Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories

Khalid Elhassan - September 7, 2022

Inaccurate “facts” often litter the popular perception of many historic events. Take one of the American Revolution’s most iconic paintings, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is dramatic, stirs the viewer’s soul, and as such, it is great work of art. As to the accuracy of its depiction of the actual event, though, it falls short of the mark. Below are thirty things about that and other inaccurate things about history that are widely taken as true in America.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Patriots’ march on Trenton. Amazon

30. The American Revolution’s Most Iconic Image?

Decades after it ended, German -American artist Emanuel Gottleib Leutze painted in 1851 what came to be one of the American Revolution’s most iconic images: Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze actually painted three copies, one of which was housed in Germany and was destroyed in a World War II bomb raid. The other two survive, one in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. The oil on canvas paintings, which measure twenty one feet and three inches by fourteen feet and five inches, captured imaginations ever since they were unveiled.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
‘The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776’, by John Trumbull. Yale Art Gallery

The event involved a surprise attack in the closing days of 1776 against an enemy garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, was dramatic and worthy of commemoration. It came at the heels of a series of disastrous American defeats, and its success prevented a complete collapse of the Patriot war effort. Leutze depicts George Washington at the prow of a boat, as he stares determinedly straight ahead as it is rowed towards the enemy bank, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats. It is a great work of art, but its historical accuracy leaves much to be desired. Indeed, Washington’s actual crossing of the Delaware looked nothing like Leutze’s depiction. Below are some of the inaccurate aspects about that painting.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art

29. Inaccurate Facts About Washington Crossing the Delaware

It is understandable that Leutze’s painting is historically inaccurate. For one thing, it was intended as a dramatic work of art, with all the artistic license that goes with that. For another thing, Leutze painted it seventy five years after the event: as much time separated him from the event depicted, as separates us from the Allied invasion of Sicily or the Battle of Kursk. On top of all that, Leutze did not paint Washington Crossing the Delaware anywhere close to the site of the event, but in Germany.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Grand Union Flag. Plymouth Rock Foundation

The first inaccuracy – and it is far from the greatest – is the flag. Leutze’s work depicts an early version of the Stars and Stripes – a design that did not exist in 1776 when the Patriot forces crossed the Delaware. The flag depicted was designed six months later, in June of 1777, and flew for the first time in September of that year. The flag that Washington and his men would have used in 1776 would have been the Grand Union Flag – basically today’s US flag, but with a British Union Jack instead of the stars. The most inaccurate bit about the painting though, as seen below, is its depiction of the very crossing.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Washington Crossing, by Mort Kunstler, 2011. Free Range American

28. Washington’s Dramatic Pose as He Crossed the Delaware Was Great Art, But Historically Inaccurate

Leutze’s painting depicts the crossing of the Delaware as if it took place in the dawn’s early sunlight, which is inaccurate. The whole idea was that the crossing and the subsequent attack should surprise the enemy. So the Patriots crossed the river around midnight on the night of December 25-26, 1776, not at the break of dawn. Sunlight however does give the painting a nice glimmer that adds to the drama. From an artistic perspective, its addition – even if inaccurate – was a good thing. The actual crossing, as depicted above by Mort Kunstler, known for the historic accuracy of his work, was not as cinematic as Leutze’s depiction. George Washington did not cross the Delaware standing at the prow of a rowboat. That probably would have caused him to fall into the icy river or swamp the boat. Instead, he and his men crossed in flat boats.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
George Washington’s men present him with captured enemy flags after the Battle of Trenton. Imgur

Rather than small boats that carried just a few men, the flat boats used by the Patriots were more like barges, packed with men, horses, and cannons. And they would not have been rowed across, but pulled by wires strung across the river, helped along by men who pushed poles into the river bottom. Another dramatically brilliant but historically inaccurate bit about Leutze’s painting is the presence of mini icebergs on the river. In reality, the Delaware would have been cluttered with ice sheets. And even on a more secure flatboat, Washington would not have crossed in a heroic pose at the boat’s front, one leg dramatically placed in front of the other. Instead, he would have crossed in a more sensible manner, well balanced and probably grasping something like a well-secured cannon.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Werner Heisenberg. Universo Racionalista

27. A Persistent but Inaccurate Belief About the Possibility of a Nazi Atomic Bomb

There is a widespread – but inaccurate – belief that WWII German physicists were about to unlock the secret of fission, and thus give Hitler an atomic bomb. During the war, the Manhattan Project operated on the assumption that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program which might bear fruit at any time. Thus, those in the know viewed the US as in a race against Germany over which country would first produce nuclear weapons. However, it was discovered after the war that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as had been assumed. Early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. The war could have lasted another decade, and the Germans would have been no closer to an atomic bomb in 1955 than they had been in 1945.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Trinity Test, Americas first atomic bomb, fifteen seconds after detonation. Atomic Heritage Foundation

Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, had nebulous ideas that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon. However, he never understood how to put that into practice. In Germany’s last test in 1945, scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction. The Manhattan Project had achieved that in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation without an atomic weapon program could not have succeeded. Additionally, the German nuclear program lacked necessary support. After its scientists achieved criticality, it took the US nearly three years to successfully test the first atomic bomb. That was with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program had never received anything close to the support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Hollywood’s Golden Age was rife with abuses and exploitation. Studio Binder

26. Hollywood’s Golden Age Was NOT Golden for Its Actors and Actresses

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, American cinema established itself as the world’s most powerful and influential film style. That era of classical Hollywood, circa the 1910s through the 1960s, is often depicted as the most glamorous and fabulous stretch in Tinseltown’s history. However, in some important ways, the term “Golden” in the Golden Age of Hollywood is inaccurate. It was a golden era for the studios, but not for the actors and actresses. The era had its seedy and less salubrious side. There was the pervasive sexism of an era, in which the “casting couch” was routine and the likes of Harvey Weinstein were common, plus an extreme lack of diversity. There was also the fact that the major studios owned their stars.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Clark Gable, an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Prime Video

Hollywood studios had a method to create, promote, and exploit stars. Talent scouts were hired to spot new performers with potential. Emphasis was placed on image rather than talent, which the studios figured could be taught. Once signed to an exclusive contract, the studios would give the performers new names and even new backgrounds. Performers would then be given voice, acting, and dance lessons. In a type of apprenticeship, new performers were first tried out in supporting roles. Those seen as star material got lead roles in minor productions, and if they did well, eventually got to star in major productions. It was an effective system, but as seen below, one rife with abuses.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
MGM’s logo. Sillicon Angle

25. The Star System Was One Giant System of Exploitation and Abuse

Great Hollywood icons brought up through the star system include Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Rock Hudson. Gable, for example, was given supporting roles, before he was signed up by MGM in 1931 to a two-year contract at $350 a week. That year, he was put to work on another eight movies for MGM, and two more on loan to Warner Brothers. As he progressed through the system, Gable was paired with others from MGM’s stable, such as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Gable was instructed to display a savage and sadistic attitude towards women on screen. That established a brand that helped make him a star, but also limited his repertoire. He had little choice, and as he put it: “I have never been consulted as to what part I would like to play. I am not paid to think“.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. You Must Remember This

Gable eventually objected to how he was typecast. As punishment, MGM loaned him to Columbia Pictures to work on 1934’s It Happened One Night. Fortunately for Gable, he hit it out of the park, and earned a Best Actor Oscar. So MGM signed him to a seven year deal in 1935 with better terms. However, “better” was still relative. The studio owned exclusive rights to his name, image, and voice. If he was hurt or disfigured, he could be suspended without compensation. He had to work forty weeks annually, and perform in up to three movies per year. He was still a salaried employee, and did not get a percentage share in his movies’ grosses until 1946. And Gable was an actor so successful he became known as “The King of Hollywood” – an inaccurate term, insofar as he did not even control his own career. Others had it worse.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
RKO Pictures. RKO

24. Hollywood’s Icons Used to be the Studio’s de facto Serfs

Classical Hollywood’s studio executives often viewed performers as their property. To protect their investment in those whom they had groomed through the star system to the heights of fame, the studios signed them to often intrusive exclusive service contracts. Studios owned the commercial rights to their contracted performers’ image and likeness, and they could not work for other studios. To protect the marketable image created by the studios, contracts included morality clauses. Men had to appear as gentlemen, while women were never to leave home without makeup, and had to always dress stylishly and behave like ladies. The studios had absolute control over their performers’ careers, and that often lent itself to abuse. Those who upset their Hollywood masters were often punished with unattractive roles, or were loaned out to less prestigious studios.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Jane Greer. Pixels

Women were especially vulnerable. For example, Jane Greer caught the eye of tycoon Howard Hughes, who sponsored her entry into Hollywood. In exchange, he signed her to a personal contract – and told her he did not want her to marry anybody. When she went ahead and married a singer, Hughes was enraged, and shelved her without any film work. She sued and got out of the personal contract, then signed up with RKO Pictures. So Hughes bought RKO, just to wreck her career. The star system got its first check in the late 1940s after the US Supreme Court ruled against the studios in an antitrust case. Television’s arrival also reduced movie audiences, which transformed contracted stars into expensive overhead. So from the 1940s to 1960s, studios gradually ditched long-term contracts, and performers became freelancers, part of a large pool from which studios could draw.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Medieval peasants. Flickr

23. In At Least One Way, Medieval Peasants Had it Better Than Us

The modern perception of medieval peasants is often one that views them as exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, oppressed, and overworked minions. For the most part, that is not inaccurate. To a large extent, peasants back in the Middle Ages were, indeed, exploited, downtrodden, brutalized, and oppressed. They were placed at the bottom of the social pyramid as a lower caste that had fewer legal rights and protections than the nobles and clergy above them. Moreover, a significant chunk of the fruits of their labor was taken by their social betters.

