectives in their titles. That’s caused something of a resurgence in fact-checking, and that includes history.
For this article we probably could have could have gone on and on – there’s no shortage of historical myths to choose from – but instead, we limited it to just 15. Some you may know, some may surprise you.
If you have any historical myths and misconceptions you’d like to call out, let us know in the comments below.
1929 Stock Market Crash Led to Countless Wall Street Suicides
Following the stock market crash of October 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression, things got bleak for many people. Fortunes were destroyed overnight, and some of the most powerful families around the world were left a shadow of their former selves. Feel free to play the world’s smallest violin for them, but the consequences of the crash were far-reaching and felt by everyone for the better part of a decade.
Things were so bad, especially on Wall Street, that within days of the crash newspapers were reporting that people were throwing themselves out of buildings at such a rate that there was a line for the best windows. But like so many stories, including many on this list, the newspapers just sort of made it up.
During 1929, there were 100 suicides and attempted suicides around the world as reported by the NY Times (which means around the US and a few parts of Europe, and likely many more that were unreported). Of those, only eight were jumpers, and of those, only four were attributed to the Crash – and off those four, only two were in Wall Street. In fact, the number of suicides in New York actually decreased compared to the summer. There may have been more suicides due to the financial collapse in the coming weeks and months, but the Wall Street jumpers
300 Spartans Stand Alone
Although the Battle of Thermopylae took place nearly 2,500 years ago, the story continues to evolve. In the last few years – relatively speaking – the story has been adapted into comics, movies, games, and more. And for good reason. King Leonidas led 300 Spartans against an army that was at least 70,000 deep and might have been as large as 300,000. The Spartans needed to hold the pass at Thermopylae at all costs in order to give the rest of the Greeks time to mobilize their forces to face the Persian army. It’s the stuff of legend.
It’s fairly safe to say that the Spartans doomed delaying tactics helped to save Greece, and by extension Western civilization. It has also become the epitome of what it means to be a warrior, as the 300 fought well above their weight, holding the pass for two days with light losses. It wasn’t until the Spartans were betrayed that the battle turned against them. It’s a heroic tale and one that is worthy of retelling, and it’s true – mostly.
The Spartans were badly outnumbered, they did hold off the Persians until they were betrayed, and it may have saved Greece. The only thing that’s left out of that story is that it wasn’t just 300 Spartans, there were also around 7,000 assorted Greek soldiers with them. The Spartans were in charge and they were the top military power of the time, but somewhere 7,000 Ancient Greek soldiers were written out of the history books in order to make the Spartans look better.
Oh, and Spartans wore chest plates too.
America Defeated the Nazis Almost Singlehandedly
There are hundreds – literally hundreds – of fictional films and miniseries about WWII. And given that America’s film industry is by far the biggest on the planet (and always has been), there are countless films that highlight American involvement in the Second World War. It’s also heavily implied, if not outright stated, that it was America that wiped out the Nazis and made the world safe again. That ignores a big part of the war though, specifically the Eastern Front.
Fighting on the Eastern Front covered more land area than the rest of the war’s ground fighting combined. Of all the German military deaths during the war, more than 80-percent happened while fighting the Soviet Union (and a handful of smaller, Eastern European nations) in the east. That also meant that the majority of resources like fuel, vehicles, munitions, rations, etc. were sent to the Eastern Front.
Part of the reason for the romanticism of the Western Front vs the Eastern is that the West has historically done fiction much better than the Soviet Union and Russia, but there’s also the nature of the fighting. Where the Western Front saw daring invasions and bold maneuvers led by colorful Allied leaders, on the Eastern Front the fighting was just vicious and slow. The Soviet strategy was essentially to throw more people at the Nazis than they could throwback, and the Soviet troops were brutalized nearly as much by their own leaders as the enemy. More than twice as many Soviet soldiers died in Russia than Germans, and many of those Soviet deaths came from their own side – if you’re looking for heroes in the war, the Soviets under Stalin were not it.
None of this should take away from the courage and sacrifices of the Allied troops on the Western Front, and the Americans were the primary force facing the Japanese in the Pacific, but the next time you hear someone denigrate the French and says something like “they were starting to learn German before the U.S. came along,” you can make a solid assumption that they don’t know history all that well.
