Here at TWM, we’ve previously covered the misconceptions from a number of world leaders of the 20th century. With that in mind, now it is time to turn to the 19th century although instead of specific world leaders, let us look more broadly at the historical figures and along the way debunk the falsehoods, splitting the fact from the fiction. With no further explanation, let’s get straight to the list as we see 10 misconceptions of the most famous figures of the 19th century.
19th century : Vincent Van Gogh Never Sold A Painting In His Lifetime
There is a repeated urban legend that despite being one of the most critically-acclaimed and famous painters of all time, Dutchman Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime.
QI throws up the rather pedantic argument that Van Gogh sold hundreds of paintings, having worked in an art gallery. So he did sell some paintings – just not his own.
In his life, the iconic artist painted over 900 paintings but he would actually sell one.
The painting was called La Vigne Rouge (or The Red Vineyard in English), for which art collector Anna Boch paid 400 francs. It was sold just seven months before the painter’s death, in which Gogh committed suicide, having gone unappreciated in his lifetime.
His 400 francs payment is nothing compared to the price you would be expected to pay for his work these days with his work The Portrait of Dr. Gachet ranking as one of the most expensive art pieces ever sold with the amount forked-out for the work in 1990 worth $82 million (or over $163 million, as of 2022).
19th Century: Charles Dickens Invented The Term ‘Boredom’
Alluded to in the Fascinating Origins Of Words article, although the namesake of the Dickensian era popularised it, he did not invent ‘boredom’.
The story goes that the first use was in Dickens’s 1852 work Bleak House. In this, the word is used six unique times, with the first reading that “only last Sunday, my Lady, in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in spirits”. The concept of being bored had been around prior, with the French term ‘ennui’ – a term originally meaning one of annoyance – being used post-1770s.
23 years prior to Dickens however, an issue of The Albion on August 8th 1829 featured the following: “Neither will I follow another precedental mode of boredom, and indulge in a laudatory apostrophe to the destinies which presided over my fashioning”.
Charles would invent the obscure terms ‘sawbones’ and ‘metropolitaneously’ but not the famously recounted ‘boredom’.
Whilst we’re here: ‘flummox’, ‘butterfingers’, and ‘devil may care’ – terms all attributed to the naturalist – have also been cited in print prior to his supposed first use.
19th Century: Napoleon Broke The Nose Off Of The Sphinx
There can be little argument that The Sphinx is one of the most impressive landmarks in the world, at 66 feet and 240 feet long, it was constructed before 2500BC. One of the great mysteries and stories revolving around the monument is its nose.
The popular tale follows that the absence of such body part is that it was broken off when Napoleon fired a cannonball at it. Whilst it is true that Napoleon was present in Egypt, starting from 1799, fighting for expansion for a foothold to the Mediterranean, allowing greater trade routes, Napoleon did not knock off the Sphinx’s nose.
Danish naval captain Frederic Louis Norden had voyaged through Europe and in 1737 sketched the Sphinx side-on, with a noticeably absent nose. Even though not published until 1755, this was still over a decade before Napoleon was even born. The myth was perpetuated in no small part in a speech by Louis Farrakhan of the Million Man March, claiming: “White supremacy caused Napoleon to blow the nose off of the Sphinx because it reminded you too much of the Black man’s majesty”, a statement likely aiding an online poll which saw 21% believing it to be the reason for the lack of nose.
It also gave other nations such as the British justification to revile France and French principles, using this to explain French tyranny and aggressiveness.
So what really happened? Well, nobody can really be sure. Historian Al-Maqrizi documents in the 15th century that it was Sufi Muslim Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr in 1378 yet this goes against archeologist Mark Lehner’s estimation of destruction between the 3rd and 10th century although both agree it was deliberate.
Others believe it to be iconoclastic attacks from peasants or religious groups. Elsewhere, there is a belief that chemical weathering and erosion from natural factors such as rain, wind, and natural disasters, which would have finally managed to destroy the nose after centuries of holding.
Interpret what you will from this and feel free to choose the likely reason for the nose’s falling but don’t go blaming Napoleon – it just wasn’t.
19th Century: THAT Lincoln Photograph
In the Misconceptions of World Leaders of the 20th century piece, we discussed the famous image of Theodore Roosevelt riding a bull moose being bullshit although yet he is not the only one to have one of his most famous images being one fabricated.
Mentioned in depths in the Mount Rushmore Of Assassinated Presidents, Lincoln was assassinated at the hands of well-known actor John Wilkes Booth in 1865. After his death, the public wanted to restore an image of Lincoln as a heroic and dominant figure of the United States.
Lincoln’s photographer Thomas Hicks went about creating more images for “Honest Abe”, utilising a previous image of John C. Calhoun in 1852 but doctoring the image with Lincoln’s face, retaining the body and posture of the original image. Calhoun himself was a southerner and one of the fundamental figures in support to slavery – making him a stern rival of the 16th president of the United States. The head came from a photo from Mathew Brady – the same one as on the $5 bill. Yet, in using such an image, Hicks allowed his own fake to be discovered.
