6 'Facts' About Historic Figures (Their Enemies Made Up)
The truth is like Silly Putty: you can stretch it, mold it and use it to destroy someone's life.
Just ask anyone who's ever run a nasty smear campaign; a good, juicy lie or half-truth about someone can not only follow them to the grave, but can echo down through history long after.
Just look at how the following "historical facts"--all complete bullshit--have continued to show up in print for centuries after the subject has passed away.
Napoleon Was Really, Really Short
Quick, let's do word association. When we say "Napoleon" you say the first word that comes to mind.
About 20 percent of you just said, "French!" and the other 80 percent said, "short!"
Yes, in a world where our hazy history education won't let most of us quote even five facts about the guy, what we all know is that he was a tiny, tiny little man.
Now, it's true Bonaparte didn't tower over anyone. For instance, he was shorter than the Imperial Guards he was often seen with (who had a height requirement, since like all such guards through history part of their job was to look intimidating).
But most agree that Bonaparte was almost 5' 7", which was in fact just above average for the early 19th century (and wouldn't exactly make him a freak even now).
The French, however, used a slightly different system that listed the emperor at 5'2". And that appears to be the source of the whole "Napoleon as midget" image. When word got back to England that the terror of France was only a tick taller than five baguettes, the British propaganda machine had a field day. After all, it's much easier to win a battle when you imagine the other guy's Marty McFly and you're Biff Tannen.
"Voulez-vous make like a tree and get outta here?"
As we'll see often on this list, if you repeat a lie often enough, it eventually becomes truth. Fast forward 200 years and a man who at worst was a few inches shorter than average, and at best was exactly as tall any random dude at the time, is portrayed as a laughable cartoonish freak of a man.
The lesson? If you're going to be a world leader, surround yourself with shorter people.
J. Edgar Hoover was a Transvestite
John Edgar Hoover directed the FBI from 1924 to 1972, and based on anything you read about him today, he spent that entire time wearing frilly ladies' undergarments. At this point it's almost as common as the "Napoleon was midget" thing.
Why? Well, as the head of the nation's largest crime-fighting bureaucracy, Hoover spent his days single, secret-filled and surrounded by lawmen. Hoover's acquaintanceship with agents was beyond professional--he dined with feds, went out to nightclubs with feds and even holidayed with feds. And a the time these were all dudes.
This led to gossip that Hoover was gay, which is a possibility historians have yet to reach consensus on. Hoover's raging homophobia didn't help his case (he attempted to out Eleanor Roosevelt and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson) and made him some enemies, most notably openly-gay Southern playwright Truman Capote.
It was in the early 60s when Susan Rosenstiel, an ex-wife of an alleged mobster, claimed she had seen Hoover at gay orgies, bewigged and bedazzling. No one took Rosenstiel seriously, the least of all Capote. In fact, he found her story so fucking hilarious he told everyone within earshot.
How did Capote get away with it? Well, he was famous and consorted with the movers and shakers of the day. When asked whether he believed the rumors about Hoover's transvestite tendencies, Capote pithily replied, "Who cares?" This is easily the most gangster outlook one can have when casually annihilating another man's reputation.
O.G. with pimp hat.
But the image of the pudgy tough-guy Hoover prancing around in nothing but see-through panties and a feather boa was too ironic, and nightmarish, for the nation to ignore. As usual, when the smear is more hilarious than the truth, we go with the smear.
But it could have been worse, when you consider...
Catherine the Great Fucked a Horse
Go to Google and type in "Catherine the Great" and one of the top recommended searches is "Catherine the Great + Horse." So... was there a horse named Catherine the Great? Was her horse famous for some reason?
No, the reason is that these days half the people who know who Catherine the Great is, know her as "that lady who died fucking a horse." It's the kind of thing that kind of overshadows all your other accomplishments.
In Catherine's case those other accomplishments include being the sole ruler of Russia from 1762 to 1796. Under her rule, Russia expanded its territory and modernized in step with the rest of Europe. But her reign infuriated the other nations, as A) Russia was widely considered the backwoods retard of the continent; and B) she had a vagina. And boy, did those grumpy old monarchs hate her vagina.
"What SHALL we do about this troubling vagina?"
It didn't help that the unmarried Catherine loved her pink parts and put them to good use regularly, something that ladies weren't allowed to be open about in those days. She reportedly "tested" her suitors on one or more of her handmaidens first.
Catherine's fondness for 18th century sex was matched by her love of equestrianism. Seeing as how the empress' favorite mounts were both man and beast, it was easy for pesky French aristocrats to combine her hobbies into a nasty rumor designed to knock Russia's hillbilly queen down a peg.
