History is full of famous individuals, each distinguished by their legendary deeds and great works, destined to survive eternally in the sagas of their people in reward for their accomplishments in life. However, as a result of confusion, lost histories, mistaken identities, or sometimes the simple desire to tell a better story, these great individuals are sometimes conflated into untrue and fanciful adaptations of their lives whilst the real stories and people behind the legends become undeservedly forgotten to popular memory.
From Moses to Betty Crocker, here are 18 famous individuals from history who probably, if not certainly, were actually more than one person:
18. King Arthur most likely was not a single legendary warrior responsible for slaying thousands of invading Anglo-Saxons, but instead a composite of several leading Britons across many centuries
King Arthur was a legendary British ruler who, during the sub-Roman period, allegedly led the defense of Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders. Traditionally believed to have existed during the late-5th and early-6th centuries CE, although some interpretations place him earlier around the time of the Roman Empire’s Third Century Crisis, King Arthur was first mentioned in the Historia Brittonum: a 9th century Latin history broadly attributed to Welsh cleric Nennius; in the ancient manuscript, King Arthur is detailed as fighting in a series of twelves battles against the invaders culminating in the Battle of Baden, believed to have occurred sometime in the early-mid 6th century, in which he supposedly single-handedly. slew 960 men.
Later embellished by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138), the first narrative account of Arthur’s life, the warrior-king moves from being merely legend into the realms of fantasy. Placing Arthur in the same time period as the Historia, Monmouth introduced the magician Merlin, popularized the notion of the Arthurian order of knights, and records Arthur dying alongside Mordred before ascending to Avalon; Monmouth’s account was subsequently revised by Robert de Boron in his epic poem Merlin (c. late-12th or early-13th century CE) for further mythical embellishment, including the addition of the “sword in the stone” elements of the Arthurian legend.
Despite over a millennia of historical writings on the individual known as King Arthur, including a time in which the confidence in his existence was sufficiently strong that the sub-Roman period was colloquially known as “The Age of Arthur”, it remains highly questionable whether such a person ever actually existed; today, the historical consensus has coalesced around the opinion that “one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur but the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him”. Other historians have gone even further, with Norwell Myres claiming that “no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian’s time.
With the earliest accounts of the Battle of Baden, notably the 6th century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, absent of any mention of an Arthurian figure, historical investigation has shifted to parallels in the legend with other known individuals and whether an intentional or accidental conflation occurred. Spanning a range of heroic 5th century Britons, including King Riothamus and Ambrosius Aurelianus, in addition to earlier figures such as Roman military commander Lucius Artorius Castus, the historical opinion is now that if such a figure did indeed exist that he was most likely more than one person.
17. Lao “Laozi” Dan, the founder of Taoism and one of the great ancient Chinese philosophers, was most probably multiple people
Laozi, also known as Lao-Tzu or Lao-Dan, was an ancient and deified Chinese philosopher and the supposed author of the Tao Te Ching: the classic and fundamental text of Taoism, dating from the 4th century BCE, and a great influence upon the developments of the philosophies of Legalism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
Although originally believed to have been a single individual, even being worshiped under the deified title of “Supreme Old Lord” as one of the “Three Pure Ones”, by the mid-twentieth century historical assessment shifted towards increased skepticism of his authenticity; instead of the work of one individual, the consensus now views the Tao Te Ching as a “compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands”.
The genesis of this doubt began with attempts to identify Laozi within the historical record, with his earliest depictions, dating from the 1st century BCE, representing him as either “Li Dan” – a contemporary of Confucius during the 6th or 5th century BCE – or as a different philosopher of the same age named Lao Laizi; a third ancient source asserts Laozi was the court astrologer of Duke Xian of the Qin Dynasty during the 4th century BCE, whilst other later accounts place the philosopher as Keeper of the Archives during the time of the Yellow Emperor (c. 4th century BCE).
This confusion over the true identity of Laozi and the time period he inhabited, in conjunction with the Taoist belief that Laozi lived to the age of 990, has supported the academic opinion that the works attributed to him were not the product of one mind. This finding is supported by linguistic analysis of the oldest discovered extracts of the Tao Te Ching, dated to the 4th century BCE, in addition to subsequent surviving early versions across the following centuries, wherein the language used and the style of writing strongly suggests multiple authors; this close inspection has increased speculation that the ancient text was “a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands”, with several individuals gradually making additions over a prolonged period of time and merely attributing their ideas to a centralized figurehead called “Laozi” – itself an honorific ancient Chinese title meaning “old venerable master”.
