While most famous people go down in history for doing something amazing or contributing something worthy to society, sometimes people get famous solely based on rumors, legends, and myths. As was the case for these 15 famous people, especially considering the fact they may not have been real.
Although there are entire English classes devoted to his work, scholars have debated whether or not Homer actually existed for decades. The epic poet was responsible for works like "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad," however, some believe he may not have been a real person but rather a collection of authors. Generally, no one knows for sure if Homer was real, as there is little historical information about his life. Originally, his epic poems were recited orally, and in the Greek tradition these types of poems were usually created by a group of people and modified over time. Additionally, the word "Homer" translates to "sons of hostages," which seems to suggest the author wasn't a person but rather a group of people who were descendants of war prisoners.
Most Americans are familiar with the tale of John Henry; he was thought to be a big, buff former slave and steel driver who could build a railroad tunnel faster than a steam drill. His legend is an epic saga of man versus machine, but ends with a grisly twist as the exertion of the job leaves him dead at the railroad site with his sledgehammer still grasped tightly in his fist. His story even sparked a folk song "The Ballad of John Henry." However, many believe he was only partially real. Although there was a former slave turned steel driver named John William Henry, he was skinny, about 5 feet tall, and died during the construction of the C&O Railway in Virginia. Also, he never raced a steam drill—or any other machine for that matter.
Pope JoanArchive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images
While some alternative historians swear Pope Joan was real, most scholars believe she likely didn't exist. According to Medieval legend, Pope Joan served as Pontiff between 853-855 AD. Stories about Pope Joan first pop up in the 13th century in writings about a Dominican Friar named Jean De Mailly. The legend of Pope Joan circulated around Europe for centuries, and Pope Joan was often regarded as one of the most brilliant women in history. However, many historians have failed to find true documentation of her existence, and believe the stories about her were satirical and based on the life of Pope John XI. Additionally, in 1601 Pope Clement VIII officially claimed the stories about the female Pope were untrue.
King SolomonPrint Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
While King Solomon is often regarded as a Biblical legend and one of the richest men in the ancient world, historians, archaeologists, and religious figures are constantly debating whether he was real or not. Records of Solomon's existence are basically void aside from those mentioned in the Bible, but many religious leaders and Bible "truthers" claim he was 100 percent real. Many scholars waver on that fact, however, especially considering the fact that there is little information about the time he would've been alive anyway.
King ArthurArchive Photos/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Most are aware of King Arthur's legend as a monarch who ruled over Camelot and defended his country from attacks during the 5th and 6th centuries. However, in the remaining documents that describe the 12 battles that took place in Camelot, not a single one mentions King Arthur. Although he was supposedly a great war hero during the era, tales of him don't pop up until the 9th century. In modern times, he's depicted as a gallant knight, but many historians believe this modern depiction of him is totally made up and stems from tales like "Le Morte d'Arthur" by Sir Thomas.
PythagorasDea / G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images
While everyone seems to have a distant memory of learning about the Pythagorean Theorem in high school mathematics, current high school students would likely be delighted to learn that historians are now unsure whether Pythagoras truly existed or not. According to legend, Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived during the 5th and 6th centuries BC. Although Pythagoras had many devoted followers who passed on his theories over the years, there is no official documentation of his existence. Some stories about him involve him having legs made of gold and being the son of the god Apollo, and seem to suggest he was actually a myth developed by a religious sect. Additionally, the Egyptians are actually the true scholars who likely came up with his famous formula.
Uncle SamMpi/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Nothing says "America" quite like Uncle Sam. He was the iconic face of World War I, and was the driving force behind the military's campaign to get American men to enlist in the war. Although Uncle Sam is a huge symbol of patriotism in the U.S., he is totally made up and the character wasn't even based on a real person. Political cartoonist JM Flagg created the character and used his own face as the model for Uncle Sam's iconic look. Additionally, Flagg got the idea for the drawing from British recruitment posters that used the real Lord Kitchener. That means, of course, Uncle wasn't real and he really wasn't even that original. How's that for an American dream buster?
Robin HoodHulton Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images
Everyone knows one thing about Robin Hood—he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. However, what most people don't know is that Robin Hood was likely a totally made up character. Robin Hood first appeared in stories from the 14th century, where he was depicted as criminal that led a gang of bandits. Although many historians and literary scholars have tried to figure out whether he was based on a real person or not, there is no clear evidence that was anything but a figment of writer Sherwood Forest's imagination.
