Even the idea of “fake news” being a relatively new phenomenon is, well, fake news. Our country was founded on fake news, and our first president—well, first-ish, but we’ll get to that later—had so much fake news written about him that he makes Trump look like an amateur. People are still claiming that Washington had wooden teeth. He actually had dentures made out of metal and ivory, and you can see the things on display at his home in Mount Vernon. But nope, the myth about his wooden teeth continues to endure two centuries later. So read on to take closer look at a few of our country’s most enduring myths and half-truths. Discover 28 of the Biggest Lies in American History.
1. A young George Washington “cannot tell a lie”
According to legend, when George Washington was just six years old, he chopped down his dad’s cherry tree with a hatchet. When his dad confronted him about it, George supposedly confessed to everything, claiming “I cannot tell a lie.” A nice tale, if only it was true. Turns out, the story first appeared in an 1806 autobiography of Washington, whose writer admitted that he was just trying to show how our most beloved president’s “unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.”
2. Baseball was invented in Cooperstown
Every fan of America’s pastime knows it was born in Cooperstown, New York. But that history is an invention, cooked up in 1907 by a committee charged with figuring out the origins of baseball. They gave the credit to Abner Doubleday, a Civil War hero who allegedly invented the game in Cooperstown in 1839. The truth is, Doubleday wasn’t even a fan of the sport, much less its creator. Variations on baseball have been around since the 18th century, from children’s games like rounders to cricket. Baseball as we know it today was the brainchild of New Yorker Alexander Joy Cartwright, a volunteer firefighter and bank clerk who came up with the three-strike rules, the diamond-shaped infield, and all the foul lines.
3. Columbus’ discovery of America
How this European explorer still gets all the credit, and even his own holiday, is astonishing. Let’s start with the basics. You can’t “discover” something that’s already occupied. That’s like “discovering” the leftover pizza in your friend’s refrigerator. But even if you discount the Native Americans, Columbus was still 500 years too late to call himself the first European to think America was his personal Costco. Norse explorer Leif Erikson beat him to the punch, landing on these shores during the 10th century. What’s more, Columbus didn’t even set foot on what would become the United States. He landed on several Caribbean islands, and later Central and South America.
4. Witches were burned at the stake at Salem
If you’re looking for examples of epic Jerkdom, you can’t do much better than the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. Between February, 1692 and May, 1693, nearly 200 people were accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic,” including the elderly, homeless, and a 4-year-old girl who was grilled on the stand. Most were jailed, but 19 were hanged on what would soon be known as “Gallows Hill,” and a 71-year-old man was crushed with heavy stones. But nobody got burned. Nada. Not a single person ever shouted out, like a character from a Monty Python sketch, “She’s a witch! Burn her!” Sorry.
5. Paul Revere’s midnight ride
Paul Revere shouting “The British are coming!” in the streets would have been the modern day equivalent of running down Times Square in New York and shouting, “The Americans are coming!” At that point, the colonies were still technically British, and not everybody was cool with the idea of a revolution. More likely, Paul Revere—and he was just one of dozens assigned to put the word out in Boston—whispered his alarm, and instead of warning of the British, he likely said, “The regulars are coming out.” We have Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s patriotic poem to thank for anybody even knowing Paul Revere’s name at all.
6. Benjamin Franklin thought turkeys should be our national bird
Misinterpreting jokes isn’t unique to our century. Writing to his daughter from Paris in 1784, Benjamin Franklin complained to his daughter Sarah that the newly-formed United States was seriously considering the bald eagle as their national symbol. The bald eagle had a “bad moral character,” Franklin wrote, and was a “rank coward” who “does not get his living honestly” because it just steals food from other birds and is “too lazy to fish for himself.” He noted that the proposed drawing of a turkey looked more like a turkey, which he joked was a better idea, as a turkey is “a true original native of America” and a bird of courage who would not hesitate “to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” If only he’d remembered to include a smiley-face emoticon, nobody would have been confused.
7. Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse
The legendary animation pioneer, the guy who made “I’m going to Disneyland” the most common expression of celebration in the free world, didn’t actually draw his most famous creation. Sure, Mickey Mouse was his idea, and he provided the voice. But everything iconic about Mickey Mouse—the pancake ears, the red shorts—are the creation of Ub Iwerks, Disney’s favorite animator. The next time you see somewhere wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt, be sure to tell them, “Ah, I see you’re a fan of Ub Iwerks.”