History is easily distorted. Sometimes, we don’t have enough information to determine what actually happened, and events remain shrouded in mystery. Other times there are so many stories and myths surrounding people, times, and places that it becomes almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Over the course of history, fantastic stories or outright falsehoods can be told over and over, and become commonly accepted legends to the point where the tall tale overshadows the actual events. As it turns out, history is often much more complex than what we learn in school. Perhaps nothing demonstrates just how insane real history is by the amount of it that is false or simply didn’t happen.
Every day, we are reminded about the power of the past. Not understanding the past prevents many from understanding our present and our future. All of us are born into a society and a social structure, be it a family, religion, nation, culture, or some other community, that is historically constituted. The way we view and understand history shapes how we view and understand the world, and the history’s influence on our everyday lives. Everyone has a vested interest in understanding history as it actually happened, and not fables, tall tales, or outright lies and fabrications that are passed off as actual events.
To that end, here are 10 of the most commonly told historical events that never really happened, not as in “didn’t happen the way we were taught,” but simply never occurred at all.
10. George Washington and the Cherry Tree
Chances are if you grew up in the United States, you’ve heard this old fable. The cherry tree anecdote, where a young George Washington chops down his father’s cherry tree and admits to it when questioned because he is so honest, is perhaps the best-known story about Washington’s childhood. Too bad it’s completely unprovable. The tall tale first appeared in a biography of Washington by Parson Weems, attributed to “an aged lady” he interviewed who knew Washington’s family. It quickly became popular among schoolchildren, but when historians searched for scientific proof of the story, they were left wanting. It appears nowhere except Weems’ biography, sourced to an interview with an elderly person. It should be noted Weems was later accused of plagiarizing other English fables and attributing them to Washington. To this day, no one has been able to find an alternative source for the cherry tree story, and most historians consider it a fabrication.
9. Orson Welles Reading ‘The War of the Worlds’ Causing Mass Panic
The year was 1938. The way the story goes, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was interpreted by the population as a report of an actual martian invasion, causing mass hysteria and multiple murders. In fact, no such thing happened. Radio was still a very new medium at the time, and only about 2% of the 5,000 radio listeners that night were tuning to Welles’ reading, and none of them thought it was a real news broadcast. Newspapers were primarily responsible for the myth, threatened by the rise of radio and forced to compete for advertising dollars during the Great Depression. Despite the story being one of the most enduring myths of media, there was no mass panic at all.
8. Ben Franklin, the Kite, and the Thunderstorm
Founding Father and famed Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin allegedly flew a silk kite during a lightning storm, with a house key attached to the string in a Leyden jar. After the kite was struck, Franklin received a shock when he touched the key, proving that lightning had an electrical nature. The story is perhaps the most famous one about Franklin’s many experiments. Unfortunately, just as Washington never chopped down his father’s cherry tree, it is highly unlikely Franklin ever flew his kite. The experiment was proposed by Franklin in 1752 in one of his published papers as a possible way to test the nature of electricity, but most historians agree that it was never actually carried out, especially since a lightning bolt may have several hundred million volts. If even a tiny fraction of the electricity were to be stored in the key, any contact would have certainly meant Franklin’s death. Still, the story remains so embedded in the popular consciousness that there are laws in some places against recreating the potentially fatal experiment.
7. Burning at the Stake at the Salem Witch Trials
Not a single one of the accused witches were burned at the stake during the infamous witch trials in the town of Salem. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death, and four others died in prison. The trials were also not uniquely American – witch trials were an international phenomenon in the Early Modern period. Arthur Miller’s famous play “The Crucible” is not an accurate depiction of the trials but a work of fiction based on them. While we’re on the subject of myths regarding burning at the stake, Joan of Arc was not burned for witchcraft, but for wearing men’s clothes, which is explicitly forbidden by the book of Deuteronomy.