A European medieval peasant might have been reduced to the status of an outright serf, bound to the land and unable to leave without the proprietor’s permission. A peasant might be – and often was – required to put more time and effort to tend an aristocrat’s fields than he did on his own plot of land. However, when it comes to whether peasants were overworked, then, well – as it turns out, not so much. As seen below, modern Americans work longer hours, with fewer holidays and vacation time, than peasants back in the Middle Ages.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Rush hour in New York City’s subway. The Nation

22. Medieval Peasants Did Not Work More than the Modern Worker

We might comfort ourselves on long workdays with the thought that least we don’t have it as bad as medieval workers. No, sir, at least we are not like our peasant ancestors who toiled from dawn to dusk, or medieval artisans who began work at sunup, and kept at it past sunset and well into the night with candlelight. We could console ourselves thus, but it would be consolation based on an inaccurate perception. Long hours and the frantic rat race we’re familiar with are a feature of the modern era and its innovative linkage of work to a regular schedule and the clock. Back in the days, however, people did not work very long hours, life’s tempo was slow, and the pace of work was relaxed.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Peasants at work in the Middle Ages. Brewminate

Our peasant ancestors might not have been rich, and they lacked many of the creature comforts we take for granted. However, one thing they had more than we do is free time. For example, an average American in 1987 worked 1949 hours annually. By 2015, that figure had dipped to 1811 hours a year. An improvement, but still almost 200 hours more than a thirteenth century adult male English peasant, who worked an average of 1620 hours annually. A typical medieval workday stretched from dawn to dusk, and the labor could be backbreaking. However, there were many breaks for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon nap, and dinner. There might also be midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. After a harvest, peasants might enjoy up to eight weeks off of slack times. And that does not count all the holidays and religious feast days.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Medieval peasants letting loose in one of their many holidays. World History

21. Modern Americans Actually Work More Hours Than Medieval Peasants

Medieval peasants took so many breaks, that a Bishop of Durham, complained that: “The labouring man will take his rest long in the morning; a good piece of the day is spent afore he come at his work; then he must have his breakfast, though he have not earned it at his accustomed hour, or else there is grudging and murmuring; when the clock smiteth, he will cast down his burden in the midway, and whatsoever he is in hand with, he will leave it as it is, though many times it is marred afore he come again; he may not lose his meat, what danger soever the work is in. At noon he must have his sleeping time, then his bever in the afternoon, which spendeth a great part of the day; and when his hour cometh at night, at the first stroke of the clock he casteth down his tools, leaveth his work, in what need or case soever the work standeth.

The modern perception that medieval peasants were overworked is inaccurate insofar as the amount of time spent on work goes. Between slack time and holidays, a medieval peasant might work only 150 days in a good harvest year. By contrast, many American workers are lucky to get eight vacation days in a year, as the US “continues to be the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers paid vacations“. We might work more hours than medieval peasants, but if it’s any consolation, at least we don’t have it as bad as nineteenth century American workers. Those unfortunates averaged 3650 work hours annually. That is more than double the 2021 American worker’s average of 1757 hours a year.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Alamo today. History Network

20. The Alamo’s “History” is Rife with Inaccuracies

The foundational mythology of Texas is big on Remember the Alamo! The event is part and parcel of a dramatic tale of freedom-loving American Anglos, oppressed by Mexican authorities in Texas. So they did what true blue Americans should: grabbed their guns. In the heroic siege and Battle of the Alamo in 1836, they fought to the last man. Although they lost, their sacrifice was worth it: they bought time for Sam Houston to build an army that avenged them, and secured Texan independence.

The 1960 hagiographic movie, The Alamo, probably brought the legend of the heroic American Thermopylae to its apogee. With John Wayne as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmarck as Jim Bowie, and Laurence Harvey as William B. Travis, the movie hit and polished all the heroic highlights. Unfortunately, there is way more fiction than fact in the Alamo account. Be that account the John Wayne version or the less – but only relatively less so – dramatic version taught generations of school children. As seen below, much of that narrative is inaccurate.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Siege of the Alamo. ThoughtCo

19. There Was No Need to Fight at the Alamo

A lot of what was long accepted as true about the Alamo is not true at all. A key inaccurate belief about the event is that a battle was even necessary in the first place. In reality, the Alamo’s defenders did not try to hold off Santa Anna’s forces in a bid to buy Sam Houston time to raise a Texan army. The Alamo’s commander, Colonel William Travis, ignored many warnings that Mexican forces were on the way, and was trapped when they showed up. Nor did the defenders buy Houston time. Santa Anna had expected to take San Antonio on March 2nd, 1836, but instead took it on the 6th. The battle cost him all of four days, and had no impact on his ultimate defeat six weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto. So the Alamo’s defenders died for nothing.