In Brady’s image, Lincoln was facing away, which needed to be flipped. When done, it made the mole on the side of his face was now on a different cheek, hinting at deception. This would not be discovered for almost a century as it was discovered as late as 1957. This was by Stefan Lorant, photojournalist and art director for the London Picture Post magazine, who was working on collating images for a book titled Lincoln: A Picture Story Of His Life.
19th Century: Oscar Wilde Died Of Syphilis
Oscar Wilde, in his time – and arguably still to this day – was one of the most famous writers in Britain. As a suave, mysterious, charismatic enigma, many rumours and misconceptions have followed Oscar.
One of the most prolific rumours is that Oscar Wilde died of syphilis. The story goes that in 1900, Wilde died, killed shortly after leaving Reading Gaol, as a result of syphilis. He allegedly contracted the sexually transmitted disease in 1878 whilst an Oxford undergraduate from a prostitute named Old Jess and it was supposedly this disease that ended up killing him. This is not true.
An appointment with a doctor found no evidence of syphilis. Moreover, his wife Constance, as well as sons Cyril and Vyvyan were syphilis-free, further throwing the syphilis claim into serious doubt.
Oscar’s only living grandson has further poured cold water over this, dismissing this claim. The Guardian explained: “This is an old canard which has been doing the rounds for nearly a century, and was lately championed on the flimsiest of evidence by his best modern biographer, Richard Ellmann. Killing Oscar off with the classic ‘disease of the decadents’ has always seemed a suitably sensational way of rounding off a sensational life, but modern medical opinion agrees almost universally that it was an ear infection and meningitis which did him in the end.”
Dr Ashley Robins of the University of Cape Town is quoted by the BBC as saying, “Oscar Wilde died of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease.”
Realistically, meningitis, partnered with an ear infection, led to his death. With Charles Elliot of The New York Times simply putting it thus: “What it all boils down to, then, is that Wilde died of cerebral meningitis, which is an infection of the lining of the brain.”
One particularly gruesome account that may back up the account recalls, “At 5:30 am on November 30th…Foam and blood came from his mouth. He died at 1:50 pm. He had barely breathed his last breath when his body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth and other orifices.”
Alexander Graham Bell Invented The Telephone
This one is quite a well-established one so we’ll keep it fairly brief.
Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell is often attributed to the creation of the first telephone, making the first phone call with the famous words: “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.”
Although Bell is thought to have created this in 1876, the real claimant to this accolade is Antonio Meucci.
Meucci’s teletrofono (sound telegraph) was patented in 1871, although Meucci was too poor to afford the patent renewal in 1874, which was around $10. Graham Bell had access to Meucci’s old lab including equipment and notes.
Bell did admittedly do some adjustments including a sound transmitter and receiver although not his own system either. Elisha Gray, another inventor, also had a race for the patent of the invention.
For his effective theft, Bell was taken to court for fraud but Meucci’s death put the kibosh on that, and Bell has since forever become synonymous with the invention, with nearly 150,000 owning a telephone within a decade of the Bell’s successful patenting. Thank not Bell but Meucci.
Charles Darwin Was An Atheist
We have previously mentioned that Hitler was not an atheist – and neither was Charles Darwin.
One of the great arguments against, for example, creationism in religion, is Darwin’s theory of evolution, famously illustrated by the beak adaptions of Galapagos finches. This has served as atheist inspiration for the likes of the great Richard Dawkins whose arguments are based on Darwinian theory and credits his works for his atheism, such as Dawkins’ proposal of the question: “You believe that all humanity came from Adam and Eve, and humans have not evolved at all since. So tell me; between the two of them, which was black, which was white, and which was Asian?”
Yet Darwin himself was not an atheist, by his own admission.
Darwin never had any true religious connections either despite baptism at the Church Of England and subsequent religious followings. As he grew into adulthood, Darwin more and more questioned Christianity. He grew to see established religions as authoritarian and discriminatory, so was more likely to be a deist, if religious at all.
It is also not true that he converted to Christianity on his deathbed, something denied by his sons after initially printed in 1915 by Elizabeth Cotton. This myth according to James Moore’s The Darwin Legend, was profiteered by a woman who never even met Darwin (not to mention written 33 years after his death) – perhaps as a pathetic attempt to self-justify her religion’s beliefs that Darwin blew up in smoke.
In a letter to John Fordyce in May 1879, Darwin – in later life – gave his most revealing opinion saying: “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God…agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”
19th Century: Arthur Conan Doyle Wrote “Elementary, My Dear Watson” As A Catchphrase For Sherlock Holmes
In 1887, writer, Portsmouth goalkeeper, and spiritualist (yes, really) Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most iconic and universally-known fictional characters in the history of literature: Sherlock Holmes.
Who could forget his classic, go-to line: “Elementary, my dear Watson”? Well, nobody can forget it but somebody certainly made it up.
Across 56 short stories and four novels of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, the phrase is not used.
