Revisited Myth #85: Prostitute were so common around Gen. Joseph Hooker’s army that they became known as “hookers.”

May 29, 2016


According to this myth, there were so many prostitutes working around Union General Joseph Hooker’s army that they became known as “Hooker’s Division” or “Hooker’s Brigade” or simply “hookers.” The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang calls this story “popular fiction.”

The fly in the ointment is that the term was in use before the Civil War. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word had its origins as early as 1567 when it meant petty thief or pickpocket. (Other definitions include a person who fastened his clothing with hooks, like the Amish, a two-masted Dutch finishing vessel, and a rugby player, but we’ll ignore those.)

In America this synonym for prostitute dates back at least as far as 1845. It probably evolved from the conventional sense of hook, to lure and take or rob, qualities associated with prostitutes. John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1859 defines a hooker as a strumpet and says it comes from the New York neighborhood known as Corlear’s Hook, where there were lots of prostitutes. That’s probably another myth.

Since “hooker” already meant prostitute by the time of the Civil War, it was an obvious joke to refer to the prostitutes around General Hooker’s army as Hooker’s Brigade.

(An interesting aside: in French, the man who solicits patrons to come to a whorehouse is known as an accrocheur, or hooker, from the verb accrocher, to hook.)


irishhistoricaltextiles says:
April 16, 2012 at 6:09 am (Edit)
Any truth to the story that the word hooker came from women using a crochet hook, a la this website It’s a popular one in the crochet world!

Ted says:
January 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm (Edit)
The version I got was that Gen. Hooker was known to keep the company of Washington, D.C. prostitutes after the Civil War; he wasn’t very discreet about it. The ladies of the evening became labeled “Hooker’s brigade” ( or army).
I’ve read and heard this from a number of sources and don’t doubt that Gen. Hooker was associated with local prostitutes. I agree that the joke probably reinforced the “hooker” slang that was already common.


Revisited Myth #84: The “The World Turned Upside Down” was played as the British surrendered in Yorktown.

May 23, 2016


(Thanks to guest blogger, Deborah Brower, who wrote this to debunk one of her favorite myths.)

In case you missed it, the story goes like this: when the British surrendered at Yorktown, they played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The problem is no one who was present at Yorktown said that at the time. It’s not until an 1828 memoir by a man named Alexander Garden that it appears in print. Only one other veteran agreed but he was in his 80s by the time it came up. He was speaking years after the memoir had been published and by then it had already entered the public imagination. Also problematic is the fact that there are several melodies that are associated with that title. Even if it were true, which one would it be? In the end there is no reliable evidence that it happened.

I play historic music with a group called Tasker’s Chance. When we were first putting music sets together, one of my band mates said, “We just have to play ‘World Turned Upside Down.’ It’s the tune they played at Yorktown and everyone asks for it.” It became a regular part of our performances. Then came an excellent article in the Williamsburg Journal (Oct/Nov 1999) by Dennis Montgomery: “If ponies rode man and grass ate the cows?”: Just What Tune was un the Air when The World Turned Upside Down? With a heavy heart, I shared it with the group. We all liked the tune and were reluctant to toss it out. All that was left was to make lemonade out of the lemons.

From the article I learned that the roots of the tune we play go back to the first part of the 17th century and a truly cataclysmic event in British history, the English Civil Wars. The tune is catchy and was used with different sets of words. Two sets of lyrics really appealed to me. “When the King Enjoys His Own Again” is a hopeful vision of the return of Charles I to the English throne. The other is a complaint about the banning of Christmas customs by the Puritans also titled the “World Turned Upside Down.” The last line of the first verse of the song is “…old Christmas is kickt out of town.” Who could resist that?

Several years later I had a conversation with some musicians who were indignantly complaining their group NEVER plays the tune. If anyone asks about it, they set them straight in short order. That’s a valid approach, but I look at it differently, especially since I like the tune. I play it, but I also explain its story. I think it interesting that the story endures. Maybe it’s because it sums up prevailing emotions in a single phrase anyone can understand. Perhaps it’s because the English Civil War and American Revolution have something in common, both fundamentally caused the British to rethink who they were. In both cases, their world really was turned upside down.

For more detail, read the article by Dennis Montgomery, retired editor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Journal, at

Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

May 6, 2016

519Qj41qP2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Myth #55 was in the news this week, with the announcement that Harriet Tubman was going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. The Washington Post ran an article by Kate Clifford Larson, the author of an acclaimed biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. In the article, Larson debunks 5 myths about  Tubman in much the same way we did when dealing with our Myth #55. (Read the entire Washington Post article here.) Here is what Larson says about the quilt code: 

Myth #3: She [Tubman] followed the quilt code to the North.

