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12 Historical 'Facts' That Just Aren't True

FUN FACTS September 25, 2017 By Vincent

One of the recognized quirks of historical fact is that they are often attributed to folklore and anecdotal evidence so as new evidence on certain events arise, 'facts' are often thrown into doubt or the wrong information altogether falls into common knowledge. Here we clear up 12 of the most common misconceptions about history.

1. Salem Witches Weren't Burned

An infamous event in American history, the Salem Witch Trials happened in 1692 and saw many women accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death for it but, as is commonly thought, these women were not burned at the stake but rather sentenced to hang.

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In 16th century Europe, those accused of sorcery were killed using this method but it didn't happen in America with most going to the gallows whilst there is one record of someone being crushed to death by giant stones but there was no burning!

2. Christopher Columbus Never Discovered America

Although many Americans celebrate Columbus day due to his supposed discovery of the USA for his adopted country Spain, this simply isn't the case. For one thing, we know Viking adventurers discovered the continent some 500 years before he even thought about setting sail to the other side of the world with the Icelandic Leif Erikson widely considered the first European to set foot on the North American continent.

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Despite this, when Columbus did eventually make his way to that side of the globe he only got to the Carribean, Central and South American nations including Cuba, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Venezuela, and Mexico but not mainland USA. Incidentally, Columbus rejected the idea that he hit South America claiming that it was the outer reached of Far-East Asia that he had stumbled upon. As such America is actually named after the Italian explorer  Amerigo Vespucci who proved Brazil and the West Indies were not on Asia's eastern outskirts.

3. George Washington Didn't Have Wooden Teeth

One of the most widely accepted 'facts' about one of the founding father's of the United States is that he had wooden teeth due to having a terrible time with his own. The fact is that Washington did have several sets of false teeth fitted during his lifetime but absolutely none of them were wooden. By the time he became President in 1789 he only had one of his own teeth left.

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This is largely thought to be down to the use of mercury oxide to treat such illnesses as malaria and smallpox. Weirdly enough, the sets of false teeth that were made for him often came from strange sources such as carved from elephant and hippopotamus ivory, horse teeth, cow teeth, donkey teeth and, perhaps most chillingly, human teeth purchased from African-American slaves.

4. Lincoln Didn't Fight The Civil War To End Slavery

The civil war in the United States was far more complex than just an anti-slavery issue and Lincoln's main reason for fighting the war was to stop secession. Abraham Lincoln swept to Presidency on the back of huge support from the Northern States but was disliked by most in the South. Then the so-called "Confederate States of America" attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, bringing about the four-year US Civil War.

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Lincoln entered the war to stop this secession and the ending of slavery was a by-product of the war and, although it is thought that privately Lincoln was against slavery he didn't sign the Emancipation Proclamation until three years into the civil war and this was partially due to Unionists wanting better economic standards and not solely a humanitarian response. He explained as much in a letter to the New York Tribune in 1862 where he said:

"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

5. The Great Fire of London Didn't End The Plague 

These two tragedies to hit Britain at around the same period are widely considered to be linked with the Great Fire of London, that decimated swathes of the British capital, attributed to wiping out a lot of the slums that housed the vermin and infestations that were plague carriers. However, most of the fire consumed central London and didn't make it out to the suburbs where the disease would have been fostered.

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It certainly came to an end around the same time as the fire but it couldn't possibly have been the fire that caused it.

6. Cleopatra Was Not Egyptian

One of the most well-known Pharoh's of ancient Egypt and the last active one was not actually Egyptian at all but was of Greek-Macedonian origin having been a descendant of Alexander the great who had conquered Egypt. She was, however, the first one of her family to learn Egyptian and completely absorbed herself into the culture of the country she ruled, often portraying herself as Egyptian to adhere her to her subjects.

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She claimed she was a reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis and was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt between 51 BC and 12 BC.

7. Napoleon Was Above Average Height

The French Emperor Napolean was a great general and won many battles for his nation but history has widely considered him a man of small stature He was, in fact, taller than most of the French population at the time standing at a commendable 5 feet and 7 inches which put him two inches above the national average.

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Why he was considered so short is because he was registered as 5 feet 2 inches tall but this was using pre-revolutionary measurements which differ from today's standards. His enemies seized upon this and have used history to portray him as a small and angry man.

8. Vikings Never Had Horns On Their Helmets

Viking settlers never, ever had horns on their helmets. They wore helmets in battle but they were not horned and at other times they either wore leather strappings or no headgear at all. In Richard Wagner's opera, Der Ring de Nibelungen, from 1786, the set designer gives Vikings horned helmets and this appears to be the first incidence of it in popular culture and has stuck ever since.

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It is thought that some early European settlers used horned helmets for ceremonies and this may have led to the confusion but the Vikings just didn't.

9. Marie Antoinette Never Said "Let Them Eat Cake"

The French queen at the time, it is widely thought that her lack of knowledge of regular issues and distaste for the peasantry led her to utter the line "let them eat cake" when told that they had no bread to eat.

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This was, in fact, a line from a satirical publication at the time which Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his book Confessions where his character of the queen said: "Let them eat brioche." 

10. Lady Godiva Never Rode Naked Through The Streets

Common folklore has led to the story of Lady Godiva riding through the streets of Coventry naked in order to protest her husband's unfair taxes on the lower classes. The story goes that Lady Godiva was troubled by the unreasonably high taxes out on the city's people by her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. He quipped back that he would do so only if she rode the streets naked and so that is what she did.

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Although the story is entertaining, it is a fiction that didn't start circulating until 1236, over 150 years after her death. Although she was known for her generosity to the church and opposition to these taxes, she never stripped off to protest them.

11. Nero Didn't Fiddle Whilst Rome Burned

Myth would have you believe that Emperor Nero started a fire in Rome so that eventually he could take credit for stopping its outbreak. One it had been set, he climbed the Tower of Maecenas to play his fiddle whilst observing the destruction below. However, historians have discovered documents to show that Nero was nowhere near Rome at the time as he was actually 30miles away at his villa in Antium.

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This does not absolve him from guilt as he could have had others do it for him but it does mean he wasn't intentionally watching his city suffer whilst he played music from up high.

12. The US Declaration Of Independence Wasn't Signed On July 4, 1776

Although the 4th of July is recognized as Independence Day for the United States, this wasn't the date it was signed, as many think. It was actually signed two days earlier and wasn't approved and ratified by Congress until the 4th.

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As such, John Adams wanted the USA's national birthday to be celebrated on July 2nd, and not July 4th as it is now because he thought that was more important than Congress ratifying the document but they went with the 4th anyway.


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