A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

11 of the Biggest Lies That Made History

From frauds and imposters to scheming and scamming, these historical lies will make even your biggest fibs look harmless.

arrow pointing to "Truth"
Luso/Getty Images

Can you handle the truth?

Hold on to your pants, because we’re debunking some of the biggest lies ever told. These cover-ups and cons lost people money, jobs, and even their lives. But no web of lies lasts forever. Like the old proverb says, “Truth is the only daughter of time.” Find out if people really believe these weird lies.

white sox

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 badly 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 a 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. You’ll be shocked by these well-known “facts” that made history, including these 18 history lessons your teacher lied to you about.

Samuel Root or Marcus Aurelius Root (p.t. Barnum) general tom thumb
Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

P.T. Barnum’s circus of frauds

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 exploitation. Joice Heth, an elderly Black woman who had previously been enslaved, 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 one year for $1,000 from an acquaintance. He paraded her around on tour, claiming that she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. After she died, he kicked his depravity 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,” and General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch-tall dwarf named Charles Stratton, among many others. P.T. Barnum’s tricks may have been revealed, but these strange mysteries have never been resolved.

MISSILE SITE President John F. Kennedy makes a national television speech, from Washington. He announced a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet missiles are removed

The Cuban missile crisis

Despite reassurances from the Soviet Union that they were sending only defensive weapons to Cuba, the reality was that the their true intentions were to plant missiles on the island. On October 14, 1962, the secret came out when an American U-2 spy plane spotted and photographed numerous missiles being sneaked 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.

Associated Press International News Japan WWII U.S. MARINES FLAG IWO JIMA U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, fifth division, cheer and hold up their rifles after raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, a volcanic Japanese island, on during World War II
JOE ROSENTHAL/Shutterstock

Cracking the Japanese code in World War II

Not all lies are bad! In fact, some lies can actually work in your favor—like when it comes to 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, which denoted the location of a planned naval attack 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. The Americans decided to test their theory by sending an encrypted false message, claiming 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. You’ll never believe the most bizarre historical coincidences throughout history.

Anna Anderson Anna Anderson, who claims to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, poses for a photo in 1955. Anastasia allegedly escaped when the Bolshevik secret police executed the entire Romanov family in 1918. Exact date and location are unknown

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 rumor, but one has gone down in history as one of the greatest con artists of all time—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 who 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.

WATERGATE SCANDAL Democratic National Committee office in the luxurious Watergate complex in Washington, shown

The Watergate scandal

In May 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. to bug office phones and steal confidential documents. A month later, the spies were arrested when they were caught breaking in again. 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 of the Watergate crimes thanks to an anonymous whistleblower from the FBI. On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. president ever to resign from their term in office. These 9 other historical moments and “firsts,” however, didn’t actually happen.

Charles Ponzi

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, creating 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 1920, when he was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud.

A Nazi Enigma encryption machine is displayed at the World War II Museum in Natick, Mass., . In the Oscar-nominated film "The Imitation Game," Benedict Cumberbatch leads a code-breaking operation targeting the Nazis' infamous Enigma encryption machines. The obscure suburban Boston museum boasts the largest U.S. collection of Enigmas outside of the NSA
Elise Amendola/Shutterstock

Team Ultra

During World War II, another code was proving difficult to break—the Nazi Enigma code. The Allies were desperate to decipher 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, British mathematicians, including Alan Turing (an early pioneer in computing) 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. Unfortunately, not all historical events ended well—you’ll wish these historical facts weren’t true.

The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in its edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court
Jim Wells/Shutterstock

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. Some things come to light, but these presidential mysteries have still never been solved.

'Germany Chooses National Socialism !' - But This Confident Affirmation Was Premature by Nearly 10 Years 07-Dec-24

Nazi propaganda

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 terrible aftermath of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh monetary and territorial reparations against Germany, and German currency inflation induced widespread poverty and unemployment, left many people desperate for solutions and primed to accept a rhetoric based on blame and hatred. Unfortunately, the lies told by Hitler and his Nazis lead to horrific consequences—the deaths of at least 17.6 million people, including the genocide of 6 million Jewish people, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, as made two to three days after the explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Japan raised the crisis level at its crippled nuclear plant, to a severity on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, citing high overall radiation leaks that have contaminated the air, tap water, vegetables and seawater. Japanese nuclear regulators said they raised the rating from 5 to 7 _ the highest level on an international scale of nuclear accidents overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency _ after new assessments of radiation leaks from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant since it was disabled by the March 11 tsunami

The Chernobyl disaster

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear power plant explosion (400 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima) in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exposed millions of people living in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to radiation. It took Soviet authorities until 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.


Ashley Lewis
Ashley is an Assistant Editor at Reader’s Digest. She received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. Before joining Reader’s Digest, she was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News and interned at Seventeen and FOX News. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for rd.com, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.