16. Tokyo Rose, despite commonly identified as Iva Toguri D’Aquino, was actually a symbolic name for all of the female English-speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda during World War II
“Tokyo Rose” was the name popularly given by Allied troops fighting in the South Pacific to the female English-speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda during World War II, with the term first appearing in U.S. newspapers in 1943 and entering mainstream American usage thereafter. Emphasizing and exaggerating the hardships faced by troops, including focusing on the supposed terrible conditions of their loved ones back in America, these broadcasts were designed to demoralize the Allies as a form of psychological warfare; in actuality these radio broadcasts were dismally unsuccessful, with studies finding that less than 10% of listeners felt “demoralized” by them and 84% of the men listening did so because they found it “good entertainment”.
Although originally merely a catch-all representation of these women and a symbol of Japanese villainy during the conflict, often depicted in American cartoons and films as highly sexualized and manipulative, in September 1945 the moniker became indelibly attached within popular imagination to one individual: American-born Japanese Iva Toguri D’Aquino. Visiting Japan during the time of Pearl Habor, Toguri was ordered by the Japanese authorities to renounce her American citizenship; upon her refusal to do so she was labeled an enemy of the state and declared a prisoner of war. As part of her imprisonment, Toguri was forced to broadcast and eventually became a host on the Japanese show “The Zero Hour”, making a total of 340 known appearances on the program. However, working with her producer, Australian Army Major Charles Cousens, Toguri never actually delivered any anti-American propaganda on air, instead deliberately making a farce of her broadcasts by employing linguistic nuances and double entendres undetected by the poor language skills of the Japanese propaganda ministry.
In spite of this courageous loyalty to her country, her attempt to return to the United States in September 1945 provoked a public outcry. In desperate need of money to finance her repatriation, Toguri accepted a fake offer of $2,000 for an exclusive interview with “Tokyo Rose”; instead of payment, she was arrested and her statements were broadcast as a confession. Released a year later after the FBI found insufficient evidence to convict, with several prisoners of war submitting testimony in her defense, popular radio host Walter Winchell launched a witch-hunt her against her resulting in the rearrest of Toguri in September 1948 whereupon she was charged with treason on the grounds of “giving aid and comfort to the Imperial Government of Japan”.
The longest and most costly trial in American history at the time, Toguri became only the seventh person to be convicted of treason in the United States; she was released in 1956 after serving six years in prison, before eventually being pardoned in 1976 after it was revealed two of the key prosecuting witnesses had perjured themselves at her trial.
15. A central early figure of the Abrahamic religions, Moses, if he existed at all, was likely a composition of several religious leaders throughout the history of the Israelites
Moses was a legendary figure of ancient history and a prophet in the Abrahamic religious tradition, traditionally thought to have existed during the 2nd century BCE. Sent down the Nile River by his mother in a reed basket for safety, the biblical narrative of Moses asserts he was adopted by an Egyptian princess before encountering God in the form of a burning bush; becoming the leader of the Israelites and precipitating their exodus from historic slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs, Moses is also credited with the creation of the Ten Commandments – the core religious principles of the Abrahamic faith – as well as the Torah within Judaism, before dying after 40 years of wandering the desert in sight of the “Promised Land”.
In spite of the centrality of Moses to the Abrahamic biblical narrative modern historical opinion considers the prophetic to not be historically genuine, with scholars split between ascribing an entirely legendary status or that he is the conflation of several individuals across a prolonged period of time. Not mentioned personally until the period of the Babylonian exile during the mid-1st millennium BCE, over a thousand years after the presumed date of the Exodus, there is no corroborating archaeological or historical evidence of Moses – itself meaning simply “man of” in many ancient languages – beyond the bible depicting his specific actions or the wider events of Exodus and Deuteronomy; as a result, many historians have disregarded the figure in his entirety as a fiction, along with the traditional biblical history of the Israelites, dismissing them both as part of a broadly untrue origin narrative.
An alternative theory is that Moses was a composite character created as a substitute vessel for several historic individuals as a unifying figurehead of the Israelites during this period of uncertainty and turmoil, employing the characteristics and storytelling motifs common in the Sinai region at this time. Among these include Sargon of Akkad, who according to legend was set in “a basket of rushes” by his mother and cast into a river, the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenmose, and King Mesha of Moab, who allegedly rebelled against oppression and led his people to safety during an “infernal Passover that delivers Mesha while wrath burns against his enemies”.
