Revisited Myth # 130: People in the “olden days” were routinely buried with a string tied to their finger that ran above ground to a bell . . .

September 29, 2018

. . . so that in the event the deceased was merely comatose, not dead, and happened to awaken, the movement would cause ringing, giving us the expressions “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”

153726-Wiertz_burial

I’d been meaning to get to this one (“I’m not dead yet!”) for some time, but Susan Smyer’s forwarding of this article from George Mason University’s website, cited below, cinched it for now, as we approach Halloween.

“One of the most characteristically Victorian fixations was the fear of premature burial. . . Accounts of this horrifying yet fascinating fear commonly describe the “escape coffins” reportedly sold in the nineteenth century to allow those mistakenly declared dead to save themselves at the last moment. The most popular of these, it is often said, was the cheap and simple “Bateson’s Belfry,” a bell mounted on top of a casket with a string running to the corpse’s hand within… so that, if the “deceased” suddenly awoke — before burial but in an extremely unwelcome predicament — he could instantly and easily summon help.

The striking life-story of the inventor George Bateson is also often invoked. In 1852, he patents the belfry as the “Bateson Life Revival Device.” Rising rapidly to fame and fortune, he receives the OBE from Queen Victoria in 1859. But, obsessive fear of premature burial gnawing at his own mind, he designs ever more complex alarm systems for his own coffin, finally insisting his family have him cremated. In 1868 (transposed to 1886 in some accounts), he panics his instructions will be ignored, douses himself in linseed oil and incinerates himself.

Positively dripping in Victoriana, satisfyingly redolent of Poe’s dark tales, the Bateson story has made many appearances, continuing to feature in popular books, historical web sites, and even the occasional news article. Earlier this year, it inspired a prize-winning graphic novelette.

There’s just one problem. George Bateson and his belfry never existed.”

Read the entire, very interesting article at http://hnn.us/article/153726#sthash.wD8oN3YA.dpuf

But did a bell device like this exist? If it did, it would not have worked, since the lack of air in a buried coffin would have killed any comatose person rather quickly. And while there are various patents filed that intended to “save” not-dead-yet people from premature burial with periscope-like devices that supposedly introduced air into the coffin, none has been documented as used.

 

COMMENTS:

Logan Rees says:
November 2, 2013 at 4:27 pm (Edit)
The term ‘dead ringer’ comes from horse racing, and the meaning of it doesn’t even apply to the mythical scenario. And ‘saved by the bell, is pretty obviously a boxing term. I did believe this one probably so cw fifth grade though, so thank you!

Reply
janice says:
November 2, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
that was great. you had me hooked! and then you said it never happened. funny.

Reply
Carole Kingham says:
November 2, 2013 at 6:30 pm (Edit)
If this is a repost, please disregard.
I have seen a few books who mention this story myself…they also mention medieval charnel houses that were places to leave the body at prior to burial until obvious ddecomposition had set in…with guards and a system of pulleys and bells with strings tied to the corpses finger to detect any sign of life. Since sometimes bodies do move during natural decompostion there may have been some rings and very frightened guards if these actually existed.
I always wondered about the tale of the man mistaken for dead and left at the botton of a pile of corpses after the battle of Gettysburg…who was discovered later and found to be alive but insane…have you ever found any citations on that?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
November 2, 2013 at 6:37 pm (Edit)
Re: Gettysburg incident, no, I’ve never heard that.

Reply
Deborah Brower says:
November 5, 2013 at 4:09 pm (Edit)
I’ve wondered about that one too. Most recently during a recent visit by relatives when pulled out the old Ghost’s of Gettysburg Battlefield auto tour. The tour was written by Mark Nesbitt an ex-NPS ranger at Gettysburg. He also made a couple of videos and the story might be one of the dramatizations. It was shown on the HIstory Channel several years ago. I’ll have to take another look at it and see what I can find out.

Damien says:
November 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm (Edit)
Nobel is known for the concern:
Nobel had a lifelong fear of being buried alive, and in his will he left instructions to have his arteries cut after death, just to be sure.

