Common Misconceptions About History's Most Famous Figures
History books offer us an idea of what important historical figures achieved in their heyday. Our ancestors passed down knowledge about world leaders, artists and scientists, but some of their most notable tidbits are far from the truth.
Prepare to question everything you thought you knew about these famous figures, because we're breaking down history's most notorious falsehoods.
Marie Antoinette Wasn’t Crazy About Clothes or Shoes
First of all, Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." As the French would say, that lie is utter absurtidé. However, the last Queen of France did have a reputation for being a spoiled, out-of-touch royal who spent France's money on lavish outfits and designer shoes.
Mother Theresa’s Charity Work Was Questionable
As history's most charitable icon, Mother Theresa's name has come to stand in for anyone who is generous towards others. In 1950, Mother Theresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation that had almost 5,000 nuns and was active in over 130 countries. It was her mission to "serve the poorest of the poor" throughout the world.
Albert Einstein Was Always Smart
Mention E=mc2 and you’re likely to think of the German born physicist. Einstein's theory of relativity is one of the pillars of modern day physics. Many believe that his great brain didn’t develop until later in life and rumors circulated that he was a terrible student throughout his youth.
Benjamin Franklin Didn’t Discover Electricity with a Kite
In the summer of 1752, Franklin got what he was hoping for: a thunderstorm in Philadelphia. He quickly grabbed his silk kite, a hemp string, a house key and a jar and headed towards a field to find a potential electrical charge from the storm.
Julius Caesar Was Actually a Beloved Leader
Caesar was the Roman politician and military general who was pivotal in the events that led to the rise of the Roman Empire. While his last words weren't actually, "et tu, Brute," he was definitely assassinated by Roman politicians. However, it wasn't because Caesar was bad at his job. In fact, he was well liked by his people.
Harriet Tubman Never Claimed to Free A Thousand Slaves
Tubman was the abolitionist activist who rescued enslaved people in the 1800s using the Underground Railroad. Over 13 heroic missions, Tubman used the network of safe houses and antislavery activists to shuffle family, friends and strangers to freedom. But Tubman wasn't known for being boastful.
Genghis Kahn Wasn’t A Ruthless Psychopath
Yes, Genghis Kahn was the leader of the Mongol juggernaut that leveled cities and may have caused upwards of 40 million deaths in his lifetime. Under his and his descendants' leadership, the Mongols conquered half the known world. But this was the Middle Ages. Kahn was no more or less cruel than other leaders of the time.
Betsy Ross Didn’t Make the First American Flag
One of the most well-known stories from the birth of the United States of America is Betsy Ross designing the first version of the American flag. Betsy Ross was indeed a seamstress who lived in Philadelphia and she did make flags for the Pennsylvania navy during the American Revolution.
William Shakespeare Didn’t Invent a Lot of Words
Shakespeare is one of the world's most recognized writers. His precise comedic timing and dramatic twists are the kind of storytelling hallmarks many writers today can only aspire to. Shakespeares' use of language was so gamechanging that many credit him for creating hundreds of common words we use today.
Lady Godiva Never Rode a Horse Naked
Godiva, Countess of Mercia, lived in the Middle Ages during the 11th Century. She was a generous woman and a landowner with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Leofric tried to impose hefty taxes on their tenants, but after he refused her wishes to cancel the taxes, Godiva rode naked in protest through the streets of Coventry, England.
Nikola Tesla Was Far From Shy
Tesla was a talented inventor and engineer best known for developing the alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. After collecting a fortune from the AC patent, he experimented with wireless power, x-rays and steam generators. All of the time spent in his laboratory earned him a reputation for being a shy, fearful man, but that was hardly the case.
Joan of Arc Never Participated in Active Combat
We all picture Joan of Arc in steel military armor, charging through battles in the French army. Her legacy as a fearless warrior is an inspiration for men and women alike, but alas, Joan never actually fought in battle. She never even killed anyone.
Steve Jobs Was No Technology Whiz
A true visionary of the modern technological era, Jobs made Apple the behemoth it is today. No one can argue with his massive contribution to the world of technology as we know it. But it turns out Jobs actually didn't know that much about technology.
Princess Diana Actively Collaborated With The Press
Princess Diana's tragic death - the result of a high-speed car chase from paparazzi- was a significant moment in cultural history. Her passing was a representation of what she routinely lamented about life in the spotlight. Only Diana didn't actively try to avoid the press. Instead, she was expertly crafting her own narrative by secretly working with them towards the end of her marriage.
