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Popular Historical "Facts" that everybody "Knows"

Updated on February 18, 2017

"History is a joke we play on the dead"-Voltaire

Napoleon was Short

In the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) Napoleon is described as the "short, dead dude", but was he really that short?

The issue in regard to historical inaccuracies with Napoleon's height is the use of two different measuring systems. The French had their system of measurement and the English had their own.

The French system said that Napoleon was 5'2, when translated properly into the English Imperial measurement system of the time Napoleon should have been recorded as 5'7, instead the measurement of 5'2 was used as propaganda by the English who were at war with Napoleon and said that he was an angry tyrant out to rule the world because of his abnormally short stature.

In reality the average height in France at the time was 5'5 (based on the English Imperial Scale) so Napoleon was actually a rather respectable height for a French man at 5'7.

Horned Helmets

Everybody "knows" that Vikings wore horned helmets.

In reality there is actually no historical evidence that Vikings had horns on their helmets, the few helms that have been discovered in graves and buried weapons caches all show conical or bowl shaped helms with or without a flat nose guard.

The fact is that horns on a helmet would be dangerous for the warrior wearing it because it would give an opponent something to grab on to and pull/twist which would one; be dangerous for the warriors neck and two give the enemy a way of controlling your movements during a fight since they would have ahold on something attached to your head.

So where does the myth of the horns come from?

The easy answer is German composer Richard Wagner in the 19th century.

The Viking singers in his 1976 opera Der Ring des Nibelungen depicted Vikings as wearing horned helmets. This was done as a part of theater to make a statement but became ingrained in society as an accurate image of the Vikings.

France is a weak country

How many of us have heard the old military joke "French army rifles for sale, never been fired, only dropped once"?

While it is true that France capitulated quickly to the Nazi forces in World War II historically France has had one of the worlds premiere military forces, at times even on par with the Roman Legions of old.

Under Napoleon the French legions won the majority of their battles, usually against larger forces and before Napoleon, France and the Germanic/Belgium regions were united by conquest by Charles "the Hammer" Martel and later his famous grandson Charlemagne further extended the empires reach and was even crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

Make as many jokes as you want but historically speaking France was a powerhouse for much of its history and you did not want to mess with France. The current image of a weak France only started roughly 120 years ago.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

"Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" (Longfellow)

Any school child can tell you the story of Paul Revere, the lone heroic horseman riding through the night warning the militias that the British were coming. This account while popular myth is a construct of literary license and historically completely inaccurate.

The poem by Longfellow has Revere arriving at two locations to raise the alarm about the British being on the move, in reality Revere was arrested by the British outside of Lexington and never made it to Concord.

The fact is there were five known riders spreading word of the British advance including one woman, they were Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott (who was riding with Revere and avoided capture and made it to Concord to raise the alarm), Israel Bissell, William Dawes and Sybil Ludington (who was only 16 years old at the time).

"Then Let Them Eat Cake"

These five famous wards are attributed to France's ill fated Queen, Marie Antoinette. As the story goes in 1766 Jean Rousseau wrote down the story he recalled from 25 years prior where when upon hearing that they people had no bread to eat in the country of France , she (a conveniently unnamed Princess) said "Then let them eat cake".

During the revolution propagandists used this quote to demonstrate the Queen's disregard for the people.

The problem with this is that Marie was only 11 years old at the time the quote was to have been uttered, living in Austria and would most likely have been unaware there was a bread shortage in France. The French Revolution would not occur until 23 years after this famous statement was supposedly made by the unnamed princess.

Fiddling while Rome burned

The Great Fire of Rome (64 AD) is another famous story that everybody "knows", how Nero fiddled atop his tower watching the chaos with sadistic glee while Rome burned.

There are two major problems with this common story. One the fiddle was not invented until 1600 years after the great fire and while it is possible it could have been a lute or a lyre instead it doesn't account for the fact that Nero is known to not have been in Rome at the time but rather was vacationing in his villa in Antium.

American Independence

Every American child and even most non-American children are taught that America won it's Independence from England on July 4, 1776.

While it is true that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on this date, it was just a declaration that they considered themselves free of England not an actual ending of the war.

The American Revolution would in fact be fought for another seven years with true Independence finally being achieved on September 3, 1783 when Revolution leaders and King George III of England signed a document called the Definitive Treaty of Peace which ended the war.

Inventing Baseball

Any sport fan knows the story of the Civil War General Abner Doubleday regularly called the father of baseball, however there isn't any historical evidence to back this claim up but is rather a creation much like the story of Betsy Ross making the first American Flag, something she never claimed she did.

When baseball started getting popular in the late 19th century a group called the Mills Commission was formed to document the history of "America's Greatest Pastime"

A member of the Commission named Albert Spalding disliked anything British and didn't like that the sport was seen as having roots in the English game of Rounders, he wanted the sport to be seen as something completely American. In comes General Doubleday, a decorated war hero who apparently created the game as a youth living in New York. What could be more American?

As far as we know this account can be accredited to two men Albert Spalding and Jeff Idelson, however in 1953 Congress officially gave credit to Alexander Cartwright who is known to have produced the first comprehensive and written set of rules for baseball.

Lizzie A. Borden
Lizzie A. Borden
Emma L. Borden
Emma L. Borden
Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Borden nee` Gray
Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Borden nee` Gray

Lizzie Borden

"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".

While a crime of double murder did take place Lizzie is famous among children for this rather morbid poem popularly sung while jumping rope or skipping.

Lizzie's father was in fact only hit about eleven times and her step-mother eighteen to twenty times.

The myth comes about not for that the crime took place but rather the persistent belief that Lizzie committed the crime at all, and she was in fact acquitted of the crime by a jury. However the belief that she got away with the double murder persists to this day.

When the crime happened Lizzie was found with no blood on her clothing which would have been impossible if she had just committed two violent axe murders, additionally there was no weapon found at the scene and from the time Lizzie came home and found her parents and the police rushed in alerted by her screams she did not have time to change and burn her clothes as popularly stated by some theorists today.

Among experts today who study this case and have published their findings there are two likely suspects and Lizzie isn't one of them.

The first they say is a never identified killer which is supported by the fact that another unsolved axe murder happened just days before Lizzie's trial in the same area and the second suspect is Lizzie's older sister Emma who several case experts have stated seems to be a more likely suspect than Lizzie was, even though Emma herself was never accused or charged with the crime.

That is not to say that Lizzie could not have still committed the crime, investigators at the time found there were in fact numerous people who would benefit from Andrew Borden's death not the least Lizzie and Emma Borden who had numerous reasons other than money (of which Andrew Borden had a lot of) to kill their father and both Borden daughters were known to have hated their step-mother. 120 years later this case still intrigues criminal investigators and arm chair theorists alike.

The Founding Fathers were all Christian

One thing many of us are taught at a young age and hear frequently as adults is that all the Founding Fathers were Christians and wanted America to be/stay only Christian.

Heads up: Many of the Founding Fathers did not consider themselves to be Christian.

George Washington (who by the way was not in fact the first president) followed a belief system called Pantheism, which is the belief that nature itself is God. Washington could also be considered a Christian Deist as could Abigail Adams, Alexander Hamilton and John Hancock.

Many Founding Fathers were Non-Christian Deists. For example: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Monroe and James Madison.

Non-Christian Deists are people that don't follow the bible/Church edicts but believe that there must be a God because how else do you explain everything's existence if not for a higher power?

And John Adams was a Unitarian, an offshoot of Christianity that believes that while Jesus was a great man he was not a messiah or the son of God.


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