There are a lot of famous historical figures that we assume were one person – one solitary individual who changed the world and found immortality in the popular culture through historical myths and legends. Many of these famous people, however, were probably more than one person, if they were real at all. William Shakespeare is one of these often-cited, legendarily prolific creators who scholars have reason to believe (and debate) could’ve been more than one person; in fact, the list of people who could have been Shakespeare is a decently long one.
When it comes to historical narratives, it’s oftentimes more satisfying (and less mentally exhausting) to be able to attach a wide range of daring and amazing feats – or a prolific body of work – to a single individual. These are the people that then inspire generations through their seemingly superhuman ability to create and lead; they provide inspirational models to which few can compare. However, they also sometimes create unnecessarily impossible standards, and they can even become ideologically and politically malevolent – like some of the myths about the founding of America have become. Is it possible that history has produced ridiculously amazing individuals who have been capable of the work of 10 people? Certainly. Have some historical figures been exaggerated in the centuries since their passing? Undoubtedly. Here’s to the people behind the single person history has remembered.
The real identity of 19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper remains a mystery. What is known is that a killer dubbed Jack the Ripper for his particular murder style killed five prostitutes in London in August and September of 1888. His serial killer ways caused panic and confusion in London, but the murderer was never found. There has been a lot of speculation as to the who the real Jack the Ripper was, but no decisive identification has ever been made. And some believe Jack the Ripper was probably more like Jack the Rippers. As recently as 2009, historian Andrew Cook claimed that the killing styles were different with respect to some of the victims, indicating that they could not have been committed by the same man. Does it make it better to think that this could have been the work of multiple individuals?
The significant religious and historical figure Moses was probably numerous people whose collective actions resulted in the creation of the legendary prophet Moses of numerous belief systems. The Moses of legend was born to a Hebrew mother in Egypt and sent down the Nile after the pharaoh proclaimed that all male babies should be killed. He was found and raised by the pharaoh’s wife, and, after killing a man, he was forced to flee Egypt. During this period of exile, Moses heard the word of God instruct him to return to Egypt and rescue his Hebrew brethren. Moses did return, led the Israelites out of Egypt, received the Ten Commandments along the way, and later died wandering in the desert looking for the Promised Land.
In reality, the events of the Moses legend stretch across thousands of years. Numerous historical figures and mythical tales have been linked to the figure, including aspects of Sargon of Akkad and Mesha of Moab.
To say that William Shakespeare didn’t write all of his own works is akin to heresy in certain circles but, generally speaking, there’s a pretty big contingent out there that believe numerous men contributed to the Bard’s oeuvre. Not much is known about Shakespeare’s early life, nor is there solid evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship. Theories that his works were written by Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Christopher Marlowe, among others, have been put forward for various reasons. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare’s writing style was similar to Bacon; others suggested that Shakespeare took credit for Marlowe’s works after the latter faked his own death. Even Mark Twain weighed in, once saying: “So far as anybody knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”
9th-century Viking Ragnar Lothbrok may have been one person, but the Ragnar that is presented in the Viking sagas and the History TV series Vikings is probably an amalgamation of several Viking warlords. Lothbrok (or Lodbrok/Ladbrok), a nickname rather than a surname, means “hairy breeches” and was given to Ragnar due to the pants he wore while successfully fighting a poisonous snake, dragon, or serpent.
In medieval texts, Ragnar is portrayed similarly to all raiding, troublesome, violent Vikings, so it is difficult to know if he functions as a placeholder for those actions or actually stood out among the larger Viking menace. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (also written by several different people) recounts how Ragnar Ladbrok and his sons raided England throughout the 9th and 10th centuries. French sources connect Ragnar with Regenheri, a Viking that sacked Paris and killed over 100 Christians, as well as with a Danish king that constantly raided France with his sons.
Questions as to whether or not the ancient Greek poet Homer lived are centered around a lack of biographical information. Even if Homer did live as a blind poet in 8th- or 7th-century BCE Greece, he probably wasn’t the sole author of the works that are attributed to him. The Iliad and the Odyssey were most likely written by numerous poets over time as they collected long-told oral tales and transitioned them into narrative form. The differences in the works as well as the events they portray make it difficult to attribute either to a single author, much less both to one man. Homer may have compiled the collection, but there is no evidence of that either.
The myth and legend surrounding King Arthur complicate any ability to identify who he was, if he existed at all. King Arthur is associated with Sub-Roman Britain – 5th and 6th century CE – and may have been one or several men who repelled Saxon attacks on the island.
Some historians have associated the origins of Arthur with Riothamus or Riatham, a Breton leader who had been exiled to Britain and then fought against the Saxons. Others have identified him as Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman commander in 5th-century Britain. Ambrosius fought against the great Vortigern at the battle of Mons Badonicus. Ambrosius is later called the grandfather, brother, son, or father of King Arthur by various writers. The legend of Arthur, however, was taken up throughout history by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory. While the identity of the true King Arthur will never be known, he really did come to be more than one person – representing British resistance to the Saxons, chivalric love and duty, and an enduring pop cultural fascination.
