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Help disabuse me of some historical falsehoods.
September 15, 2010 7:05 PM   Subscribe

What are some false historical "facts" that everyone "knows"?

I recently learned that George Washington didn't actually chop down a cherry tree as a kid [link], Napoleon wasn't actually short [link], John Hancock didn't actually sign the Declaration of Independence extra-large to send a message [link], and Michael Jackson never actually bought Joseph Merrick's remains [link]. I feel like I've been lied to for years, and I'm wondering what other urban legends I may have been taught as facts.

I'm only interested in historical examples of the kind I gave above: particularly well-known stories about a famous person or event that might be commonly believed by a large number of people, specifically Americans, but are unambiguously and provably false. So no "The average person doesn't actually swallow eight spiders a year," and also no "Ben Franklin was actually an asshole."

Double bonus points for stories that might be presented in history classrooms or textbooks.

If possible, please include references for any claims made.
posted by albrecht to Education (63 answers total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
 
Paul Revere's ride didn't quite go exactly the way most people think.
posted by Melismata at 7:08 PM on September 15, 2010


this is a good start.
posted by nadawi at 7:09 PM on September 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


You should check out the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. It's about the common fallacies presented in American history textbooks.
posted by mmmbacon at 7:10 PM on September 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


"Lies My Teacher Told Me" covers this topic pretty well.
posted by ajr at 7:10 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Christopher Columbus didn't prove the Earth was round. Not sure how much this is taught nowadays, but it was fairly common knowledge when I was a kid.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free the slaves, it even specifically allowed for certain areas under Union control to keep slaves.

The Great Wall of China is not visible from orbit/space/moon, at least not more so than some other human constructed landmarks.
posted by bluejayk at 7:10 PM on September 15, 2010


More
posted by ManInSuit at 7:14 PM on September 15, 2010


Ponce de Leon was just looking for gold, like every other explorer (link to PDF in this wiki page).
posted by peep at 7:15 PM on September 15, 2010


I just discovered an interesting debunking of a debunking. First, I learned that a Chinese inventor, Pi Sheng, not Gutenberg, invented the printing press. But then I learned that, in reality, Pi Sheng invented moveable type, but not the printing press.

Also, the Romans invented the first steam engine (this actually is true), and even in the modern period, several people put steam engines into use before James Watt pioneered his version.

Also, not only did Christopher Columbus not prove the world was round, but in fact, his dispute with the astronomers of his age stems from the fact that he thought the Eastern coast of China was closer to Europe than it was in reality.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:27 PM on September 15, 2010


I would point out the following: when someone is attributed as being the "inventor" of something, that usually means that they were the first to discover a socially useful application for it and to widely circulate it.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:29 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rosa Parks was not your average seamstress who had had enough (this one made an appearance at Obama's inauguration)
posted by meta_eli at 7:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mama Cass did not die from choking on a ham sandwich.
posted by candyland at 7:39 PM on September 15, 2010


Kitty Genovese wasn't really raped and murdered in front of a bunch of disaffected New Yorkers, and thus is not really a good example the "bystander effect"
posted by meta_eli at 7:39 PM on September 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


On The Media recently did a show on debunking popular culture myths. They covered the aforementioned Rosa Park story, the Bradley Effect, bystanders letting Kitty Genovese die, spitting on returning soldiers and how the Cuban Missile Crisis played out.
posted by mmascolino at 7:42 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Inuit don't have an unusually large inventory of words for snow.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:46 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


JFK did not mistakenly tell the people of Berlin during the Cold War that he was a jelly donut.

It's true that out of context "Berliner" can mean either "someone from Berlin" or a "jam doughnut," but asserting that he said--and was understood at the time to have said--the latter is like assuming that every time someone says in English, "I'm a New Yorker," that they're saying they're the magazine and not a resident of the city.
posted by colfax at 7:46 PM on September 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


[hello, I am still awake, please stop with the lulz, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:49 PM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


The show QI usually has a few of these facts each episode. It's an entertaining show, and worth watching.
posted by antiquark at 7:56 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The vast majority of African slaves were shipped to the West Indies and Brazil. Only about 5% were shipped to the American South
posted by Hargrimm at 8:07 PM on September 15, 2010


Christopher Columbus didn't prove the Earth was round. Not sure how much this is taught nowadays, but it was fairly common knowledge when I was a kid.

