“Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena
“To look back upon history is inevitably to distort it.” —Norman Pearson
We rely on our historical record for a sense of what happened in the past, who we were and are today, where we came from and why. So perhaps the most unsettling aspect of history is just how little of it is true. There’s so much myth mixed up with our history, we might as well call it mythtory. And whether or not this mythmaking is accidental or purposeful, once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to reign it in. In today’s digital age, we have the historians correcting the record, and then we have other historians correcting the corrected record, and so on. This chapter highlights some of our most cherished beliefs about historical figures and events, and then shows you why you are wrong to ever repeat these tidbits as truth again. (Until someone else comes along and tells us we were wrong.)
Magellan Circumnavigated the Truth
Not only did Magellan fail to circumnavigate the globe, it wasn’t even the point of his voyage. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain in the service of Spain, set out with five ships to find a safe way to the Spice Islands. However, the three-year tour turned into a horror show of storms, mutiny, starvation, and war. Magellan was killed in the Philippines by natives, ships had to be burned and left behind, crew were captured, etc., until finally in 1522, one remaining ship limped into a Spanish harbor with fewer than twenty of the original crew members aboard. They were never paid their full wages.
There’s no easy way to say this … Betsy Ross did not design the first American flag. George Washington did not, in June 1776, visit Betsy’s upholstery shop at 239 Arch Street with a rough sketch and ask her to complete and execute the design. The story didn’t even exist until 1870, when William J. Canby told this captivating tale to the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Who was William J. Canby? Betsy Ross’s grandson. While it’s true that Ross sewed uniforms and flags for the Continental Army, it’s unlikely there was an approved United States flag earlier than 1777. Historians claim this story gained popularity because Philadelphia was preparing for its centennial celebration and it jived with the patriotic mood in the city.
Would Not, Could Not with a Horse
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, was not crushed to death while having sex with a horse. (Yes, she had her lovers, but they were all human.) In fact, she passed away (very boringly, I might add) in bed. Basically, Catherine was the object of an eighteenth-century smear campaign launched by the French soon after her death. Those quick to debunk the horse myth sometimes state Catherine died on the toilet. That, too, is untrue. She may have passed out in the bathroom, but she didn’t die there.
Let Them Eat Their Words
Sorry, but Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.”
The story goes like this: In 1789, France was undergoing an economic depression and bread was scarce. A crowd of poor French mothers marched to Versailles to plead with Louis XVI. While the angry mob gave Louis a piece of their minds, Marie supposedly said, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.”
First of all, taken in context, what Marie meant was that at that time, when bakers ran out of cheap bread, by law, they had to sell their better bread at the same price as the cheaper bread. One type of expensive bread was brioche, which is often translated as “cake.” Second, she didn’t say it, anyway. In fact, the writer Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his book Confessions, “I remembered the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat cake.’” The great princess couldn’t have been Marie Antoinette, since Confessions was published twenty-three years before Marie’s fictitious suggestion. Most likely this rumor was started by antiroyalists.
Why Is Paul Revered?
Sure, Paul Revere played a part in the American Revolution. But why is he the one (and only one) remembered for the midnight ride when it was actually up to forty different messengers raising the alarm about the Redcoats coming? On the night of April 18, 1775, he and another man, William Dawes, were told to ride from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British troops were heading out to arrest them and then capture weapons stored in Concord. Both Revere and Dawes made it to Lexington, warning patriots along the way, although Revere did not yell, “The British are coming!” (That would have alerted British patrols, duh!) On the way to Concord, Revere was captured by the British. Dawes and Samuel Prescott (who joined them on the ride) both escaped, but only Prescott made it to Concord in time to alert the militia.
Revere didn’t become the hero of the midnight ride until nearly forty years after his death. In fact, his obituary didn’t even mention it. But when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1861, everything changed. You know the poem, even if you don’t think you know it:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Longfellow’s poem was treated as history for nearly one hundred years. It appeared in textbooks and historians referred to it. Unfortunately, Longfellow made a lot of it up. Using his poetic license, he got the lantern signals mixed up; sent Revere all the way to Concord, even though he never made it that far; and perhaps worst of all, he neglected to mention any of the other heroes from that night. So basically, he used Revere’s name because it rhymed better than Dawes or Prescott.
In 1896, Helen F. Moore, angry that William Dawes had been forgotten by history, wrote a parody of the poem:
‘Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere.
We all think we know about Napoleon Bonaparte—Emperor of France, great military commander, and famous person of short stature. In fact, these days, many people ignore the first two facts and focus on his height. (I mean, there aren’t many basketball players suffering from a Napoleon complex, eh?) History placed Napoleon at five feet, two inches tall, and indeed that is true … if you’re using the old French foot, which was longer than the English foot. After doing the conversion math, Napoleon was actually five feet, six inches or so. No giant, but perfectly average for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Allegiance to What???
Millions of schoolchildren in the United States start the day off with a half-hearted rendition of “The Pledge of Allegiance.” It’s an oath of loyalty to flag, country, and principles (such as states’ rights, small government, low taxes, etc.), but it was penned by a devout socialist. Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister (who once delivered a sermon called “Jesus Was a Socialist”), Christian socialist, and cousin of socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy. The poem appeared in a popular children’s magazine in 1892 as a way to sell flags to public schools and boost the magazine’s circulation. Now there’s an American ideal we can all pledge to!
