5 Famous Stories from History … That Are Totally False

What your history textbooks got wrong

August 2022

Script

You’ve heard the story: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and proved the world was round. Just one problem: It’s wrong.

Don’t worry, the Earth isn’t flat. It’s just ... no one in Columbus’s day thought it was either. Most educated people knew the Earth was round from the 3rd century on.i The Columbus story most of us were taught wasn’t written until 1828, 336 years after his journey. Its source: Washington Irving, the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

That’s hardly the only historical misconception we take as fact.

For instance, there’s no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said “let them eat cake.”ii The phrase was recorded by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau … who attributed it to some other, unnamed princess. Also, the actual line was: “Let them eat brioche.”

Speaking of French leaders, Napoleon wasn’t actually that short. At about 5’6”, the general was an average height for the time … and the stereotypes about his slight stature came from the British propaganda of the day.iii

Another myth: Despite claims to the contrary, Benito Mussolini didn’t make Italy’s trains run on time. To boost publicity for his regime, Mussolini improved the railways frequented by journalists … but left the rest of the Italian rail system in a state of disrepair.iv

America has its own historical myths.

Most of us have heard stories about immigrants having their names changed at Ellis Island … either because of a clerical error or an inspector’s attempt to “Americanize” immigrants. In reality, passengers’ names were never even logged at Ellis Island.v (They were recorded in the country from which they departed.)

So, while you can’t always trust what you read in the papers … it’s worth double-checking your history books, too.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  1. Most people knew the Earth was round long before Columbus sailed to America.
  2. Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake,” and Napoleon wasn’t short.
  3. Immigrants didn’t have their names changed at Ellis Island.

Sources

  1. "Christopher Columbus Never Set Out to Prove the Earth was Round" (Erin Blakemore) – History  
  2. "Did Marie-Antoinette Really Say ‘Let Them Eat Cake’?" (John M. Cunningham) – Brittanica 
  3. "Was Napoleon Short?" (Alicja Zelazko) – Brittanica
  4. "The Problem With Mussolini and His Trains" (David Dudley) – Bloomberg
    "Making Italy Work: Did Mussolini Really Get the Trains Running on Time?" (Brian Cathcart) – The Independent 
  5. "Did Ellis Island Officials Really Change the Names of Immigrants?" (Alicia Ault) – Smithsonian Magazine 

Shownotes

SOUND: “Flapper Jack” (The Texas Pixies)
FOOTAGE: Henry Guttmann Collection / Stringer, Hulton Archive / Stringer, Spencer Arnold Collection / Stringer (Getty) // Giammarco (Unsplash)

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