5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People

In many cases, the version of history we all learned in grade school was manufactured by someone with a killer grudge.
5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People

It's often said that history is written by the winners. But that is kind of an understatement -- in many cases, the version of history we all learned in grade school was manufactured by someone with a killer grudge. When you start digging for the facts, you find that ...

Elvis Presley Probably Wasn't A Racist

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Elvis Presley is so pivotal in the development of modern pop music that everyone knows who you're talking about if you simply refer to him as "Elvis" (to the likely ire of Elvis Costello). But fans will always fall into uncomfortable silence when you bring up how Elvis was kind of a racist asshole. The belief is so prevalent that Mary J. Blige once mentioned being conflicted about covering "Blue Suede Shoes" because she knew it was written by a racist. His bigotry even gets a shout-out in Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" (though here we guess they could actually have been referring to Elvis Costello).

Plus, he stole all that music from black musicians. (But so did Elvis Costello).

The Reality:

Classic music fans can breathe easy on this one. Although some worrying criticisms against Elvis might hold some merit, racism probably isn't one of them. Most frequently, people bring up a quote by Elvis from the '50s, something along the lines of "The only thing Negroes can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."

We say "something along the lines of" because nobody knows exactly where the quote came from or how it was worded -- most likely because it was completely made up by someone spewing bullshit. The furthest anyone can trace it back is to a 1957 article in Sepia magazine, which apparently got it from an interview with an "anonymous person on the street."

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Man, the only color I care about is blue."

Elvis himself vehemently denied ever having said anything even remotely like that when he was confronted about it, and his many black friends backed him up on it. And we know what you're thinking -- "Oh yes, the black friends defense, very original." But honestly, Elvis had many, many black friends. So many that he attended a black church headed by celebrated civil rights activist Rev. W. Herbert Brewster. If the notorious quote was accurate, that philosophy doesn't seem to have made its way into Elvis's everyday life at all.

If that's not enough, Elvis reviled how people overlooked his black influences to somehow crown him the King of Rock. The first time he was publicly referred to by that title, he thanked the audience but said that it should go to Fats Domino. Doesn't sound like he thought Fats was only good for shining his shoes.

"Hitler's Pope" Pius XII Rescued Thousands Of Jews From Germany

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pope Pius XII is often given the nickname "Hitler's Pope" due to his refusal to excommunicate Hitler or condemn the Nazis during World War II, and his personal anti-Semitic streak had him high-fiving fascist dictators while turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. And honestly, you don't want to go down in history as Hitler's anything, even if it's just "personal masseuse" or "wrestling tag-team partner." But "Hitler's Pope" is probably worse than either.

Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The worst, until Hitler's barber is found and brought to justice.

The Reality:

People were so upset about Pius's refusal to condemn the Nazi regime that they didn't notice that he was quietly working to smuggle thousands of Jews out of Nazi territories. Not only was Pius no friend of Hitler and his buddies, but his contribution to rescuing Jews from the Holocaust was pretty staggering.

Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

"The Church and the Jews go way back! Our founder was Jewish!"

The pope used his unique authority to decide who was or wasn't Catholic to issue thousands of travel visas to Jews identifying them as Catholics. The operation was so deep-cover that most of the Jews who were rescued had no idea that the command came straight from the top of the Catholic Church.

As for Pius's refusal to publicly speak out against the Holocaust or the Axis, that had much more to do with strategy than cowardice. If the pope made an enemy of Hitler and friends, then neither Catholics nor "Catholics" would have had such an easy time getting out of fascist territory. Basically, by convincing the world that he was a Nazi sympathizer, Pius took one for the team and laid down his personal reputation to save thousands of lives. You know, like the sort of thing the Bible tells you to do.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And he didn't even order forced baptisms with every Catholic passport.

Pius's reputation as a Nazi asshole wasn't cemented until 1999, when author John Cornwall released his bestseller Hitler's Pope, which both exposed Pius's supposed fascist streak and gave him his popular nickname. Cornwell's book was considered ill-researched at best by serious scholars, but nevertheless contributed to the public's condemnation of the Church's handling of the whole Nazism thing.