Columbus Was an Explorer (and a Decent Human Being)
In school, most people in America learned about Christopher Columbus. The curriculum varied, but it often positioned Columbus as an explorer who was looking to prove the globe was round by finding a new path to India, and in the process he discovered America. Not only is that not the case, but the truth is much more sinister.
To begin with, most people accepted that the world was round back in the 15th century. The oldest existing globe was, ironically, made in 1492, and as far back as Ancient Greece, educated dreamers and thinkers reasoned that the world was round. Most of the people were more than happy to accept the word of experts.
It’s fairly well known that Columbus never actually made it to North America, but we still celebrate his journey in America anyway. Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic, and he never made it further north than the Bahamas. The first known instance of a European in North America was Leif Eriksson around the year 1000, and there are unconfirmed stories that an Icelandic trader named Bjarni Herjolfsson beat Eriksson there by a decade, and actually was the person that told him about the New World in the first place.
But the place Columbus landed and the nature of his trip are minor issues, the kind of thing that actually add to the history as people age and learn more. It doesn’t necessarily change the story as much as slightly redefine it. Where the myth is shattered is Columbus himself.
In many circles, Columbus is considered a hero, which assumes a level of nobility. A closer look at his journeys, however, paint a very different picture. Columbus not only claimed land for Spain, many of which were already heavily occupied, he oversaw those lands for the Spanish crown. During his short eight-year reign, he was accused of tyranny and brutality so severe that even the Spanish Court was horrified and had him arrested – and this was during the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
Columbus favored torture, mutilation, and maiming to keep the locals in line, and forced conversion to Christianity was his first order of business. Thieves had their ears and noses cut off, and while searching for gold and silver was big business, so was slavery. Forcing indigenous women and children into prostitution was also common. And to add insult to injury, Columbus was greeted with kindness and awe on his first trip, which only helped him decide how easily it would be to enslave them all.
Cowboys Wore Cowboy Hats
Cowboy hats have become synonymous with the American West and the cowboy way of life. If you went back in time and found yourself playing cards with Wyatt Earp, most would probably think that they better have a giant 10-gallon hat to avoid standing out like a sore thumb. If you did that though, people would wonder what the hell was on your head.
The modern idea of a cowboy hat was created as a fashionable accessory by New Jersey hat maker John Stetson, and it was meant to capture the spirit of the Wild West for people that weren’t familiar with it. The actual people who lived in the Wild West wore whatever covered their heads, and bowlers were among the most popular hats as they could be worn in the field and in more formal settings.
In the late 1800s, Stetson’s “Boss of the Plains” hat was introduced and became the progenitor for the modern cowboy hat. It looked more like a sombrero than a modern cowboy hat, but it did eventually help popularize today’s cowboy hat, but it wasn’t really part of the Wild West.
Edison Invented the Lightbulb on His Own
Thomas Edison is one of the most remarkable Americans in history. His name is attached to well over 1,000 patents, and Edison-related inventions revolutionized dozens of fields, including mass communication, electric recording, and even the motion picture industry. But few inventions are as persistently attached to him as the lightbulb.
Edison was himself a prolific inventor – it’s how he earned enough money to found one of his greatest inventions, the first industrial research lab. There he brought together some of the best minds of the day, and together his teams made breakthrough after breakthrough, including the lightbulb. But he didn’t do it alone, and he wasn’t first.
At the time, electric lighting was a well-known field of research, and it was a race to see who could put forward the first practical electric lighting system to replace oil and gas lamps. Edison was one of many competitors, and he had a team of experts working on the problem for years. At that point, multiple already lightbulbs existed, but they were expensive and didn’t last long. Where Edison comes in is that his team tested 6,000 different filaments before settling on carbonized bamboo, which lasted hundreds of hours. Edison is credited with suggesting the material, but that might be another legend. His team also created a system to efficiently power the lightbulbs with direct current (DC) electricity, which became one of the key elements in the “War of the Currents,” which Edison lost. That led to Edison’s eventual ousting from his own company.
Edison was an important and influential person, and during his life, he was one of the first to tell that to anyone who would listen. He had no problems spreading his own myths, and he frequently made things up about his life in order to tell a better story. Sometimes stories just stuck to him, even if they weren’t true or flattering – for example, he never electrocuted an elephant. He does deserve a lot of praise, but as with most historical anecdotes, there’s more to the story than most people think.