This myth is a staple of school curricula. Students are taught that slaves and free people stitched secret, coded directions into quilts and then hung them outside at night to help guide freedom seekers to the next safe house. While it is a pretty story, it has no basis in fact, and it tells us nothing about the real heroes and actual workings of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the quilt designs claimed by proponents of the quilt code were not even created until after the Civil War and slavery ended. Enslaved people would not have had access to the multiple varieties and colors of fabrics needed to construct such quilts, nor would they have placed precious bedding outside when it would have been badly needed inside their homes. We also know that Underground Railroad routes changed frequently because of the danger involved, so something as permanent as a quilt pattern would have been of limited use, anyway.

Rather than quilts, Tubman depended on her great intellect, courage and religious faith to escape slavery and then go back to rescue others. She followed rivers that snaked northward, and used the stars and other natural phenomena to guide her. She relied on sympathetic people, black and white, who hid her, told her which way to go and connected her with other people she could trust. She wore disguises. She paid bribes.

When leading her charges, she would alter the tempo of certain songs, “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land,” or mimic the hoot of an owl, to signal whether it was safe or too dangerous to reveal their hiding places. She also used coded letters. In December 1854, for instance, she had a letter sent to Jacob Jackson, a literate, free black farmer and veterinarian, instructing him to tell her brothers that they needed to be ready to “step aboard” the “Ol’ Ship of Zion.” In other words, she was coming to rescue them.

Revisited Myth #83: It’s called a toaster because you stirred it with your toe.

April 30, 2016


This myth is almost too embarrassing to post on my blog. Surely, no one could take this canard seriously! Alas . . . it keeps turning up on those e-mails that get passed around the Internet. 

Ron Cofield, Director of Interpretation at Historic London Town and Gardens, dealt with this myth so succinctly a couple years ago that I cannot do better than to quote his words.

“Find a dictionary, look up the definition for toaster, then toast, then the suffix -er. If you still feel that the above saying is correct, stop leading tours or talking about history.”

It shouldn’t be necessary to add that you don’t turn the toaster with your toe; the handle is meant to be moved with your hand.

Gregory Hubbard says:
March 18, 2012 at 3:49 am
Many years ago, I toured the Davenport House in Savannah with friends. The guide for our visit rattled off an impressive store of these, most of which were new to me, and all of them of mind numbing foolishness. Apparently our forbearers had no command of common sense or logic, and it only got worse. She informed us that one of the ground floor mantles was now in a nearby home, and a second floor mantle had been moved to replace it.

‘But aren’t they different in style and size?’ we asked.
“Oh yes,’ she answered, ‘but no one notices…’
‘Why don’t you buy back the original?’
‘Why? We have such a nice one from the second floor…’

It was at this point that Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole.

My friends could only swallow their outrage and laughter for so long… They looked like they might be sick as they fled the house. The very best part of this was the earnest look on the face of our host as she tossed these silly-isms out, and the sincere attention of our fellow guests as they slurped up every one.

It was fortunate that we toured the Davenport home first, sort of an inoculation against silliness, as the tours of the other homes, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace notable among them, only got worse…

Sara says:
March 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm
I really have heard this on a LOT of house tours, so thanks for addressing this. I think that explanations of “why” just really appeal to people. Perhaps they appeal to people more than the concept that not all aspects of history are easily explained.


Revisited Myth # 82: Signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were common.

April 24, 2016


Rachel Sims wrote “I’m not sure if this is myth or fact because I’ve heard that its a myth and then I’ve heard its a fact. You know when Irish immigrants came to the United States and tried to find work? Were there truly signs in the store windows that say, “No Irish need apply?”

It’s neither myth nor fact. The statement has a core of truth to it, as many do, although it is exaggerated in collective memory. There were some nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements like the one above that stipulated “No Irish Need Apply.” But according to historian Richard Jensen in a 2002 article in the Journal of Social History, signs on businesses saying “No Irish Need Apply” were rare. 

“The fact that Irish vividly ‘remember’ NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?”

8c15746rJensen, in my opinion, overstates his thesis here. Certainly there were signs on businesses saying “no colored allowed” and “no Chinese,”or more often, “whites only.” This photo from the Library of Congress collection shows a bar with a sign on the wall that reads, “Positively No Beer Sold to Indians.” A rebuttal of Jensen’s thesis claims to have located several signs relating to Irish. But that doesn’t mean “common.” And remember, there’s a difference between serving and employing. Many whites-only establishments that refused to serve certain ethnic groups still hired them as laborers.

