12 Historical Figures Whose Deaths Were Outrageously Exaggerated

History is fascinating for those who thrive on stories and storytelling; after all, what is history but a series of stories woven together to create one lengthy, elaborate narrative? More often than not, however, history is exaggerated through the foggy lenses of time, bias, and lost chapters. One element of global history that is frequently aggrandized is the passing of historical figures. Morbid curiosity and false information can overdramatize – or in some cases completely fabricate – these tales, which can lead to at best inaccurate and at worst disrespectful misunderstandings of history. 

These misunderstandings are often inextricably tied to popular conceptions about the person's life. A figure known for brutality such as Genghis Khan will most likely have a legacy suffused with trauma, and this pattern will particularly manifest in stories surrounding his demise. This karmic understanding of death can also be found in the legacies of those known for more benevolent livelihoods, such as Walt Disney. The infamous urban legend of his posthumous freezing may have perpetuated for so long because, subconsciously, many wished for the possibility that he will someday be revived. 

Whether these stories are mere exaggerations or outright inventions of pop culture, the true endings of these famous figures are, for the most part, readily accessible through basic research. Perhaps these falsified tales persist because of genuine lack of knowledge, or perhaps people just like to indulge in more interesting stories than those which history often provides.

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  • The demise of Grigori Rasputin is one of the most infamous in Russian history. The so-called mystic was a close adviser to the Russian royal family in the early 20th century, a role which gained him many enemies. According to popular myth, he was murdered by politically motivated conspirators whose weapons ranged from guns to knives to poison. Allegedly, none of the attacks were successful until they wrapped Rasputin in a rug and threw into a river. Further research, however, proved this story to be a gross hyperbole. All available evidence suggests that Rasputin was killed in the home of Felix Yusupov, the Tsar's nephew, via three gunshot wounds.

  • Charles Darwin
    Photo: J. Cameron / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Charles Darwin, frequently hailed as one of the primary fathers of evolutionary thought,  was long thought to have recanted his naturalistic worldview in his last days. Reports speculated that, knowing he was near his end, Darwin renounced his support of his theory of evolution, stating instead that Jesus was the only answer. This account originates from Lady Hope, a widow of a British admiral, who claimed that she had visited Darwin in the last few days of his life and read the Bible to him, inciting his personal revelation and recantation. Darwin’s family disputed his reconsideration and asserted that Lady Hope was nowhere near him at the time of his passing.

  • Nathan Hale, while not exceedingly famous as a historical figure, is best known for what were thought to be his final words. Facing execution for being an American spy, Hale proudly stood before his executioners and allegedly stated “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In actuality, while Hale was executed for spying and was an American hero, he never spoke the words that would become his legacy. Instead, he is recorded as saying, "[it is] the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief." He also encouraged spectators to "be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear."

  • Popular myth has speculated at length about the remains of entertainment legend and creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney. Some claim that, fearing what would come after his imminent passing, Disney demanded that his body be frozen so that he could be revived at a later time. Further rumors suggest that he requested that his frozen remains be stored beneath Disneyland, his first conceptualized theme park and still one of the company's most lucrative and best-loved properties.

    Although widespread, this account is completely fictional and was most likely popularized by internet conspiracies. The theory was first mentioned in an interview with Bob Nelson, former president of the Cryonics Society of California, in which he discussed his 1966 book, The Prospect of Immortality

    "Walt Disney wanted to be frozen. Lots of people think that he was, and that the body’s in cold storage in his basement. The truth is, Walt missed out. He never specified it in writing, and when he died the family didn’t go for it ... If Disney had been the first [to be frozen] it would have made headlines around the world and been a real shot in the arm for cryonics. But that’s the way it goes."

  • Catherine the Great, Russian monarch from 1762–1796, made many enemies as a powerful and uncompromising woman. Most likely due to fear generated by this power, many rumors spread concerning the queen's allegedly salacious nature in order to sully her reputation. One such rumor contended that the monarch met her end while attempting to engage in bestial activity with a horse. This belief proved to be little more than speculation fueled by bias. In reality, she passed after suffering a stroke in bed at the age of 67.

  • Many believe that, in creating the guillotine, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was seeking to invent a more humane execution method; ironically, his creation eventually became the symbol for the brutalities of the French Revolution. According to legend, even Guillotin himself perished at the hands of his own invention. Further research illustrates that, besides not being the mind behind the guillotine's creation and being personally opposed to capital punishment, Guillotin really passed in his home from natural causes. Following his death, Guillotin's family requested that the French government rename the infamous device to protect his legacy, but their request was declined.