14. Carolyn Keene, the author of The Dana Girls and Nancy Drew series of mystery books, was a pseudonym created by the publishers Stratemeyer Syndicate to sell more copies
Carolyn Keene, the listed author of The Dana Girls and Nancy Drew mystery stories published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, was actually a pseudonym designed to encourage sales and maintain ownership of the intellectual copyright of the characters. Secrecy was maintained with impressive efficiency, including in 1933 when Walter Karig, author of Nancy Drew novels 8-10, sought to legally claim artistic rights over his work; the Syndicate successfully instructed, through unknown means, the Library of Congress to refute his allegations and to not reveal the true names of any of the series’ authors.
Nancy Drew was created in the late-1920s by publisher Edward Stratemeyer in response to the popularity of The Hardy Boys, another creation of his; although believing a woman’s place was at home, Stratemeyer recognized the opportunity to capitalize from a strong female character appealing to the emerging feminist trends of the day. Providing plot outlines and character details, ghostwriters were paid a fee of $125 per completed novel, reduced to $75 during the Great Depression, and required to legally renounce all rights to the work and maintain strict confidentiality. At least thirteen separate authors penned a total of 78 stories involving Nancy under Keene’s alleged authorship between 1930 and 1985; most notable among these are Mildred Wirt Benson, writing novels 1-7 and 11 through 25, and Harriet Adams, Stratemeyer’s daughter, who authored 25 novels including all those published between 1959-1979. The truth was finally revealed in the 1980s, when in an attempt to change publishers Adams claimed she was the original creator and author; in response, Benson was called to testify regarding her earlier role and function to contradict Adam’s claim to ownership.
13. Kunta Kinte, the famous African slave depicted in the iconic Roots television series, most likely did not exist, but instead is an accurate composite reflection of the mass suffering and experiences of African slaves in America
Kunta Kinte, according to American author Alex Haley, was a Gambian man born in 1750 who was enslaved and transported to Ameria where he died in 1822. Claiming Kinte to be his great, great, great, great-grandfather, Haley authored the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, telling the story of his ancestors in the Americas, and which was subsequently adapted into a T.V. miniseries in 1977; described as a watershed moment in American understanding of the history of African slavery by CNN, Kunta Kinte has since become an icon of African heritage worldwide.
However, although Kinte’s supposed birthplace has become a tourist attraction it is widely suspected that Kinte himself did not exist, or at least not in the form described by Haley. Cited as the sole primary source for his family’s history, Haley employed the services of a Gambian “griot” – the West African equivalent of a historian under the oral tradition – named Kebba Kanga Fofana, who claimed to know the history of the Kinte clan. Subsequent journalistic investigations of Fofana revealed the man to be a fraud, changing crucial details including key events, names, and places in addition to misplacing other key figures from history in the wrong generations. In a scientific test of Fofana’s alleged knowledge of the local peoples, it was determined that West African griots were typically unable to provide reliable genealogical information before the mid-19th century; the singular exception to this was Kunta Kinte, suggesting that Halsey had spread his story sufficiently far that during his research that he was actually receiving his own fictional story back to him and believing it to be true.
Furthermore, despite Fofana claiming that “about the time the king’s soldiers came, the eldest of these four sons, Kunta, went away from the village to chop wood and was never seen again”, at the time Kinte was allegedly enslaved his village was already a British trading post where Gambians worked alongside slavers to capture other Africans for transportation; if anything, an individual such as Kinte in the Gambia at the time suggested was far more likely to have been a slaver than a slave.
Despite this, one should not be too quick to dismiss the culturally significant saga as fictional. Instead, the stories and lives depicted, including that of Kunta Kinte, should be regarded as composites, reflecting the suffering and experiences of countless unknown and unnamed African slaves and, even if unintentionally, for the purposes of narrative encapsulated into one unfortunate individual and his family.
12. Ned Ludd, the supposed leader of the Luddite movement opposed to the automation of the textile industry in the early-19th century, was most likely a fictitious physical embodiment of the movement’s ideology
Ned Ludd, often believed to have been born Edward Ludlam, was an alleged political activist and the supposed leader of the Luddite movement in early-1800s England. The Luddites, so-named after Ludd, were a group of English textile workers opposed to the introduction of machinery to their industry; fearing mechanization and automation would result in the eradication of their skilled jobs, in addition to a resultant decline in labor practices in the aftermath of said introductions, the Luddites engaged in a practice of civil disobedience and vandalism by destroying the new machinery. Originating in Nottingham, the movement expanded into a region-wide rebellion between 1811-1816 before being suppressed by the military and its leaders killed or imprisoned.