Oh, Betty Crocker. Everyone knows her as the lovable mother and housewife whose picture is always featured on the box of America's favorite baked good mixes. But, as it turns out, she is a totally fictional creation drummed up by an ingenious advertising employee at the Washburn-Crosby Company. The Washburn-Crosby Company, which later became General Mills, created Betty Crocker in order to market their flour. Originally, they created an ad with a puzzle, and invited people to write in with the answer to receive a prize. In response, they received several letters with answers to the puzzle in addition to general baking questions. So, the company decided to create a fictional woman who could answer the questions and be the recipients "kitchen confidante." Over time, she became a household name and Fortune magazine named her the most popular woman in America in 1945.
Perhaps the only mystery larger than those solved by the famous fictional detective Nancy Drew, is the real life mystery of author Carolyn Keene's true identity. For over 80 years, Carolyn Keene has been credited with publishing stories about the wildly popular strawberry blonde detective, but she doesn't actually exist. Ghostwriters wrote all of the Nancy Drew books, and the original creator of the series was writer and publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Apparently, Stratemeyer had so many great ideas for books he decided to contract them out and bundle them into a cohesive series; the very first "Carolyn Keene" was a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson—she was the one who wrote the first Nancy Drew book, "The Secret of the Old Clock."
Every so often movie buffs and film critics ban together in a general hatred for those who are willing to sell out to studios and offer up great movie reviews in exchange for studio perks. One such sell out was a man named David Manning, who claimed generally hated movies like "Hollow Man" and "The Animal" were "stupendous!" Over time, Manning became known as one of the work film critics in America, but likely didn't care as he raked in checks, free wine, and fancy dinners from production studios. However, over time, it leaked out that Manning wasn't even a real person; he was actually created by a marketing executive at Sony who used him to provide positive reviews for Columbia Pictures. Ultimately, the whole confusion led to two movie buffs in California suing the studio for $1.5 million claiming the critic convinced them to go see bad movies.
It seems as though when great journalists get bored, one of their favorite things to do is make people up. As was the case with Sidd Finch, who journalist George Plimpton created in 1985. Plimpton made a name for himself with big publicity stunts; he once tried out for the Detroit Lions and on another occasion sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson. However, on Aprils Fools Day in 1985, he took things to the next level when he wrote an article about baseball's next big star, Hayden "Sidd" Finch. He claimed Finch was a total genius yet unknown pitcher who could throw 168 mph. After the article was published, Sports Illustrated received over 2,000 letters about the story, and Finch was "forced" into retirement as Plimpton admitted the whole thing was a hoax.
Tony CliftonWally On The Web
Occasionally, a hoax comes along that is so bizarre it just had to have been created by a comedian. Such was the case with the fictitious character Tony Clifton, a washed up alcoholic lounge singer created by comedian Andy Kaufman. Clifton was known for showing up to gigs drunk, and usually made a fool of himself by forgetting his lyrics on stage. Clifton appeared on shows like The Tonight Show with David Letterman and Dinah Shore's talk show, and once people started to expose the hoax Kaufman desperately tried to keep the illusion going by hiring his brother to play the character.
Although Alan Smithee is known as one of Hollywood's greatest directors, he's not actually a real person. Smithee is credited with films, cartoons, television shows, and music videos, but doesn't really exist. In fact, Don Siegel created Smithee in 1968, after he directed the film "Death Of A Gunfighter." Smithee was credited for directing the film because Siegel felt the film was so compromised he wasn't able to carry out his original vision, and didn't want to include the film in his repertoire. Since then, the pseudonym has been used every time the direct feels their work has been compromised, and Smithee holds 73 directorial credits including episodes of "The Cosby Show" and the terrible movie "Hellraiser: Bloodline and Solar Crisis."
It's no secret that Hollywood is the place to be if you want to become famous for absolutely nothing, but journalist Martha Sherrill took that idea to the next level when she created a fictional actress Allegra Coleman, and plastered her on the cover of Esquire Magazine. Sherrill created a fake interview with Coleman where they gossiped about the latest and greatest stars in Hollywood, talked about an alleged sex tape, and discussed the details surrounding Coleman's most recent affair with David Schwimmer. Sherrill framed Coleman as America's "Next Dream Girl," and even after she exposed the hoax, advertising agencies still called her hoping to put the actress on the cover of their magazines.