Most of us weren’t in the room for history’s most famous happenings. That means it just takes one slip-up or folktale — whether because of an overzealous biographer, a creative retelling, propaganda, or just a story that’s easy to latch on to — to create a whole new version of events.
From half-truths and misunderstandings to straight-up fabrications, here are five historical events that didn’t happen like you probably thought they did.
It’s a common American parable: Founding father George Washington got a hatchet as a gift when he was 6 years old and, eager to test out his new tool, he hacked up his father’s cherry tree. The story goes that when Washington’s father discovered the damage, Washington responded, “I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
His father then delivered a tidy moral: “Glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees.”
If that dialogue feels a little too scripted, it’s because it was completely made up after Washington died. Ironically, this fable about honesty was fabricated by biographer and pastor Mason Locke Weems. Responding to public demand for more stories about Washington’s life, Weems embellished his book, The Life of Washington, with many enduring myths, including the ever-popular cherry tree anecdote.
Perhaps what cements this particular story in the Washington mythos more than others is its popularity as a standalone moral tale for children. Minister William Holmes McGuffy simplified the story and included it in his McGuffy’s Readers series, which were used in schools for around a century. The anecdote endures today through political cartoons, commentary, and, of course, countless additional children’s books.
What’s a more iconic symbol for an inventor than the light bulb? With 1,093 patents to his name, it’s easy to picture Thomas Edison with a cartoon bulb above his head at all times — especially since he’s sometimes credited with inventing the incandescent bulb. He didn’t invent it, though; he just improved on it.
It took a series of inventors to create a light bulb that was practical for everyday use, and although Edison was responsible for multiple links on that chain, he didn't do the work alone. Arc lamps, invented by Humphry Davy in the early 1800s, provided many of the earliest electric street lights, while Scottish inventor James Bowman Lindsay was likely the first to demonstrate a sealed glass bulb that provided constant light through incandescent wires in 1835. In the 1870s, incandescent bulbs became a hot topic in the science world, and many inventors helped move the technology along, including Joseph Swan, William Sawyer, Albon Mann, and, yes, Edison.
Edison did make some major contributions to the light bulb that we use in our homes today. He patented a long-lasting carbon filament and, along with other scientists, improved its manufacturing process. He also invented the Edison Screw, the twist-in light bulb socket that we still use today.
The most enduring legend about French Queen Marie Antoinette is that when she was told her people didn’t have bread, she coldheartedly replied, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (“Let them eat cake”). The problem with that legend is that the quote is not directly attributable to her — and some historians believe it would have been out of character for her to say it, anyway.
Versions of the “let them eat cake” story had been circling French monarchs for years, starting at least 100 years before the reign of Marie Antoinette. The same anecdote with a slightly different quote was attributed to Marie-Terese — coincidentally, also the name of Antoinette’s mother and daughter — who married King Louis XIV in 1660. In that case, it was “the crust of the pate” rather than “cake.” In the intervening years, the story was attributed to a variety of French royals before it stuck to Antoinette.
In her book Marie Antoinette: The Journey, biographer Antonia Fraser argues that not only did Antoinette not deliver the famous line, but she also disagreed with the sentiment. While Marie Antoinette’s lavish royal lifestyle was perhaps unseemly in the face of her subjects' plight, she often expressed a sense of responsibility toward them.
“It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness,” Antoinette wrote in a letter to her mother.
You probably know the legend of William Tell, or at least the gist of it. During the period of the Old Swiss Confederacy, Tell, a local farmer and renowned marksman, refused to acknowledge Austrian authority and was forced to shoot an arrow at an apple on his son’s head. In case he failed, he saved an arrow for the governor who had ordered him to do so. This, the story goes, inspired resistance to Austrian rule among the Swiss people.
There’s one problem: Many historians say Tell never existed in the first place.
The basic tale we've come to associate with Tell is common in European folklore, sometimes predating Tell himself. In several nearly identical versions, spare arrow and all, only the archer (and his oppressor) change; in some, the central figure is a German folk hero, a Danish chieftain, or English outlaw Adam Bell.
Even without that context, many consider the source dubious. The legend was first detailed around 1570, 250 years after it was supposed to have taken place. Later in the story, Tell is part of an oath of freedom and unity with leaders of three different areas. But other accounts of this event, which inspired Swiss Independence Day, say it took place several years earlier — without anybody named “William Tell” present.
However, thanks to works such as Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 play William Tell and the iconic “William Tell Overture” (from a French opera by the same name), Tell is still a household name throughout the world. Just maybe a fictional one.
Nearly 250 years after the fabled ride of Paul Revere leading up to the American Revolution battles of Lexington and Concord, many people believe he yelled the phrase, “The British are coming!” along the way — but this would have lacked a lot of subtlety for Revere, who also worked as a spy.
By Revere’s own account in a letter and deposition, he was one of three riders sent to spread the word about the British troops being on the move from Boston. They were also tasked with stopping in Lexington to let Samuel Adams and John Hancock know that some troops were coming to arrest them, although that bit of intel later proved false.
On the way to Lexington, Revere did warn many households of the upcoming battle, but the operation was far more discreet than boldly yelling, “The British are coming,” as some British soldiers were hiding out in the countryside and some residents still considered themselves British. It’s more likely that he quietly warned people of the attack. In warning Adams and Hancock, he used the term “the regulars.”
There are plenty of other misconceptions about Revere’s story, and most of them are from the 1860 poem Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. For example, he didn’t make it to Concord, since he got detained on the way out. (Another rider, Samuel Prescott, made it the whole way.) Revere did get a friend to light those “one if by land, two if by sea” signal lanterns — meant to alert patriots about the route the British were taking toward Concord — in the church tower, but he already had the intel. The message, sent two days before the ride, was actually from Revere to let others know what was happening in case he couldn’t get over the river to Charlestown.