Medieval People Believed the Earth Was Flat
Lots of people believe Christopher Columbus was the first person in the history of everything to seriously believe – to the point of foolhardy recklessness! – that the earth was round, as opposed to flat. In fact, the theory of a globe-shaped Earth had been kicking around for many hundreds of years, dating all the way back to the 4th Century B.C.
Although the majority of educated people in 1492 (not just in Europe, but indeed, all over the world) believed the earth was a sphere, Columbus himself, ironically, didn't believe this – he thought the earth was pear-shaped. Go figure.
Napoleon Bonaparte Was Inordinately Short
Napoleon Bonaparte was known during his life as "The Little Corporal." While many people erroneously assume this was a reference to his physical height, it actually began early in his career as a mocking reference to his lack of military accolades and low rank. Napoleon Bonaparte was 5'7" – not a towering giant, but certainly not a dwarf.
Gun Fights in the American West
Needless to say, this popular misconception mostly comes from the film industry. Western movies and paperbacks were once among the most revered genres of all time (in Europe, strangely, as well as the United States), and have only recently begun to wane in popularity. Though notorious outlaws of the era are often described with gusto as ruthless murderers responsible for hundreds of kills, actual gunfights in the early American West were extremely rare, and were certainly not taken lightly by either citizens or law enforcement.
Outlaw gunfighter stories were popular, though, because they were exciting, scary, and glamorous, and the appropriation of them decades later by popular writers and the burgeoning film industry only added to their endurance.
The Original War of the Worlds Broadcast
People love this one because it makes them feel smug about how much more sophisticated and media-savvy everyone is now than they used to be 80 years ago. Basically, in 1938, Orson Welles had the brilliant idea of creating a radio drama (this was before television, so radio dramas were popular back then) disguised as a fake news broadcast, where the newscasters would start gradually reporting more and more details of what turns out to be an alien invasion. Popular legend claims Middle America was totally unprepared for this groundbreaking storytelling device, and assumed the broadcast was real – arming themselves with shotguns and taking to the streets in fear.
In reality, although some people did get confused or upset by the broadcast, the actual response was greatly exaggerated in the coming weeks by news media eager to cash in on the novelty of the story and make radio (a relatively new technology that many people were still suspicious of) seem irresponsible and dangerous.