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10 Widely Believed Myths About Historical Figures

It is surprisingly easy for historical myths to become historical facts because oftentimes people will prefer the version of a story that is the most entertaining or the easiest to remember rather than the one that is the most accurate. Sometimes, all it takes is for just one person to come up with a good lie, and, just like that, hundreds of years later it is still presented as fact.

Today we examine 10 of these myths, all about famous historical people who aren’t around anymore to clear the air themselves.

10. Lady Godiva and the Naked Ride


The story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride has been around for over 700 years. As the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, she pleaded with her husband to lower taxes, which he said he would do if she would ride around town naked in the middle of the day. Godiva agreed to do this and, out of respect for her, all the peasants averted their gaze during her naked ride, except for one perv named Thomas who became known as Peeping Tom.

That’s the story. The existence of Lady Godiva (or Godifu, as was her real name) is well-attested. She lived during the mid-11th century and was married to Leofric, one of the richest men in Anglo-Saxon England. Everything else, however, seems to be fiction which was steadily added to the legend over the centuries. The first to mention it was the chronicler, Roger of Wendover, 200 years later, but he only made reference to Leofric’s challenge. He never said that Godiva actually went through with it. The “Peeping Tom” bit wasn’t even added until the 17th century, so there is no historical evidence that the naked ride ever took place.

9. Walter Raleigh and the Tobacco Craze

walter raleigh

Staying in England, we take a look at one of the country’s leading adventurers – Sir Walter Raleigh. He explored and colonized the New World, fought the Spanish Armada, and even led an expedition to search for the fabled El Dorado. He is also credited with introducing tobacco to England. In fact, according to legend, the concept of smoking was so alien to Englishmen that when Raleigh’s servant first saw him smoke, he threw a bucket of water on him, thinking that his master was on fire.

So is any of this true? The story about the servant is obviously fiction, but Raleigh does deserve some partial credit because he played a role in popularizing tobacco, especially after supposedly convincing Queen Elizabeth I to try it. Everyone else copied the queen, so smoking became the new hip thing to do.

But Raleigh definitely did not introduce it because the Spanish had brought tobacco to Europe decades earlier. John Frampton had already published an English translation of the book “Of the Tabaco and of His Greate Vertues” by Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes, promoting the plant’s many medicinal qualities. So the English were aware of tobacco, they just weren’t interested in smoking it.

8. Guillotin and the Guillotine


You can probably guess by his name what Joseph-Ignace Guillotin is famous for but, contrary to myth, he did not invent the guillotine, arguably the most notorious execution method in history. In fact, the 18th-century French physician was a staunch abolitionist who did not believe in the death penalty at all. However, since getting rid of it completely was unrealistic, he advocated for a more humane method of execution, one which was quick, painless, and didn’t involve torture.

Ultimately, he got his wish, but he had no hand in the design or manufacture of the killing device. Several people were involved in its development, but the actual construction was done by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt

The name “guillotine” stuck mainly due to a song published in a popular French journal, mocking the physician. Guillotin “bitterly regretted to the latest moment of his existence” this connection. There is another myth involving him that says that he died by guillotine which, again, is not true. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died of old age at 75 years old. Afterward, his family petitioned the French government to change the name of the killing device, but it refused so the family changed their name instead.

7. Mussolini and His Trains


“Say what you want about Mussolini, but at least he made the trains run on time.” Or, at least, that’s what people bring up whenever they try to promote the virtues of an autocratic regime, or when they try to see the positives even in a worst-case scenario. Regardless of the motivation behind it, they should probably stop saying it simply because it is not true.

The whole “trains running on time” idea was propaganda used by Mussolini to advance the notion of fascist efficiency. Pretty much every biography on Mussolini comes with testimonies from people who lived or visited Italy during his reign and knew firsthand that the legendary precision and punctuality of Italian trains was more myth than reality. Not to mention the fact that many repairs and improvements on Italy’s railway system were done in the early 1920s before Mussolini even came to power, and he simply took the credit for them.

6. George Washington and the Cherry Tree


One day in 1738, Augustine Washington Sr. was walking around his plantation when he noticed that someone had cut down his favorite cherry tree. He suspected his young son, George, who had just received a hatchet for his sixth birthday. When Augustine confronted his son, George Washington admitted to the deed, saying that he “can not tell a lie.” Impressed with his bravery and honesty, Augustine Washington immediately forgave and embraced his son. 

It is a nice story that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but it was completely made up by a man named Mason Locke Weems. After George Washington’s death, Weems became one of the first people to write a biography about the Founding Father. Titled simply The Life of Washington, it was published in 1800 and became a bestseller. 

It contained a lot of fictional stories, especially from Washington’s early years, since Weems’s main interest (besides making money, of course) was to turn Washington into a beloved role model for Americans rather than any kind of historical accuracy. The “cherry tree” story became the most popular myth associated with Washington, even though it didn’t actually appear until the book’s fifth edition in 1806.

