William Weir is very clever. He has given his book "History's Greatest Lies" a very intriguing title. He doesn't use the term "myth" on the cover, since that is not "sexy" enough. He uses the very strong word, "lies," and he throws it up there in a huge font. I'll admit, I was hooked by the title. I have an amateur interest in history, and I'm always fascinated by learning that well-known details about historical events I've always taken for granted as truth, are in fact completely wrong. It is a great for conversation when you can inform people that no, witches were never burned in Salem in the 17th century (they were all hanged), Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb (22 other men had patents for "incandescent lamps" prior to this), and Eve did not necessarily eat an apple (it is only referred to as "fruit" in the bible). As I said, these kinds of details fascinate me, so I assumed "Lies" would be right up my alley.
The book is very well produced. It is paperback, but uses high quality card thick paper, with nice illustrations, and a heavy fold out cover. It is divided into 15 chapters (Amazon's description incorrectly states 15-30 chapters). Each begins with 4-5 paragraph introduction, followed by a text box which displays the "lie" (referred to as a "myth" in the book), and below that a short summary of why the "lie" is incorrect. The chapter index doesn't really explain what are the specific myths, so I will list them verbatim below
1. The Emperor Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned.
2. Ramesses II alone defeated the Hittite Army in the Battle of Kadesh.
3. The Goths were hairy, grunting savages whose sole existence revolved around destroying whatever lay in their path, including the Roman Empire.
4. The perseverance of a little spider inspired Robert the Bruce to emerge from his hideout and defeat the invading English in the War for Scottish Independence.
5. Hernán Cortés was a monster responsible for the massacre that followed the Fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital.
6. The physicist Galileo was condemned and imprisoned by the Roman Catholic Church because his work conflicted with the teachings of the Bible.
7. During his midnight ride in 1775, Paul Revere warned the local militia in Massachusetts of the coming of the British.
8. The Bastille was a bastion of torture, evil, and political oppression, where innocent citizens were held by the tyrant Louis XVI.
9. Jesse James was an American version of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
10. Lawman Wyatt Earp and his friends wiped out the Clanton-McLaury Gang of cattle rustlers who had been terrorizing the town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881.
11. The Phillipine War of 1899-1902 was an insurrection, and the United States' enemies were the savage "unstoppable" Muslims called Moros.
12. The "Protocols" Outline a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.
13. Lewis Harold Bell "Harry" Lasseter claimed he found a fabulous reef of gold while lost in the Australian Outback in 1897. He was never able to relocate the reef. No one has ever found the gold, though many have tried.
14. Notorious gangster John Dillinger was shot and killed outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934.
15. Afghanistan has always been a county impossible to conquer.
I wish I had had this list before ordering the book, because if I could see the subject matter, I might not be as apt to purchase it. In my opinion, very few of these have I ever even heard of, and even fewer am I actually interested in. I have a decent knowledge of history, but I'm fairly young, and I would consider my knowledge of world history maybe slightly higher than the average American's. I don't find half of these events noteworthy. A good 25% of them are not even really myths, and probably 20% of Mr. Weir's "truths" are not even facts, but opinions. For instance:
4. This sounds like a children's tale. Since I'm not European, I have never heard of this tale regarding Robert the Bruce, but upon hearing it, it sounds the same as the old "Washington chopped down a cherry tree" myth. I doubt many people in Scotland really believe this actually happened.
5. I know who Cortés was, but I have never heard of the Fall of Tenochtitlán before.
6. Weir states that the "reality" was that Galileo's trial for heresy was the culmination of a campaign to discredit him by his enemies and inflamed by Galileo's own hubris. Well sure, maybe that's the culmination of his trial, but it doesn't change the fact that he was still imprisoned for heresy.
7. Weir's reality regarding Paul Revere is that "before Revere was able to warn the militia, he was captured by the British." Okay, I never knew that. It still doesn't change the FACT that Paul Revere DID warn the local Massachusetts militia of a British invasion. That is not a "myth," as Weir claims. It is interesting that Revere was one of several riders, and there are much more to the details of his ride than most people probably know about, but he did still warn of the British invasion. How is that a "lie?"
9. I don't imagine anyone actually considers Jesse James as "an American Robin Hood." If I stopped 10 people on the street I doubt any of them actually believe that Jesse James gave money to the poor. Where is Weir coming up with these myths?
10. Being a fan of Tombstone, this is maybe one "myth" that Weir convinced me of. However, the only reality that is really noteworthy is that Earp did not "wipe out" the entire gang. They did still kill several rustlers at the OK Corral. The additional details however make this one of the only really interesting facts I will take out of this book and remember.
13. I have never heard of, and don't really care about some Australian guy who claimed to find treasure. I hardly consider that a noteworthy historical event from the last 100 years, much less, "history." How did Weir decide this was one of "history's greatest lies?" Is this huge in Australia or something? I would think El Dorado would be bigger than this.
14. Now this one is just ridiculous and where I stopped reading the book. Weir cites Dillinger's death as the "myth." He states the reality is that "many people no longer believe it was Dillinger who was killed, but a small-time criminal named Jimmy Lawrence." He doesn't even say it WASN'T Dillinger, he says that "many people" believe it wasn't. What kind of stupid reality is that? Unless you are prepared to unequivocally state that Dillinger was not shot, then provide evidence to support this, I do not consider his death to be a "lie."
There is a huge amount of potential with the subject matter for a book entitled "History's Greatest Lies." Unfortunately, Weir picks all of the wrong subjects, and then does an awful job at presenting them. The chapters were too long. Weir starts a chapter with the myth, supposedly debunks it by page 2, then spends the next 10 pages discussing related, but not relevant information. It's like if I used page one to explain that Nero did not actually play a fiddle while Rome burned, then on pages 2-10 said "oh yeah, and here's some other information about Nero and his life, but it doesn't really have much to do with the actual myth." You will be much more intrigued by looking up each of these subjects on Wikipedia. This is probably the only instance where I have ever read a book and thought that I could have done a better job writing it. I would suggest any potential readers not be taken in by the title, and perhaps read a sample of the book on Google Books first (they have a large amount of it available). And if you have an interest in American myths, pick up the much better A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (P.S.) instead.