Can You Guess if This Historical Story Is Fact or Fiction?

By: Beth Hendricks

7 Min Quiz

Image: Wikicommons by Unknown author

About This Quiz

You've likely heard the old saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Though often attributed to Winston Churchill, it was actually first written by philosopher George Santayana in his 1905 work, "The Life of Reason." 

But what if what you learned about history wasn't true to begin with? Then what?

Sadly, much of what we learned in history books and classes wasn't quite how it happened. And some of what we should've learned, we didn't. It sort of becomes up to us to sort out the fact from the fiction. So, did George Washington have wooden teeth, or didn't he? Did the French give us the Brooklyn Bridge as a gift? Who is responsible for the building of the Great Pyramids? Did someone else use the tune of our National Anthem before us?

This quiz is a road trip through some of the most interesting — and incorrect  — bits of our history. Put away your history book and see if you can identify the true stories ... and the fake ones. Do you know whether Paul Revere really went on his infamous ride? Can you guess who is credited with the first automobile? Test your smarts and give us the scoop on these trivia questions: Fact ... or fiction?


An entire colony of people off the coast of North Carolina — roughly 100 total — vanished without a trace in the late 1500s. Do you know if it's fact or fiction?

English settlers to the New World had set up shop on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. When its leaders left for England for more supplies and later returned, everyone was gone. Only the word "Croatoan" remained as a clue.

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Fact or fiction: This infamous story has George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. Can you guess whether it's true or not?

This one is a well-known story that most of us heard during childhood but, sadly, historians say it's just not true. A biographer of Washington's is said to have made up the tale to illustrate the one-time president's virtue ... that he could not tell a lie.

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In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but is he the one who discovered the Americas?

Columbus frequently gets the credit for discovering the New World, but historians believe that Leif Erickson may have beaten him to it. Of course, when Columbus arrived, it was new to him so that has to count for something.

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A chunk of ice is to blame for the sinking of an 882-foot-long ship in the early 1900s. Is that story fact or fiction?

It wasn't "just" a chunk of ice, but an iceberg that took down the RMS Titanic in 1912. Some stories say that its owners claimed it could not be sunk, but others purport that claim was never made. The tragedy took the lives of more than 1,500 people.

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We have a 17-year-old kid to thank for the current design of the United States flag. Can you guess if that's fact or fiction?

It's true! The teenager in question, Robert Heft, was a student who crafted the design we recognize today for a school project. He earned only a B- for his design, but he earned the attention of then-President Eisenhower and the admiration of millions since.

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Those convicted as a result of the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693 were burned at the stake. Is that fact or fiction?

While there were some people who were identified as witches who were burned at the stake in Europe, there were no "witches" — presumed or otherwise — burned at the stake as a result of the infamous Salem witch trials. Most were executed by hanging.

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You've already heard the story about Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, but is it truly fact ... or fiction?

Don't shoot the messenger! Edison's contributions to this country were certainly great, but he can't be credited with inventing the light bulb but rather improving upon it. Edison's efforts made the existing light bulb last longer than ever before.

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Believing them to be instruments of Satan, one Pope in history ordered all cats in Europe to be exterminated. Fact or fiction?

We think it's safe to assume that Pope Gregory IV wasn't much of a cat person. He commanded that black cats throughout Europe should be killed, so his followers did it. Unfortunately, a decrease in cats went hand-in-hand with an increase in rats. Yikes.

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The battle at the Alamo killed everyone inside ... or did it? Is this commonly told story fact or fiction?

Thankfully, not everyone that was inside the walls of the Alamo was killed during that fateful battle. Roughly a dozen women and their children were spared since they weren't involved in combat. We still "remember the Alamo," regardless.

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Fact or fiction: Was the Brooklyn Bridge a gift from the French people?

The French are good gift-givers, even if they can't be credited with gifting us the Brooklyn Bridge. What they did give to the U.S. was one of our most recognizable symbols of freedom: The Statue of Liberty.

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You know the nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but there was a real Mary and a real lamb and a wool fundraiser for a historic building once upon a time. Is that fact or fiction?

It's true! There really was a Mary and her little lamb, and it did more good than just create a nursery rhyme. Mary is said to have donated wool from the lamb to help save a historic building in Boston.

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"The British are coming!" Did Paul Revere really engage in his famous ride on horseback or is that a total work of fiction?

It's another story — this time with a patriotic twist — that we're told early in childhood: Paul Revere, on horseback, alerting troops to the presence of the British. Except it never happened, mainly because the mission was top-secret and yelling through the streets wouldn't have been very covert.

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American pioneers braved a 2,000-mile trek on foot and horseback to emigrate west. Fact or fiction?

Can you imagine traveling 2,000 miles by either foot or horseback? Settlers in the American West did it, using the Oregon Trail as their path. The trail was developed by fur trappers and traders and ran from Missouri to, well, Oregon.

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Is it true or not? The first automobile was developed in the United States. What do you think?

While Henry Ford's name is often synonymous with the initial years of the automotive industry, engineers like European Carl Benz were already ahead of Ford. The Model T was first introduced in this country in 1908.

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The words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" were written in the United States, but the tune we sing it to was not. Is this story fact or fiction?

Francis Scott Key is credited with developing the words for "The Star-Spangled Banner," but the music — that patriotic tune we sing at school assemblies and football games — is actually a British song known as "To Anacreon in Heav'n."

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The United States used to poison industrial alcohol with chloroform and gasoline ... and killed 10,000 people in the process. Do you know if that's fact or fiction?

In the era of Prohibition, when regular alcohol was illegal, desperate sorts used to drink things like rubbing alcohol. The U.S. was having none of that and started adding things like gasoline and chloroform to it, eventually killing upward of 10,000 people, according to some estimates.

