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10 History Facts You’re Probably Getting Wrong

Published: June 5, 2018

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” Mark Twain once wrote. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

To help you avoid a little trouble in the future, we present a handful of historical myths that are commonly believed, but “just ain’t so.”

1. “Caesarean Section” got its name from Julius Caesar, who was born by this method of delivery.

15th century depiction of the birth of Julius Caesar.

No records indicate Caesar was born by C-section. In fact, doctors in ancient Rome only performed this procedure on mothers who were dead or dying, and Caesar’s mother was reported to still be alive when Caesar was in his 40s. The word “caesarean” is probably an alteration of older Latin words for “cut” or “postmortem birth.”

2. Nineteen women accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, were burned at the stake.

No “witches” were burned at the trials, which took place between February 1692 and May 1693. All nineteen women were hanged. Although no Massachusetts women were burned at the stake, it is estimated that many European women were. Of the 40,000-50,000 women who were executed for being witches, burning was the preferred method because it was said to be the most painful.

3. All men in the Revolutionary War era wore wigs.

Wigs became popular in the 1600s when an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases caused many men to lose their hair. By the 1700s, long hair was still stylish, but wigs were on their way out. A historian at Williamsburg estimates that 5% of the population in colonial Virginia wore wigs.

A wigless George Washington. (General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut)

Soldiers kept their hair long, but they powdered it to make it resemble the powdered wigs of the previous century. George Washington’s hair, which you see represented on the quarter and dollar bill, was all his own.

4. On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere rode through the Massachusetts countryside, shouting “the British are coming.”

The purpose of Revere’s ride was to warn the militias in Concord that the British regular troops were on their way to seize weapons and supplies the patriots had stored there. He was also ordered to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington that the British would probably be coming to arrest them. He did not shout “the British are coming” because it would have made no sense. At this point, most colonists still thought of themselves as British. And he wouldn’t have shouted in general because he was trying to avoid arrest by British regulars on the road.

Revere alerted the militia in Medford and Arlington before reaching Lexington and passing on his warning to Adams and Hancock. Revere proceeded to Concord but was caught by the British, questioned, and released. End of ride.

 

 

 

 

Paul Revere’s ride. (Office of War Information)

5. There were no survivors from the Alamo.

After overwhelming the men holding the Alamo in 1836, Mexican troops executed 200 of the surviving soldiers. However, 13 wives and children of Texan soldiers were allowed to leave. The Mexicans also released a slave of William Travis and a Hispanic man who fought with the Texans but convinced the Mexican soldiers he had been a captive.

6. The early days of the American West were a time of widespread lawlessness; shootings were common, as were bank robberies.

The truth of this assertion is hotly debated, with both sides citing quite different figures. However, one statistic shows four Kansas cow towns were more peaceable than their reputations. Between 1870 and 1885, the number of gunshot deaths in Wichita, Abilene, Dodge City, and Ellsworth was 45.

A painting of the Wild West by Charles Marion Russell. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

The total number of bank robberies in 15 western states between 1859 and 1900 was probably less than 10. By way of comparison, there were over 4,000 in the U.S. in 2016.

7. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879.

At least two men were ahead of Edison in the light bulb’s development. In 1802, Humphrey Davy created an electric arc lamp, and in 1040, Warren de la Rue produced a light bulb with a platinum filament.

8. After the Wall Street crash of 1929, many stock brokers committed suicide by jumping out of the windows of their offices.

The suicide rate in Manhattan rose only slightly after the crash. Only two men are reported to have jumped from a tall window. (The rate of suicides was actually higher in the summer months before Black Friday.)

9. Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic ocean.

Arthur Brown and John Alcock, May 28, 1919.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew a Vickers Vimy biplane across the Atlantic in 1919. They took off from Newfoundland and landed in Ireland.

10. Every statue of a military hero on horseback tells the fate of the rider. If one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle. Two hooves raised meant the rider died in battle. And a horse with all hooves down indicated a hero who survived all battles.

This rule of — hoof? — is not dependably true. For example, some of the equestrian statues at Gettysburg follow this code, but not all. In Washington D.C., only a third of 30 statues of heroes on horseback comply with this custom.

