VOICE OVER: Callum Janes
WRITTEN BY: Cameron Johnson
The distortions or mere misconceptions of these widely misremembered facts should be set straight. For this list, we'll be looking at some of the most striking errors in commonly known events and figures. Our countdown of historical inaccuracies people believe to be true includes George Washington's Teeth, Napoleon Complex, Einstein's Grades, and more!
Top 10 Historical Inaccuracies People Believe to Be True
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Historical Inaccuracies People Believe to Be True.
For this list, we’ll be looking at some of the most striking errors in commonly known events and figures. The distortions or mere misconceptions of these widely misremembered facts should be set straight.
Do you have a history lesson that isn't strictly accurate? Give your report in the comments.
#10: George Washington’s Teeth
Don’t believe the myth that George Washington didn’t do all he could to prevent the loss of all his teeth. At least Washington could afford better than the wooden false teeth that most people believe to be his signature. He had four dentures made from premium material for the time, certainly not including wood. It is generally assumed that Washington had stained his preferred ivory sets, giving them a wooden appearance. You’d think he would keep these costly chompers in better condition. Perhaps the first President of the United States had other priorities.
#9: “Let Them Eat Cake”
Marie Antoinette supposedly sealed her fate during the French Revolution when she suggested that peasants end their famine with cake or brioche. Of course, those who think this reflected how out-of-touch she was with her subjects are out-of-touch with history. The phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” was coined in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography, attributed to an unidentified “great princess.” The book was released when Antoinette was only nine years old and still living in Austria. Nonetheless, revolutionaries inspired by Rousseau’s philosophies misappropriated the quote in campaigns to defame the Queen. Still, to this day, many believe “Let them eat cake” says everything about the elitism that led to Antoinette’s execution.
#8: Viking Helmets
Medieval Norse raiders were known to be devils on the battlefield. But of all the fearsome helmets that these Vikings wore in combat, there’s no evidence that any of them had horns. This belief goes back to artistic liberties among 19th century Romanticists in Scandinavia and Germany. It’s believed that the visual was widely popularized by Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle. The horned helmet myth stuck in pop culture that quickly. Now, 21st century artistic depictions of Vikings are starting to undo it. Research does suggest that Scandinavians wore horned helmets for ceremonies during the Nordic Bronze Age. Of course, as skilled as Vikings were in battle, such headgear would be too impractical there.
#7: Napoleon Complex
Napoleon Bonaparte led France out of a revolution into one of the most powerful empires in the world. It sounds like he was compensating for something. This is the idea behind the Napoleon complex, which attributes a man’s ego trips to insecurity about his short stature. The thing is that Napoleon stood somewhere between 5’6” and 5’10.” That was actually above-average height for a man of his era. Belief to the contrary originated from British propaganda, which belittled the empire’s nemesis by literally belittling him. The campaign may have had no real impact on Napoleon’s conquest, but it seriously distorted his legacy. With greater sensitivity to history and height, the public is finally starting to reject this tall tale.
#6: “The British Are Coming!”
The American Revolution might never have been had the Massachusetts Provincial Congress not been warned of a British attack. This heroic image is enhanced by Paul Revere shouting, “The British are coming!” throughout his ride from Boston to Concord. Well, that wouldn’t be particularly smart espionage. Revere and William Dawes in fact covertly passed the intelligence to other riders before Revere was apprehended in Lincoln. There were as many as forty messengers by the time word reached Concord. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow just found it more romantic to credit the original riders in his 1860 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The idea that Revere galvanized a Massachusetts devoid of Crown loyalists is pretty absurd. In playing to patriotic ego, however, Longfellow's poem is popularly taken as fact.
#5: Rosa Parks’s Seat
The Civil Rights movement flourished with Rosa Parks’s arrest on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Many believe that her act of defiance was the first of its kind. More naively, some think Parks took a white person’s seat first. She actually was seated in the black section of the bus, but broke Jim Crow laws by refusing to defer her seat after a white passengers’ section reached capacity. Black people, of course, were entirely barred from “white only” spaces. Though this particular incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Irene Morgan, Claudette Colvin and others did the same thing earlier. Parks nonetheless deserves praise for showing how many people were willing to take a stand against the lie of “Separate but equal” by staying seated.
#4: Thomas Edison Invented the Light Bulb
American inventor Thomas Edison accrued more than 1,000 US patents, with the incandescent light bulb being considered his masterpiece. While one can reasonably assume he didn’t come up with the idea entirely, the invention of the light bulb is complicated. The concept of producing light with an electric arc was first realized by Humphry Davy in the early 1800s. Edison’s carbonized filament design may be considered groundbreaking. But English inventor Joseph Swan coincidentally patented a near-identical model at the same time. Inquiries found no evidence of intellectual infringement. Edison and Swan ultimately merged their companies to help spread light bulbs throughout the world. Though American mythos gives Edison all the credit, all visionaries need some guiding light.
#3: Einstein’s Grades
It’s hard to overstate Albert Einstein’s brilliance. His academic underdog story, on the other hand, has been inflated by the notion that one of the greatest scientists of the modern age flunked math and science in secondary school. His published final report card shows a 6 in algebra, geometry and physics. That was the lowest grade possible at the Cantonal School in Aarau… before Einstein’s day. During his last year, the school inverted its grading system, meaning that Einstein got the highest marks in the fields he went on to reinvent. Granted, he did have trouble with organic sciences. Still, with a history score to match math and physics, Einstein’s grades alone are a lesson in the importance of proper research.
#2: Salem Witch Burning
America’s puritanical foundation was first shaken in 1692. Colonial Massachusetts had to reassess its values after the mass conviction and execution of people, mostly in Salem, for supposedly practicing witchcraft. At least they didn’t import Europe’s common practice of burning convicted witches at the stake. Nineteen of the thirty people found guilty were hanged. Giles Corey was crushed with stones for refusing to enter a plea to his charge. American folklore has since conflated these trials with European ones, which regularly featured fatal witch tests and executions by immolation. The Salem witch trials were more solemn than the sensational fables. Whatever people have come to envision with this infamous episode, it’s more important to remember the tragedy of superstition and neighbors’ betrayal.
#1: Pyramids Built on Slave Labor
Ancient Egypt built so much of modern civilization. Many systems have also been inspired by the premise that this world was partly built on slave labor. The mighty pyramids of Giza are particularly associated with such atrocities. But overwhelming archeological evidence suggests that slavery was not involved in their construction. It sure wasn’t aliens either! The builders were ostensibly skilled Egyptian laborers who were paid fairly. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus spread the theory that these laborers were enslaved. This myth was finally cemented by misinterpretations of the Book of Exodus, which never explicitly claims that the Israelites built the pyramids that predate their culture. With modern historians enabling us to admire the Giza pyramids guilt-free, they're also a monument to the power of historical inaccuracy.