SIDE NOTE: The original hand instructions for the pledge called for the right hand to be removed from the heart at the mention of the word “flag” and extended outward toward the flag. This ended during World War II because it looked too much like a Nazi salute.
Abner Doubleday wasn’t the biggest name to come out of the Civil War, but he was involved in many key battles as a Union officer. He is, however, one of the biggest names in baseball—known far and wide as the inventor of the game. Too bad he had nothing whatsoever to do with its invention.
A committee was formed in the early twentieth century to determine the origins of baseball. Instead of attempting to find the truth, the committee wanted a feel-good story that proved baseball was a red-blooded American sport. The report stated, “The first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.” Their evidence was a single letter from a man named Abner Graves, a mentally unstable man who later killed his wife. A prolific writer, Doubleday left no notes or mention of even playing baseball. Also, he was at West Point in 1839, as his family had moved from Cooperstown the previous year.
In 1953, Congress set out to correct this inaccuracy by officially crediting the invention of modern-day baseball to Alexander Joy Cartwright, a volunteer firefighter and member of the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. He supposedly was the first to draw a diagram of a baseball diamond and write down the rules on which baseball is based. Legend has it he also taught the game to people he met while traveling to California during the Gold Rush. Though he did play for the Knickerbockers, there is written proof that the rules for the game already existed and that Cartwright’s descendants simply exaggerated his role.
So who invented baseball? Nobody. It evolved over time from a children’s stick and ball game played in England for centuries.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Now it’s no big stretch to say that a popular schoolyard chant is historically inaccurate, but since it’s all most people know about Lizzie Borden, it’s probably a good exercise to clear up the facts here. First off, Lizzie’s stepmother was the one murdered, and she only received eighteen or so whacks from an axe. Her father received only eleven. Also, though Lizzie was indeed accused of these murders, she was acquitted—mostly because police refused to use a newfangled crime prevention tool: fingerprinting.
The Rub on the Tub
On December 28, 1917, journalist H. L. Mencken published a fictitious history of the bathtub in the New York Evening Mail. In it, he wrote that the bathtub was introduced into the United States in the 1800s and that Americans didn’t take to bathtubs until President Millard Fillmore had one installed in the White House. He wrote it to “have some harmless fun in war days”; however, he soon began to find his “preposterous ‘facts’” in other newspapers, medical literature, and reference books. Mencken wrote years later: “The success of this idle hoax … vastly astonished me. It had, of course no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity … Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”
Some historians think Mencken was up to more than some harmless fun. They believe that he was out to prove that Americans would believe any nonsense as long as it appealed to their imagination or emotions. Whatever his motives, this “fact” is still in circulation to this day.
The Tribe That Was … or Wasn’t … or Was
Manuel Elizalde, Jr., a Philippine government minister, announced to the world in 1971 that he had discovered a Stone Age tribe that had had no contact with the outside world. The tribe, called the Tasadays, lived in caves, wore leaves for clothing, used stone tools, and didn’t have a word for “enemy.” The tribe was featured on the cover of National Geographic and received worldwide attention. After scientists started asking questions, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared the tribe off-limits. In 1986, after Marcos was deposed, a Swiss anthropologist and two journalists searched for the Tasadays and found members of a local tribe who said they pretended to be a Stone Age tribe at Elizalde’s instructions. However, in a different interview, two Tasaday members who had originally claimed they were bribed by Elizalde admitted they had also been bribed by journalists with “cigarettes, candy, anything we wanted—if we would say what he told us to.” So what’s the truth? No one truly knows.
The War of Breakfast Foods
In 1683, as one hundred thousand Ottoman Turks besieged the city of Vienna, the bakers of the city, who had to be up early in the morning to make the bread, heard what sounded like digging. Indeed, the Turks were attempting to tunnel under the city’s walls. The bakers raised the alarm and the Turks were unable to take Vienna before King John III of Poland showed up and drove them away. Legend has it that the bakers celebrated the end of the siege by creating a commemorative pastry in the shape of the Turks’ flag—a crescent moon. It was called a kipfel, which is German for crescent … now commonly known as the croissant. Meanwhile, the bakers, unable to contain their excitement, also created a new roll in the shape of a stirrup to honor King John. The Austrian word for stirrup is bugel—which is where we could have gotten the word bagel. Unfortunately, neither story is true.
Corrections to the Historical Record
There is no William Tell, and he didn’t shoot an apple off his son’s head.
Richard III, King of England from 1483–1485, was not a hunchback. Paintings of him were touched up after his death to make it look like he was. He also didn’t murder his brother, his son, or his wife. He can thank Tudor slander and a hack named Shakespeare for turning him into such a villain.
Here are two shockers: Vikings didn’t wear helmets with horns attached to them, and pirates didn’t make people walk the plank.
Most people in the 1490s knew the world was round. Columbus didn’t have to convince anyone. Also, the first European to discover America was Bjarni Herjolfsson in the late 900s.
Lady Godiva didn’t ride through the streets of Coventry naked.
“Ring Around the Rosie” does not refer to the Great Plague.
The great pyramids were not built by slaves. Excavated skeletons show that the builders were actually Egyptian laborers who were paid for their work.
Benjamin Franklin told the story of flying a kite with a key attached to the string, but never did it.
Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office, did not say, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”