Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories

Khalid Elhassan - May 11, 2021

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Christopher Columbus and the 1504 lunar eclipse. Samhain

14. On at Least One Occasion, the Trope About Somebody Manipulating Natives by Predicting an Eclipse Rested on Fact

Christopher Columbus told the locals that he would have to check with his God and see if He was in a forgiving mood. He retired to his cabin and timed things with an hourglass. At the eclipse’s peak, he emerged to announce that he had interceded with God, who had agreed – just this once – to forgive the Arawaks. The moon began reappearing just as Columbus finished talking. From then on, the Arawak leaned over backward to be helpful and kept Columbus and his crew supplied and well-fed. The castaways spent a leisurely time for the remainder of their stay in Jamaica until rescue ships took them off the island months later.

Columbus’ experience with the Arawaks gave rise to numerous fictional variations in the centuries since. Mark Twain, for example, had his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur’s Court predict a solar eclipse to save himself from getting burned at the stake. H. Rider Haggard used it in King Solomon’s Mines to have his hero secure help from natives by predicting a lunar eclipse. However, for all its overuse in fiction and film, the trope has a basis in fact, based on an event actually did happen at least once in real life.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Betty White. Closer Weekly

13. Fact or Fiction: Is Betty White the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread?

Fiction. Betty White is an entertainment dynamo who has been performing for over 70 years. A television pioneer, White’s accomplishments include being the first woman to produce a sitcom. She is perhaps best known for her Emmy-winning roles as Sue Ann Nivens in the popular and groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as Rose Nylund in the even more popular and groundbreaking sitcom, The Golden Girls. As of 2021, her career has lasted over 80 years, during which she won a Grammy, eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three American Comedy Awards. She is in the Television Hall of Fame and has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Today, Betty White holds the record for the longest television career of any female entertainer, and few if any celebrities are more beloved in America than the last surviving Golden Girl. Something about her upbeat and cheerful grandmotherly presence just puts smiles on faces, and that has made her into America’s sweetheart – one who polls frequently rank as the country’s most popular and trusted celebrity. Everybody, it seems, loves Betty White, and she is sometimes referred to as “the best thing since sliced bread“. However, is that claim based on fact? Is America’s sweetheart really the best thing since sliced bread?

Did You Know?: The US Tried to Ban Sliced Bread During WWII.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Early bread-slicing machine. Sutori

12. The Birth of the Bread-Slicing Machine

The phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread” dates to 1928. That year, loaves of bread that had been sliced with a machine, then packaged for convenience, made their first appearance in the United States. It began when Otto Frederick Rohwedder (1880 – 1960), an inventor and engineer, created the first automatic bread slicing machine for commercial use. He sold his first machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which became the first bakery to sell pre-sliced bread loaves.

The new-fangled sliced bread was advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped“. It was a bold assertion that contrasted greatly with the experience of actual consumers. Among other things, in the days before preservatives, sliced bread went stale faster than its intact counterpart. It had an aesthetic problem as well: customers simply thought the sliced loaves looked sloppy. A stopgap solution was to use pins to hold the sliced loaves together, and make them appear intact inside the packaging.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
As a matter of fact, Betty White is not the greatest thing since sliced bread – it is the other way around. Ellen Degeneres

11. Unfortunately, Betty White is Not The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. She’s Still Pretty Awesome, Though

Gradual improvements to the bread-slicing machine-made loaves appear less sloppy, and sliced bread eventually gained in popularity until it became an American staple. By then, the over-the-top advertising puffery of Frederick Rohwedder’s invention had caught on with the public. It made the introduction of sliced bread a marker and frame of reference in the popular lexicon for subsequent claims of greatness. So, with that being said, could Betty White possibly be the greatest thing since sliced bread?

Well, America’s sweetheart and the most beloved grandmotherly icon was born on January 17, 1922. That was about six and a half years before the Chillicothe Baking Company sold its first loaf of sliced bread, on July 7th, 1928. Since her birth predates sliced bread, it follows that Betty White could not be the best thing since sliced bread. Thus, as a matter of straightforward historic fact, the answer must be in the negative: Betty White is not the best thing since sliced bread. However, sliced bread can make the argument that it is the best thing since Betty White.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Pope Sylvester I. Pinterest

10. Fact or Fiction: Did Constantine the Great Really Give the Western Roman Empire to the Pope?

Fiction, but had a huge impact. The so-called “Donation of Constantine” is one of history’s more remarkable myths. It endured for centuries in the Middle Ages and crops up every now and then today. It basically claims that Emperor Constantine the Great, founder of the Eastern Roman, or the Byzantine Empire, gifted the Western Roman Empire to the Pope in Rome. Notwithstanding its longevity, the story has no basis in fact. Instead, the whole thing was a great hoax, that nonetheless had a huge historic impact.