Einstein, the Lowly Patent Clerk
People love heroes, and the best heroes are often those that come from humble origins. It’s proof that even the lowliest of beginnings can lead to the highest of heights. Albert Einstein is no different.
There are a lot of myths surrounding Einstein, especially his early years. One of the most popular stories about him is that he once failed a math class, a story that has been retold several times among underachievers looking to forgive a poor showing. The only problem with it is that while Einstein did fail a major test once, it was an entry exam to a prestigious college and it happened when he was 16 – and he did fine in math, but the rest of the test was in French, a language he only barely spoke. He was accepted tot he school the next year.
Another myth about Einstein is actually more of a misconception. In another effort to depict him as just a regular joe hiding a genius intellect, Einstein’s time as a patent clerk has been depicted as a great man doing a lowly job. The problem with that is the job was highly technical and somewhat prestigious at the time, and Einstein was very good at it. Sure, being a patent clerk wasn’t the same as being a professor or working in a lab, but the job gave him time to publish three of his most significant works, which was why he took it in the first place despite other options. The papers published during his time as a patent clerk helped secure his position as a leader in the world of physics.
George Washington’s Wooden Teeth
It’s not entirely clear where the myth that George Washington had wooden teeth came from, but it’s a very common one that has been taught in American schools for decades now, even centuries.
One thing that is true is that Washington did have serious dental issues, enough so that he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life. Those dentures were never made out of wood though, and that wasn’t something dentists of the age really did. And the more you think about it, the weirder it would be to have wooden teeth, especially when there were other options.
One possible origin for the story is that Washington wore dentures featuring ivory teeth for many years, and over time those teeth stained and darkened, giving them a grainy appearance. Another possible explanation is that his teeth were taken from slaves, which is a tad horrifying and steals some of the shine off one of the most revered figures in American history.
Magellan Circumnavigated the Globe
Of all the myths on this list, this one may be the closer to the truth than most, but it’s still not the whole picture. Most people were probably taught at least a little about explorer Ferdinand Magellan, specifically his trip around the world, which marked the first circumnavigation of the Earth. It was a remarkable journey, but Magellan himself didn’t make it.
In 1519, Magellan led five ships out of Spain with a total complement of 270 sailors. After reaching South America, he and his crew navigated the treacherous waters around the southern tip of the continent, becoming the first captain to sail by what would later be named the Strait of Magellan – a remarkable feat in itself. He and his crew then made their way west, reaching Guam in February 1521. A month later he landed in the Philippines with 150 remaining crew. In April 1521, he and his men became embroiled in a battle against local forces, where he was killed.
Of the five ships to leave Spain, only three were in good enough shape to leave the Philippines, but there were only enough sailors left to crew two of them. The two remaining ships made for Spain via the Cape of Good Hope, but only one of them was in good enough shape to make the journey; the other needed serious repairs and tried to follow later, but was sunk by the Portuguese. On September 6, 1522, a skeleton crew under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano reached Spain, completing a costly journey. In total, 232 of the original 270 sailors didn’t survive the trip, including Magellan.
Mary Magdalene was a Prostitute
The Bible has been known to reinterpret a character and event or two over the centuries, but few have seen quite as many changes as Mary Magdalene. She is unquestionably one of Jesus’s most devout followers, but her role in the Bible is just vague enough that people have reinvented her to fit the times again and again and again. She has been seen as a mystic and a celibate nun, a passive follower and Jesus’s secret wife, and many more depictions.
One of the more common depictions is that she was a prostitute who found a higher calling in Jesus, and he forgave and embraced her. This is in part due to the descriptions of her as a “sinner,” but there’s also likely a tad of sexism at play. She may have actually come from money and given it all up to follow Jesus, but we may never know the full story.
Whatever the cause, Mary Magdalene was almost certainly not a prostitute and probably wasn’t any more sinful than most of Jesus’s disciples. Mary became a leader among Jesus’s followers, although several of her stories were removed by the Church over the years, clearing the way for frequent reinventions to fit whatever narratives people want to push.
Mrs. O’Leary and Her Fire-Starting Cow
In October 1871, a fire swept through Chicago, leaving major parts of the city in ruin. During the course of the blaze, around 300 people were killed, over 100,000 people were left homeless, and the city suffered more than $222 million in damage ($4.593 billion in modern dollars). And at the heart of it all was supposedly an immigrant and her cow.
