Revisited Myth # 72: The Trail of Tears drove all the Indians out of the southeastern United States.

February 6, 2016


National Geographic magazine says this is a common myth, so who am I to differ? I had never heard it expressed, but then again, maybe that’s because I’ve long known the truth, living in the southeastern United States among several different Native American tribes.

After the passage of the shameful Indian Removal Act in 1830, all remaining southeastern tribes were supposed to be rounded up and herded west, a process that began in 1831 and ended in 1838-39 with the Cherokees and the infamous Train of Tears. This was a pitiful forced march that killed about a quarter of the people. A small number of Native Americans remained in the southeast, either because they were overlooked or because they evaded capture during the round-up. These people stayed on their ancestral homelands. They include some Choctaw in Mississippi, the Seminole in Florida, some Creek in Alabama, and some Cherokee in Tennessee and North Carolina. (See for a welcome to Cherokee, NC, from the chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.)

Revisited Myth # 71: Women in early America were not allowed in taverns. OR . . . were not allowed to use the front door of taverns.

January 30, 2016
Wetherburn's Tavern in Williamsburg

Wetherburn’s Tavern in Williamsburg

This myth probably began when people assumed that practices from the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth originated in colonial days.

True, women in the colonial period didn’t go to taverns all that often, but there are documented instances of women spending a night in a tavern while traveling or dining at a tavern with friends or family. Balls, lectures, and other entertainments were often held in taverns because they had the largest rooms, and women certainly attended those. When women did enter taverns, they came through the front, side, or rear door, whatever was most convenient. (P.S. Some women owned taverns in the colonial period; some managed them.)

The custom of a separate ladies’ entrance seems to date from the Victorian era. Some nineteenth-century urban American hotels had a ladies’ entrance and a ladies’ waiting room in an effort to appeal to that market segment. Conventional wisdom has it that women were seldom seen in bars, and it is true that some “wild west” saloons prohibited women from entering at all. But many bars and saloons, whether in cities or in the western territories, accommodated working-class women with a separate entrance that served three functions, according to “saloon scholar” and history professor Madelon Powers [Women and Public Drinking, 1890-1920; History Today, Feb. 1995].

“First, it permitted them to enter inconspicuously and minimise public scrutiny of their comings and goings, an indication that even those bold enough to patronise saloons remained sensitive to the disapproving glances of their more conservative neighbours and peers. (On some occasions, men wishing to avoid public notice would also use the side entrance).

Second, and perhaps more important, women’s entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment’s front room — the barroom proper — which in this era was still undisputed male territory with its stand-up bar, spittoons, moustache towels, brass footrails, and other symbols of ‘masculinity emancipate’, in the words of journalist Travis Hoke. Adventuresome though most saloongoing women were, they were not agitators; their aim was sociability, not social equality, and their stepping out did not include stepping into bar areas where they were not welcome.

Finally, the side door for women afforded them quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol, and to a second chamber in many saloons which was known as the ‘backroom’, where they could feast on free lunches and beer, socialise with their dates, attend social events, or watch small-scale vaudeville productions. By means of the ladies’ entrance, the saloon trade both facilitated and circumscribed women’s participation in saloon culture.”

Revisited Myth # 68: Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.

January 23, 2016


Okay, this isn’t an American history myth and I probably shouldn’t be dealing with it in this blog, but the topic was so current when I first wrote this post in 2011 (because of the new movie “Anonymous”), I had to go with it.

You simply must read the short article by Stephen Marche, a Shakespeare expert, former professor, and prolific writer who is horrified at the myth perpetrated by the movie “Anonymous.” For those who haven’t heard of it, the movie is about the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays, an English earl named Edward de Vere. This is a theory that has been bantered about for decades and, says Marche, “has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts.” I think all of us who lament the hardiness of these history myths can sympathize with Stephen Marche . . . I know I do. Thank you, Mr. Marche, you are one of my heroes. And I’ll enjoy the movie all the more, thanks to the myth-busting details you provided!

Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare? 

And yet, in typical myth fashion, the debate rages on. 
Comments from earlier post:
Prof. Marche, or his editors, could have been gentler in his conclusion. I disagree that. “some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded.” Ideas, theories, objections all might deserve exclusion, but never people.

