“Historical” Events That Never Actually Happened

Some historical events seem too wild to be true even though we know for a fact that they happened, and some seem so totally plausible that we were shocked to find out that they never actually happened at all. Today we’re talking about those historical events that seem ingrained in public knowledge but are actually total myths.

How these false stories came to be varies on a case by case basis. Some of them spawned from rumors, others are misunderstandings of actual events. Keep reading to find out what facts are actually fiction.

The Truth About Van Gogh’s Ear

Pupils from Millfields Community School listen to storyteller Simon Parker telling a tale based on the famous painting by Vincent Van Gough, 'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear'.
Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images
Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

If you know anything about the artist Vincent Van Gough, it’s probably that he cut off his ear and sent it to his brother. That’s not entirely true. He didn’t actually cut off his whole ear. He just cut off the bottom part of his ear lobe. Is that still insane? Absolutely.

Van Gough was suffering from depression at the time. Some historians think that this ear-cutting gesture was the result of a dispute between him and fellow artist Paul Gaugin or his brother’s engagement.

Marie Antoinette Never Said, “Let Them Eat Cake”

Queen Marie-Antoinette and her children
Getty Images
Getty Images

The most famous story to come out of the French Revolution (other than the beheaddings) was that an advisor told Marie Antoinette that the French people didn’t have any bread to eat, and she famously responded “let them eat cake,” or, in French, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” Brioche isn’t really cake, it’s just a rich, egg, sweet bread, but you get the idea.

Even so, Marie Antoinette never said anything about bread or cake or brioche. The quote “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” or “let them eat cake” first appeared in a 1767 autobiographical account by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau. He attributes the quote to a “great princess,” who lived when Antoinette was only a little girl.

Adam Didn’t Eat A Forbidden Apple

Adam and Eve, Sacred Mountain of Varallo, Piedmont
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Whenever you see depictions of the Adam and Eve story in art, the forbidden fruit is most often illustrated as an apple. However, at no point in the bible does it mention that the fruit was an apple.

Most biblical scholars argue that the fruit would most likely be a fig. It does mention in the story that Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves, so we do know that there were fig trees in the Garden of Eden.

Albert Einstein Never Failed Math

Einstein Writing Equation on Blackboard
Getty Images
Getty Images

The “fact” that Albert Einstein failed math as a child is something that teachers and parents like to say when a kid is struggling with the subject. It’s supposed to support the idea that you can go from being a failure to being a genius if you just put the work in.

Well, it turns out that Einstein was always a smarty pants, especially when it came to math. He was actually better at math than the average student, but he did fail the entrance exam to Zurich Polytechnic. That was only because he wasn’t familiar with French. He failed the French portion of the exam.

The Saga Of The Brontosaurus

The Brontosaurus Was A Living Dinosaur
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Brontosaurus is probably the second most famous dinosaur after the ferocious T-rex. It rose to fame after Dino from The Flintstones became a household name. Well, believe it or not, the Brontosaurus’s status as a “real dinosaur” has been in question since it was discovered. The first discovery of Brontosaurus bones made by paleontologist O.C. Marsh wound up being an error. During a time known as “The Bone Wars,” Marsh wanted to gain the upper hand on his competition, Edward Drinker Cope.

So Marsh saw a bone and called it a Brontosaurus bone even though the Brontosaurus hadn’t yet been discovered and the bone actually belonged to an Apatosaurus.

George Washington’s Supposedly Wooden Teeth

George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images
Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Can you imagine how impractical wooden teeth would actually be? Wood isn’t exactly a water-safe material, and it definitely gets moist in mouth spaces. There’s no way that wooden teeth would have held up over time. Even though it’s a widely known rumor that George Washington had wooden teeth, that wasn’t exactly true.

Washington did wear several sets of dentures over his lifetime, but these dentures were made out of materials such as metal, animal bone, human teeth, and the teeth of animals such as cows, donkeys, and horses.

Thomas Edison Wasn’t The Inventor Of The Light Bulb

Thomas Edison with light bulb
Boyer/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Boyer/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

If you ask anybody in America, “who invented the light bulb?” the answer you’re most likely to get is Thomas Edison, of course. Well, that is most definitely not the case. Edison was an inventor and he did work with electricity, but he did not invent the light bulb. The real inventor of the light bulb was British chemist Joseph Swan. Edison gave Swan some pointers and suggestions which improved his invention, though.

