Common Misconceptions in History

Misconception "Mistaken idea: a mistaken idea or view resulting from a misunderstanding of something."  That is the definition given by an online dictionary.  A common misconception was Japanese Americans were the only U.S. citizens rounded up after Pearl Harbor.  In fact, Italians and Germans were also placed in internment camps after WWII broke out for America.  More than 11,000 German residents of the United States were interned as well.  In fact, an estimated 600,000 people of Italian descent were considered “enemy aliens” and kept under restrictions.However, it was no secret that Japanese-Americans were treated more harshly and made up the majority of the 120,000 people placed in internment camps during WWII.  It is a sad event in our history that was made even worse by giving reparations to Japanese-Americans held during this time period.  With this in mind, lets take a look at a few misconceptions throughout history.

Life expectancy during the Middle Ages was thought to usually end by age 30.  That's not true.  The reason many people think this is due to the high infant mortality rate during this time in history.  In fact, the average 21-year old could safely expect to live to age 64.

During the Salem Witch Trials, popular belief has always been that the purported witches were burned at the stake.  That may have happened to one or possibly two of the witches.  But, the preponderance of evidence points to the vast majority of "witches" dying in prison or being hanged.

 The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was not caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern. A newspaper reporter invented the story to make colorful copy. But, the legend stuck and people still believe it was a cow that started the Great Fire.

There was no widespread outbreak of panic across the United States in response to Orson Welles' 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Only a very small share of the radio audience was even listening to it, and isolated reports of scattered incidents and increased call volume to emergency services were played up the next day by newspapers.  Welles soon realized how much of a boon this would be to his career and embraced the myth.

During the occupation of Denmark by the Nazis during World War II, King Christian X of Denmark did not thwart Nazi attempts to identify Jews by wearing a yellow star himself.  Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear the Star of David.

Despite popular belief, Ben Franklin did not discover electricity by flying a kite.  Franklin was only trying to prove the electrical nature of  lightning.  Electricity was already well known in that 18th century time period.

To the heartbreak of many, Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball.  Today it is widely accepted that Alexander Joy Cartwright, an obscure bank teller in New York, invented the game.  In fact, there is a plaque honoring him as the father of modern baseball in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  Abner Doubleday is nowhere to be found in the Hall of Fame.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not unusually short.  Much of the reason for the rumors that Napoleon was a short man comes from the confusion between old French feet and Imperial (British) feet. Measured shortly after his death in 1821, Napoleon was recorded at 5ft 2in in French feet, which corresponds to 5ft 6.5in in Imperial feet, or 1.69m. This makes him slightly taller than the average Frenchman of the 19th century.

John F. Kennedy was not the youngest President of the United States.  This distinction goes to none other than Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt became president when President William McKinley was assassinated.  JFK was the youngest elected President of the United States. 

This one is still being taught in schools today.  But, it is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb.  He just invented a more efficient light bulb.  Various people contributed to the development of the light bulb, but Edison is the most well known, and made one of the greatest single leaps in it’s modern use. The first incandescent was made by Humphry Davy in 1802.


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