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marymiley In reply to F.V..
That’s a point I hadn’t heard before! (about inbreeding)

When I hear people make this argument about an uneducated man being incapable of doing genius work, I think of Charles Dickens, dirt poor, uneducated, and probably the English-speaking world’s greatest novelist. I’m sure we can all think of others, too.

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Shakespeare conspiracy theories are 100% classism based solely on the fact that a “commoner” could not have been such a great writer.
Of course one would think that if anything all the inbreeding would make the aristocrats less capable then commoners at just about everything.

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No one disputed Shakespeare’s authorship until the 1850s. I find the idea that only an aristocrat could have written ‘aristocratic’ plays unconvincing and unappealing. Emily Bronte had limited experience of romantic love and yet she wrote the greatest romantic novel in the English language. People under estimate the rigour of English grammar school education of the period. A 14 year old grammar school student from Shakespeare’s time would probably know as much about the classics as a modern post graduate student. Also Shakespeare’s geographical knowledge is flawed. He makes many mistakes about European geography. Shakespeare wrote convincingly about all social classes right down to grave-diggers. You could turn the question around and say ‘how could an aristocrat write about the life of a grave-digger?’

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Howard Schumann
There is only one myth here, that is the myth of the uneducated genius from Stratford who, against all odds, rose to become the greatest writer in the English language. This mythology has been perpetrated on a gullible public for hundreds of years without a shred of evidence that has ever shown that William of Stratford was a writer.

There is nothing ever discovered in his name except for six unreadable signatures. No correspondence, no letter to or from, no diaries, no descriptions, no one ever claimed to have met and talked with the man.

It is a comforting story and we are reluctant to give it up. In spite of the fact that the powerful throughout history have been wealthy, we still have a picture of the haughty aristocrat which doesn’t meld with our ideal Shakespeare, the cipher who we can ascribe any personality to that we want.

But the truth isn’t always the way we want it and any open minded look at the evidence will discover that it strongly points to Edward de Vere as the true author. This may not please the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust or the academic establishment, but the issue should be only one thing – Is it true? To me, it seems very much to be.

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William Ray
I suggest you do a great deal more reading before you dismiss this topic so blithely. There is much wrong with the inherited story that academia has endorsed as fact, making it a form of customary truth. Shakspere of Stratford was never a writer. He was a poacher, a runaway from his marriage to a woman eight years older, a money-lender, a grain and hops broker, an investor, a litigant over small sums, and a witness in a trial wherein he could not remember what year in which he was born. This was a prudential rather than artistic personality. The received wisdom is therefore suspect. There are many other indications and proofs. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was a prodigy, wrote poems and plays from childhood, owned and sponsored play companies and produced plays nationally on assignment from Queen Elizabeth before the expected Spanish Armada. These became the Histories, which formed the foundation myth of the English nation. He used numerous pseudonyms and proxies since his station did not include writing for the masses, it being a taboo. There was no need for a massive conspiracy because the majority of plays were written anonymously and pseudonymously , his among them and recognized covertly in the record by many literary figures. But this information was suppressed at the time because his life was a departure and an embarrassment to the government and his class, especially his bastard-born son by Elizabeth I, who was the recipient of dedications to three major works, the only person so honored. The Shakespeare canon reflects the life of the writer, and obviously it had nothing to do with Shakspere. He came into the picture, first as a pretender HE wrote the plays because a variant of his name was on the quartos and playbills, then as a decoy when the works were finally published, and the government wanted to be certain Oxford would not be associated with the subversive work he had done concerning individuals and government policies of his time. Hamlet is perhaps the most autobiographical work ever written, in the biographical and spiritual sense. Again it has nothing to do with Shakspere. There is only one way to overcome the ignorance displayed on this website, which is to study the issue, and books and websites have been formed over time for that possibility among the educated and the youth. It is hardly propaganda and is not fanciful. There could be no more fanciful depiction of an artist of universal importance than the present description of the author, rationaized because it is so much a part of our national and cultural belief system.

