Common Misconceptions About History's Most Famous Figures

By Michael Kasian
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Photo Courtesy: Benjamin West/Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux/Wikimedia Commons

Even though Versailles is a gorgeous palace, it was a very dirty place in the late 1700s, littered with animals and excrement. Antoinette, who actually dressed down in comparison to the French royal family, got new shoes every few days because the palace was so filthy. Other members of the royal family were far more excessive, getting a new pair of shoes for each day of the year.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Tim Graham/Getty Images

After gaining millions in donations for her work, criticism poured in over the poor conditions of her orphanages and houses for the dying. Many of the sick patients received horrendous medical care from the clinicians, and orphans were left in conditions described as "dangerous". Her excuse? She routinely claimed suffering was a gift from God.

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.

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While he didn't start speaking until the age of 2, Einstein put his brain to good use throughout his childhood. He even graduated high school near the top of his class. So why the rumor? Records show there was a confusing grade change while he was in school, switching high marks with low marks in one semester. He was always excelling, but researchers couldn't figure out the grading equation.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: USCapitol/Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, Franklin didn't discover electricity from this experiment. Electrical forces were acknowledged for hundreds of years prior to Franklin's kite. Instead, he was trying to show the connection between lightning and electricity. Also, his kite wasn't struck by lightning, as he would have been electrocuted. Instead, the kite picked up the 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.

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Photo Courtesy: Vincenzo Camuccini/Wikimedia Commons

Caesar was a populist ruler. He spearheaded land reform, established support programs for veterans and passed laws to aid the poor. He even granted Roman citizenship to anyone he conquered. The men who murdered Caesar were politicians, jealous of Caesar's reign and irritated that he favored loyalists over Roman elites.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Harvey B. Lindsley/Wikimedia Commons

She definitely never said, "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves." That false quote was only attributed to her within the last 30 years. In reality, Tubman rescued approximately 70 enslaved people. In her later years, she continued to serve as an activist in the struggle for women's suffrage.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

In fact, Kahn's people considered him to be the great uniter of all people. He permitted freedom of religion, established a rule of law, permitted trade and rewarded loyalty among his countrymen. His enemies spread tall tales about how barbaric and ruthless he was, but Kahn welcomed the reputation as it made him more intimidating to enemies.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: United States Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

But there is zero evidence to support the story that Ross made or designed the first American flag. None. This story didn't even come to life until 100 years later, thanks to her grandson who claimed Ross told him the story before she died. And even his story claimed that she only helped make the five-pointed star and not the whole flag.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: John Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

I hate to ‘break the ice,' but Shakespeare didn't invent a lot of the language he used in his plays. When the Oxford English Dictionary was first published in 1933, its authors attributed usages of words to various well-known texts. Since Shakespeare was so famous already, he tended to be incorrectly credited with the first known usage of many words.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

At least that’s the story, which was first written in the 13th Century, two hundred years after her death. There was no record or mention anywhere beforehand, and modern historians disregard the story as nonsense. Sorry, Peeping Toms, but Lady Godiva never rode a horse naked.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

While he would spend odd hours in his lab and slept only two hours a night, Tesla was quite the charismatic fellow. Tesla lived in the heart of New York City and would often hold demonstrations to impress the world with his charisma and electric experiments. He also found time to walk 8-10 miles a day around New York to exercise and stay social with other city dwellers.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres/Wikimedia Commons

Instead, Joan served as an inspirational mascot of sorts, flying the French banner high instead of brandishing a sword. But she was more than a mascot. She helped to outline military strategies, commanded troops and proposed diplomatic solutions to the English.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: matt buchanan/Wikimedia Commons

As a visionary, Jobs excelled at combining a liberal arts mentality with the cutting edge world of technology. He was responsible for making all of Apple's products looking like modern and desirable pieces of art. He knew to blend the worlds of technology and design, and helped usher in an era of technological connectivity without having to know how to actually build the devices.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1991, she quietly worked with a British reporter on a book that revealed insider details about Prince Charles' infidelity and her downward emotional spiral. Her genius idea to lift the veil and give readers a glimpse of royal life made Diana more relatable and beloved by the public. While she denied her work on the book at the time of its release, the latest edition now includes her handwritten line-edits.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that their friendship deteriorated over time, and in one of their last moments together, Van Gogh cut off his ear in a fit of rage. But Van Gogh didn't cut off his entire ear, only cutting a part of his left lobe off. Sure, it was painful, but it wasn't nearly as graphic a story as legend paints.