Another widely repeated but inaccurate myth is an account about Travis’ line in the sand. Towards the end of the battle, the Mexican commander issued an ultimatum: surrender or die. Travis drew a line in the dirt with his sword, and asked the men to choose their fate: surrender, or cross the line and join him in a fight to the death. They all crossed the line. There is no evidence that ever happened, and the defenders did not fight to the last man. As the battle was lost, about half the Alamo’s defenders tried to flee, only to get run down and killed in the open by Mexican lancers. Nor did Davy Crocket go down fighting, as depicted by John Wayne. He surrendered, and was subsequently executed.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
A slave auction. History Network

18. The Belief That the Alamo’s Defenders Fought for Freedom is Inaccurate,

Generations of scholars tiptoed around an uncomfortable aspect of the Alamo and a widespread but inaccurate belief that the Texas Revolution was a noble fight for freedom: slavery. It was not until the 1980s that academic researchers finally tackled the relevance of slavery to the Texas Revolution. Their findings demonstrated conclusively that slavery was the main issue that drove a wedge between the American immigrants and the Mexican government. Simply put, Mexican law prohibited slavery, and that did not sit well with the American immigrants who wanted to bring and maintain slaves on Mexican soil.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Slavery was illegal under Mexican law, but once Texas rid itself of Mexican control, slavery became widespread, and by 1860 had entrenched itself in the Lone Star Republic, especially in the eastern half, where the best cotton lands lay. Texas State Historical Association

Regardless of who was in charge, Mexican governments before the Texas Revolution were dedicated abolitionists. By contrast, many American immigrants to Texas wanted to farm cotton on its virgin soil, and wanted to do it with slaves. Stephen F. Austin, “the Father of Texas”, argued for years that slaves were necessary for the prosperity of Texans. In correspondence with Mexican bureaucrats in 1832, for example, he wrote: “Nothing is wanted but money, and negroes are necessary to make it“. The key “freedom” fought for at the Alamo was the freedom to own slaves.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Pinterest

17. Saint Patrick Didn’t Banish Snakes… and He Wasn’t Even Irish

Saint Patrick might be the world’s most famous saint thanks to holidays that bear his name that are celebrated in the United States and other countries. The beloved saint’s life story is full of many myths, legends, and untrue accounts. Of those, the best known are probably the one in which he banishes the snakes from Ireland, and another in which he popularized the shamrock and made it an Irish symbol. It is taken for granted by many that Saint Patrick was Irish, but that is inaccurate. He was born circa 390 AD to a Christian deacon and his wife in the Roman province of Britain in what is now England, Wales, or Scotland – accounts vary.

Patrick, or “Patricius” as he wrote his name, was seized by Irish raiders when he was sixteen-years-old, and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years of slavery, he fled and returned to England. There, he received religious instruction, before he returned to Ireland – voluntarily, this time – as a missionary. The perception that he introduced Christianity to Ireland is also inaccurate. Patrick might have helped spread that faith there, but Ireland already had a Christian community before his arrival. In 431, for example, before the earliest estimate of Patrick’s arrival in Ireland, Pope Celestine sent a bishop named Palladius “to the Irish believing in Christ“. Ireland already had a Christian community big enough to warrant a bishop.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
As it turns out, Saint Patrick did not chase the snakes out of Ireland. Flickr

16. Sorry to Break it To You, But St. Paddy wasn’t an Actual Saint

The most inaccurate bit about Saint Patrick’s legend is that he banished snakes from the Emerald Isle. It is true that Ireland is free of snakes, but it has been that way throughout human history. The Ice Ages that began about three million years ago drove snakes to extinction there. When the Earth eventually warmed up, Ireland was surrounded by water, so snakes were unable to slither over and re-inhabit the island. Another famous but inaccurate Saint Patrick account is that he popularized the shamrock to the point that it became a symbol of Ireland. Patrick supposedly used the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the Trinity of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to the pagans, with each leaf representing a facet of God.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Shamrocks had been popular in Ireland long before Saint Patrick’s arrival. Plant Life

However, shamrocks had been popular in Ireland for a long time. The island’s ancient Celts believed that many important things came in threes. For many centuries before Saint Patrick’s arrival, they had used the shamrock to symbolize such groupings of three. Another inaccurate narrative about the beloved holy’s man concerns the “Saint” in his name. Ironically, one of Catholicism’s most famous saints is not even technically a “Saint”. Patrick lived before the Church established the legal process for sainthood, so he was never formally canonized as a Saint. Nonetheless, Saint Patrick is venerated as one in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
A young Charles Edward Stuart. Wikimedia