So in 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI made moves toward getting Pius considered for sainthood, he was faced with an enormous backlash, particularly from Jewish groups which figured it was no better than granting sainthood to ... well, Hitler. So the Vatican made the rare move of releasing some of its secretive archives in order to vindicate Pius, while presumably being careful to keep a tight lid on any Da Vinci Code-style scandals. ("They were stored next to the blueprints for Jesus's time machine.")

Queen "Bloody Mary" Of England Wasn't That Bloody

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Antonis Mor

After notorious wife decapitator Henry VIII stuck both middle fingers up to the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England as his country's new official religion, he died and left his son Edward in charge, rather than his not-so-beloved daughter Mary. But after Edward's death, with no male heirs, the rules of succession declared Mary the first English monarch in history to possess a vagina.

But the first Queen in her own right didn't make a very good impression. A devout Catholic, "Bloody Mary" spent her five years on the throne arduously burning hundreds of Protestants to death in an effort to bring back Catholic rule. This is of course why we remember her reign of terror with a delightful drink we enjoy with brunch.

Alexandra Grablewski/The Image Bank/Getty Images


The Reality:

Reassessment of Mary's reign has revealed her to be a much more merciful ruler than history gives her credit for. Upon learning that a Catholic was back on the throne, a group of Protestants organized a coup against her. Mary quashed it, but she was extremely hesitant to order their executions, and only did so after they repeatedly refused to stop trying to murder her.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By British royalty standards, this made her positively saintly.

Though it's true that Mary preferred a return to Catholicism, she wasn't exactly some diehard reactionary yearning for a return to the status quo of her father's era. Her platform was church reform, and she fought for a form of Catholicism that had more in common with the reformist Protestantism that her people seemed to want than the old-fashioned religion being sold back in Rome.

There's no denying that an awful lot of Protestants were killed during "Bloody Mary's" reign, but she was really no worse than her successor, Queen Elizabeth. (That is, Elizabeth the First, not the current one. She's not that old.) After Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth took the throne and proceeded to order the deaths of just as many Catholics as Mary had Protestants. The difference was that Elizabeth's executions were portrayed as having been ordered for "political reasons" rather than religious ones, which magically made them okay.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Nicholas Hilliard

And making this the dream role for every English actress ever.

On a similar note ...

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The Murderous, Incestuous Borgia Family Was Probably Neither Murderous Nor Incestuous

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
John Collier

Pope Alexander VI and his family, the Borgias, are historically renowned for the kind of cruelty, corruption, and depravity that makes them sound like they leaped wholesale out of George R. R. Martin's imagination. In fact, if you mixed Game Of Thrones with House Of Cards, you'd get The Borgias, the Showtime series featuring the ambitious pope (played by Jeremy Irons, chewing scenery) and his daughter Lucrezia, who spent much of her screen time having hot sex with her brother Cesare. Yeah, their real life was depraved enough that a telling of their story could only occur on pay cable.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People

"Sadly, we got cancelled before we could introduce the zombie-banging subplot."

The Reality:

The historical Borgia family weren't exactly saints, but they weren't any worse than most of the other noble families of the time. The Catholic Church was a little bit less friendly in those days -- by which we mean that popes and cardinals back then almost all had to murder their way into the Vatican or be murdered themselves. It was a good day if you didn't have to stab anyone on your way to communion.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Juan Monino/iStock/Getty Images

The "this is my blood" thing began after one notably animated Sunday.

So why did the Borgias gain a reputation as being particularly evil? It might be as simple as the fact that they were foreign. The Borgias were Spanish, and almost every pope before Alexander was as Italian as marinara sauce. Simple old-timey prejudice was enough to grind the reputation of the Borgias into the dirt, while their equally ruthless and stabby rivals, the Medici family, wound up being rather highly regarded in the history books.

