Some historical figures have been so mythologized that they have taken on a larger-than-life persona and a life of their own beyond death It is understandable, as some people reach an iconic status due to some important actions they took that had so much effect on the world that it is hard not to imagine them as beyond normal people. However, these people were just people like us, who ended up doing extraordinary things. The truth of their lives may be quite different from how you imagined.
10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle is well known for being the genius who created the character of Sherlock Holmes, and to his greatest regret, wasn’t ever really known for much else. You see, while Arthur Conan Doyle is mostly known for writing Sherlock Holmes, the relentlessly logical detective mystery stories were not his true passion. Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist, a historian, and a man with a passion for medicine and cutting-edge science in general.
He was also not a very logical man as most of us would be concerned, as he became an avowed spiritualist later in life. When the infamous Cottingley fairy hoax cropped up, Conan Doyle was there to have an article published in The Strand (the same magazine that published his famous stories), “proving” that the fairies were real. To make matters worse, he held seances and attempted to pull Houdini into it. In the end, the two had a falling out because Houdini didn’t believe in spiritualism, while Doyle was convinced his friend was holding out on telling him how to perform real magic.
9. General George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer was an American commander during the waning days of the Native Americans. He was often tasked with trying to defeat Native forces, or capture populations and herd them off to somewhere the government wanted them to be. He was known for being a gallant and brave fighter, who led his men from the front. The hagiographies of him after his death are very kind to him, saying that even his death was a brave last stand.
However, while his history is controversial enough that it’s hard to say how good or evil the man really was, he wasn’t quite like most people imagine. While he did like to lead from the front, he was also known for being a grandstander who wore flamboyant outfits and sought glory at every turn. More importantly, his allegedly brave last stand wasn’t quite what the stories suggest. He had been hunting a large group of Natives who he believed to be mostly civilians. He was so concerned with not even letting them temporarily escape him, that he attempted to rush in and take them off guard. If he had taken the time to scout things out instead of being hasty and reckless, he would have realized before going in that he was vastly outnumbered.
8. President Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt is a man who has become larger-than-life in American mythology and for many good reasons. Roosevelt was once saved from an assassin’s bullet by his own enormous speech that was tucked away in his pocket, championed most of America’s current conservation laws, and was said to have stared down the big corporations. He is also known for more fun things, like the legend of the Teddy Bear, and how Roosevelt’s kindness created a staple of children’s bedrooms everywhere.
It’s unfortunately that particular story where things start to go a bit awry. A heartwarming story about Teddy Roosevelt sparing a bear cub indeed helped inspire the creation of the teddy bear, but that doesn’t mean the story was true. Roosevelt was hunting bears and having little luck finding any. An assistant found a bear cub and tied it to a tree. He refused, because that wasn’t the sport he was looking for, and the bear was still shot.
This goes in line with Roosevelt’s entire reason for conservation in the first place — he loved hunting. Now, we aren’t saying that hunting isn’t necessarily sometimes part of an overall conservation strategy, but the late American president believed hunting was all a part of loving nature and would make you appreciate the environment more.
7. Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla is seen by many as the patron saint of science, and of misunderstood scientists in particular. People go on about his rivalry, and falling out with Thomas Edison as evidence that he was horribly mistreated and never got the money, credit, or attention he deserved. Tesla is seen as a visionary who just wasn’t listened to enough.
Unfortunately, the truth is that some of Tesla’s more visionary ideas just were not viable. Now, some argue he just didn’t get the funding he needed, but he was revered in his time and got a lot of money for projects. JP Morgan even gave him $150,000 (a princely sum at that time) to build a wireless energy tower, and Tesla couldn’t make it work. Perhaps part of the reason why he had so many delusional ideas about unviable inventions is because, by his own admission, he only slept four hours a day or less. This loss of sleep possibly also caused the psychosis that made him believe he was in love with a particular white pigeon.
6. President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous people of the last several centuries and needs no real introduction. We all know who the guy is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we imagine him properly in every way. While there are countless books about him and all kinds of historical documentation, the ability to record sound hadn’t been invented yet so we mostly have to use our imagination when it comes to how he sounded. Knowing he was a famous orator, people have imagined that he had a deep, sonorous voice, which allowed him to captivate huge audiences.
However, the truth is that Abraham Lincoln’s voice was not deep at all. Lincoln’s voice was a lot more high-pitched than most people would imagine and was described as being shrill and reedy. However, this doesn’t mean that his voice was squeaky either, or that it didn’t carry. He had mastered the art of projection and was known for being heard with no problem at the back of the crowd. While we cannot know for sure how he would have sounded, Daniel Day-Lewis in the film Lincoln may be the most historically accurate example, as he tried to depict him based on real accounts of how he sounded.