15. Bonnie Prince Charlie Should Have Never Been Called “Bonnie”

“Bonnie Prince Charlie”, birth name Charles Edward Stuart (1720 – 1788), is one of history’s most highly romanticized figures. A grandson of Britain’s last Catholic monarch, the exiled King James II, Charles was the last serious Stuart Dynasty claimant to the British throne. Stuart supporters, known as Jacobites, frequently rose up in arms against Britain’s new ruling dynasty, the Hanoverians. The last such rebellion in 1745-1746, led by Charles himself as a young man in his mid-twenties, culminated in catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dramatic escape afterwards cemented him as a romantic figure of heroic failure. However, while thousands eagerly risked and willingly gave their lives for him, Charles probably deserved neither their admiration nor sacrifice. The popular perception of what the prince was actually like is highly inaccurate. The real life Charles Edward Stuart, as opposed to the romanticized Bonnie Prince Charlie, was not a nice guy. He was often a pretty seedy and slimy man. As seen below, he was known for his grace and charm as a youth, but that only masked many dark facets of his personality.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Bonnie Prince Charlie used to beat his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. Uffizi

14. A Romantic Prince Who Was Actually a Serial Woman Beater

Bonnie Prince Charlie liked to beat up women. Most notoriously, he often beat up his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedden. He married her when she was nineteen and he was fifty one. An obsessive control freak, he set up a system of alarm bells around her bed at night to alert him if she tried to sneak off to see a lover. He abused her so often, that she begged the pope for help. She was finally freed of his clutches when they separated after twelve years of marriage.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Bonnie Prince Charlie with Scottish Highlander rebels in 1745. The Scotsman

Not only did Bonnie Prince Charlie like to beat up women, he was also a severe alcoholic. His love of the bottle got worse after he was defeted at Culloden, and alcoholism wrecked what was left of his career and prospects. It was right around that time that he seduced and took for his mistress a young and innocent girl, Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne. He got her pregnant, then immediately broke her heart and callously ditched her for another mistress.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Charlotte Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s daughter. Scottish National Portrait Gallery

13. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Abuse of Women Extended to His Own Daughter

After he ditched Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne, Bonnie Prince Charlie went out of his way to rub it in the poor girl’s face. At an opera, he showed up with his new mistress because he knew that Louise would be there. Distraught, she left in tears. She gave birth to a son, who died two years later. Charles’ wife was not the only woman he beat up. Before, there had been his mistress Clementina Walkinshaw, who bore him a daughter, Charlotte, in 1753. Charles beat her up so often that she fled with her daughter in 1760.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
An aged Bonnie Prince Charlie, circa 1785. National Galleries of Scotland

For years, the Bonnie prince’s mistress and daughter sheltered from him in convents, while he luxuriated in palaces and refused to support them. When Charlotte grew up, Charles refused to let her marry. So she took up a secret lover: the Archbishop of Bordeaux, whom she bore three illegitimate children. Despite his poor treatment of Charlotte, Charles expected her loyalty. When he suffered a stroke, he summoned her to Italy to take care of him. She had to leave her children behind in France, and spent years taking care of her father. She died at age thirty six, shortly after Charles, without ever seeing her children again.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Socrates. Biography Channel

12. The Many Inaccurate Beliefs About Socrates

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470 – 390 BC), is deemed a founder of Western philosophy and ethical tradition. The widely accepted narrative is that he was an honest man who asked uncomfortable questions that his fellow Athenians did not like. So in a great miscarriage of justice, they railroaded, tried and executed him. At least that is how his most famous pupil, Plato, put it. In many ways, it is an inaccurate account, and if one digs into the historic context, that narrative begins to lose its shine.

To many of Socrates’ Athenian contemporaries, he was a guru who taught some nasty people and filled their heads with anti-democracy views. His students then went on to do horrible things. To be fair, there is no historic evidence that Socrates personally did any of the bad things done by his worst pupils. When called upon to personally participate in evil, he went home instead. However, when one considers how his fellow Athenians might have seen it, Socrates could be compared to a modern radical imam. One who might not personally get his hands dirty, but whose sermons fires up others and inspires them to do awful things.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Socrates and Alcibiades, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. Wikimedia

11. Many of Socrates’ Contemporaries Saw Him as a Jerk, and a Dangerous One at That

Socrates was a well-known and controversial figure in his native Athens. A gadfly, he often stopped people and asked them a series of questions that ultimately got them to contradict themselves and tied them up in logical knots – the Socratic Method. That made him unpopular with many, and comic dramatists often mocked him in their plays. He emerged in the context of a powerful Athens that bestrode the Greek world – a flourishing democracy that was the most powerful polis, or city state, of the era. Basically, the USA of the Greek world.