Van Gogh Didn’t Slice Off His Ear
He’s the epitome of the tortured, starving artist. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but he wasn't actually starving. He did make a living teaching and dealing art when he wasn't painting 2,100 of his own pieces. But the infamous argument with Paul Gaugin will forever be a part of Van Gogh’s legacy.
Confucius Didn’t Preach Blind Oppression
The Chinese philosopher is often considered the most influential person in traditional Chinese and East Asian culture. In recent years, however, his philosophical teachings have been getting a bad reputation. Confucianism is nowadays dismissed as a symbol of oppression and sexism.
Dr. Seuss Was Afraid of Children
Books by Dr. Seuss are staples in children's libraries for their cartoon illustrations and whimsical poetry. But in reality, Dr. Seuss only cared to entertain children from afar. He told reporters that children made him uncomfortable. "In mass," he confessed, "they terrify me."
Charles Darwin Wasn’t an Atheist
The science of evolution exists in large part thanks to the contributions of Darwin. According to Darwin, all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors and natural selection. It's a foundational and widely accepted scientific concept, and is particularly embraced by groups opposed to religion.
Helen Keller Wasn’t Born Deaf and Blind
Helen Keller's early education is the subject of the world renowned autobiography and play The Miracle Worker. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, introduced her to the education system, activism and later international stardom. But contrary to popular belief, Keller was born able to see and hear just fine.
Gandhi Wasn’t The Father of Nonviolent Resistance
Mahatma Gandhi was a political force who used nonviolent resistance to lead India to its independence from British Rule. While many admired him for his saintly behavior, Gandhi would have disagreed. Instead of thinking of Gandhi as a saint trying to be a politician, he would have preferred you thought of him as a politician trying to be a saint.
George Washington Never Chopped Down A Cherry Tree
When Washington was 6 years old, he received a hatchet as a gift and hacked away at his father's cherry tree. When his father saw what little George did, he demanded an explanation. The first President of the United States courageously confessed, "I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet."
Martin Luther King Jr. Supported Affirmative Action
In the last decade, a new battle has erupted over the iconic activist’s legacy. A growing number of conservatives claim King was against all policies based on race. Conservative historians use his request to "judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin" as evidence of their argument. But their argument is totally wrong.
Queen Elizabeth I Was Not A Man
Queen Elizabeth I brought almost 50 years of stability to England and Ireland under her reign. She was often called The Virgin Queen, and saw herself as wedded to her country. But as she continued to resist pressure to take a husband, rumors began to circulate that there was a scandalous reason why she wouldn't marry.
King Tut Was A Far Cry From A Mighty Ruler
King Tut's beautiful golden mask and decadent tomb paint the picture of a handsome, powerful Egyptian ruler. That image lasted until 1922, when Howard Carter discovered Tut’s pristine tomb and scientists began investigating his remains. It turns out the golden man with the golden mask lived a very short, difficult life.
Pocahontas Never Saved John Smith’s Life
According to John Smith, Pocahontas threw herself across his body moments before he was to be clubbed to death in a ritual sacrifice. According to Algonquian cultural history, that never would have happened. Prisoners of war were either burned or tortured, and a little girl's wishes wouldn't stop either from happening.
Magellan Didn’t Successfully Sail Around the World
In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew of over 250 men set sail. Their goal was to be the first explorers to successful sail around the world. Magellan often receives credit for having completed this marvelous adventure, but while the ship made its way around the world, Magellan didn’t.
Catherine the Great Didn’t Get Crushed By A Horse
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, does not have the greatest rumor following her legacy. In fact, it's kind of the worst. Somehow over time, accusations developed after her death that she died in bed, crushed under a horse with which she was attempting to mate.
Emperor Nero Didn’t Set Rome on Fire
The Great Fire of Rome destroyed two thirds of the empire in the summer of 64 AD. The fire was traced back to the merchant shops around Rome's Chariot Stadium, but many suspected Emperor Nero was responsible. Rumors spread he ordered someone to set fire to Rome to make way for his new palace, and played the fiddle while he watched it burn.
Cleopatra Wasn’t An Impossible Beauty
Modern films and textbooks had us all thinking Cleopatra was a seductive, statuesque femme fatale. But historians have studied her for centuries, and many have come to the same conclusion; she was quite the opposite. Standing at 4 feet, 9 inches, the petite queen was no supermodel.
Napoleon Wasn’t A Tiny Terror
Napoleon rose to power when he began winning battles as commander of France’s Army of Italy in 1796. Today, his legacy carries on as a cultural icon and a symbol of military prowess and political power. But to his enemies, including the British press, he was a small, short-tempered "bogeyman."