5. Johnny Appleseed (AKA John Chapman)
Johnny Appleseed is a figure that has been mythologized in American history, folklore, and culture. He’s known as the kind, generous soul who spread apple trees all over the county, living mostly off the beneficent nature of the locals who liked what he was doing. The Johnny Appleseed we all know loved apples (it’s kinda right there in the name, after all), and especially apple pie. Johnny just wanted the entire country to enjoy them as well, even if it made him no money. He is such a larger-than-life figure, that some aren’t sure if he was even real, or just a fake like Betty Crocker.
Now, while he was a real man called John Chapman, the rest is a bit exaggerated. Johnny indeed loved extolling the virtues of apples, but he was doing so because he thought they made great booze, which is backed up by the kinds of seeds he planted. These seeds made trees that produced tart apples great for making hard cider but not much else. As for the generous, freeloading hippie character, the truth is Chapman was a canny businessman. He would plant apple seeds on unused land, knowing it gave him a future right to them, and then come back years later to sell them for a profit.
4. Ponce De Leon
Ponce De Leon is known for being one of the most foolish explorers ever to be biographed. He was a famous explorer in the days the Europeans had first discovered what they called the New World and was important for mapping much of what we now know as Florida. (Does that technically make him the first Florida Man? We’ll allow it.) He was also known for being the man who searched for the famous fountain of youth, and of course, never found anything because it wasn’t real. He is considered an idiot who was tricked by the Native Americans. What a dunce, right?
However, the actual reality is that there is zero evidence whatsoever that Ponce was searching for some mythical fountain that would make people young for the rest of the days the earth exists. Of course, if he wasn’t searching for a fountain of youth, the question is why so many people believe that he was doing so. The reason is that after his death, a biographer who was not particularly keen on him while he was alive, started claiming that was his goal during his exploration of the New World. In other words, we believe it because a man successfully ruined another man’s reputation after his death.
3. General Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee is often looked upon as a tragic hero, or at least a tragic figure in a horrible drama. He is seen as a mostly noble man, who was torn between country and family. This loving hagiography of Lee has given rise to countless Southerners naming their children after his last name (instead of naming them Robert, which would make more sense). It has also led most to respect him on some level, no matter how they feel about the American Civil War.
Now, Lee may have been truly torn about the war, but that doesn’t mean that he was a particularly nice or honorable man. You see, before becoming a famed Civil War general, Robert E. Lee had a stepfather who died and left him with a fair amount of land and slaves. The one problem was a clause stating the slaves would only be made to work for six years after his death. Lee fought this in court and won so he could keep them working. Lee then proved to be a tyrant to his slaves, encouraging his overseers to be harsh and to be especially cruel to any slaves who tried to escape or showed defiance. While you have to expect a rich, high-ranking member of the Confederacy to be a pretty big jerk, somehow Lee’s reputation since the end of the Civil War has remained much more pristine than he ever deserved.
2. Joseph Pulitzer
Joseph Pulitzer is easily one of the most recognizable names in the world of writing and publishing. There’s an award in his name for excellence in publishing, and even if you know nothing else about the award, you know that it is extraordinarily prestigious and important. For this reason, most people imagine Pulitzer to have been a man of great honor and integrity, who elevated publishing and the world of writing to higher levels. Unfortunately, the truth about Pulitzer isn’t quite so flattering to his legacy.
The award isn’t given out because people decided after his death that he was so great that writers should be honored in his name. Rather, it was a stipulation in his will, using some of his leftover money to build an enduring legacy. This desire was understandable due to the reputation he’d created for himself in life.
Pulitzer and his New York World, as well as William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal, are both credited with telling lies up to and during the Spanish-American War to try to outsell each other. Some historians now argue how much responsibility they had for starting the war, but there is no question their journalism was extremely irresponsible.
1. Martin Luther King Jr.
When it comes to the American Civil Rights Movement, it’s hard to argue there’s a more impactful and powerful figure than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To this day, in times of political unrest in the United States, Dr. King’s words and wisdom are quoted on both sides of the aisle. In recent years at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, his method of peaceful protest has been held up as the “correct” way to rise against people you feel have wronged or oppressed you. Critics of such movements will point to MLK’s methods as the “proper” way to protest (while failing to see the irony of telling people who feel beaten down and unheard how, when, and where to rebel). But that’s a gross oversimplification when the reality is things weren’t nearly as black and white.
While no one can put words in the mouth of MLK, there’s reason to believe that he didn’t necessarily believe you should just turn the other cheek in every situation. Dr. King knew that in the old South, anything besides passive resistance would basically be death for the people protesting (famously saying, “Today it is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence”). For this reason, he had to adopt tactics that made sense based on where he lived, and his upbringing. Many historians argue that Malcolm X and MLK were hardly enemies, and were essentially two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, in a speech shortly before his assassination, Dr. King told young Black men to never allow anyone to take their manhood. Yes, he was a man of peace, but he was a man of defiance and, like his dear friend, the late politician and activist John Lewis, a proponent of good trouble.