Forget about Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling or Stephen King--at the end of the day, they just write stories and make billions of dollars. No, the writers who really deserve a pat on the back are the ones who wrote completely fictional stories that, over time, were remembered as actual history. In fact, we bet in history class some of you were taught about...
In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, little children are told a fantastic story of patriotism and late night horse riding. In the poem, Revere and a few others coordinate a secret warning signal so an informant can tell everyone how the British are invading; one lantern in the Old North Church if the Brits were coming over land, two lanterns if they were invading by way of the harbor. After chilling for a while with his horse, Revere sees his signal of two lanterns and starts galloping from village to village, warning all the locals to tool up.
...or arm themselves, for you non-Wire fans.
Take a look:
Listen my children and you shall hear; Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
"But don't listen too long 'fore you go grab a musket, cuz Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck wit."
You might notice that the story of Paul Revere that you've always heard happens to rhyme. If you ever took a creative writing class, or actually listened to the lyrics of a Kanye West song, you might have noticed that the truth really doesn't give a shit how well it rhymes.
But it's still somewhat surprising to learn that Paul Revere got sole credit for the ride because "Revere" rhymed with "hear." We wish we were joking. Longfellow was not out to write accurate history, in fact he gets many other facts seriously wrong in his poem. What he wanted was a poem that reminded those who read it of the glorious beginnings of the United States. Why was that so important? Because he wrote it in January 1861, and the country was about to be torn in half. He wanted to inspire New Englanders in the face of the looming Civil War.
This would hurt way more if I didn't know the story of Paul Revere.
The story starts to fall apart when you look at the facts. First of all, this was a covert operation. Screaming the "British are coming" at the top of your lungs when up to 20 percent of the population are loyal to the crown is a good way to get busted. He did quietly warn other men, but whispering your warning is a lot slower than shouting it from horseback. To get the drop on the British, they need an estimated 40 people to take part in "Revere's" ride. The only two other names we know are William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, and the latter only took part because they ran into him "returning from a lady friend's house at the awkward hour of 1 a.m."
Another thing that slows you down when warning of a potential invasion is stopping, and having a beer. Yep, the three men took a break from starting America by stopping at a pub, where some British sentries decided to investigate these patriotic ne'er-do-wells. Dawes and Prescott led the sentries on two exciting chases through the woods, both managing to evade capture and reach the towns they were supposed to warn. Revere? Well, he gave up without a fight at the pub. Yes, of the 40 people involved in the operation, we know about three, and Revere was the least heroic of the group. But because his name is easier to rhyme, we celebrate his achievements instead of the guys who actually completed their rides.
He was also a dentist, but nothing rhymes with that stupid word.
Roman emperor Nero played his fiddle (or lyre) while Rome burned to the ground in 64 C.E.
This came from Roman historian Suetonius and his history book The 12 Caesars. The thing is, he had incredible access to the royal archives full of contemporary descriptions of dead emperors, yet his book ended up more like a gossip column than an actual history. Suetonius was apparently bored by the military and political victories of those in charge; instead he spends most of his time talking about way-too intimate details of their lives, especially those revolving around feasts and sex. So while the historian may not talk much about his Gaul campaign, we do learn that Julius Caesar wore a wig, and Augustus wore high heels to look taller.
Nero was the latest in a long line of Imperial Neckbeards.
Nero, on the other hand, is described as a narcissistic, power-crazy psychopath who had his mother murdered. So it's no surprise that Suetonius threw in a story about him setting fire to Rome in order to have room to build a bigger palace for himself, then playing the lyre (the fiddle hadn't been invented yet) while it burned. It fit in with the rest of his "Nero is freaking insane" narrative.
He was just jealous of Nero's mad jams.
Nero probably wasn't even in Rome at the time of the fire.
According to writers who were alive at the time (Suetonius was born a few years after Nero died), the Emperor was actually in a different city altogether when the 64 C.E. fire started. And despite how devastating the blaze was, there was nothing suspicious about it. Fires started by accident all the time in ancient Rome; other major fires occurred in 69 and 80 C.E. And at least four other major historians of the time don't even bother to mention the blaze.
They were all focused on Nero's battle with prescription painkiller addiction.
Marie Antoinette is known to most people for allegedly saying, "Let them eat cake" when she found out the people of France were out of bread. Hell, some of you only knew that saying, and didn't even know who said it. So Marie Antoinette's bitchiness is more famous than she is.
This portrait is of Marie at age 13, proving she had a life-long case of old lady hair.
British writer Mary Wollstonecraft is now known as one of the first feminists, but she got the anti-Marie ball rolling by painting Marie Antoinette as a greedy, uncaring queen not because it was true but because of what she represented: The upper class and their supposedly God-given rights.
"Let them kindly refrain from putting their greasy fingers on the tablecloth."
To a lesser extent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is also to blame for the world's most classic "Marie Antoinette was a bitch" rumor. It was Rousseau who wrote the line "Let them eat cake." However, he could not have meant this to have been attributed to the Queen since she was about 11 and still an Austrian princess at the time he wrote it. All he says is that he had heard that a "great princess" (possibly implying the wife of Louis XIV) said it at some point.
What a dick.
While Marie Antoinette was functionally illiterate and very sheltered, there is no reason to believe she was a bad person.
Turns out guillotines aren't exactly picky.
She was disliked by her people for her Austrian ancestry, something she could hardly help. Imagine if you married into a dysfunctional family when you were only 14, and they hated you for purely Xenophobic reasons, and blamed you for all of their problems, and they were French. How would you react? Well, by all accounts from those who actually knew her, Antoinette was a sweet and caring wife and mother who expressed deep concern for her adopted country. The "let them eat cake" came about at a time when the stories that made people shout the loudest were the ones that stuck.
It would be like future historians looking back on the testimony of protesters from the late 20th Century, and coming to the conclusion that every American President from Reagan through Obama had been an avowed member of the Nazi party.