Edison may have invented the first motion picture camera and tinfoil phonograph, but he did not outright invent the light bulb.

Witches Weren’t Burned In Salem

Picture of the trials
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The Salem Witch Trials were very much a thing. Women were accused of being witches and were then hunted down and killed for their “crimes.” However, none of these women were actually burned at the stake.

Of the 20 supposed witches, 19 of them were hanged while the final one was horrifically crushed by rocks. The idea that witches were to be burned most likely comes from a witch hysteria that took place in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Isaac Newton’s Gravity Epiphany

Newton looking at an apple
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We all know that mathematician Isaac Newton discovered gravity, and the story we’ve been told is that he was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head. That was the moment that sparked his thinking about gravitational pull. In reality, the apple never fell on his head. The apple story came from a biography of Newton written by his friend William Stukeley in 1752.

The text reads, “the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.” So he saw an apple fall, but it didn’t hit him on the noggin.

Betty Crocker Isn’t A Real Person

Betty Crocker Is A Real Person And Makes Delicious Desserts
Bettman/Getty Images
Bettman/Getty Images

We’ve been baking Betty Crocker desserts for decades now, and for all this time, we thought that Betty Crocker was a real person. It’s a name that seems like it belonged to someone’s grandmother who was really good at making brownies. Well, it turns out that the name is just a clever marketing ploy.

Created by Marjorie Husted for a Washburn Crosby Company campaign, the name was chosen because it sounds wholesome. Betty Crocker the baker never really existed.

Paul Revere Never Had AMidnight Ride

Picture of Paul Revere
Interim Archives/Getty Images
Interim Archives/Getty Images

The tale of Paul Revere riding through the Massachusetts countryside warning American colonials that the British were coming has its origins from an 1860 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, his poem wasn’t a historical piece on Paul Revere, but a topical warning about America breaking apart shortly before the Civil War.

According to historians, Wadsworth simplified the actual events of the night of April 18, 1775. In actuality, Paul Revere didn’t receive the lantern signals – he sent them, he wasn’t a solo rider, and he didn’t ride around shouting, “The British are coming,” either.

Rats Didn’t Cause The Black Death

Picture of a rat
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Although a commonly accepted theory, recent studies have shown that rats may not be the only organism to blame for the devastating plague that killed almost one-third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. At the University of Oslo, scientists conducted an experiment that assessed the potential transmission sources for the pandemic.

Upon reviewing their research, they discovered that the parasites that carried the disease were more likely to have come from humans than rats. Their model demonstrates that the disease spread by human fleas and lice matched the death rates for the Black Death more so than their model regarding parasite-carrying rats.

Christopher Columbus Wasn’t The First To Discover America

Engraving of Christopher Columbus
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Most children in the United States are taught that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” with his ships the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria across the Atlantic Ocean with the hopes of reaching Asia.

However, Columbus certainly wasn’t the first person to “discover” America, and he wasn’t even the first European to land in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, the Viking Leif Erikson is believed to have landed and established a settlement in North America almost 500 years before.

Ben Franklin And His Kite

Franklin with a kit and key
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The story of Ben Franklin attaching a key to a kite during a lightning storm and having the epiphany of electricity isn’t exactly what it seems. One thing is that Franklin didn’t discover electricity, as scientists were well aware of it before Franklin’s experiment in 1752.

What Franklin actually set out to do was prove that lightning was electricity, in order to prove his original hypothesis. Furthermore, Franklin may not have even flown the kite himself. In 1752, Franklin wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette that he performed the experiment, but never specified that it was him flying the kite.

Martin Luther And His “95 Theses”

Engraving of Martin Luther
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

The iconic story of religious revolutionist Martin Luther nailing his list of issues with the Catholic Church to the doors to a church is commonly regarded as the spark that fueled the flame for the Protestant Revolution. While Luther’s 95 Theses were real, it didn’t exactly play out like that.

There is no historical evidence that proves Luther actually nailed his list onto the doors of a church, a story that wouldn’t come about until nearly thirty years after the fact. However, what is known is that Luther mailed his “95 Theses” to the archbishop and never intended to start an issue with the church, considering he was a devoted Catholic.