Robin Hood robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, and stood up to unjust authorities like the Sheriff of Notthingham, right? But who was he?
The identity of Robin Hood is veiled in legend and myth, and there have been attempts to find the “real” Robin Hood since the 13th century. Names such as “Robehod” and “Robunhod” appear in English legal records, indicating that there may have been a man or several by these names. Soon after their appearance, however, the terms were used as a contemptuous way to indicate men who were outlaws when an actual name was not known. Robin Hood had become a literary figure by the 14th and 15th centuries when he begins appearing in ballads and plays as a social bandit hero representing justice and resisting oppression while living on the fringes of society. Again, there may have been a real Robin Hood, but the Robin Hood of lore is made up of countless individuals.
There Were Numerous John Henrys In The Late 19th Century
“Steel-driving man” John Henry was probably a real person, but, as his story developed over time, he became several people. There are several theories as to who the real John Henry was and whether or not he really out-dug a steam-powered hammer, a contest that resulted in his death. Some historians believe that John Henry lived in West Virginia, and he died while digging the Big Bend Tunnel. Others believe that John Henry was actually an Alabaman who died while digging the Coosa Mountain Tunnel, and still others place him in Virginia digging the Lewis Tunnel on a work-release program from prison. The collective John Henry is located in post-Civil War America and represents a hero to workers, African Americans, and champions of diversity and social tolerance.
Betty Crocker Was A Bunch Of People Turned Into An Icon
If you thought Betty Crocker was one person – or even existed – that is not the case. Betty Crocker was the 1920s construct of Washburn-Crosby Company (the precursor to General Mills) as they sought to respond to customer letters, questions, and comments. When the concept of Betty Crocker began, numerous women contributed their signatures and voices to Washburn-Crosby’s print and radio campaigns. During World War II and the Cold War era, Betty Crocker was the “first lady of food” – as well known as the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. The Betty Crocker Cookbook was first published in 1950, and the name continues to appear on items throughout your local grocery store aisles.
Carolyn Keene, the well-known author of the many, many Nancy Drew young-adult mystery novels, was a creation of publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Several authors wrote multiple books – Mildred Wirt Benson for example – but due to a secrecy agreement, she was never allowed to take credit for the work. She has since been given public recognition for the Nancy Drew mystery series, an oeuvre that contains over 500 books.
8th- or 7th-century BCE Spartan lawgiver Lycyrgus was probably several men who created the militaristic legal and social structure that was Sparta. Because there is no clear evidence that Lycyrgus ever actually lived, scholars speculate that Sparta may have wanted to submit their lifestyle to the guidance of a god-like figure, namely Lycyrgus. Lycyrugus was said to be the descendent of Herculesand of royal blood. When Lycyrugus returned to Sparta after time away, he found the city-state to be in a state of disrepair lawlessness. He consulted with the Oracle of Delphi, where he was told that the gods would support whatever he did to bring about stability to Sparta.
You may have more than one person to curse at the next time you calculate the sides of a right triangle with the Pythagorean Theorem. Pythagoras did exist according to Greek sources, including Plato and Aristotle, but most of his achievements in mathematics are attributed to the Pythagoreans, not the man himself. Pythagoras lived in 6th- and 5th-century BCE Greece, born on the island of Samos and later setting up a school at Croton in Italy. Very little is known about his intellectual background and teachings, but numerous mathematical as well as musical, medicinal, and astronomical discoveries are credited to Pythagoras.
Ned Ludd Was The Myth Behind A Movement
Ned Ludd, hero to Luddites since the Industrial Revolution, was either Edward Ludlam, a man named Ludnam, or a blending of the two. Ned Ludd challenged the rise of machines during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and supposedly destroyed two weaving machines out of contempt for the changing industrial scene. As more and more mechanical looms and frames transitioned textile production to a factory setting, concern for jobs, wages, and livelihood found representation in the actions of the defiant Ludd. To this day, “Luddite” is thrown around as a term for someone who challenges or openly rejects technological change.
During World War II, the name Tokyo Rose was used for any and all English-speaking female broadcasters spouting Japanese propaganda. The best-known Tokyo Rose is Iva Toguri D’Aquino, but the name was a general term. D’Aquino was actually American born but went to Japan in early 1941 to visit family. She wasn’t allowed to leave after Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese put her to work in front of a microphone. She was held by the US government for a time, but they couldn’t find evidence of treason until 1949 when she was convicted of eight counts. She spent almost 30 years in prison before being pardoned in 1977.
Using a ghostwriter has been common practice for finishing works after an author dies or when publishers wish to seize upon a well-known name – like Tom Clancy. Clancy wrote his early works, but, since books like The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Red Storm Rising became video games, board games, television shows, and movies, the co-writing and ghost-writing market on his written works outpaced the ability of any human being. In addition to that, Clancy died in 2013, yet he continues to produce media content.