11 of the Biggest Lies That Made History
From frauds and imposters to scheming and scamming, these historical lies will make even your biggest lies look harmless.
The Black Sox baseball players
At the 1919 World Series, eight Chicago White Sox baseball players intentionally lost against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for a gambling bribe of $100,000 (nearly $1.5 million today). People grew suspicious when the White Sox athletes started to play uncharacteristically bad in the best-of-nine championship Series. A grand jury investigated the scandalous allegations when the crooked players, dubbed the Black Sox for their shady sports conduct, were indicted on nine counts of conspiracy. “I don’t know why I did it,” pitcher Eddie Cicotte told the grand jury. “I needed the money. I had the wife and kids.” But the court’s records documenting their confessions mysteriously vanished, which acquitted the “Black Sox” athletes of all charges with nothing more than a permanent ban from playing Major League Baseball. Even more well-known “facts” that made history are wrong, including these 18 history lessons your teacher lied to you about.
P.T. Barnum’s circus of frauds
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Phineas Taylor Barnum created a show of fantastical acts that entertained millions of people. But if you were to get a backstage pass to the so-called Greatest Show on Earth, you’d find that Mr. Barnum made his money off of white lies, embellishments, and exploitations. Joice Heth, an elderly former slave, was the first person he exploited for other people’s amusement. Although slavery was outlawed in New York where he lived, he found a loophole and leased her for a year for $1,000. He paraded her around on tour as he falsely claimed that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. After she died, he kicked his exploitations up a notch by performing a live autopsy on her to “reveal” that she was only 84 years old. Others who joined his circus of “natural and national curiosities of the world” were conjoined Chinese twins Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese Twins,” General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch-tall dwarf named Charles Stratton, among many others.
The Cuban missile crisis
Despite the Soviet’s “supposed” reassurances that they were only sending defensive weapons to Cuba, the Soviet Union lied to the United States time and time again about their true intentions to plant missiles in Cuba. But on October 14, 1962, the secret came out when an American U-2 spy plane spotted and photographed numerous missiles being snuck into Cuba. On October 22, President John F. Kennedy told the world that the Soviets had stationed missiles—capable of carrying nuclear warheads—just 90 miles off the American coastline. The Soviet Union tried to conceal the missile sites with tarps, nets, paint, and mud, but their attempts for damage control were futile. Six days later, the president ordered a naval quarantine on Cuba until the Soviets dismantled and removed their missiles immediately. After much intense back and forth, the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to the terms and took the missiles back to Russia. Although it’s unknown exactly how long it took President Kennedy to make his decision, these 5 split-second decisions changed history.
Cracking the Japanese code in World War II
Not all lies are bad! In fact, some lies can actually work in your favor—like winning a war! During World War II, Americans couldn’t decipher the codes used in the Japanese military intelligence reports that they intercepted, particularly the “AF” code, a planned naval attack location by Japan. American military intelligence experts thought “AF” could stand for Midway because the Japanese tended to designate “A” to Hawaiian island locations and Midway seemed to be a logical choice for Japan’s next target. Americans tested their theory out and sent an encrypted false message that claimed that Midway’s freshwater distilling station was busted and needed fresh water. Shortly after the transmission, an intercepted Japanese intelligence report read, “AF is short of water.” Their white lie had confirmed their hypothesis! The United States used their newfound knowledge to prepare for an attack on Midway and delivered a major victory that ultimately helped the nation win World War II.
The fake Anastasia
In 1918, the Bolshevik Revolutionaries executed the remaining members of the Romanov dynasty—Tsar Nicholas II, his empress, and their five children—in a basement in Ekaterinburg. But rumors spread that their youngest daughter Anastasia had escaped. Several imposters exploited this alleged rumor with one proving to be the greatest con artist of them all—Anna Anderson. After a failed suicide attempt, a mute Anderson was found in a German canal with no personal identification. The authorities threw her into an asylum where people thought she bore an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia. Many former Romanov aides and relatives doubted her legitimacy, but she still had supporters outside of the family’s immediate social circle that believed she was the true duchess. One supporter even tried to unsuccessfully prove her identity in court. After Anderson died, the Romanov bodies were recovered and a posthumous DNA test proved she was a fraud. If anything, it confirmed that she was most likely a Polish factory worker who had gone missing shortly before Anderson was found in the canal.