Nero Never “Fiddled” While His Empire Burned

Engraving of Nero
Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images
Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

Although the first-century Roman emperor isn’t entirely innocent of the devastating fires that engulfed Rome, he certainly wasn’t doing nothing about it. To Start, Nero wasn’t even in the city when the fires began, he was in Antium, approximately thirty miles outside of the city. Although he may have considered himself an artist, the expression that Nero was literally playing the fiddle while Rome burned is completely false.

There were no fiddles in Rome at the time, and he certainly wasn’t playing an instrument while watching the city burn. The phrase that he “fiddled” while Rome burned is an expression regarding a leader that does little during a time of crisis.

The Gulf Of Tonkin

Photo of the Gulf of Tonkin
Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Gulf of Tokin incident is considered to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and brought the United Stets into the Vietnam War. The incident involved an American destroyer that was pursued and attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in 1964.

However, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, declassified documents reveal that it was the United States’ ship that fired the first warning shots, although they were never reported. The second incident that supposedly happened, but didn’t at all, involved the U.S. ships shooting torpedoes at waves during a storm that looked like enemy ships, but they decided to claim they were enemies regardless.

Lady Godiva’s Naked Ride Is A Myth

Statue of Lady Godiva
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The story goes that Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, the lord of Coventry, England, had sympathy for her husband’s subjects that were being ruthlessly taxed. So, Leofric proclaimed that he would lower taxes if his wife rode naked through the town.

However, the real story is based on a real woman named Godifu, who was the wife of Leofric, who led an unremarkable life other than being married to an important man. It’s believed that the legend came about as a way to explain the generous historical acts on the part of Leofric.

The Remus And Romulus Is Entirely Myth

Statue of Romulus
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

When it comes to the naming of Rome, most people would assume it was the man named Romulus along with his twin brother Remus. Legend says that both Romulus and Remus were raised by a wolf that nursed them as babies and that their father was the god, Mars.

Nevertheless, regarding the existence of Romulus and Remus, historian Theodore Mommsen told The New York Times that the legend was “out of the question.” It simply was impossible that either of these two boys existed during the time, and they definitely weren’t raised by wolves.

The Ides Of March

Painting of Julius Ceasar
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

While William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar gives a decent example of what the final moments in Caesar’s life might have been, and there were a lot of dramatics involved.

For instance, some of the most classic lines associated with Caesar were never actually spoken such as “Freinds, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” let slip the dogs of war,” and of course, Et Tu, Brute?” Yet, it’s unlikely that any such words were muttered during the chaos that was his assassination.

Mama Cass Wasn’t Killed By A Sandwich

Picture of Mama Cass
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Best known as one of the lead singers of The Mamas & the Papas, following the band’s breakup, Cass Elliot went on to release five solo albums as well as appear on a number of television programs. Cass passed away on July 29, 1974, at the age of 33, and there were countless rumors circulating about the cause of her death.

These ranged from a substance overdose, that she was assassinated by the FBI, and so on. However, one of the most popular theories is that she died from choking on a ham sandwich. In reality, she had died from a heart attack related to her intense weight fluctuations over the years.

More Than 300 Spartans

Picture of the battle
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images
Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

One of the most classic legends of Ancient Greece is about the Spartan leader Leonidas and his 300 soldiers that fought the much larger Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

Nevertheless, the story that the Spartans only had 300 men is a bit of an embellishment, when they actually had around 4,000 other soldiers from the surrounding Greek city-states. On top of that, it’s also assumed that there were at least 1,500 men that stayed to fight in the last stand, not a mere 300.

Bankers Jumping From Buildings

People on Black Tuesday
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

On October 24, 1929, the United States stock market crashed in the event that would go on to be called Black Thursday. This was the beginning of the Great Depression, and it was believed after the crash had been announced that stockbrokers on Wall Street began taking their own lives by jumping from the buildings.

However, this wasn’t necessarily the case, as nobody took their lives by jumping off of buildings, in fact, suicide rates didn’t even increase.

Betsy Ross And The American Flag

Betsy Ross showing off the flag
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While it’s rumored that Betsy Ross was the first person to sew the American flag, this is likely no more than a myth. Although there’s no doubt that Ross sewed a few flags in her days, the claim that she sewed the very first one came from her grandson, who decided to tell the Historical Society of Pennsylvania almost 100 years later.