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  • Jeff Nilsson's Editor

    The title of this click-bait article should be “Jeff Nilsson tilts at windmills, fells strawmen.” Each item assumes the stupidity of a person who doesn’t really exist.

    1. Caesar Not Born by C-Section
    While, yes, many a Latin teacher has wrong said that Julius Caesar was born by Caesarian section, no one has actually seriously made that claim. Why? Because as you said, caesar means “born by cutting.” If Julius Caesar was born that way, and had that name, then he would have been the first person in his family with that family name! According to Pliny the Elder, Julius had an ancestor who was born by caesarean section (from the Latin verb to cut, caedere, caes-). The practice did happen on dying on dead mothers during the Roman period, and Julius Caesar was descended from such a one — they even named the family for that ancestor! Level of surprising factitude: 1 Meh.

    2. Women at Salem Not Burned at the Stake
    Is this really something people think? Arthur Miller wrote the play ‘The Crucible’ about the Salem Witch Trials more than 60 years ago. It has been made into several popular films. In the films, the accused witches are hanged and stoned. Even if people did believe that Salem witches were burned, who would blame them for the confusion, since in Europe and Great Britiain in the centuries before Salem, witches had indeed been burned. Factitude Score: 2 Whocares

    3. All Revolutionary Era Men Wore Wigs
    Is this really a thing people claim? Even if people thought the 17th century practice of wearing wigs had continue, nobody is claiming that ALL men in the 1770s wore wigs. But, as you point out, they did wear their hair AS IF they had wigs. So, even if people did believe as claimed, who could blame them? Factitude: 6 Whatevers

    4. Paul Revere Not Saying a Thing
    Ok, you got ’em with this one. Most people’s source for this event is Longfellow’s poem, which is nearly all invention. It had to rhyme, you see. And facts don’t always rhyme. Given the cultural power of the ‘Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” the blame doesn’t go to the innocent contemporary human, but to Longfellow for creating his fact-free earworm. Factitude: 6 hmm’s.

    5. No Alamo Survivors
    You may have hit on something here. Hollywood and all Texans have spread the myth of the ‘last stand’ of the Alamo. The phony story is retold today in downtown San Antonio. As you document well, this wasn’t the case. But, you fail in your duty as an historian to provide a reason why the story isn’t told correctly. Here’s why: The white men of early Texas did not see women, children and slaves as people. They were chattel property. So, in their worldview all the ‘people’ in the Alamo died. Factitude: Almost, but not quite.

    6. No Wild West
    You commit the great sin of going with the myth after you provide the facts. You note that there is a disagreement among historians. The fair conclusion is that no one knows for sure, yet you settle on the side of it was not as bad as all that. Also, comparing the number of bank robberies to today is totally bogus — there are 300 million-plus people in the US today, more than 10 times the population of the frontier period. On a robberies-per-capita basis, which era was more ‘lawless?’ Takes a real historian to answer that question accurately. Factitude: Less than zero.

    7. Thomas Edison debunked
    Just a terrible job on this. The electric arc lamp is NOT a light BULB. And, de la Rue’s 1840 bulb (not 1040) was commercially impractical. That’s an important distinction. If you add the word ‘practical’ to Edison’s claim, then it is completely true — Thomas Edison invented the first practical lightbulb. Factitude: FIFY.

    8. No 1929 Suicides
    You finally got one! This one not only gets the facts right, it cites a credible source! Amazing! (Although the word ‘many’ in the title line is too subjective). A crazy squirrel finds the occasional nut! Factitude: Glorious Accident

    9. Charles Lindbergh na nah nah na
    Jeez, this old ‘debunk’ again? LIndbergh was an anti-Semite and friend of Hitler, but he was the first person to fly NONSTOP from NEW YORK to PARIS — which was the goal of the Orteig Prize Contest. In doing it alone, he was the first person to fly the route SOLO, as well. You have accused Lindbergh of not doing a thing he did not set out to do. Factitiude: Absolute Zero

    10. Bronze Horse Legs
    OK, sure, this one is fine. Yes, people do believe this ‘code’ and it is passed on everyday by docents and tour guides. You’ve done a great public service in linking to Snopes who did the work to show that this ‘tradition’ does not exist. Factitude: Riding on Someone Else’s Back

    OH, and the Big Prize goes to the utterly PHONY QUOTE that starts the article. That one’s a Mark Twain fake! I’ll let you do the research on that one! Factitude: Irony, thy name is Jeff Nilsson.

