Every day, stories about people or objects are told in museums that are not true. Some are outright fabrications. Others contain a kernel of truth that has been embellished over the years. Because they are catchy, humorous or shocking, these stories often stick in our memories when less sexy information slips away.
Some of the weird things we hear are actually true. Hat makers really were driven ‘mad’—or more accurately, they were poisoned—by the mercury they used in making hats from furs. The symptoms: hallucinations, tremors, and twitching, looked like insanity to people of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came about. But many myths are utter nonsense.
It is hard to visit a historic site or museum today without encountering at least one myth. How many have you heard? How many do you believe? Let me know what you’ve heard and I’ll try to confirm or debunk it.
Who am I? A historian and writer with an M.A. in American history, 14 years of teaching American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, 10 years working for Colonial Williamsburg (the country’s largest history museum), and 40 years of writing books and magazine articles, mostly about history. I got started busting myths for an article in the Colonial Williamsburg magazine, and it seemed like the more I dug, the more I uncovered. Finally I compiled a bunch of the more fantastic stories into a book, DEATH BY PETTICOAT, co-published in June 2012 by Andrews-McMeel Press and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.