As you've hopefully learned by now, popular stories are often taller than they are truthful. And tall tales sometimes contain big buts. That missing context, the needed assterisk, makes the legend far less impressive. So let's get to the bottom of this. If you like to know the truth, if you like big buts and don't like lies, then read on.
1. Maria sang with the von Trapp children...
BUT she didn't actually introduce them to the sound of music.
It shouldn't be too surprising that a movie that turned World War II into a musical was historically inaccurate, but unfortunately it's a bit worse than you probably thought. The whole crux of "The Sound of Music" is that the new governess to the von Trapp family, Maria Kutschera in real life and Maria Rainer in the movie, teaches the reluctant children about the wonders of music, challenging their humorless father. In fact, the von Trapp family was already very musical due to their "doting" father who would often play the violin, accordion and mandolin, and their mother who played the piano and violin before her death.
Apparently, the real life Kutschera's nun-esque goodness was also an exaggeration, as she was prone to swings of rage. On top of this, Kutschera was only tutor to one of the von Trapp children who was overcoming scarlet fever -- oh, and that whole over-the-mountain Nazi escape thing never happened. Kutschera did teach the children how to sing madrigals, however.
2. Ben Franklin harnessed electricity with a kite in a thunderstorm...
BUT he didn't actually hold the kite or stand outside.
Anybody who's taken a U.S. history class has an image of a daredevil Benjamin Franklin taking a kite with a key into a thunderstorm to harness the mysterious power of electricity. That's not exactly how it went down. Accounts of the event all differ slightly, as Franklin only made a passing reference to the experiment in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, at the time and later told the story only slightly more vividly to his friend Joseph Priestley in Priestley's book, History.
What most likely happened: With the help of his 21-year-old son William, Franklin probably tied the kite and key to a stake outside and then went to a nearby barn to avoid getting wet in the storm. To control the kite, Franklin held on to a dry silk ribbon which he had attached to the kite and would prevent any chance of getting electrocuted himself. It's also probably worth noting that Franklin was not the first to conduct this experiment, although it's unclear whether he knew about the previous attempts.
3. The CIA successfully saved six Americans in the Argo operation...
BUT Canada actually did most of the work.
If you watched Ben Affleck's Academy Award-winning version of this event, you have a pretty skewed idea of how this went down. According to Jimmy Carter, the president at the time, the Canadians were way more responsible than the CIA in this operation. Talking with Piers Morgan after the film came out, Carter said, "90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. The movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA." And instead of Affleck's character, Tony Mendez, being the hero, Carter said, "The main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."
The operation was originally called "The Canadian Caper." But in the movie, the Canadians' involvement is made out to be a mere boost to the Americans' dazzling ingenuity. Oh Canada, how could you ever forgive us?
4. Armed with just a sling, David the shepherd boy conquered the giant Goliath...
BUT that sling had the same fire power as a handgun.
There are limited historical accounts and archaeological evidence to verify what truly happened in the fight between David and Goliath, but the story as we know it could use a clarification as big as a gargantuan Philistine. Goliath was a heavily armored, slow-moving giant. David, not just a shepherd boy but perhaps also an official shield-bearer to King Saul, chose no armor and was equipped with a sling... with roughly the same power as a handgun, according to Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. Just as you don't bring a knife to a gunfight, you don't bring a heavy bronze weapon to a sling fight. On top of all this, Goliath may not have even been that tall and may have been partially blind. Evidence of how this brief fight went down is scarce, but if Gladwell is right, you can imagine David would've been able to get an easy shot at the lumbering Goliath's oversized head.
5. Only 300 Spartans faced the Persians...
BUT those Spartan soldiers were accompanied by thousands more Greek soldiers.
The famed Battle of Thermopylae, in which an army of Greeks defended their city-states from a Persian invasion, is believed to have pitted roughly 100,000-150,000 Persian troops against 6,000-8,000 Greek soldiers, 300 of which were Spartan soldiers in the royal guard, accompanied by an additional unknown number of Spartan slaves.
Led by King Leonidas of Sparta, the Greeks fought bravely to keep the Persian forces at bay in the coastal pass of Thermopylae. But when their battle position was compromised, Leonidas sent most of the surviving soldiers home to prevent a massive slaughter. About 300 Spartans stayed to fight... along with 1,500 other Greek soldiers and most likely the Spartan slaves, too. Were these still ridiculous battle odds? Sure. Were the Greeks essentially destined to die, as Leonidas' oracle predicted? Absolutely. But the popular 2006 movie version makes it seem as though the 300 Spartans only fought alongside a few dozen Greek soldiers against a million CGI Persians.
6. Betsy Ross is known for creating the first American flag...
BUT hers wasn't really the first, and she probably didn't make it on her own.
Betsy Ross may have been a seamstress who helped create the American flag, but her role was probably far more minimal than the legend makes it seem.
The story of Ross' involvement wasn't developed until years after her death and came only from her family, who said she used to speak of the visit from George Washington in her upholstery shop often. If that legend is to be believed, Ross' main contribution to the flag was to take Washington's design with six-point stars and change them to the more easily produced five-point versions, according to Professor Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Many seamstresses were approached to work on the flag, and it's unclear who contributed what, although the original design may have come from Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey representative to the Continental Congress. Apparently, the myth of Ross is "as credible as Parson Weems' fable about little George Washington cutting down the cherry tree."
7. We think of Thanksgiving as a peaceful celebration between Pilgrims and Native Americans...
BUT an early "thanksgiving" actually marked a brutal Native American massacre.
You were probably taught that Thanksgiving commemorates the peaceful joining of the Pilgrims and Native Americans... but that's not the only "Thanksgiving" the early Americans took part in. The original autumn feast held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1621 celebrated the colony's first harvest with the Wampanoag. But another "thanksgiving" was less pleasant: 16 years after the Pilgrims broke bread in Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop is said to have declared a day of thanksgiving after the bloody victory of the Puritans over the Pequots.
According to Francis J. Bremer in "John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father," after the English colonists successfully attacked and burned down Mystic Fort, killing more than 500 Native Americans, Winthrop "appointed a day of thanksgiving" complete with a feast for those who participated in the battle. Celebrating a "day of thanksgiving" wasn't something new -- Winthrop declared others for other happy occasions, such as when the Puritans survived the first brutal New England winter. Nonetheless, celebrating the murder of Native Americans is a bad look. They might have even been -- dare we say it -- assholes.
Bonus: The name might be Sir Mix-a-Lot...
BUT he has definitely never been knighted.
You hopefully knew this one.