Tangentially -- I know where this misconception CAME from. It was in a kids' book written by Washington Irving.

Others have covered "Lies My Teacher Told Me", which not only will disabuse you of some myths, they will also explain how they got there in the first place.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:08 PM on September 15, 2010


John Hanson was supposedly the first black president of the US.
posted by Anima Mundi at 8:10 PM on September 15, 2010


Ooh, I just learned this one the other day: there's a common perception that doorways in older buildings are unusually low because people used to be much shorter. But they weren't really any shorter than people today. Doors were smaller because they were very expensive (source).
posted by anderjen at 8:11 PM on September 15, 2010


Following up on the Jim Loewen suggestion, he has another book titled Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:21 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Germans never elected Hitler to a position of power in a free and fair election; he was appointed Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg (who had beaten Hitler in the presidential election). Even after the German Communist Party was suppressed after the Reichstag fire, the Nazis still failed to win a majority in national elections.
posted by asterix at 8:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Great Chicago Fire was not started by a cow kicking over a lantern.

Victorians did not actually cover up the legs of their pianos and tables because they thought it was immodest (although it was not correct to say "leg").

Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake."
posted by castlebravo at 8:31 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


But they weren't really any shorter than people today.

That's not true. Compared to the 17th and 18th centuries, people in the industrialized world today are taller on average. Men in 17th century London average 5'6" compared to 5'7.75" today. Men in colonial America averaged 5'7.5" compared to over 5'9" today. The figures for women are 5'.5" to 5'2.75" and 5'2.25" to 5'3.34", respectively. Source (with references).

Now, it's true that those differences aren't significant when talking about the construction of doors, but they are significant when talking about diet and overall health. For example, while Americans have stopped growing taller in the past few decades, many Europeans have continued to grow and indeed surpassed Americans some time ago. They're a bit of an outlier, but for example the average heights of Dutch men and women are 6'.5" and 5'7", respectively. And that has reached the point where things like standard door frame heights and bed lengths are an issue. There is an advocacy group for the concerns of tall people in the Netherlands.
posted by jedicus at 8:41 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I loved this book when I was a kid: The Dictionary of Misinformation.
posted by John Cohen at 8:49 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Neil Armstrong didn't hit golfballs or drive a rover around the moon. I think a lot of people know this, but It bugs me how many people don't.
posted by bondcliff at 8:50 PM on September 15, 2010


Misquotations.

A common one that's not in that list: Neil Armstrong is often quoted as saying, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." In fact (as the widely available audio makes clear), he said, "That's one small step for man..." then took a long pause (possibly because he realized he had flubbed his line), and finished, "one giant leap for mankind." This ruined his point: he meant to announce a contrast between himself ("a man") and all of "mankind," but instead he used "man," which is synonymous with "mankind."
posted by John Cohen at 8:57 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of murdering her parents.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:54 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


That grove down the blade of a sword was not needed to make your enemies bleed more (they bleed just fine without it). It allows the blade to be lighter without sacrificing much in the way of strength.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:02 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of misconceptions about Mozart's last days and death due to the movie Amadeus. Some of them are explained on Wikipedia. People think he was ignored during his lifetime because he had a sparsely attended funeral and was buried in an unmarked grave, but this was appropriate under 18th-century Viennese customs. The view of him as a great composer who died destitute and unrecognized is not true. He didn't earn the riches he deserved, but he was never poor.
posted by John Cohen at 10:06 PM on September 15, 2010


Hitler had the normal number of testicles. Mussolini didn't make the trains run on time.
posted by Kattullus at 10:21 PM on September 15, 2010


Hitler had the normal number of testicles.

Huh? Your link concludes that he probably had only one.