6. The Pyramids Being Built By Slaves
The question of who built the Great Pyramids of Giza, and why, has long been a part of scientific fascination. The idea of slaves building Egypt’s pyramids for a merciless and tyrannical pharaoh is deeply rooted in the popular imagination, and reinforced by stories and media, and imagery of captive slaves laboring beneath the scorching sun, being whipped by Egyptian overseers. However, there is no historical evidence that slaves built the ancient monuments. People who worked on the pyramids were hired and paid laborers who lived in villages near the sites with their families. In fact, Harvard recently released a detailed study on the subject, arguing that contrary to the image of a massive slave class in ancient Egypt, the workers on the pyramids were relatively privileged.
5. Nero Playing the Fiddle While Rome Burned
In 64 A.D., most of Rome was destroyed in what is appropriately called the “Great Fire of Rome.” Emperor Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” has become a popular expression, but his corrupt and tyrannical rule aside, this anachronism is false. Nero was not a fiddle player but a lyre player, and the fiddle was not invented for another 1,500 years. This tall tale goes all the way back to the event itself, as many Romans believed the arrogant and extravagant Nero started the fire himself to clear land for a palace complex he planned. Another popular story at the time was that Nero sang in a stage costume during the fire. In reality, Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time. Upon hearing news of the fire, he organized relief efforts, which he paid for with his own money. Of course, later he blamed the Christians and had many tortured and executed, but that’s another story.
4. Protestors Spitting on Returning Vietnam Veterans
It’s difficult to determine where this myth first came from. Stories about protesters spitting on returning Vietnam veterans, and deriding them as “baby-killers” go all the way back to the 1960s and 70s. The common claim that those who protested the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War spat on returning American soldiers has become the stuff of legend, and is frequently used to discredit anti-war movements. The facts, however, tell a different story. Sociologist Jerry Lembcke investigated the claims in the late 90s, and what he found was startling: there are no news reports and no claims that any soldiers or veterans were spat upon. He even authored a book, fittingly titled The Spitting Image, on the subject, and noted that no such case has ever been documented. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the protest movement against the Vietnam War was its stated support for troops in the field, and many veterans were themselves involved in the movement.
3. Marie Antoinette saying, “Let Them Eat Cake”
This alleged quip from the French Queen is one of the most famous quotes in history. Spoken upon being told that the peasants had no bread, the quotation either reflected the Queen’s callous disregard for the hunger of the poor, or a complete lack of understanding of the poverty in her own country. However, there is no record that the bride of King Louis XVI ever spoke these words. The original source comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography Confessions, in which he recalled the words of a “great princess,” who was not named. Most contemporary historians do not consider this a reliable source, and some feel Rousseau invented the anecdote. Marie Antoinette was not innocent by any means either; her extravagant spending on personal amusements earned her the name “Madame Deficit,” and she repeatedly dismissed Ministers who campaigned for financial reform or to reduce court expenditures. After the French Revolution, she was arrested and guillotined by sentence of the court in 1792.
2. Gulf of Tonkin Incident
In 1964, an alleged attack by North Vietnamese gunboats against an American destroyer stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin led to greatly increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson used this supposed ambush of a U.S. ship to send in another destroyer. Congress soon overwhelmingly passed what was called the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” which gave Johnson virtually unlimited powers to intervene in Southeast Asia, eventually leading to the introduction of U.S. combat troops in 1965. In reality, the supposed sea battle resulted from false radar images, and not actual North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The destroyer had spent the whole night firing at nothing. Most contemporary historians hold that the attack was purely imaginary, though the deadly war resulting from it most certainly was not.
1. The Exodus
Despite popular portrayals in classic films like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, and DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, there is no archaeological or historical evidence that the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt ever happened. In fact, as previously noted in this list, there is no proof of Hebrew slavery in Egypt in the first place, nor are there any signs of habitation on the Sinai peninsula for the second millennium BCE, where over 600,000 Israelites are said to have lived for 38 years. Modern historians tend to think the Exodus story is a metaphor, and despite many efforts to find evidence to support the events of the Book of Exodus, most archaeologists have abandoned the pursuit.