Why were the Irish discriminated against? They were Catholic, a religion that frightened many Protestants, and the stereotype that they were lazy, dirty drunks was widespread in the 19th century. Some thought of them as a separate, inferior race, one that caused poverty. Their biggest crime, perhaps, was that they took jobs from native-born Americans because they would accept lower wages–the perennial anti-immigrant lament we hear today. Employers were often eager to hire Irish because they would work for less. Sure, some employers refused to hire Irish, black, or other minorities; some establishments refused to serve them. Anti-Irish sentiments were strongest in the middle part of the nineteenth century, when this song,”No Irish Need Apply,” was popular. Listen to it here: 

Conclusion: The Irish Catholics faced serious discrimination in America. “No Irish Need Apply” newspaper advertisements like the one above existed, but were rare. Work-related signs were rare, but Irish were effectively barred from “better” occupations and shunted into low-paying factory work and domestic service. 

I don’t think anyone is denying that discrimination against the Irish immigrants existed, or that advertisements or even individual signs were posted. The issue is whether pre-printed signs reading merely “No Irish Need Apply” were in use (which, from lack of evidence as well as logic makes this particular printed product an unlikely item).

Being from an immigrant family myself, I can vouch for the fact that some narratives (such as the name change at Ellis Island) cannot always be taken as fact.

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My ancestors were Irish and there are plenty of stories passed down through the family about how commonplace what you’re calling “myth” was back then. I liken articles like this to the people who deny the Holocaust ever happened, though obviously on a much lesser scale. As the above article shows, there are so many derogatory phrases demeaning the Irish that are still in our vernacular, I just don’t understand why people like you choose to write long articles denying it ever happened. To what end? What are you trying to prove? Does it make you feel better to think that white-on-white racism didn’t exist?

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Yes, they existed . Despite the fact there are few left . It like saying that slaves weren’t sold. The fact that few exist . The declaration states all men are created equal. The rebel flag has recently fell under scrinity . The civil war cannot be denied. Yet people at that time free labor is not bragged about these days. People have done cruel behavior towards those not of the same religion or race they are. Funny thing is people whom are not catholic . Forget that they all were. That the protested against the church & the Church of England came from a murdrering King to marry another in the church so he created another. People ask about the worship of statutes . During the churches early days , people could not read during this period of time . Thus they made statutes to symbolize – the salvation of God. Irish need not apply was very real. They hated the Irish catholic! Called garbage . Those signs do exist , I’ve seen them . Because someone not showing people how stupid and prejudice their forefathers were. Suppose
Selling slaves happened signs do still exist . Even back then it wasn’t the English finest moments . Sadly people can pretend it didn’t happened. Next they say that ww2 . And the mass killing of Jews the mental ill , Catholics , liberals those with a different polical party… Apparently people whom are not affected by those whom are not well/versed in the subject make a blanket statement . Like they don’t exist ? Oh well.,

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Mary Miley In reply to Nate.
Did you download the article here? I read the abstract, which they said was free, but wasn’t able to download the actual article.

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Nate In reply to Mary Miley.
HEre you go:

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Mary Miley In reply to James Dailey.
Have you actually read the high school student’s paper? I have not been able to find it, and I wouldn’t care to comment unless I had read it myself.

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James Dailey
The Jensen study was thoroughly debunked by a high school student in 2015. The NINA signs were found to be quite common, and were found all over the U.S. Thanks to Beth(?) Fried, the Washington high school student, who toppled the quite frankly racist assertions put forward by Jensen. In my mind, Jensen and whoever was in charge of the “peer review” that his
poorly researched, invective-filled racist rant of a “thesis” should be consigned to teaching at Know Nothing University, in KKK county, Redneckville USA.

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Pat Young
Jensen’s article was the real myth.

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Mary Miley In reply to M H.
Interesting article. Kudos to the high school student who did some fine primary research. But there is nothing to contradict what is written above. The young lady’s paper purportedly shows many instances of newspaper advertisements that read “no Irish need apply,” but we knew that, and I don’t see where she has uncovered any evidence of signage. These are two different, if related, issues. I couldn’t read her article (well, I could if I wanted to pay $39 for a one-day subscription to the journal, but I didn’t) so I can’t be sure about what else she wrote.

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This has been reevaluated recently thanks to more in depth research. See an excerpt from a paper in the Oxford Journal of Social History at

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Revisited Myth # 81: Jefferson invented the triple-sash window when he was in France to avoid the French door tax.