Socrates questioned democracy, which was music to the ears of Athens’ snobby rich young – think the equivalent of modern trust fund preppy spoiled brats who had just discovered Ayn Rand. He validated their view that privileged people like them had a natural right to lord it over the unwashed masses. One of those students, Alcibiades, went on to betray Athens and turn it upside down and inside out during the Peloponnesian War, which ended catastrophically for Athens. As seen below, that reflected badly on his teacher, Socrates.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by Francois Andre Vincent, 1776. Wikimedia

10. The Students Mentored by Socrates Went on to Form a Bloodthirsty Government

It would be inaccurate to claim that Socrates was responsible for the actions of Alcibiades, who was a live wire and dangerous force of nature. However, Alcibiades is an example of the kinds of privileged youth who liked Socrates because they thought he was “edgy”. In of itself, Socrates’ street trolling was an annoyance, but it did not anger his fellow citizens enough for them to kill him. Nor was the fact that he inspired and was liked by Ancient Athens’ version of preppy snobs sufficient to rile up other Athenians so much that they wanted Socrates dead.

The context that took Socrates from an irritant to a hated menace was the rise of the Thirty Tyrants – a cabal of rich Athenians who overthrew the democratic government. Their leader was Socrates’ student Critias, and their numbers included other pupils of the famous philosopher. They installed a collaborationist regime supported by Sparta, Athens’ longtime enemy which had defeated it after a decades-long Peloponnesian War. The Thirty Tyrants’ government was an oligarchy dominated by aristocrats, and as seen below, it was a bloodthirsty one at that.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Critias, Socrates’ student and leader of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the seizure and execution of an Athenian. Brewminate

9. A Regime Whose Leaders Were Taught by Socrates Killed 5% of Ancient Athens’ Population

In the short time it held power, the Thirty Tyrants’ regime carried a deadly purge against the supporters of democracy. About 5% of Athens’ citizens were murdered, and others had their property confiscated and were forced to flee into exile. To put that in a modern context, picture if America’s 1%, led by radical devotees of Ayn Rand, carried a coup backed by China or Russia, and overthrew the US government. Then they installed a radical libertarian government, and rolled rights back to the days when only the propertied upper class got to vote. To cow the population into submission, they then sent out death squads that killed about sixteen million Americans – 5% of the country’s 2022 population.

Socrates’ students led the Thirty Tyrants, but he refused to get his own hands dirty in their reign of terror. In one narrative, he was ordered to participate in the roundup and execution of some people, but he heeded the dictates of his inner conscience and went home instead. Laudable as that might have been, to many Athenians it was not enough. When a popular revolt eventually overthrew the Thirty Tyrants and restored democracy, Socrates had a target on his back.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art

8. The Perception That Socrates Was a Mere Harmless Gadfly

Any account of Socrates’ death would be inaccurate, or missing context, if it does not include just how upset Athenians were with the Thirty Tyrants and all who had anything to do with them. Imagine if Americans rose up in revolt to overthrew a radical libertarian regime of Ayn Rand devotees that had killed sixteen million of their fellow citizens. If Ayn Rand was still alive, even if she had not personally killed anybody, she would probably not fare well. That was the context in which Athens’ most famous gadfly was viewed by many after the Thirty Tyrants’ bloody regime.

Many saw Socrates as a loudmouth troll who preached a philosophy that catered to rich snobs’ sense of entitlement and resentment that jumped up commoners had a say in government. His teachings inspired them to commit treason and cooperate with a foreign enemy to overthrow the government and slaughter said commoners. Seen from that perspective, the Athenians demonstrated remarkable restraint when it came to Socrates. They afforded him a trial – a fair and open one in which he got to defend himself, unlike those slaughtered by his Thirty Tyrant acolytes. They could have simply dragged him out of his house, and tore him limb from limb with their bare hands as soon as democracy was restored.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Plato. Wikimedia

7. This Protégé of Socrates Left an Inaccurate Account of His Trial

The narrative that the trial and execution of Socrates were grave miscarriages of justice was penned by Plato (427 – 347 BC). Socrates’ Athenian contemporaries would have seen it as an inaccurate account. Plato was Socrates’ most famous student, and a giant of philosophy in his own right who went on to teach yet another great philosopher, Aristotle. That trio laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato ranks among history’s most influential figures, and for over two millennia has been one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosophers. In addition to his writings, he founded the Western World’s first institution of higher learning, The Academy in Athens.