However, there is zero evidence that Ross sewed the first flag during the Revolutionary War, as there’s no mention of her in newspaper reports, historical letters, or any kind of writing. It’s also possible Ross’ grandson only made this claim to popularize his family name.

George Washington And The Cherry Tree

George Washington and his father
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

The story of George Washington and the cherry tree goes that Washington received a hatchet from his father as a gift when he was a boy. He then proceeded to chop down a cherry tree, and when his father asked him what happened, he said something along the lines of “I cannot tell a lie.”

Yet, this story never happened but was made up in 1806 by author Mason Locke Weems, who wrote a book about Washington, adding in stories that showed the first president of the United States was a man of virtue.

Ben Franklin’s Fascination With Turkeys

Portrait of Franklin
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

There’s a story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey and not the bald eagle to be the national bird of the United States. However, he didn’t have any reservations about the bald eagle being the national bird at all, as he explains in a letter to his daughter.

He simply mentioned that the eagle looked like a turkey on the seal. In the letter to his daughter, he would also write that the bald eagle has bad moral character because they steal from other birds and that the turkey is vain, although this is most likely just a joke.

The United States Never Invaded Russia

Americans in Russia
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Even though the United States and Russia never became involved in true armed conflict during the Cold War, that doesn’t mean the US never fought against the Russians in their own country. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson sent numerous troops into Russia in 1918.

The troops sent to Russia were soldiers from World War I’s Allied counties with the goal to make Russia re-enter the war against Germany. Around 174 American soldiers died in the two years they were in Russia, which was a precursor to the future tension between the two countries.

Ulysses S. Grant Actually Respected Robert E. Lee

Lee surrendering
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

One of the most well-known stories of the Civil War is when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. The tale goes that when Lee surrendered to Grant, the Union general refused to accept Lee’s sword of surrender.

Grant claimed in 1885 that the story had been embellished. He continued, saying that he treated Lee with the utmost respect and that he was just happy the war was over and they had won.

The Existence Of Saint Christopher

St. Christopher crossing the river
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, athletes, mariners, ferrymen, and more. He is an incredibly popular saint with many believers wearing the Saint Christopher talisman. However, the saint may have never even existed.

According to the LA Times, many scholars have believed he wasn’t real for some time, and even if he was, it’s likely that all of the stories about him are nothing more than myths. It’s also possible that he may have just been another regular person to be murdered for being a Christian.

How The British Defeated The Spanish Armada

Picture of the armada
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

While the Spanish Armada was defeated by the British Empire in 1588, they didn’t succeed using clever tactics and an overwhelming amount of firepower. In reality, they just had favorable conditions.

Out of the 129 ships in the Spanish Armada, the British only destroyed six of them, and they could have defeated more, but they didn’t have enough gunpowder to take out more. However, they were lucky because 50 other British ships showed up just in time, and bad weather, including fast currents, created issues for the Spanish as well.

Remember The Alamo

Picture of the Alamo
Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While many people might have an idea of what happened at the Alamo, as it turns out, a lot of the supposed facts were exaggerated. Some stories claim that only a few people survived when it was more like at least 20.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just women and children either; but some of the fighting men were spared as well. The notion that 600 Mexicans died during the battle is also untrue as it was more like 60. A man named William Zuber made up most of these stories, which is ironic because he wasn’t even there.

The First Thanksgiving In America

Painting of Thanksgiving
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, the name “Thanksgiving” wasn’t coined during colonial times but later in 1863, with Abraham Lincoln hoping to inspire people to be more thankful. Furthermore, while Thanksgiving is often associated with a meal involving turkey, there isn’t any evidence that turkey was a staple dish, but instead were animals such as geese, swan, and venison.

There wasn’t any cranberry sauce and potatoes either, since potatoes weren’t consumed in Massachusetts at the time, and nobody had discovered how to boil cranberries with sugar.

Ferdinand Magellan’s Worldwide Trip

Painting of Ferdinand
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Ferdinand Magellan is credited in the history books as being the first person to circumnavigate the globe. Yet, that isn’t entirely true, although he did come close. In 1519, Magellan set out to complete this task to lead his crew across the Atlantic, through South America, and over the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, for Magellan, he was killed in the Philippines by a group of natives. So, when his ship returned to Spain in 1522, he wasn’t alive to complete the circumnavigation. Incredibly, only 18 of the crew of 260 made it back, so it was these men that were first to accomplish this daunting task.