April 17, 2016


Virginia Mizel, Director of the Edmondston-Alston House in Charleston, SC, asked: “Was there ever a door tax in the South as there was in France? We have heard Thomas Jefferson invented the triple sash window to avoid a door tax while he was ambassador to France. Some southern tour guides state the door tax was also in place in here, which is why many homes from the 1800s have triple sash exterior windows serving as both door and window.”

Thomas Jefferson is credited with many inventions, but the folks at Monticello have been able to identify only one: a moldboard plow. He did not invent the triple-sash window. The original sash window originated in the 1600s. Jefferson did incorporate triple-sash windows on the first floor of his home, Monticello. These could be opened like a window or used as a door. (Another problem with the statement is that, although Jefferson did live in France for several years, he did not build any houses there.)

So any relevance to French door taxes is moot. If there was a tax on doors in France in former days, would someone please let me know? I have it on good authority that there is no such tax today. (A reader wrote that there was a door tax in France that was abolished in 1926 but I couldn’t verify that.) 

As for door taxes in America, see Myth #1 on closet taxes, #11 on wardrobe taxes, #30 on mirror taxes, #75 on window taxes, and #78 on second-story taxes. If anyone–tour guide or guest–mentions a door tax, ask him/her to specify the colony or state and point to the legislation. I cannot find any examples.

Revisited Myth # 80: Slaves were made to whistle as they walked between the kitchen and the house carrying food, to make sure they didn’t sample the food on the way.

April 10, 2016
Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

The “Whistle Walk” story is related at many Southern plantations where the kitchen is located apart from the main house. It is an imaginative tale, but one with little logic to support it and no actual documentation. Let’s face it, the slaves who cooked and prepared food in the detached southern kitchens could easily have (and surely did) tasted and eaten the food inside the kitchen without anyone being the wiser. 

One historian who spent her life researching topics involving women’s work and home life wrote in 1986 that she had never found any contemporary references that the walkways connecting outside kitchens with inside dining rooms were called “whistle walks.” The earliest known written reference comes in 1954 in the book, Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia 1850-1900 in Contemporary Photographs, where a picture of a plantation kitchen from the 1890s carries a caption that mentions the story.

“I suspect the story is apocryphal,” wrote late Patricia Gibbs, “or perhaps depicts a mid-to-late nineteenth-century practice. Certainly if it really occurred, it was never so widespread as interpretations in many southern historic house museums imply. On the other hand, I think it is quite likely that food en route to the dining rooms was occasionally sampled. Since there is much reliable information to convey about foods and serving practices, I would discourage repeating this story.”

Good advice.

Thanks to Bill Backus, Historic Interpreter at Ben Lomond Historic Site/Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park in Prince William County for asking about this story.

Previous comments:

Megan says:
February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am (Edit)
I never thought this story made sense for slaves or servants. Weren’t they the ones preparing the food in the kitchen, and could taste it there?

marymiley says:
February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Edit)
Excellent point. And so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it!!

Mark A. Turdo says:
February 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm (Edit)
My Italian-American father used to tell me his immigrant father made him whistle when getting wine from the cellar. It was always a cute story, but I suspect that’s all it is. Thanks for sharing this.

Michael Comer says:
April 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Edit)
I wonder what happened if they couldn’t whistle?

amst418 says:
October 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm (Edit)
Who is the historian you refer to in this post? I recall reading something to this effect but cannot find the source. I “googled” whistle walk and found your excellent site!

Mary Miley Theobald says:
October 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Edit)
The historian I referred to was Patricia Gibbs, who spent her entire career (I think) at Colonial Williamsburg and was the acknowledged authority on so many subjects, among them women’s issues. She died a few years ago, shortly after she retired, and I miss her very much. She had the answer to everything!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm (Edit)
Thank you for the quick reply. Indeed, it must have been Gibbs. I recently spent a month on fellowship at CW and I’m sure I came across her work there. Thanks!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Edit)
one more thing: do you know the citation for the quote? I have a ton of files that I copied while at CW. Was it from an internal report for the preservation folks?

Mary Miley says:
October 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm (Edit)
It came from a letter dated 9/2/86 that is in the Research Query file at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.

Esther Hyatt says:
November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm (Edit)
I visited Berkley Plantation for the 51st celebration of the first Thanksgiving on November 4, 2012 and the tour guide reported the tale of the whistling slave tunnel as if historical fact. Even more interesting were the responses of the tourist agreeing that the practice was not only clever but efficient because it alerted those in the main house of their meal’s arrival. I dismissed the story as true when I couldn’t figure out how the sound would travel from underground through winter’s closed door and pierce a home constructed of several layers of brick.


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