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marymiley In reply to Deborah Brower.
I do remember this incident! Some crazies tried to dig up the graveyard in 1991 because they were trying to prove that the original versions of Shakespeare’s writings were buried there and that Sir Francis Bacon wrote them. And earlier crazies actually did excavate the graveyard in the 1930s but found nothing. See the Virginia Gazette article for details at

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Thank you for sharing this. I homeschool my kids and we will be studying Shakespeare in a few months. I know my kids would have brought this movie up, having seen the trailers. You have saved me a lot of time researching. I’ll bookmark this.

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Deborah Brower
I think it fits well with American Myths. I was down in Williamsburg many years ago and they doing some archeology in the yard at Bruton Church. When I asked about it they said they were working on the foundations of the earlier church. Then told me that periodically nut jobs start poking around looking for a secret vault.
Shades of Dan Brown! I even remember something about someone trying to sneak in with heavy machinery.

The vault is supposed to contain the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays with absolute proof that Bacon wrote them. According to this whopper they were brought to America for safe keeping during the English Civil Wars along with other super secret documents.

It had become a big enough problem that the foundation of the later church was threatened by people digging. Silly CW to think that serious science would put a goofy myth like that to rest. People who believe this stuff are so entrenched they’ll just find another even more outrageous twist to the tale to explain the lack of evidence. I think the person who came up with this was named Marie Baur Hall and it might have something to do with Edgar Casey too. If anyone out there knows the rest of the story I’d love to have my memory refreshed.

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Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

January 17, 2016


Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 

Revised Myth # 67: Ceilings were lower back then to keep the heat in.

January 10, 2016

(Heard by Sara Rivers Cofield on a historic house tour.)

This is a fact, not a myth–at least, it is true in the northern colonies/states. Lower ceilings decrease air space and so concentrate the heat from the fireplace in a smaller number of cubic feet. That’s why in the South before air-conditioning, houses were often built with high ceilings, so the heat would rise and leave the lower portion of the room a little cooler. And in the North, before central heating, ceilings were often built lower.

Builders had all sorts of clever techniques to help keep a house cooler or warmer, techniques that are usually ignored or forgotten today when the thermostat instantly adjusts the temperature. To keep cool, they might site the house to face prevailing winds, put windows opposite one another to allow cross breezes, or build exterior fireplaces and chimneys rather than interior to dissipate the heat, build separate kitchens to keep the all-day cooking fires away from the main house, use central hallways with doors at each end to encourage a breeze, and build tall ceilings and large windows. As heating and cooling costs rise, we may well see a return of these techniques in new homes.


Revisited Myth # 66: In the winter, itinerant portrait painters would work ahead, painting canvases with bodies and backgrounds, but no heads, so that come summer, they would have only to fill in the subject’s head.

January 4, 2016



This is, I think, my favorite myth because it is such a good idea! It appeals to my hyper organizational nature. Stay home during the winter months and paint a stock of canvases with bodies and backgrounds, then ride out in the warm months to find clients who could select a body and pay to have their own head painted on it. A real time saver for both artist and sitter, right? What could be more logical?


But there is no evidence for it. None. No artist or sitter mentioned in dairies or other written records that this practice occurred. No unfinished, headless portrait painted by an early American folk artist has been discovered in an attic or storage shed. (The few unfinished portraits that do survive inevitably include heads.) No physical evidence, like overlapping paint layers at the neck or head, has been detected on existing portraits. Nonetheless, museum guides say that someone in the group inevitably mentions this myth whenever folk art portraits come into view.

It makes sense to us today because it seems to explain the weird angles and the similarities in clothing and backgrounds of some American folk portraits. However, in portrait painting, artists typically start with the most important feature—the head or eyes—and work the rest around that. The myth also seems to explain why some of these portraits are so . . . well, irregular. The perspective is off; the arms bend in unnatural ways; the head is larger than the body. Art historians say that these anomalies occur because the painters were unschooled. They had inborn talent, yes, but without any formal art training, they didn’t understand perspective or proportion. 

Because there are many examples of portraits that are highly similar in body and background, the myth spread. Scholars such as E. C. Pennington (Lessons in Likeness, 2011) and museum curators at museums like the American Folk Art Museum, Cooperstown, the Columbus Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller galleries point out the lack of evidence for this practice.



Nann says:
October 16, 2011 at 10:29 am (Edit)
In grade school I read a mystery book that included one of those headless canvasses so for four decades or so I’ve assumed that was true (and I’ve seen many early 19th-c portraits). Thanks for providing “the whole picture”!