Also, I think there's still some dispute over this (Wikipedia has a lot of info on it and doesn't draw a conclusion), so I don't know if it's fits the OP's "unambiguously and provably false" criterion.
posted by John Cohen at 10:33 PM on September 15, 2010


History News Network: Thomas Bailey Project: Historical Myths to Beware Of!
posted by vidur at 10:37 PM on September 15, 2010


Ah crud, I linked to the wrong thing. I meant to link to this story in Slate.
posted by Kattullus at 10:40 PM on September 15, 2010


The middle ages in Europe were not repressed and puritanical, but rather bawdy -- kind of like Shakespeare, but with less discretion.
posted by jb at 11:00 PM on September 15, 2010


Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake."
posted by misozaki at 11:05 PM on September 15, 2010


Julius Caesar's last words were not "Et tu, Brute?"
posted by Eumachia L F at 11:30 PM on September 15, 2010


Catherine the Great was not killed when the horse she was fucking fell on her. You can blame the French for spreading a silly (and, these days, easily debunked) rumour.
posted by Dasein at 12:19 AM on September 16, 2010


That African-Americans underwent 400 years of slavery in the U.S. Since slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment in 1865, this would mean that slavery began in 1465, almost thirty years before Columbus arrived in the West Indies.
posted by megatherium at 4:08 AM on September 16, 2010


Following up on Eumachia L F's fact, Julius Caesar was not murdered in the senate house. He was actually murdered in the Theatre of Pompey.
posted by mmmbacon at 5:10 AM on September 16, 2010


This isn't really a tidbit-factoid, but A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn is full if information that isn't widely discussed.
posted by odinsdream at 6:16 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mediaeval knights in plate armour were not lifted onto their horses with winches and pulleys. Their armour was relatively light, and a trained knight was pretty agile.

(I'm not sure if anyone still believes the winches thing)

And vikings were not savage unkempt barbarians who ate nothing but big hunks of meat. They liked fine cakes and were very keen on hair care. Although that might just be a new generalisation.
posted by BinaryApe at 7:21 AM on September 16, 2010


Terry Jones' Medieval Lives is a series that sets out to debunk many well-known "facts" and perceptions about medieval life. And it's highly entertaining and available on Netflix Instant Play, to boot.
posted by bristolcat at 7:35 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Galileo did not say "Eppur si muove" ("And yet it moves") after recanting heliocentrism in front of the Inquisition.

Also, I don't know if it's widely believed, but I've seen it asserted on a few occasions that Galileo was either excommunicated or executed. Neither is the case, although he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:39 AM on September 16, 2010


Thanks, everyone! These are great so far. I'll definitely check out Lies My Teacher Told Me, although from the descriptions on Amazon it sounds more like the lies he's referring to are on a larger scale than what I had in mind. I am very interested in the ways these falsehoods have come to support a Eurocentric mythology, though.

Another one I just learned since posting this: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the man for whom the guillotine was named, neither invented the device nor was executed by it. I'm pretty sure I was taught both of those things in school.
posted by albrecht at 8:10 AM on September 16, 2010


You'd probably like Assume the Position - 101 [1, 2, 3, 4], 201 [1, 2, 3]. It discusses things like the real story behind the ride of Paul Revere and whether Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima were real people.
posted by sephira at 8:28 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


And vikings were not savage unkempt barbarians

They also didn't have horns on their helmets. It would have given their opponent an easy thing to grab a hold of just before cutting their throat.
posted by quin at 9:05 AM on September 16, 2010


A second recommendation for Stephen Fry's wonderful (and incredibly hilarious) British panel show QI. Also the show helped spawn The Book of General Ignorance. Though my cursory perusal of it saw that it included many things that I'd already heard on the show (and in a much more hilarious form).
posted by haveanicesummer at 9:35 AM on September 16, 2010


Ooh, I just learned this one the other day: there's a common perception that doorways in older buildings are unusually low because people used to be much shorter. But they weren't really any shorter than people today. Doors were smaller because they were very expensive

Interesting. I was always told on tours of the old Iowa Capital building that the reason the hallway lanterns were so low was because people were shorter and they were easier to light that way. And know I wonder why they were actually so low.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:38 AM on September 16, 2010


whoops, wrote that before jedicus's further explanation.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:39 AM on September 16, 2010


Also, cogito ergo sum never appeared in Descartes's Meditations. It originally appeared of course in French: je pense donc je suis. It also wasn't a completely original idea at the time.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2010


> I just learned this one the other day: there's a common perception that doorways in older buildings are unusually low because people used to be much shorter. But they weren't really any shorter than people today. Doors were smaller because they were very expensive (source).