Plato’s sympathetic narrative about Socrates should be understood in the context of his background and political leanings. Plato was born in a wealthy and conservative, even reactionary, family. He was related to two of the Thirty Tyrants who overthrew Athens’ democracy. That family influence is reflected in Plato’s political philosophy, which is skeptical of democracy and favors enlightened authoritarianism. When the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown and democracy was restored, a counter reaction set in against anti-democratic thought, which culminated in the execution of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, in 399 BC.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Ancient Athens. National Geographic

6. Socrates Was Not a Harmless Old Man Asking Questions

The account that Socrates was a harmless old man who merely asked uncomfortable questions would have been challenged as inaccurate by many of his Athenian contemporaries. Instead of harmless, they would have and did see him as a pernicious guru who taught a subversive philosophy that catered to aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had committed treason and joined the enemy to fight against their city during the Peloponnesian War. Most infamous among them was Alcibiades. Athens lost that war, and Socrates’ acolytes overthrew the democratic government and replaced it with the Thirty Tyrants regime, which engaged in widespread murder.

When democracy was restored, people looked back at Athens’ glory days only three decades past, when their polis was at the height of its power and prosperity. The Athenians contrasted those days with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong? Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for Socrates’ students, and Plato fled to travel around the Mediterranean. He returned years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. It is in that context that Plato penned his sympathetic account of Socrates.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Montezuma in the Codex Mendoza, an Aztec artifact created in 1534 as a present to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. Mexilore

5. The Inaccurate Belief That the Aztecs Thought the Spanish Were Gods

Many people have across inaccurate narratives that explain why the greatly outnumbered Spanish conquered the New World. Most common is the story that Hernan Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs was eased by the fact that the locals and their ruler, Emperor Montezuma II, thought that he and his men were gods. That is a myth. It is true that the Aztecs were extremely religious, and had many notions that seem weird today. However, their depiction as so idiotically naïve that they believed that the Conquistadores were gods is inaccurate.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The meeting of Montezuma II and Hernan Cortes in Tenochtitlan, by an unknown Tlaxcalan artist. Wikimedia

The Aztec ruler, for example, was fully aware that the Spaniards who had landed in Mexico were humans who came from faraway lands. Indeed, Montezuma was sufficiently informed so as to know that Cortes had mounted his expedition without the consent of his sovereign, Charles V (Charles I of Spain). The Aztec ruler even tried to go over Cortes’ head, and attempted to negotiate directly with King Charles. He failed, but it is clear that Montezuma knew that he was faced with people, not gods.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Don Corleone receives homage in The Godfather. Sicily Life

4. The Inaccurate Perception That the Real Mob Was Like That Depicted in The Godfather

The Godfather is one of the best movies of all time. With one of Hollywood’s greatest casts, memorable music, and an awesome plot, it is hard not to love it. However, admiration for the film has blinded many to the fact that it is not real. What it depicts is fiction created by author Mario Puzo, brilliantly brought to the silver screen by director Francis Ford Coppola. It is an imagined version of organized crime, and in many ways, an inaccurate depiction of the real thing. In the real world, the mafia has always been a collection of often psychotic, parasitic, backstabbing, and grubby thugs who would do anything for money.

The real life mafia has always been more like a malignant cancer than the romanticized band of criminals portrayed in the movie. As seen below, rather than paragons of loyalty and disciples of omerta, mobsters from the mafia’s earliest days have been more than happy to snitch, and betray bosses and underlings alike. And far from the inaccurate perception popularized by The Godfather about the mafia’s avoidance of drugs, the mob has been heavily involved in narcotics from its birth. Indeed, until the rise of the Colombian drug cartels after cocaine caught on, the mafia, whose specialty was heroin, were America’s biggest drug traffickers.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The mafia were America’s biggest drug traffickers well into the 1970s. Fashion Through Time

3. The Notion That the Mafia Used to Avoid Drugs is Historically Inaccurate

A key theme throughout The Godfather is “good” Mafiosi, the Corleones, who don’t deal drugs, at war with “bad” mobsters who want to sell narcotics. In real life, all mafia families have dealt drugs. The mafia were never ones to leave money on the table, and illegal narcotics was too lucrative a trade to ignore. Those who did would have soon been eclipsed by the greater wealth of others who did not, and accordingly they would have been outcompeted for influence, soldiers, and loyalty.

