Did Edison actually invent the light bulb? Did Vikings really wear those silly hats? Did Catherine the Great truly die in a compromising position with a horse? These questions, and others like them, have haunted all of us from time to time. Fueled by artistic licenses taken by historical TV shows or just often repeated public misconceptions, there's a surprising amount about history everyone seems to get dead wrong.
History is a vast, complicated, and confusing subject, composed of lots of really weird stories and characters. Some of these stories are true, some are exaggerated, and some are just blatant, shameless lies. Which silly historical myths have you been buying into all this time? Prepare for your preconceptions to be brutally shattered.
Mickey Mouse may be one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in history, and he helped turn Walt Disney into a major force in Hollywood. But most origin stories gloss over the fact that Walt Disney didn't create Mickey Mouse. In fact, Mickey was inspired by one of Disney's creations, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, after Disney lost animation rights to Universal.
Hollywood Westerns always show multiple gun fights, with gunslingers drawing to shoot in saloons, on main street, or anywhere else. But the true history of the American West had a lot fewer gun fights. In fact, very few men even wore the signature low-slung pistol holsters and the tense standoffs in films rarely happened in real life. And the signature "quick draw" duel, a feature in many films that imitates European dueling, apparently only occurred two times in the Old West.
Even the word "gunslinger" was invented for a 1920 Western film. Instead, armed men in the American West were actually called "shootists."
In 1938, a radio drama sparked a national emergency, causing people to flood the streets armed with shotguns. Or, at least, that's the myth surrounding Orson Welles's War of the Worlds. A 2013 PBS broadcast even claimed that “upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.” In fact, very few people listened to Welles's broadcast at all. A ratings poll found that only 2% of all radio listeners were dialed in to War of the Worlds.
Instead, the myth was pushed by newspapers, who saw radio as a competitor. In order to trash the new technology, papers across the country claimed Welles's program was dangerous, causing panics and tricking people. The New York Times ran an editorial titled "Terror by Radio," which essentially called the new medium fake news:
The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job.
Medieval torture was gruesome, bloody, and painful. Executioners sawed people in half, used the notorious "head crusher," and broke people on the wheel. But one of the torture devices most identified with the medieval period may have been invented much later. The notorious iron maiden, a coffin lined with spikes to impale victims, was actually invented in the 18th century. After a late-18th century German philosopher described a gruesome medieval execution with an iron maiden, the device suddenly started appearing in museums across Europe, but those versions largely date to the early 1800s.
Medievalist Peter Konieczny points out that many mythical tales of brutal medieval torture began appearing during the Enlightenment, as a way of contrasting the "savage" medieval period with the sophistication of the 18th century. In fact, Konieczny reports the most common medieval torture method was simply tying people up with ropes.