Not only is this not true, as jedicus points out, but Bill Bryson is a terrible source—he is concerned with entertainment value, not truth. His books should be read only for humor value (and he is often genuinely funny).

> Galileo did not say "Eppur si muove" ("And yet it moves") after recanting heliocentrism in front of the Inquisition.

We do not know this; we only know that there is no good evidence for it. But if, as your own link points out, "some variants of the 'E pur si muove' legend had been circulating for over a century before it was published, perhaps even in his own lifetime," then it is plausible that he did in fact mutter it so that only he could hear it, and then bragged about it later among friends. We'll never know. But this is not in the same category as the other demonstrably false "facts."
posted by languagehat at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2010


I was told by the guide at Monticello that doorways were low to keep the heat in whatever room the fire was going in. At Monticello, of course, the high ceilings made the place almost impossible to keep warm, which is why Monticello was the first Classical building in Virginia: it was an architectural style that made no sense.
posted by musofire at 11:15 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


This isn't something that's really explicitly taught in schools, but is certainly subtly reinforced over and over again: A lot of maps are organized like this, and the simple rectangular format distorts at the top and bottom. I know that's one of those things I intellectually know, but sometimes I still find myself surprised that Greenland isn't some gigantic 8th continent floating around in the North Atlantic. It's really roughly the size of Europe. (Plus, in the first map, Africa looks fairly tiny, when in reality it's gigantic).
posted by lilac girl at 1:45 PM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


from descriptions, lies my teacher told me, seems overreaching and broad, but there's lots of great specifics - like, first thanksgiving? grave robbing and cannibalism. i'm glad you're getting it. i think you'll really enjoy it. and, like a lot of people, you'll probably end up buying it 3, 4 , 10 times as you keep giving your last copy away.
posted by nadawi at 2:11 PM on September 16, 2010


Ooh, fun question!

Yes, low doorways have more to do with heat conservation than building costs and the height of occupants.

A few others:
Spices were not used to cover the taste of rotten meat.
Women cooking over an open hearth did not frequently die from their skirts catching fire.
By the 19th century, it was common knowledge that tomatoes were perfectly safe to eat.
(Source)

Also, "sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite" had nothing to do with rope beds. (Source)

There are tons of clothing myths, particularly surrounding corsets. They were not torture instruments, most women did not lace them so tightly that they could not breath, and there is no record of a woman having ribs removed so she could lace her corset tighter. (Source)
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 2:59 PM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mediaeval knights in plate armour were not lifted onto their horses with winches and pulleys. Their armour was relatively light, and a trained knight was pretty agile.

Also, even though the armor itself is pretty heavily, the weight is also evenly distributed over your whole body, which is easier to manage. (According to my armor/combat savvy college friend who did a lot of Ren Faires.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:45 PM on September 16, 2010


At least up until the year 1999 (the publication date of Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner, from which I'm taking this), no one had ever actually found a razor blade in an apple they received for Halloween, and only two deaths had ever been attributed to poisoned Halloween candy. In one of those cases, the child had gotten into his uncle's drug stash, and the family blamed it on the candy to fool the police. In the other, the candy had been poisoned by the child's father to collect insurance money.
posted by LionIndex at 10:06 PM on September 16, 2010


Listverse just posted this today.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:19 AM on September 17, 2010


Bear in mind that QI has been known to perpetuate urban myths as well as debunk them - the Meccano Box Standard/Box Deluxe fallacy springs to mind.
posted by anagrama at 5:05 AM on September 17, 2010


Ben Franklin didn't get struck by lightning while flying a kite.

George Washington didn't have wooden teeth.

These myths are both taught as facts in American elementary schools.

Europeans were also not the first sailors to travel the globe. There is strong evidence (including this map) that show that the Chinese had been sailing extensively - including visits to North America - 70 years before Columbus. (It is also speculated that the European sailors used the Chinese ship blueprints and trading routes, which are then credited to the Europeans as the "discoverers")
posted by giddygirlie at 2:20 PM on October 19, 2010


> There is strong evidence (including this map) that show that the Chinese had been sailing extensively - including visits to North America - 70 years before Columbus.

This is bullshit that has been shot down more than once on MetaFilter. Let's not spread new historical falsehoods in the process of getting rid of old ones.
posted by languagehat at 3:40 PM on October 19, 2010


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