5. Napoleon and the Sphinx’s Nose


The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. It is instantly recognizable and, strangely enough, one of its most defining features is something that is missing – the nose. Today, we probably couldn’t even picture the Sphinx with a nose but, obviously, it did have one at some point so… that begs the question: what happened to it?

Weirdly enough, the person who often gets the blame for the missing nose is Napoleon. In 1798, he led a campaign into Egypt and Syria, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and the story goes that an errant cannonball hit the Sphinx’s nose and smashed it to bits.

We can safely let Napoleon off the hook for this act of vandalism since there is pretty strong evidence that the Sphinx had already lost its nose before his time. Sketches by Danish explorer Frederic Louis Norden dated to 1737, decades before the French ruler was even born, show the Sphinx as we know it today. Going even further back, 15th-century historian Al-Maqrizi not only documented the loss of the nose but also blamed it on a man named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, who intentionally defaced the Sphinx as an act of iconoclasm.

4. Ben Franklin and His Turkeys


We’ve already covered one Founding Father, so let’s mention another one: Benjamin Franklin and his staunch admiration for turkeys, which supposedly prompted him to propose the turkey as America’s national symbol instead of the bald eagle.

There are a few kernels of truth in there, which is probably why this myth is so enduring. It is true that Franklin was part of the committee to select the national seal of America, alongside John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, so he would have had the opportunity to advocate for the turkey if he so desired but he did not do it. Instead, Franklin suggested a biblical scene showing Moses parting the Red Sea.

It is also true that Franklin preferred the turkey over the bald eagle. He thought the eagle was a lazy animal of “bad moral character” who lived by stealing food from other birds, whereas the turkey was more respectable and a “true original native of America.” However, he only shared these opinions in a private letter to his daughter. He never publicized them and he wasn’t even talking about the eagle from the Great Seal, but rather the eagle used by a club called the Society of Cincinnati, which some people thought looked more like a turkey than an eagle. The whole thing was just a joke that people didn’t get and that’s how the myth was born.

3. Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

ponce de leon

Juan Ponce de Leon was a 16th-century Spanish explorer and conquistador who led the first European expedition to Florida and served as the first Governor of Puerto Rico. However, the main thing he is remembered for today is his search for the mythical Fountain of Youth, a legendary spring capable of de-aging anyone who swam in its waters. 

Here’s the thing, though. Ponce de Leon never did that. The Fountain of Youth is not mentioned once in any of his letters or documents. His goal was something far more common and mundane – money. Specifically, he was searching for another island like Puerto Rico where he could enjoy another profitable governorship

The connection with the Fountain of Youth appeared after the explorer’s death and it was actually an attempt by a writer named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés to discredit him. Oviedo disliked Ponce de Leon, so he wrote how the conquistador was tricked by the Native Americans to set off in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth. It was meant to make Ponce de Leon look like a gullible fool and the rest of the world bought it hook, line and sinker.

2. William Howard Taft and the Big Bathtub


William Howard Taft served as the 27th President of the United States, but people mainly remember him today for being so fat that he once got stuck in the White House bathtub and that it took six strong men to get him out.

It’s true that Taft was a large man. He stood almost six feet tall and weighed almost 350 pounds by the end of his presidency. He wasn’t called “Big Bill” for nothing, but even he wasn’t big enough to get stuck in the bathtub that had been installed in the White House especially for him. Yes, Taft had the forethought to order a custom-made tub that was seven feet long, three-and-a-half feet wide, and could easily accommodate four regular men. Weighing over a ton, it was at the time the largest bathtub built for one individual, so there was no way for Big Bill to get stuck inside it.

To top it all off, this story was never reported in the papers during Taft’s presidency. The first mention of it seems to appear in the memoir of an usher named Ike Hoover who worked in the White House for 42 years and published a book with all kinds of quirky and seedy stories from his time spent there.

1. Magellan and His Circumnavigation


Being the first to do something is almost a sure-fire way to make it into the history books. Some people even get lucky enough to become remembered for something they never actually did. Take, for example, 16th-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. If there is one thing that most people know about Magellan, it is that he was the first person to circumnavigate the globe in 1519.

Some places are more careful with their wording and say that Magellan led or “masterminded” the expedition that completed the first circumnavigation. This is more accurate, but still omits the fact that Magellan himself never finished the voyage. He was killed in the Philippines in 1521, and Juan Sebastian Elcano became the new captain, who saw the voyage to its completion.

Curiously, historians think that the person who probably deserves this accolade the most was a Malaysian slave named Enrique. Ten years earlier, Magellan picked him up in Malacca to serve as his interpreter. Enrique then traveled west with Magellan from Asia to Europe. Then, he set off in 1519 on Magellan’s fatal expedition, going from Europe to Asia. However, he left the ship after Magellan’s death in the Philippines, just a few hundred miles short of his point of origin in Malacca. We don’t know what happened to Enrique after that but, assuming he made it home, he would have completed the circumnavigation he had unwittingly started a decade earlier.

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