Show Mobile Navigation
Misconceptions |

10 Famous Figures Who May Never Have Really Existed

by George Rumtic
fact checked by Jamie Frater

History is full of fascinating people out of records from the documents of historians like Josephus to the chronicles of explorers like Columbus. However, there are notable cases where the actual existence of some of these people has been questioned and debated. Some of them are still the subject of controversy, and the existence of others has been totally disproven.

10Ned Ludd

In the early 1810s, the wool and cotton industries came under attack from a group known as the Luddites, which protested the introduction of new machines that put hand weavers and other tradespeople out of work. The leader of these riots was said to be General Ned Ludd, who the Luddites claimed lived in Sherwood Forest and organized the uprising.

Quickly, the protests spread from the town of Nottinghamshire to cities like Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Letters in the name of Ludd designed to intimidate employers turned into violent outbursts. Adherents smashed their way into factories, demolished machines, and attacked government soldiers and factory employees.

Upon hearing of the growing dissent caused by the mysterious Ned Ludd, the government sent thousands of troops to the troubled areas. They later prohibited the act of machine-breaking. The punishment: death. In 1813, the state executed 17 men for breaking this law, but the protests continued for another five years.

Only later on was it was accepted that Ludd was probably a mythical figure. The name was used to ensure anonymity and was given to anyone during the 1810s who led a group in a riot.

9Anne Whateley

William Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, his older wife and the mother of his three children, is claimed by some to have been a shotgun marriage of sorts that took place hastily in 1582. Some scholars claim that their marriage was not the best, as Shakespeare wasn’t home a lot and left her only his “second-best bed” in his will after his premature death. Could there have been a rival?

The name of Whateley, who some have speculated was Shakespeare’s planned wife before his marriage to Hathaway, has been found in an Episcopal record at Worcester. The record speaks of a marriage license issued to the two in the village of Temple Grafton. Some writers now believe that Whateley inspired many of the Bard’s literary works, and she was the “dark” lady that he wrote about in many of his verses.

Most now believe that Whateley is actually either a clerical error or an alias for Hathaway. However, the legends of her being Shakespeare’s secret lover, perhaps a nun and possibly the only woman he ever truly loved, continue to excite many.

8Bhai Bala

Much is known about Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, but not as much is known about his supposed lifelong friend and travel partner, Bhai Bala. Claimed to be the child of Chandar Bhan and from the area now known as Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, Bala was three years older than Nanak, and the two played together in their younger years. After they grew up, and Nanak decided to travel abroad from the town of Sultanprur, Bala accompanied him in the life-changing journey.

After the death of the founder of Sikhism, known as the Master to devotees, the next Guru, Angad, allegedly had Bala visit him in the town of Khadur. He asked Bala to relate to him the details of “his journeys far and wide, who heard [Nanak’s] preaching and reflected on it, and who witnessed the many strange events that occurred.”

What Bala told Angad was recorded in the presence of a few Sikhs and written down in the biography that came to be revered as the Bhai Bale Vali Janam Sakhi. Then, at the age of 78, Bhai Bala died, and his purported burial site is marked to this day.

This revered disciple of Nanak, however, has had his existence debated by many, who rightly point out that he is not listed as one of Nanak’s disciples in several historical lists. Other irregularities in his life story and experiences have also been found and analyzed in several Punjabi scholarly works, including the Janamsakhi Tradition.

7John Abercromby

In the historical writings of Thomas Dempster, the Scottish scholar and historian who penned the Historia Gentis Scotorum, we find mention of a Scottish Benedictine monk by the name of John Abercromby. A supposed writer of the Catholic faith, he is said to have authored Veritatis Defensio and Haereseos Confusio, although copies of these cannot be found today.

Due to his disagreement with the ideals and changes brought about by the Reformation in Scotland, and his zealous support of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, he found himself in the midst of a tumultuous uprising, was convicted for his beliefs, and was executed in 1561, one of many Catholic clergy who were the victims of such violence at the time.

However, because Dempster is the only historian who mentioned Abercromby, and Dempster’s historical accuracy has been called into question on several accounts, he is considered by some authorities, including the scholars behind the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as a work of fiction.

6Hengist & Horsa

According to the English historian and theologian Bede, among others, sometime in the fifth century lived a pair of renowned brothers who immigrated to Britain after a direct invitation by Britain’s King Vortigern. Believed to have been Jutes, a powerful Germanic people that lived in the region of what is now Denmark, these claimed sons of Wihtgils were leaders of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. They were thus pulled into the 446–454 war between Vortigern and the predominant tribe of northern Scotland, the Picts.

After allegedly touching down at Ebbsfleet, Kent (a region in the southeast corner of England), the brothers and troops made their way to Aegelsthrep in a battle that took place in 455, where Horsa was slain. The cunning Hengist, however, seized on the opportunity to gain power. That same year, Hengist began to rule in Kent and eventually became a rival to the Britain that he had fought for. His reign ended with his death in 488.

Bede describes a monument being raised to Horsa, the town of Horstead near the place he died may be named after him, and the line of kings from Kent traces its lineage back to Hengist. However, not all historians accept that they were actually historical figures. Contradictory accounts of their lives and their association with many historical myths and legends lead some to believe that they are just part of Anglo-Saxon folklore, and their existence cannot be proved completely.