Popularly considered the original Luddite, Ludd allegedly broke two stocking frames in Anstey, near Leicester, in 1779 in a “fit of passion” after having been whipped for idleness; a version of this story was later widely circulated in John Blackner’s History of Nottingham (1811), but there is no independent corroboration of this event or of Ludd himself in any official records. When Luddite attacks began in the early-1800s the damages were initially facetiously blamed on Ned Ludd by their employees, and after the emergence of an organized movement in 1812 Ludd emerged as the supposed leader of the movement; possessing various nicknames, including Captain Ludd, King Ludd, or General Ludd, this mythical individual was popularly regarded as the founder and head of the movement bearing his name.
Although Ludd’s identity was most likely appropriated by the Luddite movement as a known figure in local folklore to attract sympathy and support, if indeed he ever existed, countless unknown individuals matching his story did exist and in sufficient numbers to require the deployment of 12,000 troops to quell their insurrection.
11. Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, most probably did not author the legendary treatise, instead being cumulatively written by multiple people over many centuries
Sun Tzu, conventionally thought to have been born in the mid-6th century BCE in the ancient Chinese states of Qi or Wu, was a Chinese general, military strategist, and alleged author of The Art of War: an influential treatise on the nature of warfare that has remained relevant to the modern-day; in fact, it can be found on the required reading lists of many leading business schools and reappeared on bestsellers lists in 2001. Written on sewn-together bamboos slats and detailing the strategic principles of war, early versions of the foundational military text were proliferated across the Far East, with copies known to have existed in Japan by the 8th century CE, to become one of the most famous writings of ancient China.
Despite this enduring appeal, since the 12th century CE,¶ the question of authorship has been explored and the predominant historical opinion now regarding Sun Tzu as a legendary figure. The absence of Sun Tzu in the Zuo Zhuan – a census list of the notable figures from the Spring and Autumn period – or the Records of the Grand Historian is significant, as is the lack of contextual historical information concerning the allegedly important general; additionally, there is no independent corroborating evidence of his person, including at battles he is alleged to have been present for, with all known references to him derived or relating to his iconic treatise.
Furthermore, linguistic assessments of the text of The Art of War has yielded several possible anachronisms in the ancient work; among these, references to technology and terms not present at the time of writing, such as crossbows, in addition to no records of professional generals as described existing in China until the Warring States period. This strongly suggests that either the treatise was written much later than the time attributed to Sun Tzu, or that it was gradually compiled as the strategic wisdom of multiple generations of Chinese generals. The discovery of bamboo slips in a tomb in Shandong Province in 1972 supports the latter theory, with the unearthed writings attributed to “Sunzi” and “Sun Bin” and dated to between 134-118 BCE; with two overlapping writings both attributed to a “Sun”, it has been asserted that the treatise might be “a single, continuously developing intellectual tradition united under the Sun name”.
10. John Henry, an African American who allegedly worked as a “steel-driving man” in the late-1800s, was likely an amalgamation of several individuals with similar stories
John Henry, believed to have existed at some point during the late 19th century, was an African-American who appeared in classic American folk songs known colloquially as “The Ballad of John Henry”; possessing an upbeat tempo, the song is typically divided into four sections: a childhood premonition, a legendary race against a steam-hammer, his death, and the fate of his wife. According to folk tradition Henry was a “steel-driving man”, a manual laborer responsible for hammering a drill into rock to make holes for blasting explosives during the construction of railroad tunnels; so great was he at his job that according to his legend Henry won a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, before suddenly dying with his hammer in his hand from a heart attack.
Despite the enduring popularity of John Henry within American folk culture, there is a distinct lack of evidence for the existence of any such person with this particular story and personal description. Several locations have been suggested by historians as the sites of Henry’s untimely death, including Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, constructed between 1870-1872 and mentioned in several early versions of the eponymous ballad, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel, Alabama, constructed during the 1880s; in both instances witnesses claim to have heard from other people present regarding the legendary race, but none found who were personally observers.
The most convincing account is that of Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, proposed by Scott Reynolds Nelson in 2006. Identifying an individual by the name of John William Henry who was arrested for burglary in the 1870s, Nelson speculated that Henry was a prisoner licensed out for work as leased labor for the C&O Railway Company wherein died due to the stresses of the job; due to the lack of documentation for prisoners in such programs, with records for John William Henry ending abruptly in 1873, in conjunction with his low social class, Nelson contends this Henry was responsible for setting the spark to the legend.
It is most likely that the case of John Henry is a perfect example of circular reporting, wherein people hearing of the story of John Henry and experiencing or knowing of similar circumstances to that described psychologically associated with and adopted the individual as their own; as a result whilst the John Henry of legend most probably did not exist, it is extremely likely many like him did.