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There was a woman elected to the U.S. Congress before women even had the right to vote. Is this one true or false?

Jeanette Rankin was her name and Congress-ing was her game ... all the way back in 1916. The representative of Montana was the first woman ever to serve in Congress, a full four years before women could even vote.

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Is it fact or fiction that Jesus was born in a manger on Christmas Day?

All right, we weren't there, OK? But historians all pretty much agree that Jesus wasn't born on the day we traditionally celebrate as His birth — Christmas Day. We're still here for the presents, though!

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Here's another date question for you: We celebrate Independence Day on July 4, but the date the Declaration of Independence was actually in August. Fact or fiction?

We're not technically celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 because that document was actually signed one month later in August 1776. The July 4 date was the date the final version of the document was approved. Maybe we should celebrate all month long!

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As the story goes, Malcolm X strengthened his language skills by writing the entire dictionary. Is that for real or fictitious?

Malcolm X was known to hand write and read back the entire dictionary to help strengthen his vocabulary, a trick he picked up while he was in prison serving a sentence for burglary.

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All 45 men who have held the office of president have also lived full-time at the White House. Fact or fiction?

You'll have to go back a ways to discover whether or not this statement is true ... all the way back to George Washington. The White House was under construction when he was president, making John Adams the first to hold the office and also reside there.

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Calvin Coolidge, the nation's 30th president, was known to hate animals so much that he wouldn't even come out of his office if there was one on the White House's premises. Is that story true or untrue?

On the contrary, Calvin Coolidge was known as a huge animal lover. In fact, he had exotic tastes in pets, keeping a wallaby, donkey, bobcat and a pair of lions in his lifetime, the last of which he named "Tax Reduction" and "Budget Bureau."

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During the period known as the Cold War, the CIA masterminded several hundred attempts to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Do you know if that's fact or fiction?

Castro was quite good at evading these attempts, living to the ripe old age of 90. Castro was a thorn in the United States' side for many years, though, leading to multiple missions to assassinate him.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt once saw Winston Churchill in nothing but his birthday suit. Can you guess — fact or fiction?

This one, embarrassingly enough, is 100 percent true, according to historical reports. In fairness, Churchill was in his room minding his own business when FDR reportedly burst in to discover the one-time British prime minister completely in the buff.

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The crack in the Liberty Bell came as a result of a bit too much patriotic partying. True or false?

That would make a great fraternity-esque story, wouldn't it? Except that's not what happened. Rather, the crack is due to poor workmanship when the bell was initially cast. Several people attempted fixes over the years, but the crack kept coming back. (No rhyme intended.)

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We don't know if it was a "Starry Night" when Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear. Do you know if this is a factual story or one of pure fiction?

By all accounts, Vincent Van Gogh did shave off a portion of his left ear lobe following a tense exchange with another artist. Historians later concluded he was suffering from an illness that caused him to hallucinate and lose consciousness.

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Renowned inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla once claimed he fell in love with a pigeon. Is this true or false?

Nikola Tesla, the namesake behind the uber-advanced Tesla line of vehicles, was an unusual sort of man. Tesla did once claim he had particular feelings for a white pigeon he would encounter daily in the park.

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Fact or fiction: Aliens are responsible for building the Great Pyramids. What do you think?

It's a cool thought, though, right? Historians now mostly agree that the Egyptians actually build the pyramids themselves and that it was not slaves who orchestrated the assembly. We'd still like to know how they managed it!

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Is it possible that eating too many cherries is what did in the 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor? What do you think — fact or fiction?

We don't want to scare you off of the tart fruit ... or a good slice of cherry pie, for that matter. Historians (and medical experts) tend to believe that Taylor, who had consumed large quantities of the fruit alongside iced milk, suffered some kind of gastroenteritis that ultimately led to his death.

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The Olympic games have only ever been a competition of athletic ability and strength. Is this one fact or fiction?

In the early days of the Olympics, awards used to be given for talent in areas such as literature, sculpture and music. When you think about the artistic culture of the ancient Greeks, it not hard to see how the two were connected.

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President Richard Nixon once considered assassinating a journalist he was particularly angry with. Do you know if this story is true or false?

Richard Nixon was a little paranoid ... and maybe rightfully so. He once had it out for journalist Jack Anderson and considered ways in which he could rid himself of his perceived pest ... for good.

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Have you ever noticed that the Seal of the President of the United States has an eagle that faces one way during peaceful times and another way during times of war? Is this tidbit real or fake?

Chalk this one up to a rumor. As experts from the Smithsonian have explained, the seal did undergo a change during a period of war and the eagle's head was turned to face the arrows, but only briefly. There is still only one seal with an eagle in one position.

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Did you know Abe Lincoln was once a licensed bartender? Better yet, do you know if this is fact or fiction?

Call him a man of many talents, but the 16th president did in fact work as a licensed bartender ... well before his stint in the Oval Office, of course. Lincoln and his friend William Berry once ran a shop called Berry and Lincoln.

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Now, where did I put those? Is it fact or fiction that former President Bill Clinton once lost his nuclear weapon credentials?

As far as losing stuff goes, your keys and your smartphone are a pretty big deal. Losing your nuclear launch codes? An even bigger deal. People close to this situation say this did, in fact, happen, but the codes were likely replaced before anybody knew what happened. Phew.

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We saved the best for last. Do you know if it's fact or fiction that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen after his death?

This is an urban legend that somehow manages to pop back up every couple of years. Those in the know say that Disney was actually cremated and there were no plans to freeze his body and revive him once technology (might) catch up to allow it.

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