The Watergate scandal
In May 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC to bug office phones and steal confidential documents. A month later, the spies were arrested when they were caught breaking in again. But authorities later discovered that the men worked for President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. Despite the country’s raised suspicions, Nixon was re-elected to serve a second term after denying his involvement in the scandal. But Nixon’s lies and deception weren’t enough to keep the truth from coming out. The Washington Post exposed the president’s cover-up in Watergate thanks to an anonymous whistleblower from the FBI. On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. president to ever resign from their term in office. These 9 other historical moments and “firsts,” however, didn’t actually happen.
The Ponzi scheme
Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant, made a fortune off of lying to people. In fact, he was so good at deception that the government named a type of fraud after him—the Ponzi scheme. In 1920, Ponzi tricked thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage stamp speculation scheme. He promised investors that he could provide a whopping 50 percent return in just 90 days. Each time a new investor gave him money, he’d use those funds to pay off earlier investors to create the illusion that they were profiting from a legitimate business. At the height of his huge scam, he raked in $250,000 a day, about $3 million in today’s money. But his days of scheming and scamming caught up to him in August of that same year, when he was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud.
During World War II, another code was proving rather difficult to break—the Nazi Enigma code. The Allies were desperate to encrypt the code since German U-boats were regularly sinking a vast number of merchant ships bringing food, oil, and supplies from North America to England. In June 1941, a British mathematician finally broke the code to reveal all of the German submarine positions and enabled the ships to avoid contact. From there on out, Ultra, the Allied intelligence project, used a slew of false messages to keep the Germans off their trail. Ultra’s knack for cracking indecipherable codes contributed largely to the Allied victory in World War II.
The Pentagon Papers
President Lyndon B. Johnson kept his lies about the Vietnam War locked and sealed until a military analyst leaked records exposing the president’s war actions to the New York Times in 1971. The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret Department of Defense study that documented the extent of America’s political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 until 1967. President Johnson was just one of many presidents included in the papers along with Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, who misled the nation about the United States’ direct involvement with Vietnam. The report revealed that Truman gave military aid to the French in their war against the communist-led Viet Minh and that Johnson began his plans to wage an overt war in Vietnam a full year before it became public knowledge, amongst other secret revelations. Americans used this new information as ammunition to further fuel their protests against the Vietnam War.
Adolf Hitler is the poster boy of lies. His Nazi propaganda, based on fear and hatred, portrayed the Jewish people as the enemy of all classes of society. He used coercion, terror, and mass manipulation to brainwash people into believing his lies. Of course, the aftermath of World War I was a great starting point for him to begin his quest for total world domination. The Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh monetary and territorial reparations against Germany and German currency inflation left many middle-class families with no money, which made the Germans feel alienated and dissatisfied with their way of life. Unfortunately, the lies told by Hitler and his Nazis lead to horrific consequences—the deaths of at least 17.6 million people, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Chernobyl disaster
On April 26, 1986, a nuclear power plant explosion (400 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima) in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exposed millions of people living in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to radiation. It took Soviet authorities an entire day after the incident before they started evacuating residents from nearby cities. And to make matters worse, they kept mum on the magnitude of the situation and its detrimental health consequences to both the Soviet Union and the world. It took Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 18 days to finally confess to the USSR and other nations just how horrific the explosion actually was on inhabitants nearby. Fortunately, the residents in contaminated areas were only exposed to small levels of radiation and most of those who were highly contaminated were successfully treated, but radiation-induced health conditions may still appear in the future. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the evidence only shows a strong connection between the accident and radiation-induced increases of thyroid cancer, but some cancer deaths may be attributed to Chernobyl over the lifetime of the emergency workers, evacuees, and residents living in the most contaminated areas. Did you already know about these lies? See if you also know the right answers to these 16 history questions people always get wrong.