Soon after the fire, the urban legend sprang up claiming that the fire was started in the barn of an Irish immigrant named Mrs. O’Leary. The story goes that Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow when it kicked over a kerosene lamp, and thus the blaze began. The first accounts of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow causing the fire began when a Chicago Tribune reporter named Michael Ahern wrote the story. It caught on and even today people believe it. The only problem is that Ahern later admitted that he made it up. It didn’t matter though, the story stuck.
Ahern probably had a bit of a grudge against Irish immigrants, and in the years since Mrs. O’Leary has been cited many times as an example of everything from how a careless moment to cause disaster to how sometimes things get out of control without warning. No one knows exactly what caused the fire, but the legend of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow remain.
Napoleon was Short
When it comes to historical truths, one constant is clear: history is written by the winners. And despite his numerous victories and indelible impact on French and European society, Napoleon did not win. If he had, we probably wouldn’t think that he was short.
In reality, Napoleon Bonaparte was around 5’6” or 5’7”, which was actually a little taller than the average Frenchman of the time. The whole “short” myth began as propaganda by one of France’s greatest enemies at the time, the British, who continually depicted the French leader as “Little Boney” as a means to insult and emasculate him. And once Napoleon was defeated, there was very little chance that the Brits were going to change their opinion.
After his death, the myth of his height persisted because of a misconception stemming from his autopsy that people took as proof of his diminutive stature. The final report stated that Napoleon was 5’2”, giving ammunition to the myth. The French used a slightly different system of measurement, however, and inches in France were smaller than those in Great Britain or America.
Rosa Parks was Tired
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama after refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, despite laws requiring her to do just that. She was arrested, and her story quickly spread. It’s just not the whole story. And the real story is much better.
Part of what made her story resonate is that it was an obvious injustice. A woman coming home from a long day at work was forced to either stand and give her seat to a white man or go to jail. It’s something that’s relatable regardless of race, and it helped Parks gain a huge amount of public support from around the country, from people of walks of life. That’s an effective tool, but the truth is that Parks wasn’t just tired and coming home from work, she was a dedicated civil rights activist who knew exactly what she was doing. She knew she would be arrested, and she knew it was a serious risk. Her actions also happened in the shadow of Emmett Till’s murderers being found innocent, so Parks was aware that there was a good chance she might face violence and possibly even death.
Parks and local activists planned her actions from the start. It all led to a citywide bus boycott that worked and helped to usher in the civil rights movement, and at its heart was an incredibly brave and intelligent woman who took an incredible risk.
The Vomitorium is for Purging
There’s a long-running story about the ancient Romans that claims that wealthy Romans would eat a large meal, then go to their private “vomitorium” where they could purge themselves before returning to fill up again. It was a sign of the decadence that supposedly defined the Roman Empire in its later days. The only problem is that it isn’t true.
There actually were vomitoriums (or individually, vomitoria), but they had nothing to do with food. It was an architectural feature that specifically referred to the entrance way into the Roman Coliseum (and later, other enclosed places of public gathering. People would enter through one of several designated entrances and find themselves in a vomitora, which would then funnel them into the seats. It was an efficient design that could see 50,000 people enter and be seated in minutes. We still use similar designs today.
There’s still a fair amount of debate about how this connects to the modern word “vomit,” or if it does at all – beyond the imagery of people being expelled into the stadium. It’s not that far a stretch to apply that to expelling food.
Witches at Salem were Burned at the Stake
While the Salem Witch Trials were a very real and tragic event in American history, one misconception about the trials is that the victims – those found guilty of witchcraft – were burned to death.
In total, 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and 34 died as a result. Overall, 15 died in prison, 19 were hanged, and one was pressed to death (they were placed under an increasing number of stones until crushed). In France it was common to burn those believed to be witches, but the British – of which most Salem residents were connected to – hanged them. Another popular myth about the Witch Trials is that all the victims were women. The vast majority of accused were women, but there were a few men as well – four of which were hanged.
The myth of burning witches persisted for many years, and became popular during the Civil War. Southern propaganda claimed that Lincoln planned to burn Confederates alive as the North had done with witches in the past, and the myth stuck. Pop culture has continued to spread the legend ever since.