Oliver North Joins Ranks with Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and Other Idols of Dubious Distinction

updated 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Reagan hailed Oliver North as a "national hero," the groans could be heard from Tehran to Managua. Calling a shadowy figure like North a hero seemed to indicate that America's standards had really gone south. But such is not the case. In fact, Ollie may now be in very distinguished company. Herewith a look at heroes whose claim to fame has been tarnished by the facts.

Betsy Ross did sew flags during the Revolutionary War, but the story taught to generations of children—that she designed and executed the first flag, then dubbed it "Old Glory"—is more than a little suspect. For one thing, no one had even heard the tale until 1870, when Ross's grandson presented the notion in a paper before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Paul Revere's midnight ride, in which he supposedly warned Lexington and Concord that the British were coming, wasn't quite as glorious as legend has it. Actually he never made it to Concord because he was spotted by scouts and was briefly detained by British troops. For his pains, however, Revere was paid five shillings.

Oliver North, contrapreneur extraordinaire, gets credit for the biggest political scandal since Watergate. His responsibility for Iranscam has yet to be determined, but his media worth is not in doubt. Reportedly, film and book rights offers for his story could reach the $5 million mark.

Belle Starr, thief, rustler and concubine of criminals, qualifies as a questionable heroine of the Old West. Some have also questioned her credits. Evidence suggests that the "Queen of the Bandits" (with lover Blue Duck, above) committed crimes no worse than larceny and mischievous arson.

D.B. Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient airliner on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 and parachuted over Washington State with $200,000 in ransom money. The man's fate will probably never be known. His legend, however, has done a fine job of surviving. Stoked by books, songs, T-shirts, anniversary bashes and a movie, Cooper's cult following has yet to fade away.

Charles Van Doren, son of a Pulitzer prize-winning poet, became a phenom of the late '50s when he won $129,000 on the quiz show Twenty-One. Chances are he would have rated a paragraph in TV history. But in the early '60s, after admitting that he'd been coached and fed answers by the show's producers, Van Doren became a mere footnote—the hero as fallen idol.

Sitting Bull, leader of the Sioux nation, never took part in the battle of Little Bighorn. Wisely, he was making medicine in the hills while the fighting took place. On the other side of the coin, George Armstrong Custer was only a lieutenant colonel—not a general—when he perished at Little Bighorn (an area known to some Indians as Greasy Grass River).

The Trapp Family Singers (upper left), whose lives were immortalized by The Sound of Music, inspired millions with their dramatic departure from Nazi-occupied Austria. In the movie the producers contrived a daring escape in which the family flees at the end of a concert and climbs the mountains to Switzerland. In actuality they simply boarded a train and went to Italy.

Pocahontas (below in English garb) was said to have saved Capt. John Smith from execution. Unfortunately the rescue seems to be Smith's embellishment. All that is really known is that Pocahontas and Smith were good friends in Jamestown, where she apparently entertained the colonists by performing cartwheels in the nude.

Davy Crockett, personified in TV and film by Fess Parker (above), was a flamboyant frontiersman who owed his reputation to an ability to tell tall tales. But there were a few facts that even his prodigious fibbing couldn't hide—that the King of the Wild Frontier was a drunk, a carouser, a less-than-honest politician and an Army scout who'd hired someone else to finish his term of enlistment.

From Our Partners