Hammond-Harwood House says:
October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am (Edit)
At Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, MD, we have a portrait by Robert Edge Pine that shows that the head and body were painted separately. You can clearly see a square where the layer of canvas containing the head seems to have been glued on top of the layer showing the body. I don’t think that Pine painted a generic body and then put a specific face on it, but I haven’t been able to find a definite reason for the technique he used. Someday I hope to have time to research it…

marymiley says:
October 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Edit)
How very odd . . . sounds like the artist glued another head onto one he didn’t like, or maybe the sitter didn’t like his first attempt so he painted another. Aren’t there X-ray machines that look underneath paint and canvas? I guess they are expensive. What a great mystery! I hope you can solve it one day.

Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm (Edit)
Is this the picture on your profile? I would like to see the portrait.

marymiley says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm (Edit)
The folk art portrait I used to illustrate this myth is just one I found online and thought illustrated the point that heads and bodies didn’t always look like they went together. There is no known illustration of a headless portrait, so I couldn’t do that.

Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm (Edit)
There is a painting at the Fearing Tavern Museum in Wareham Mass that the sitters head is very oddly placed her a body. It has been suggested this is a stock painting finished with the sitters head. I will attempt to photograph it, but it may take sometime. The museum is operated by the local historcal society and only open on Saturday in August. It was this painting that help fuel my interest in these early American Artist.

john gebhardt says:
February 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm (Edit)
Recently purchased a 14 by 16 inch original frame portrait of a small child.
The body appears to be a photo but the head is painted. it is odd because the head appears much older then the body.

The head is a child about 2 or 3 but the body is an infant.

Can you refer us to a research site or have comment??

thank you

marymiley says:
February 13, 2012 at 9:02 am (Edit)
Do you have any idea how old the portrait is? I have portraits, smaller than yours, of great-great-grandparents that are painted photographs, something that was done to colorize the black and white photos of the day. Could that be the case with yours?


Revisited Myth # 102: “Twelve Days of Christmas” song has a secret meaning.

December 19, 2015


A partridge not in a pear tree

A partridge not in a pear tree

Okay, here’s another Christmas myth. One I hadn’t planned to include on the blog because I didn’t think it was a museum-related myth. But last week I was touring an early-nineteenth-century historic house and the guide presented this fable as truth, so I guess it’s fair game.

There is a secret code myth related to the well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” According to this myth, the song is an underground catechism song for Catholics in England who were oppressed during the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. As the story goes, persecution of Catholics was so severe that they dared not teach their children their beliefs, so this song was written as a memory aid. Here is the supposed “secret” meaning behind the song:

1 Partridge/Pear tree stands for Jesus

2 turtle doves = Old & New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope, love or the Holy Trinity or the 3 gifts of Magi (versions differ)

4 collie birds = four gospels

5 golden rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of Bible)

6 geese a-laying = 6 days God created the Earth

7 swans a-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophecy, ministry, teaching, giving, exhortation, leading, compassion . . again, versions differ on these)

8 maids a-milking = the 8 beatitudes (blessed are . . .)

9 drummers drumming = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, faith, meekness, etc. . . . but not consistent)

10 pipers piping = the ten commandments

11 ladies dancing = the eleven apostles (Judas doesn’t count)

12 lords a-leaping = 12 statements in Apostles’ Creed

With apologies to Eliz. Barrett Browning: How to debunk thee? Let me count the ways . . .

First and foremost, there is no historical documentation. The claim first surfaced in 1979 when it was proposed by a Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist who said the idea came from conversations he had with elderly Canadians. “I can at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” This rather weak statement was soon taken up and popularized by a Catholic priest who claims he saw a reference to it “as an aside” in some very old letters from Irish priests, but his notes were ruined in a basement plumbing leak and the original information is, he said, on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it anymore.” 

The original song is not even English, but French. And as a Catholic country that persecuted Protestants, the French had no need to compose songs with secret religious meaning.

12 Days Mirth MischiefHow do we know it’s French in origin? It’s hard to date a song: the earliest published form in English comes in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it’s clearly earlier than that. The title page on Mirth Without Mischief (left) says “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” There is no English King Pepin, but Pepin the Short was the father of Charlemagne. Pepin ruled from 752 to 768. One piece of evidence for French origin is that the partridge was unknown in England until 1770s when it was introduced from France. And the song has that light, dancing feel of a French carol.