5Anna Sprengel

To understand where Sprengel fits in to history, you must first understand the Golden Dawn society.

Established in 1887 by three British Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is a mystical group that devotes itself to insight into magic, spirituality, and philosophy. They include Kabbalah, Christianity, and ancient Greek and Egyptian mysticism as part of their belief system, and the circle has produced some of the most definitive studies on divination, alchemy, Hermetic magic, and other supernatural themes. It has influenced many mystical religions to come after it, as well as poets, artists, and scholars.

However, the roots of the Golden Dawn are said to have come even before its three founders. The Freemasons claimed to have obtained a manuscript from beings known as the Secret Chiefs, one of whom was the mysterious Anna Sprengel, whose address was attached to the charter.

However, most historians today believe that Sprengel was a figure made up by the three Brits. The inspiration for the work of fiction was the organizer of the Hermetic Society meetings they had attended in the past, Anna Kingsford. At least one of the Freemasons, Samuel Mathers, is said to have been a good friend of Kingsford and a sympathizer of her women’s rights activism.

4N. Senada

The mystery of who N. Senada is has long puzzled the world of music, and the adherents of his theories are just as bizarre and mysterious as he seems to be.

Senada was allegedly a Bavarian composer, but not much is known about him other than his somewhat peculiar musical theories. One was the Theory of Obscurity, which suggests that artists can only produce fine art when they disregard the influences, prospects, and feedback of the audience. He also speculated, in the Theory of Phonetic Organization, that musicians should, rather than developing the music first, put down the individual sounds and then develop the music from there. He also created music using pieces of the work of other composers in a style that has been called pre-post-modernist.

One of the only mainstream musicians to have apparently met him, Phillip Lithman (or “Snakefinger,” as he was known to audiences), discovered Senada during a visit to the Black Forest in Germany. Accompanying him to California, Senada met the members of the band that would come to be known as The Residents, perhaps the most well-known band that subscribed to his philosophies. They have produced over 60 albums since 1972, although no one knows who they are to this day.

Due to the aura of mystery and oddity surrounding the composer behind it all, it’s no surprise that most do not believe that Senada was a real person. Some believe that he was actually a double for Captain Beefheart, the earthy and strange rocker of the ’70s and ’80s.

3Jazzbo Brown

Jazzbo Brown Blues (Piano Playin’ Jazzbo Brown) by Gershwin

In certain scholarly works, Brown is described as an African-American musician who wandered his way up the Mississippi and ended up in Chicago, where he played in various cabarets. In a song about him by the composer George Brooks, performed in the mid-1920s, he is described as hailing from Memphis, Tennessee. Although he never attended music school and couldn’t sing, dance, or read a note, his horn-playing was absolutely phenomenal.

He’s an American folk legend, usually mentioned alongside the likes of Casey Jones, John Henry, and Stagger Lee, but not much else is known about the man, and his existence is usually debated along with the likes of John Henry. Still, his name can be heard frequently mentioned in classic songs as well as in the famous opera Porgy and Bess, from the player of a song called “Jasbo Brown’s Blues.” The genre that came to be known as jazz is purported to be named after this famed performer.

2Piast The Wheelwright

During the reign of the oppressive Duke Popiel II in medieval Poland lived an old wheelwright named Piast in the town of Kruswica. According to legend, he was visited by two strangers named John and Paul, who had been rejected from the palace after seeking a place to stay. After he offered them hospitality, the two strangers revealed themselves to be angels in a flash of light and promised that Piast would become the next ruler and would produce a line of Polish kings. Soon after that, Popiel was eaten by hundreds of mice or rats, leaving Piast to inherit the throne in what proved to be the start of a new dynasty.

Since the legend is clearly supernatural and contains elements of folk stories, many historians have claimed that a wheelwright named Piast never existed. Others believe that he actually was the founder of the Piast dynasty, which, due to its power, wide-reaching authority, and longevity, existed well into the 1600s and produced some of the greatest Polish kings.

Certain discoveries today, such as the existence of two priests at the time, John Kaich and Paul de Venetiis, seem to give some credence to the story. The legend of the man may not have been entirely fabricated but rather was embellished over time.

1Richard Argall

At Grenville Court in Buckinghamshire, England, previously owned by the Christie-Miller family and known as Britwell Court, lies a library in which was found at one time a lengthy volume of poems attributed to one Richard Argall.

Upon the book’s discovery by 17th-century historian Anthony Wood, an investigation sought to identify the writer. According to Wood, the closest he got was a poet who seemed to have lived during the reign of King James I. He had written not only the volume found at Britwell Court but seemingly other divine meditations having to do with prayer, the Bible, and other spiritual subjects—but no copies could be found. However, some of the written works were discovered in a collection of 1654 poems under the name Robert Aylett, who worked at the high court of Chancery.

So who was Richard Argall? Did he actually write the volume in his name, the only one of its kind in existence? Or was Aylett the real author, who used the name as a pseudonym? Did he steal the poems, release them under his own name, and then recall all the copies he could find that had gone out in Argall’s name? Or was Argall the thief?

Wood believed that a poet named Richard Argall never existed. The truth may never be known.

I am an up-and-coming author who has written for several companies, publishing poems, scripts, articles, and even an adventure-comedy novel for kids.

fact checked by Jamie Frater