It was based on a document that recorded a generous gift from Constantine the Great, whereby he transferred authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. The donation of such vast territories to the Holy Father elevated him and his successors from mere priests and religious leaders. With such vast territorial claims to assert, the popes in Rome became independent princes and sovereign rulers of territory in their own right.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Constantine the Great. Bruce Hartman

9. Fact vs Fiction Regarding the Donation of Constantine

The text of the Donation of Constantine describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine the Great from leprosy, which convinced him to convert to Christianity. To demonstrate his gratitude, Constantine made the pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast estates throughout the Roman Empire were also granted for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
A medieval fresco depicting the Donation of Constantine. Wikimedia

In reality, the Donation of Constantine was an eighth-century forgery, and a crude one at that. It was whipped up by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both the supposed donor and recipient, Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester I, were dead and buried. The forgery had little impact at the time. However, centuries later, during a period of great and persistent political upheavals that wracked Medieval Europe, the Donation played a huge role in shaping Christendom and the West.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Text from research by fifteenth-century scholar Lorenzo Valla, demonstrating the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. Pintrest

8. It Was Not Until the Renaissance That People Finally Got Around to Pointing Out the Fact That the Donation of Constantine Was a Crude Forgery

After the document detailing the Donation of Constantine was forged, it was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then, in the mid-eleventh century, Pope Leo IX dusted it off, and cited it as evidence to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the Donation was widely accepted as authentic, and few questioned the document’s legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation carried significant weight whenever a Pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers. It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that people got around to pointing out the fact that the Donation was a crude forgery.

With the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not possibly have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. One hint was the use of language and terms that did not exist back then, but only came into use hundreds of years later. Additionally, the document contained dating errors that a person writing at the time could not possibly have made. The popes did not officially renounce the document, but from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, they stopped referencing it in their Bulls and pronouncements.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Three years after the end of a war in which ducked service and was mocked by US Marines, John Wayne starred as a grizzled Marine sergeant in ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’. Amazon

7. Fact or Fiction: Did John Wayne Serve in the Military During World War II?

Fiction. Few, if any, Hollywood figures have ever developed a bigger reputation for being super-patriots than did John Wayne (1907 – 1979). Wayne made a killing off his public image of rugged toughness and on-screen portrayals of virile and gung ho tough guys. “Duke”, as he was known to millions of admirers, cornered the market for a while on depictions of the quintessential American fighting man. Such roles got him two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, including one for playing a tough Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

Many John Wayne fans, confused the silver screen image with the actual man, assumed that the famous actor was a World War II veteran. It is an assumption without a basis in fact. Indeed, just a few years before playing the role of a grizzled Marine, Duke had been booed off stage by actual Marines, who reacted negatively to his fake machismo. They also resented the fact that he had gone out of his way to duck the draft and avoid military service. Wayne spent the rest of his life berating himself – and overcompensating – for having avoided the fight during WWII.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
John Wayne in ‘The Big Trail’. Notre Cinema

6. From Toiling in Poverty Row Studios to Stardom

Early in the Great Depression, an aspiring actor named Marion Robert Morrison caught the eye of Hollywood director Raoul Walsh. Walsh saw something in Morrison, and decided to cast him in his first lead role in 1930’s The Big Trail. Unfortunately, the movie did not do well. As a matter of fact, it flopped badly and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, one good thing came out of it: the lead actor, on the recommendation of Walsh and the studio, had changed his name to John Wayne.

During the following years, John Wayne toiled in obscurity, with roles in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. However, his fortunes improved in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford saved him from a dead-end career by offering him the lead role in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, during which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
John Ford and John Wayne. DGA Quarterly Magazine

5. John Wayne Was in an Abusive Relationship With His Mentor, Who Used to Berate Him for “Skipping Like a Goddam Fairy

Although the working relationship between John Wayne and director John Ford was long and productive, Ford seldom spared a kind word for his protégé. Wayne worshipped Ford: “My whole set up was that he was my mentor and my ideal! I think that deep down inside, he’s one of the greatest human beings that I have ever known“. By contrast, Ford was savage in his mistreatment of Wayne and bullied him at every opportunity. That bullying helped create one of the most iconic pieces of John Wayne’s public image: his cowboy strut.