The Wild West

The Wild West Was A Rough And Tough Place
Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Throughout history and even pop culture, the Wild West is depicted as a rough place no one really wants to live. Filled with outlaws, gunslingers, and a lot of saloons, Clint Eastwood had a knack for making the west look very dangerous. However, that’s not actually the case.

As it turns out, the Wild West in the 1800s was a very peaceful area, with residents more interested in their cattle and mining rather than dueling with someone who looks at them wrong. While death and murder were inevitable, only 0.1 percent of people in the Wild West were killed per year.

Dangerous Medieval Games

Medieval Games Were Dangerous
Giles Anderson/PA Images via Getty Images
Giles Anderson/PA Images via Getty Images

One way to bring knights together in medieval Europe was through war games. And while these games are though to be dangerous and sometimes deadly, that isn’t necessarily true. Games are throughout to include competitions such as sword fighting and even jousting, when, in reality, they’re nothing more than family-friendly sporting events.

Some of the popular games included horseshoes, bowling, and even tennis, nothing that would hurt one of the participants. City and village authorities were even known to shut down an event if they thought it was too dangerous for the men involved.

The Trojan War

Everything About The Trojan War
Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From stories to pop culture, there is a lot on the Trojan War. But one aspect of the event tends to slip people’s minds; it is based on Greek mythology and not historical fact. From generation to generation, the stories surrounding the war were verbally passed down, embellished to the point of turning into fiction.

Historians agree that due to the verbal communication, the Trojan War, as we know it today, is pretty much the ramblings of people who wanted to tell a good story. From the infamous Trojan Horse to the 1,186 ships that entered Troy, most of the rich details are ground in fiction.

The Use Of Iron Maidens

The Use Of Iron Maidens
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In medieval times, there were various instruments used for torture. One of these devices was the Iron Maiden, an iron chamber designed in the shape of a woman with spikes on the inside of its hinged doors. While museums seem to think the chamber was commonplace in medieval times, that’s not necessarily true.

Even though the Iron Maiden is supposedly a medieval tool, the first mentioning of it isn’t until1790, when German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees mentioned it in one of his journals. And even though he said a criminal was put inside one of the torture chambers 200 years earlier, historians believe his tale is a bit fabricated.

The Truth About Chastity Belts

Chastity Belts For Wives And Daughters
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

In Medieval Europe, one device that husbands and fathers used when on their wives and daughters to protect them was something called a chastity belt. These devices were to stop any unwanted advancements, as they were pretty much metal undergarments that couldn’t be open without a key. It sounds like a bad joke, right?

Well, that’s actually what a chastity belt is. In the 16th century Europe, chastity belts were nothing more than a cheap laugh for people. On the few in their possession, the British Museum has said, “[they] were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.”

King Arthur’s Victory

King Arthur Won Against An Invasion Of Anglo-Saxons
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

There are many books, myths, and even television shows illustrating the bravery of King Arthur and his knight of the round table. History has told us that the man known as Arthur was the beloved king of Camelot, heroically defeating an advance of Anglo-Saxons during the 5th or 6th century.

While the battle has been written about in books, historians believe their inclusion was added until 100 years later. That means the story of King Arthur is wildly embellished, with many historians believing the King of Camelot never existed, since his name isn’t mentioned in ancient texts between A.D. 400 and A.D. 800.

Dr. Seuss Said The Quote “Those Who Mind Don’t Matter, And Those Who Matter Don’t Mind”

Dr. Seuss Said The Quote
James L. Amos/Corbis via Getty Images
James L. Amos/Corbis via Getty Images

Children’s book author and exceptional linguist Dr. Seuss is credited with many rhymes and lyrical phrases. One that he often credited for is, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” And while the phrase sounds like something out of All The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Suess actually didn’t write it.

The quote was actually said by someone else entirely, American financier Bernard Baruch. He was discussing the importance of authenticity while facing down public scrutiny. The concept is certainly not something that is outwardly said in any of the Dr. Seuss books we’ve come across.