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.

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But blind loyalty to your mother, father or kings were never included in his teachings. Confucious teaches that parents must love their children and children should respect their parents. But nowhere does he write that parents can do no wrong. Everyone, "from the Son of Heaven to the common folk," he said, are held to the same moral standards and can learn from one another.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Gene Lester/Getty Images

So why write children's books? In his original contract, Seuss insisted he would write children’s books if he could publish an adult book first. The Seven Lady Godivas, a book filled with drawings of naked women on every page, was his first publication. It flopped, so he put his fears aside and stuck to his strengths.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Henry Maull/John Fox/Wikimedia Commons

But Darwin wasn't an atheist. At one point in his life, Darwin was studying to become a clergyman. His opinion on religion did evolve the more he explored the science of evolution. In his later years, he described himself as "agnostic" and no longer followed Christianity. It was a painful realization for him, as his favorite books were the Gospels in the Bible.

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.

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She eventually became sick with an illness at one and a half years old and lost her ability to hear and see once she recovered. Even before meeting Sullivan, she was able to communicate with her family by using 60 various signs developed at home.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

While he did raise nonviolent action to a historic level of recognition, it certainly wasn't his invention. In fact, the concept of nonviolence sounds peaceful, but it was quite gruesome for his followers. Hundreds of Indians were killed by the British because they had to be willing to die while refusing to kill others. This method of combat was employed long before Gandhi used it.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Rembrandt Peale/Wikimedia Commons

It's a great story, but it's not real. Ironically, this fake story about honesty came from one of Washington's first biographers. After Washington's death in 1799, the public wanted to learn more about the virtuous man, which led to The Life of Washington's publication in 1800. The bestselling book didn't include the cherry tree myth until years later in the book's fifth edition.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

While King never mentioned the words 'affirmative action' in his speeches, he definitely supported the concept. In his book Where Do We Go From Here, King wrote that a "society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro."

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.

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A conspiracy theory has floated for centuries that Elizabeth I was a man who wore beautiful gowns and elaborate makeup. An overwhelming amount of evidence proves the rumor to be false and also quite misogynist. She was an extraordinary leader, brilliant mind and a woman at the same time.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

King Tut only ruled for 9 years before dying at 18 or 19 years of age. He was short in stature, roughly 5'6, a child of inbreeding and suffered deformations in his left leg, requiring him to use a cane. He also probably had scoliosis in his back, battled malaria and likely died of an infection in his leg.

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.

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Also at the time of Smith's visit, Pocahontas likely wasn't allowed to attend any kind of ritual with Smith involved as she was a child of 10 or 11. It's also worth noting that Smith was a notorious braggart who wrote about rescues from other women in his life that were also likely untrue.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal/Wikimedia Commons

Magellan led the others across the Atlantic and a large part of the Pacific, but things got dicey in the Philippines. On the island of Mactan, Magellan got into an argument with some of the natives and was killed as a result. Three years after their voyage, only 18 crew members returned alive.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Georg Cristoph Grooth/Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great did die in her bed, but she actually fell into a coma after suffering a stroke in her dressing room. An autopsy confirmed her cause of death was a stroke, but jokes about her sexual appetite and love for her horses evolved into this salacious rumor.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Getty Images

Nero’s reign is admittedly associated with a lot of impulsive and tyrannical behavior. The man took his own mother as a mistress and later had her murdered, for example. But according to Rome's history books, Nero was actually out of town during the fire and returned to offer food and shelter for the newly homeless.

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.

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Historians also revealed that Cleopatra had a large, hooked nose, thin lips, a sharp chin and was also overweight. Even though she wasn't considered beautiful by today's standards, she was still a bewitching ruler. She conquered men with her wits and personality, which are far more powerful weapons, after all.

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."

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Photo Courtesy: Jacques-Louis David/Getty

The Brits had him measured at 5 feet, 2 inches, but the French had him standing at 5 feet, 7 inches, which was a normal height at the time. French and British measurements were different in those days, so it's very possible the tiny Napoleon was in fact a normal-sized Emperor.