In fact, the first appearance of the phrase in text comes from a 1915 novel (originally a serial that starting running from October 1909) by P.G. Wodehouse called Psmith Journalism. The text uses the line, remarking: “This is one of those moments when it is necessary for me to unlimber my Sherlock Holmes system.”
The phrase quickly caught on with a Washington Herald article from August 10th 1910 stating: “Mr. Holmes always insisted that his methods were simplicity run riot. His most famous deductions invariably were characterized by himself as ‘elementary my dear Watson; elementary.’”
Even prior to the phrase catching on, a satirical parody of Holmes for a 1901 advert for Charles Ford’s Bile Beans For Biliousness used the line “Elementary, my dear Potson”, showing how popular it was even at the turn of the century.
The closest Holmes got to the classic line is in The Crooked Man from 1893. Both words are used, separated by 52 words. Instead, Sherlockian.net states there are three different stories in which the line “Exactly, my dear Watson” is spoken.
The classic, faux line has grown in the decades since publication, aided by films and theatre production interpretations of the works with 1929 film The Return Of Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Brook as Holmes cited as one of the earliest influencers. In fact, the line ends the movie, jettisoning the phrase into the English lexicon.
Billy The Kid Killed 21 People; One For Each Year Of His Life
There are many things to keep in mind when noting facts about figures of the Wild West. One is that the stories are often created by the person themselves for whatever reason from self-glorifying to hiding the truth to the old-age equivalent of trolling due to a belief of little evidence to the contrary. Becoming folk tales, these grow a life of their own until officially recognised as fact.
One of the most famous outlaws was Billy The Kid. By all accounts not much of a ‘looker’, the real-named Henry McCarty lived the high life of gambling, petty theft, and more famously murder for the brief 21 years he served on this planet.
The Kid lived a troubled life – to put it mildly – before the teenage orphan killed for the first time. Admittedly, sources indicate this was in self-defense as he killed Francis “Windy” Cahill and considering the reputation of “Windy”, he may have got away with it. Kid decided to take a horse and run, living as a fugitive and outlaw where he would embark on 20 more killings.
The claim is bogus however, with contemporary sources citing about nine, less than half the claimed number and nowhere near as deadly as other outlaws like John Wesley Hardin and Jesse James. The nine killed includes four solo and five in a gang, some of which include deputies and sheriffs.
The numbers were seemingly created by Billy in order to immortalise his legend and was taken as the gospel truth. In his obituary in Santa Fe Weekly Democrat, it was written of The Kid: “Billy Bonny [Bonney], alias Billy the Kid, the 21-year old desperado, who is known to have…boasted that he had killed a man for every year of his life, will no longer take deliberate aim at his fellow man and kill him, just to keep in practice.”
It was a fitting death that The Kid was shot down by Pat Garrett, having been on the run after sentenced to hang for previous murders. This gave further elevation to the myth, forever embedded in the eponymous poem, with the lines: “‘Twas on the same night when poor Billy died, He said to his friends, “I am not satisfied; There are twenty-one men I have put bullets through, And Sheriff Pat Garrett will make twenty-two.”
19th Century: Albert Einstein Failed Maths
When failing at maths as a child, it may come up from the consoling teacher to perk up that all-round genius and moustache aficionado Albert Einstein failed maths; He did not.
This has no basis in reality. Reports from both his youth (one when aged seven was described as “brilliant” by his mother) and biographer Abraham Pais comments that: “The widespread belief that he was a poor student is unfounded.”
It was only when Einstein tried applying for the Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, Switzerland when grades plunged. Keep in mind Einstein was two years younger than peers at just 16. The subjects he bombed were not maths either – which he passed with flying colours. It was, according to HowStuffWorks, the “botany, zoology and language sections” that he failed.
Even then, failure is a binary term with Einstein failing in part due to his natural resentment for educational institution’s championing of mindless obedience and compliance, which he saw as hindering his own creativity.
On top of the wrong lessons, another miscommunication causing the mistake was the change in the grading system the same year of Einstein’s leave. In 1896, a 6 turned from the lowest to the highest whilst 1 turned to the lowest. Einstein attained all 1s, then the best grade, which retroactively had been seen as him earning the lowest grade. Indeed, Albert did not fail, he had done the very opposite.
The brilliant Today I Found Out website notes that the public first grasped the misconception due to the work of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which ran with a title reading “Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics.”
Einstein was still alive at the time and made clear that such was not the case. By age 12, Albert had learned geometry and algebra, learning integral calculus three years before the usual age of 15. History.com reports he retorted to the false claim with: “Before I was 15, I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”
It just goes to show how over time fiction often trumps facts, with legends and stories lingering even if there is no validity to the given claims.
Whether adding trivia, the creation of misunderstanding, or the act of glorification/decimation of one’s character, these are the myths that struggled to die out in the 19th century, polluting the air into the 21st century. I guess it just goes to show, if something is not true, at least make it interesting but I say if something is interesting, at least make sure it is true.