history 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated

Stephan Roget
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History is a fantastic area of study for those who love stories and storytelling; after all, history can best be imagined as a series of life stories weaved together to create one epic tale. However, like any good story, history has a habit of getting exaggerated, and stories of how historical figures really died are no exception to this tendency. Since the ending of a journey is often the most exciting part, it’s no surprise that the most commonly exaggerated aspect of the life stories of famous individuals is their deaths. Something about dying begs for a dramatic conclusion, rather than the anticlimactic finish that most people are destined to receive.

There are many amazing descriptions of heroes dying valiant deaths and villains expiring in karmic fashion, but they should mostly be taken with a grain of salt. Once one starts exploring how historical figures really died, they’ll see there’s more than a little room for doubt. The list of exaggerated historical deaths goes on and on, and will likely keep growing for as long as notable people keep dying in uninteresting ways.

Rasputin is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The death of Grigori Rasputin is so famous it has its own disco song! The so-called mystic and close adviser of the Russian royal family gained many enemies during his lifetime, especially if his reputation as “lover of the Russian Queen” rang true. Supposedly, these enemies sought to solve their Rasputin problem for good, but he didn’t make it easy for them. Rasputin was reportedly stabbed, poisoned multiple times, beaten, and shot, before being wrapped in a carpet and thrown into a river. When his body was found, it was determined he had finally died… from drowning! Was Rasputin some sort of Russian Wolverine? Of course not. The story is entirely fabricated. All available evidence suggests that Rasputin was shot just once, in the head, and died from that, with every additional detail coming from some spurious source.

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Charles Darwin is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: J. Cameron/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Many opponents of evolution like to crow about the circumstances of Charles Darwin’s death. The father of natural selection came up with his remarkable theory while on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, but it apparently took a trip to his deathbed to change his mind. It was widely reported that, nearing death, an elderly Darwin recanted his theory of evolution, stating that he’d made a terrible mistake and that Jesus was the only answer. Except, of course, that none of that actually happened. Lady Hope, a widow of a British admiral, claimed that she had attended Darwin’s deathbed and read the Bible to him, inciting his personal revelation and recantation. Darwin’s family, on the other hand, disputed that he ever recanted his beliefs and that Lady Hope was anywhere near him during his illness. Turns out, she just made it up to further her own agenda.

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Nathan Hale is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Nathan Hale’s name might not be as famous as that of other American heroes, but his final words are among the most well-known. Facing execution for being an American spy, Hale proudly stood before his executioners and stated “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Bolder words had never before been spoken, and, as it turns out, they weren’t actually spoken back then, either. Hale was executed for spying, and he was an American hero, but those present for his execution record that he said something along the lines of “It is the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief.” That’s not the worst set of last words ever, but it’s a whole lot less inspiring.

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Walt Disney is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Walt Disney is a contradictory historical figure. On the one hand, he brought joy to millions with his cartoon creations and magnificent theme parks. On the other, he was an alledgedly brutal tyrant who ran his company with an iron fist. This second interpretation plays well into the reported circumstances of Disney’s death. Fearing the great unknown, Disney supposedly demanded that his body be frozen so that he could be revived at a later date. Further rumors suggest that he even requested that his frozen body be stored under Disneyland, so he could spend the interim in the Happiest Place on Earth. Sadly, none of this actually happened, and Disney is just straight-up dead.

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Catherine the Great is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the category of historical figures with exaggerated deaths, Catherine the Great definitely got the worst treatment. The famous Russian monarch made many enemies as a powerful and uncompromising woman, and her reportedly salacious activities didn’t help her reputation. Catherine supposedly entertained dozens of men at a time to deal with her insatiable lust, and things eventually escalated to a lethal degree. Rumor had it that Catherine the Great met her end while trying to have a horse lowered upon her for some equestrian-themed loving, or so common knowledge would have you believe.

Of course, that’s obviously not a thing that actually happened, and it was made up by the aforementioned enemies after her death. In fact, it’s likely that almost all of Catherine’s reported eccentricities were just the imaginings of a bunch of dudes who couldn’t handle a female authority figure. Sadly, the real story was that she had a stroke in bed and quietly died the next day.

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Joseph-Ignace Guillotin is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The reported death of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin is wrought with irony. Although he’s not a household name, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he’s famous for inventing. Guillotin was just seeking to invent a more humane execution method, but his creation became the symbol for the brutalities of the French Revolution as it was used to execute countless individuals. Eventually, even Guillotin himself could not escape fate and had his own head removed via guillotine, at least according to the legend. Not only is that not true, but it also turns out that Guillotin didn’t even invent the guillotine. He was just the guy who proposed that the French government use the device as a more humane method, and his name has been associated with widespread beheadings ever since.

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Dylan Thomas is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikipedia/Fair use

Some historical figures have valiant deaths, and others go out like a badass, but Dylan Thomas had a downright cool demise. The supposedly tortured Welsh poet had come to America in the ‘50s, and was reported to be in the throes of some serious alcoholism. Like any self-respecting wordsmith, Thomas reveled in his addiction. On one particular night, Thomas announced to the bar that “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think that’s the record.” He then dropped dead. However, autopsy details show that Thomas’s brain hadn’t been damaged by alcohol in the slightest, nor had his liver suffered any cirrhosis. In fact, it looked as if Thomas hadn’t been that heavy of a drinker at all, and that he probably died from undiagnosed pneumonia.

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Genghis Khan is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 11 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Genghis Khan is one of those historical figures who seems totally exaggerated, even though most of the details of his life are actually true. He did rain terror across two continents, and a large chunk of the world is genetically descended from him thanks to his pillaging ways. However, there are still some myths about Genghis that don’t ring true, and many of them surround his death. The most satisfying, and thus most oft-repeated, of his potential demises is that, while attempting to rape a woman, Khan was castrated by her and suffered a fatal infection. The more likely - and boring - scenario is that he got sick while on a long journey, fell off his horse, and died.

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