Death by Petticoat: And now a word from our sponsor . . .

October 11, 2015

DeathByPetticoat_09.28It was three and a half years ago that Death by Petticoat was published by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with Andrews-McMeel Publishers. Since then, to our surprise, it’s sold thousands of copies at bookstores all over the country. However, as a former manager of historic stores for Colonial Williamsburg, my favorite place to see it is on the shelves of museum shops, national park stores, and historic house gift shops. This is where it fits best, in my opinion–where it can make money for museum nonprofits. If you have a connection to any of those institutions, I would appreciate it if you would suggest that your shop consider carrying Death by Petticoat. It’s great retail ($12.95) makes it an impulse item, and it’s lovely color photographs on every page add to its appeal. Wholesalers can click above where it says To Order the Book for wholesale information. 

Of course, Death by Petticoat is available at bookstores and online at for those who want a copy. Click here. The myths featured in the book are shorter versions of the ones you read here on the blog, so they lack cites and quotations and much of the detail that appeal more to historians and museum professionals than to the general public. 

In the past three years, I’ve done 36 presentations at various museums, conferences, bookstores, libraries, teacher conferences, and history groups in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, and, of course, Virginia. The next one will be Thursday, November 5 in western Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Historical Society. Tea at 5:00; illustrated lecture at 7:00. I hope anyone in the vicinity will check out the details at their website:

That’s my once-a-year advertisement. Now back to our regularly scheduled program . . . 

How are Myths Perpetuated?

September 24, 2011

I can give a partial answer to this question by telling you about two events that occurred last week.

On a September weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, my husband and I joined a walking tour of the Old Town. The tour was led by a man I assumed to be a volunteer. Within the first hour, he had repeated three myths: that childbirth was the leading cause of death among women (Myth #2), that all the rocks in the streets came from ballast (Myth #54), and that the kitchen was separated from the main house because they burned down all the time (Myth #53). There may have been more to come, but after an hour had passed and we hadn’t managed to move farther than half a block, we concluded that we could accomplish more walking by ourselves. We slipped away.  

More alarming was the 5th grade textbook that I was asked to review last fall by Virginia’s Department of Education. Maybe you remember this subject in the newspapers at that time–a history professor at William and Mary had noticed in her daughter’s 4th grade textbook a number of serious errors about the Civil War, including such things as the incorrect number of states in the Confederacy and the large number of black soldiers fighting with Stonewall Jackson. Oooops. So the state decided to look more closely into the publisher’s 5th grade textbook as well, and I was the person who reviewed it. What I found was appalling. Not mere differences of opinion, which happens among historians, or shades of emphasis, but factual errors, such as Queen Elizabeth sent settlers to found Jamestown in 1607 (quite a feat since she died in 1603) and Cyrus McCormick’s young grandson was there on the day the reaper was tested (Cyrus McCormick was 22 when he tested his reaper–no grandchildren yet!). Spelling mistakes, such as  Mississipi, Washinton, Lousiana Purchase, Lousianna Purchase, governement, developement, ammendment, seccession, neccesary, weathy,  seperate, and astronmer. Grammatical errors, such as “Each country believed that their culture was superior to the others.”  Faulty maps: No, the battle of Vicksburg did not take place in Virginia, and Forts Duquesne and Necessity (misspelled Neccesity) were not in Ohio.  Not to mention punctuation, repetition, and wrongly numbered pages. Adding insult to injury, the book repeated many myths, including some of our favorites from this blog, such as  “Wigmakers made those all-important head toppers, since it was the style in the 1700s for most men to wear wigs” (Myth # 40).  “Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” (Myth #37). “Continental soldiers, some shooting bullets made from their own melted-down pewter spoons and plates, captured 6,000 Hessian and British soldiers . . .”  (Myth #39). “Every single American died [at the Alamo], but the Mexicans lost the fight a few weeks later . . .” (Myth #62). At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, “a military band played a song called The World Turned Upside Down.”  (I haven’t gotten to that one yet.)

I’m pleased to say that I had the chance to see the revised textbook a few weeks ago and all but two of the mistakes I had found were corrected. (I presume they’ll handle those on the next go-round. ) And the publisher pledged to replace all the mistake-filled books, so all’s well that ends well.  Here’s a link to the newspaper announcement that the books have been approved.

Does anyone else have personal examples of how myths are spread?

Myth Busters to the Rescue!

April 30, 2010

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? Mary Miley Theobald, a historian and writer with an M.A. in American history, 13 years of teaching American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, 9 years working for Colonial Williamsburg (the country’s largest history museum), and 35 years of writing books and articles, mostly about history. I got started busting myths in a magazine article, and it seemed like the more I dug, the more I uncovered. I’ll post one a week until I run out . . . at that rate, I think I can go for a couple years.

It’s fun. Feel free to join in!

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