However, there is one difference between real life Mafiosi from the era depicted in The Godfather, and today’s mobsters. Earlier generations of Mafiosi tried to be more discrete and circumspect about their involvement in drugs. As seen below, they did not avoid the drug trade – indeed, they went out of their way to corner the market on the stuff. However, they did try to avoid attracting attention to the fact that they were up to their necks in illegal narcotics.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of today’s DEA, shovel seized illegal drugs into a furnace. Old Salt Books

2. The Mafia Were Drug Dealers From the Start

Don Corleone was created by Mario Puzo, The Godfather’s author, as a composite character based on several real life mob bosses. The fictional Don Corleone’s raspy and quiet voice is like that of the real life Frank Costello’s, the onetime boss of the Luciano – now the Genovese – crime family. Don Corleone had all the judges and politicians in his pocket. The real life Frank Costello, nicknamed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” because of his political clout, effectively dominated Tammany Hall in the mid-twentieth century. Don Corleone used his olive importation business as cover for his criminal activities. That is based on the real life Joe Profaci, founder and longtime boss of the Colombo crime family, who also posed as an olive oil importer.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Joseph Bonanno. Time Note

The “honorable” traits ascribed to Don Corleone are based on the real life Joseph Bonanno, a pretentious and quite dishonorable head of the Bonanno crime family. Bonanno, who wrote a self-serving memoir after his forced retirement, referred to mafia bosses of his generations as “Fathers” who headed “honorable societies”. He claimed that he and the mob avoided drugs for the reasons listed in The Godfather – moral revulsion, and avoidance of the heat drugs draw. As Bonanno put it: “My tradition outlaws narcotics. It has always been that ‘men of honor’ don’t deal in narcotics“. That is quite inaccurate. In reality, mobsters of all levels, including Bonanno, were involved in illegal drugs since the birth of the mob.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
Sicilian Mafiosi. Pinterest

1. The Mafia Were NOT Champions of the Weak, Downtrodden, and Exploited

The mafia were never champions of the weak who stuck it to the rich and powerful. Instead, Mafiosi were often hired as muscle by rich Sicilian landowners and magnates to intimidate or kill peasants who objected to their exploitation and de facto serfdom. When they made it to America, the mafia kept up their routine of goons for hire by the rich to keep downtrodden workers in their place. Mafiosi were routinely used as strikebreakers and to intimidate or kill union organizers, and cow working stiffs who sought better conditions or higher wages from their employers.

Lies that Have Completely Taken Over these Historical Stories
The Godfather. Amazon

Mafiosi, in short, were not some modern equivalents of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, who stole from the rich to give to the poor – or at least stole from the rich, rather than the poor. Instead, they were closer to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s thugs. They helped further oppress the already oppressed, exploit the already exploited, and rob the already impoverished. The mob’s money making schemes and rackets seldom targeted the rich and powerful. Instead, Mafiosi enriched themselves at the expense of the weak and poor.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Annals of Crime – The Real Father of Organized Crime in America

Artsy – This Iconic American History Painting Gets the Facts Wrong

Bassinger, Jeanine – The Star Machine (2007)

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America (1996)

Burrough, Bryan; Tomlinson, Chris; Stanford, Jason – Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (2021)

Business Insider, November 7th, 2016 – The Average American Worker Takes Less Vacation Time Than a Medieval Peasant

Bussanich, John, and Smith, Nicholas D. – The Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates: The Politics of Impiety – Why Was Socrates Prosecuted by the Athenian Democracy? (2013)

Buzzfeed – 16 Strange and Surprising Facts About Medieval England

Capeci, Jerry – The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Mafia (2005)

Chernow, Ron – Washington: A Life (2011)

Daily Beast – For 50 Years ‘The Godfather’ Has Sold Us a Beautiful Lie

Encyclopedia Britannica – Montezuma II

Encyclopedia Britannica – Socrates

Encyclopedia Britannica – Thirty Tyrants

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia – Trenton and Princeton Campaign (Washington’s Crossing)

Film Reference – Star System

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1 – 7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

Groves, Leslie R. – Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (1983)

History Collection – The Events That Led to the Last Battle of the American Revolution

History Network – St. Patrick’s Day Legends and Myths Debunked

History Today – Americans Actually Work Way Harder Than Medieval Peasants

Ireland Calling – St Patrick Myths and Legends

JSTOR – The Mexica Didn’t Believe the Conquistadors Were Gods

Krentz, Peter – The Thirty Tyrants at Athens (1982)

MIT Project on Mathematics and Computation – Pre Industrial Workers Had a Shorter Workweek Than Today’s

Morrison, Donald R. – The Cambridge Companion to Socrates: Socrates and Democratic Athens (2010)

North American Review, Vol. 137, No. 323 (Oct. 1883) – The Saint Patrick Myth

Raab, Selwyn – Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires (2005)

Ranker – The Real Life Bonnie Prince Charlie Was Far More Vile and Disgusting Than ‘Outlander’ Portrays Him

Rhodes, Richard – The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

Royle, Trevor – Culloden: Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire (2016)

Time Magazine, June 9th, 2021 – We’ve Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 Years

Vintage News – Modern American Works Longer Hours With Less Vacation Than Medieval Peasant

Washington Post, June 10th, 2021 – The Myth of Alamo Gets History All Wrong: Instead of a Heroic Stance for Freedom, Texans Fought to be Able to Enslave People

Waterfield, Robin – Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009)