  • Publius

    The quote that starts the article is NOT by Mark Twain. It was invented by the screenwriters of the film ‘The Big Short’ who claimed that it was a Twain quote. The best anyone can tell, the screenwriters ‘Twained’ the actual Leo Tolstoy quote that begins the the book ‘The Big Short.’
    Ironic that a column on getting the facts correct starts with a doctored, misattributed quote. Check your facts!

  • Jeff Shultz

    Lindbergh was the first solo, and also the first non-stop from New York to Paris (two locations somewhat more populous then Newfoundland and Ireland). He also won the $25,000 Orteig Prize in doing it, which would still be considered quite a bit of money today.

  • Arnold Celentano

    Alexander Gram Bell had a amazing technician working for him. He was the inventor and Alexander was the
    Entrepreneur. ArnoldThis happened with Thomas Edison also.
    Arnold Celentano Former Bell Labs

  • Doc Phillips

    Edison may not indeed invented the light bulb, but Edison made the first light bulb to run continuously with out fail, that process is said lead to the first mass commercially produced lamp. Humphrey Davy, in England, was said to invent incandescent light bulb in 1801, and Carbon Arc type lamp about 1809, several other English inventor also developed incandescent bulbs. Edison is said to jumped into the foray in summer of 1878, after many trials and failures, in October of 1879 he produced a lamp that burned for 13 hours and in November 1879 filed for a US Patent, eventually producing a lamp that burnt around 1200 hours, and the race was on. Carbon Arc found a home in Movies and Stage as it produced a smooth pure light needed to light large sets. Early theater motion picture projectors also used carbon arc lights.

  • Tom

    Typo in #7 above?

  • Fred Pendleton

    Lindbergh, was indeed the first pilot to cross the Atlantic SOLO. That’s his claim to fame, not that he was the absolute first

  • LINWOOD D LOVING

    Great information,keep up the good work!

  • Stephen Weber

    Although I heard and believed most of those stories, I’m okay with the truth being revealed. Hanging the witches seems pretty sad but probably quicker than burning. We still have a big celebration here in Minnesota at a town where the James Gang tried to rob the bank. Possibly Edison’s light bulb got more publicity and
    wider use than the others. Charles Lindbergh was the FIRST to fly solo across the Atlantic, which was quite a
    feat with that old plane without modern equipment. Thank you for the enlightenment.

  • William Gardner

    Very interesting bit of information…Love the Mark Twain quote…(but he had a million of ’em). I had always heard that Lindbergh was the first to fly non-stop “solo” across the Atlantic…that would still appear to be accurate. I assume the reference to the year 1040 regarding the light bulb is a typo. Thanks for clarifying the “Hoof” thing.

  • Mark Twain’s words certainly apply here! I’d never thought about the origins of ‘Casearean’ before, but really did believe women were burned at the stake in the 1690’s for witchcraft allegations, seriously!

    While I didn’t think all men in the late 1700’s all wore wigs, it IS kind of depicted that way for both men and women, at least for the rich and elite. I’m fascinated with that century, plus have images of Falco’s ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ stuck in my head (and the song—again) which isn’t helping!

    Paul Revere’s ride was always something I was never sure about, thanks for clarifying it. I had no idea about the 2 men preceding Edison either on the light bulb, and that the origin of it went as far back as 1802!

    I’d long believed there were a lot of suicides that way on the day of the Crash, but it makes sense enough stock brokers knew it was all over for them in the preceding months. Nothing ever happens overnight.

    Lindbergh’s accomplishment is still incredible, but now know he wasn’t the first. Thank you Jeff. I really LOVE this website, and learning new things every day from it.

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