5 Well-Known Historical “Facts” that are not True

History is full of “facts” that are not entirely true or are just completely false but become common knowledge as time passes. In this article, we will debunk five historical myths and explain the origins and truth behind the widely believed misconceptions!

1. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was short

Painting of Napoleon titled The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries
Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The belief that Napoleon was short mostly comes from the work of British caricaturist and cartoonist James Gillray. Considered the “father of the political cartoon,” Gillray produced multiple cartoons featuring caricatures of Napoleon that would portray him as a small man. His most famous work (and considered by many to be the most famous political cartoon of all time), “The Plumb-pudding in danger,” published in February 1805, shows Napoleon sitting across from British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who is portrayed as significantly taller.

The plumb-pudding in danger shows caricatures of William Pitt the Younger and Napoleon Bonaparte in a famous political cartoon.
The Plumb-pudding in danger by James Gillray, February 1805.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In reality, Napoleon was actually of average height for the time. Napoleon’s physician Francesco Antommarchi listed his height as 5 feet 2 inches but was using the French measurements, which at the time had an inch as 2.71 cm rather than the 2.54 cm used today. Using modern measurements, his height would be 5 feet 6 inches (1.68m) tall, which would have been average for a person living in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

2. People in the Middle Ages died of old age at 30

Medieval old person, enrico dandolo who died aged 98.
Enrico Dandolo, one of the oldest known people of the medieval period, dying at the age of 98 in 1205.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The average life expectancy of a person in the Middle Ages is said to be around 30 years old. This has caused the formation of a widely believed misconception that people would become elderly around that age and die of natural causes. This is not the case; people would often exceed this life expectancy and live to their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even sometimes into their 90s, such as Enrico Dandolo, one of the oldest known people of the medieval period, dying at the age of 98 in 1205.

The life expectancy was around 30 years old, primarily due to the high level of infant mortality. In Europe, a third of all children died in infancy during the Middle Ages. However, if you reached adulthood, your life expectancy would increase significantly to about 50 years old, and if you were an aristocrat or other high-ranking member of society, you were expected to live even longer. The main causes of death in adults were disease and childbirth. The high death rate during childbirth is also a key factor as to why the average age sat at around 30 years old and why the average life expectancy of women in the Middle Ages was lower than that of men.

3. George Washington had wooden teeth

Portrait of George Washington
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

1st President of the United States, George Washington, suffered from dental problems throughout his life, eventually losing all of his teeth. Due to this, he had multiple sets of dentures created. The common belief and the “fact” that was taught in school and published by scholars until the mid-twentieth century was that the dentures that Washington used were made from wood. In reality, the dentures were made from various materials such as ivory, lead, gold, and human teeth, but wood was not used. It is not confirmed where this rumor originated from, but a commonly accepted theory is that the ivory used in the dentures would stain over time to a color that would resemble wood, leading observers to believe that his teeth were wooden.

Black and white photograph of George Washington's teeth
A set of George Washington’s dentures, 1910.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

4. Albert Einstein failed Math

Photograph of Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin, published in the USA in 1920.
Albert Einstein, circa 1920.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There is a common misconception that as a child, famous theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was not very good at math and would often fail exams in the subject. The truth about this rumor is that as a child, Einstein disliked the teaching style and preferred independent and creative thinking but was very successful at school, achieving acceptance into the competitive Luitpold-Gymnasium school at nine and a half years old. When he was fifteen, with special permission (as he was a year and a half younger than he should have been to enter University), he took and failed the entrance exam to the Zurich Polytechnic University. While he did not pass this exam, it was not mathematics that he failed, but rather, due to the difference in curriculum between Germany and Switzerland, Einstein did not pass the botany, zoology, and language sections. Albert Einstein’s knowledge of Math and Physics impressed the examiner and resulted in him being invited to attend lectures before being accepted as a student.

5. Abraham Lincoln owned slaves

Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil in 1865
Abraham Lincoln, 1865.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Twelve Presidents of the United States owned slaves at one point in their lives, and eight owned slaves while holding the office of the Presidency; Abraham Lincoln was not one of them. While born in Kentucky, Lincoln grew up in the state of Indiana, where slavery was illegal. In 1830, he moved with his family to Illinois, another free state where slavery was against the law. With no interest in becoming a farmer like his father, once in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln did various jobs and eventually found his calling in Law as a lawyer and then as a politician. During Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, the American Civil War took place, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and he made his feelings on slavery clear, including in a letter to Albert G. Hodges, where he stated, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Abraham Lincoln’s stance on slavery, his occupation, and his location are all reasons why he did not own slaves throughout his life.


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