Aside: I had wondered, so perhaps you do too, about the difference between a carol and a hymn. A carol is based on dance music, light and dancy, simple, popular, joyful, with a religious impulse. Many were developed in France between 1400-1650. Examples of a carol would include Deck the Halls and Il est ne le divin enfant. Examples of hymns: We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.

There is no religious connection to the objects, only to the numbers; in other words, no relationship exists between concept and symbol. How does 8 maids a milking remind one of the 8 beatitudes? 2002-959How does the irreverent mental picture of lords a-leaping remind one of the Apostles’ Creed?

The symbolism varies with different versions of the song—how can something meant to be a memory aid have so many variations? For example, three French hens supposedly stood for faith, hope, love. Or in some variations, the Holy Trinity. Or in others, the 3 gifts of Magi.

Another major problem: none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations. All doctrines have Old and New Testament, 10 commandments, 3 gifts of the Magi, 11 faithful apostles, etc. There is no reason for Catholics to have to hide their knowledge of these religious tenets. Conversely, nothing uniquely Catholic appears here—no mention of the Pope or the Virgin Mary or confession, concepts that had been suppressed by the Anglican church. There is no reason why young Catholics could not be taught openly about the four gospels or the ten commandments.

Finally, the lyrics are entirely secular and playful, not spiritual.


A memory-and-forfeits game.

Every time the song is mentioned in a book, it is said to be a forfeit game: each person repeats the gifts and when he/she misses one, he pays a forfeit (a kiss or sweetmeat) for the mistake. To wit: an 19th-c. novel, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas: “When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, ‘The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear tree . . . And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results) the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.’ ”

According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and chairman of the Classics Dept. Edward Phinney in 1990, it is a love song : “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” Phinney also points out the un-Biblical fertility symbols: partridge is famous aphrodisiac; six geese a-laying are reproducing. Seven verses are birds which are symbols of fertility and the pear itself is a male fertility symbol. Swans are significant in tales about love. “The whole song,” says Phinney, “seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday.” That may seem odd, but when you remember that weddings were a prominent feature of the Christmas season, the link seems more plausible.



Mary Miley In reply to WriterMelle.
I don’t believe it means bird covered with soot; rather birds that are black like soot. Blackbirds.

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I think that giving away colly birds wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do since they were quite sooty….as in covered with soot.

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Mary Miley In reply to kbchrist.
It refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

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Do you know of any reason for it to be 12 days? My understanding was that it was the twelve days between Christmas and Kings’ Day, but with the courting connotations that seems unlikely

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Mary Miley In reply to azambone.
Oh, geez, I’m so embarrassed! Colonial Williamsburg had me give a public lecture last November about this myth–another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

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Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
One of the most annoying and unkillable Christmas history myths is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually a secret catechism…or something. It particularly annoys me because I once accepted it. And it was even more annoying when I heard a nice lady at Colonial Williamsburg not only repeating the myth at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern one night, but also passing out handouts explaining the “code.”

Anyway, given that the twelve days of Christmas are over, you’ll have to wait until next year to correct your annoying, know-it-all Aunt Sally when she trots this one out.

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fireside feasts
“none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations.”
Yeah, but Catholicism came first. The others were created later and in protest against it. Not that I’m disputing the myth as a whole, but this line…not so much! It doesn’t hold up.

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Mary Miley In reply to Deborah Brower.
You’re very welcome! Thanks go to you for your contributions, too.
I have a few more myths in the works, but will run out soon. Then I think I’ll start to re-post the old ones, maybe adding a little or incorporating some of the comments into the text. We’ll see.

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Deborah Brower
Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work providing another year of debunking. The topics are always interesting and responses informative. It is really helpful to have a forum to sort this stuff out in a friendly way. Have a appy and equally successful New Year!

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Mary Miley In reply to Katherine Louise.
Yes, the order changes in different versions, which is yet another reason against the “secret meaning” that I hadn’t come across. The only order that seems genuinely historical is the division between birds and people: the first 7 gifts are birds, the last 5 are people. Fun topic, huh??

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