The rumor culminated in what is today the most well-remembered detail about Catherine: That she perished when a stud crushed her during coitusequus.
In reality she died in her bed, of a stroke, at the age of 67. But the smear gained legitimacy on the continent, being too misogynistic and Russophobic to ignore. And today it's just so much more awesome to remember Catherine as a quasi-mythical creature that ran through multiple species of dicks to prove her might.
Angelina Jolie, ladies and gentlemen!
Ms. O'Leary's Cow Burned Down Chicago
Every school kid knows this story. It's one of those bizarre, seemingly inconsequential accidents that leads to disaster.
On October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire turned huge swaths of the city into charcoal briquettes, killing about 300 people in the process. And the whole thing began when Ms. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, setting the barn ablaze and lighting the fuse on what was apparently the world's most flammable city.
It was the Chicago Tribune that reported the blaze began in the barn of Irish immigrant Catherine O'Leary, when the aforementioned cow kicked over a lantern while she was milking it.
O'Leary countered that she had been asleep that evening, but given that she was an Irish Catholic lass living in 1871, nobody gave a fuck what she said. O'Leary was a pariah for the rest of her days. Passers-by would insult her and spit on her until she died in 1895, sad and saliva-soaked.
But how did the Chicago Tribune know O'Leary was responsible? Don't fire investigations take months to complete since, you know, everything is in ashes?
Short answer: No.
Well, journalistic standards were a tad more lax back in the day, and the cow anecdote made for a cute, Irish-bashing story, so the Tribune just made the whole thing up.
Specifically, Tribune reporter Michael Ahern, who quickly came forward and admitted that it was all fiction and that everyone should stop spitting on her. And by "quickly" we mean 22 years later, long after the story was ingrained in popular culture and Ms. O'Leary's life had been ruined.
Yeah, compared to the newspapers of the 19th century, this here website is the goddamn Economist.
Clara Bow Fucked a Dog
In the Roaring 20s, actress Clara Bow was the sex icon for the flapper generation. She danced, partied and canoodled with actors such as John Wayne and Bela Lugosi. You know someone's big time when she's diddling both the Duke and Dracula.
The Coast Reporter, an L.A. rumor rag, figured that if Clara was profiting from her flirty image, then they might as well cash in too. In 1931, the tabloid ran a hit piece detailing Clara's fondness for public sex, threesomes with prostitutes and, oh yeah, fornicating with dogs.
"I am in public with a dog. This covers two of my fetishes. Hopefully this dog is also a prostitute."
The Coast Reporter followed this with a three-week series on Bow's perverted lifestyle and even published such charming lines as, "You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself."
Authorities discovered that the publisher of the Coast Reporter had fabricated these lurid tales to blackmail Bow out of $25,000 (and you thought the Tribune's standards were low).
The damage to Bow's career was catastrophic. The public and her studio no longer considered her an independent, sexually liberated woman--they saw her as a dog boner.
You know, like Megan Fox. And we'll run the rest of the photos unless we get 25 billion dollars.
Hitler, the One-Nut Dictator
In 1939, Adolf Hitler became the ultimate spokesman of evil (as opposed to his current position as spokesman of The History Channel). And while we hate to be in the awkward position of defending Hitler, you have to admit the ever-present rumor that the man only had one testicle was a low blow.
The rumor came from a song penned in 1939. To deflate the cult of der Fuhrer and boost Allied morale, the British Council's PR man, Toby O'Brien, came up with the catchy little ditty titled "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." The most well-known version of the tune goes like this:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Goering has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.
The lyrics weren't based on any actual rumors or information at the time, and in fact an early version of the song had Hitler and Goering switched, with Goering being the one missing a testicle and Hitler's having two shrunken ones.
Admittedly, the song was no "Gettin' Jiggy wit It," but it served its purpose. It quickly spread the world over, striking fear into the hearts of Aryan supremacists everywhere. So yeah, maybe it was actually exactly like ""Gettin' Jiggy wit It."
"In the middle of the club with smaller than average testicles."
But wait, there's one more bizarre twist to this tale.
In a weirdly prescient case of art mirroring reality, a Polish field medic who treated Hitler came out last year and said Hitler did in fact have only one ball, having misplaced his testicle in World War I during the Battle of Somme.
As far as we know Toby O'Brien never talked to said medic before writing his tune. Either it's an absolutely bizarre coincidence, or somehow, he just knew. The man was... the Testicle Whisperer.
For more of our attempts to set the historical records straight, see The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught in History Class and 5 People You've Never Heard of Who Saved the World.
Or if you know a thing or two about the subject--or any other--you can write a Cracked Topic Page. You might win cash.