As Stagecoach was being filmed, Ford seemed to dislike everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and berated him: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated the way Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate. So effeminate that he once exploded at him: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddam fairy?” That really hurt Wayne. It stung him so bad, as a matter of fact, that he changed the way he walked for the rest of his life.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
John Wayne in ‘Stagecoach’. True West Magazine

4. While Everybody Seemed to Rush to Serve During WWII, John Wayne Rushed to Avoid Serving

Stagecoach’s success secured John Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among top drawer elites such as Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star. Then late that year, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. John Wayne’s conduct during the ensuing conflict forever after shaped his self-image and self-perception of his manhood. His reaction to and regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life.

America’s entry into WWII triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory. As the United States armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do everything he could to avoid serving in the military.

Unknown Facts about John Wayne:

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
B-17 waist gunner Clark Gable. American Air Museum

3. The Fact of the Matter is that John Wayne Pulled Strings to Avoid Serving During WWII

When America was thrust into the Second World War, John Wayne was in his early 30s – not exactly a youngster, but still a man in prime fighting age. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist, including athletes, movie directors, and Hollywood superstars. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who was in his 40s when he enlisted. Another was Jimmy Stewart, who had to pull strings and get waivers in order to join the military (he was underweight).

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
Lieutenant General Valin, the French Air Force’s Chief of Staff, awarding a Croix de Guerre With Palm to Colonel James Stewart, United States Air Forces. US Air Force

Unlike Jimmy Stewart or Clark Gable, John Wayne pulled strings and got waivers to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark subsequently risked their lives on bombing missions over Germany. Wayne limited his contribution to USO tours, entertaining troops overseas. As a matter of fact, even that limited contribution to the war effort was done with the ulterior motive of avoiding military service. As Wayne once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
US Marines in Iwo Jima. Associated Press

2. US Marines Derided John Wayne’s Fake Machismo and Booed Him Off the Stage During WWII

After WWII, many bought into John Wayne’s carefully crafted image of manly toughness. However, America’s actual tough guys, the country’s fighting men, did not buy that image. As one wounded Marine veteran described a wartime incident: “after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii … Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us.

Before the film, the curtains parted, and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandana, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said ‘Hi, ya guys!’ He was greeted by stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left“.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
John Wayne in Vietnam War-era ‘Green Beret’ – although he avoided military service when he was of age to do so in WWII, Wayne encouraged others to serve during the Vietnam War. Wayne Duke

1. John Wayne Became a Superpatriot to Atone For Having Ducked Service During WWII

John Wayne never got over the humiliation of having been mocked and booed off the stage by US Marines during WWII. As a matter of fact, he ended up developing a serious guilt complex for having not only refused to sign up to fight during the war but for having actively gone out of his way to avoid fighting. It was key to the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also played no small part in his starring in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career.

Only History Buffs Will Know the Fact from Fiction in these Unbelievable Stories
John Wayne. Pinterest

The psychological storms raging within must have been something, as Wayne played manly heroic characters on screen, whom he wished he had been like in real life. Four years after WWII, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“. Despite having avoided service during WWII when he was of age to do so, Wayne enthusiastically encouraged others – especially during the Vietnam War – to serve in the military.


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

92 Moose FM, February 28th, 2014 – Betty White Is Older Than Sliced Bread! That & Other Fun ‘Time Facts’

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Donation of Constantine

Atlantic, The, December, 2017 – How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon

Encyclopedia Britannica – Donation of Constantine

History – 9 Things You May Not Know About the Oregon Trail

Hari, Johann – Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2016)

History Collection – Popular Historic Facts That are Actually False

IEEE Spectrum – Columbus’ Geographical Miscalculations

Live Science – Top 5 Misconceptions About Columbus

Mandatory – Just the Fax: The Strange History Behind the Telephonic Transmission of Printed Materials

Miedzian, Myriam – Boys Will be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence (2015)

Schoenberger, Nancy – Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero (2017)

History Collection – The Most Epic Myths from Around the World

Slate – What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in ‘The United States vs Billie Holliday?

Smithsonian Magazine, October 16th, 2017 – The Cardiff Giant Was Just a Big Hoax

ThoughtCo. – The Death of Catherine the Great

Time Magazine, July 7th, 2015 – How Sliced Bread Became ‘The Greatest Thing’

Vanity Fair, February 8th, 2021 – Good Morning Heartache: The Life and Blues of Billie Holiday

History Collection – Overlapping Events Completely Change Historic Perceptions

Wikipedia – Billie Holiday

Wikipedia – March 1504 Lunar Eclipse