As for the long-standing rumor that Lucrezia was banging everyone in her immediate family, well, that can be chalked up to cheap revenge by a scorned ex-husband. See, in 1497, the pope decided that he wanted his daughter to marry someone more politically convenient than her current husband, Giovanni Sforza. But he needed a good reason to dissolve her marriage, so he annulled it on the basis of non-consummation, dubiously claiming that they hadn't had sex once in the four years they'd been married. Sforza was pissed off by the accusation that he was some kind of sexless limp-dick, so he spread the rumor that Alexander had dissolved the marriage so that he could have sex with his own daughter.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Bartolomeo Veneto

Then he probably nailed her nude woodcuts to the church's front door like the Martin Luther of revenge porn.

Since the Italian public already hated the filthy Spanish usurpers, the rumor mill cranked into overdrive. History books started reporting that Lucrezia was having sex with her father, her brother, and everyone else in the Vatican, most likely.

Elizabeth Bathory, History's Most Prolific Serial Killer, May Have Been Innocent

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
via Wiki Commons

Countess Elizabeth Bathory is remembered as one of the greatest historical villains, a real-life monster who slaughtered her servants and bathed in their blood in order to preserve her youthful appearance, because that was the kind of thing that passed for scientific reasoning in the 16th Century. Many historians and non-historians -- such as, well, Cracked -- have suggested that she was the most prolific serial killer in recorded history, using her protected status to torture and murder somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 people.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Olivia Megalis/Moment Open/Getty Images

Great for closing pores and opening the gates of hell.

The Reality:

Now, we're not going to come right out and say we were wrong (we did admit that historians think that the 650 number has been trumped up a little over the past four centuries), but there is some contention about whether the real number is any higher than zero.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
via Wiki Commons

So of everyone from the 1500s, she's possibly the least murderous.

See, Bathory was never actually put on trial -- just locked in a tower to be forgotten. (Which we know from Disney films was the most common form of medieval punishment.) All the evidence of her bloodthirsty crimes comes from accusations made against her by ... people who wanted her stuff and/or owed her a shit-ton of money.

For context, this all took place in 1500s Europe, where being a woman didn't exactly earn you much respect. Being a powerful, wealthy woman earned you downright resentment. Being a powerful, wealthy woman without a husband meant that the peasants were already sharpening their pitchforks, and we absolutely mean that literally. So it's kind of telling that all of the accusations against Bathory began to surface around the time her husband, Count Ferencz Nadasdy, died, leaving her in control of their entire fortune.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Andreas Schlegel/fStop/Getty Images

And the first crime that entered their heads was "stabbed a bunch of virgins."

It didn't help her that the King of Hungary, Matthias, owed Bathory a substantial amount of money. Now, King typically beats Countess in most hierarchies, so we're not sure how that happened (maybe he was really bad at poker), but when rumors began to emerge that Bathory was into some shady hobbies, he didn't hesitate to ask some other noblemen to investigate. And by "noblemen," we mean relatives of Bathory who stood to inherit her estate if something were to happen to her.

Unsurprisingly, the investigation uncovered "evidence" that Bathory was slaughtering people by the hundreds. And that she was a witch. This evidence, of course, took the form of eyewitness testimony delivered under torture. And Bathory's accusing family delivered said evidence, along with an offer the King couldn't refuse: get rid of Bathory, and they would cancel his debt in return for being allowed to divide her land among themselves.

5 Terrible Lies You've Been Told About Famous People
Jacomoman78/Wiki Commons

She had a castle. You'd lie for a castle.

It's not enough to vindicate the "Blood Countess," but you have to admit that it does make you wonder whether we owe her an apology for centuries of comparing her to Dracula.

History is rife with dumb lies. Like maybe Paul Revere wasn't such an American hero. See what we mean in 5 Fictional Stories You Were Taught In History Class. And while we're on that subject, check out Revere's female equivalent you never heard of in 5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out Of History Books.

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