Reply
oldud says:
November 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Edit)
I thought “dead ringer” came from the practice by merchants, and others, of dropping a gold or silver coin on a hard surface to hear the sound it made. A coin of solid gold or silver will make a different sound than a counterfeit one of base metal mixed with gold or silver; the genuine gold coin making a different pitch ring and the counterfeit one making more of a thud. I have never tried it and it may be just another myth.

Reply
Mike Connolly says:
November 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
There are a couple of coffin alarms that are in the US Patent Office records. The Improved Burial Case. Patent No. 81,437 Franz Vester, Newark, New Jersey. August 25, 1868 and GRAVE ALARM (No Model.), Patent No. 500,072, Patented June 20, 1893
A. LINDQUIST. These two designs seem to deal with the lack of air issue as well. The most recent alarm patented was late in the 20th century…around 1980 or so I think. Anyway, it still comes down to whether or not these devices were used. Probably not very widely if at all. Nonetheless, there was a very real fear of being buried alive dating back to the 18th century in the U.S. I think it is Elizabeth Drinker’s diary that records some details about a family member observing the body of the recently departed to identify signs of death (I think she calls it putrefaction) before allowing the body to be buried. Other diaries record family members worrying about burying someone too soon ( in the case of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philly). Pretty interesting.

Reply

Advertisements

Revisited Myth #144: Fidel Castro and the Baseball Tryout

June 19, 2018

As a young man before the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro tried out for the New York Yankees, almost making the team. 

I believed this! Until I read the debunking on NPR, I thought this was true. Something in the same vein as Hitler having been rejected from art school. An “if only” sort of feeling washes over you as you contemplate the way the world would have gone had Hitler been accepted to art school or if Castro had made the baseball team.

But it’s not true. Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois history professor and author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, says it simply didn’t happen. One way he knows that is because the Yankees didn’t scout in Latin America until the 1960s and the Cuban Revolution began in 1953 and ended in early 1959. 

“He didn’t try out for the Yankees,” Burgos tells NPR’s David Greene. It’s possible Castro went to an open tryout held by the Washington Senators in Havana, Burgos says, but he was not “at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him.”

Read the entire story here on the NPR site.  


Myths of the Revolutionary War

April 20, 2018

Smithsonian “Castle”

I stumbled across this site while researching the years just prior to the Revolutionary War. It’s a Smithsonian site and deals ably with several myths about that war. I thought you might enjoy it–I did. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myths-of-the-american-revolution-10941835/

Here are the myths that historian John Ferling debunks:

“Great Britain did not know what is was getting into.”

“Americans of all stripes took up arms out of patriotism.”

“Continental soldiers were always ragged and hungry.”

“The militia was useless.”

“Saratoga was the war’s turning point.”

“General Washington was a brilliant tactician and strategist.” 

“Great Britain could never have won the war.”


Myth # 147: Immigrants had their last names changed or shortened on Ellis Island.

February 17, 2018

While doing some research on a certain Russian immigrant for the nonfiction book I’m working on, I came across this myth. It surprised me, as I had never questioned this “fact.”  

We all know the story: millions of immigrants passed through immigration on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 at an average of 500 people a day, and as they came, inspectors often shortened their last names to something easier to spell, something more “American” sounding. So Waclawek became Walters, Markovitch became Marks, or Schwarz could be translated literally and become Black.

According to the National Park Service, this is a myth. In actual fact, the inspectors on Ellis Island worked from ships’ manifests, where passengers’ names were already listed along with details about their occupation, age, country of origin, marital status, and so forth. These were created in their home port, not in the U.S. 

According to Smithsonian historians, “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, at the New York Public Library, in a blog post delving into the name change mythology. More commonly, immigrants themselves would change their names, either to sound more American, or to melt into the immigrant community, where they were going to live, says Sutton. If name changes happened with any frequency on Ellis Island, it was not noted in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts or in recollections from inspectors, Sutton says. 

It is also unlikely a foreign name would flummox an Ellis Island inspector. From 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages,” says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

So was your last name one of those that was Americanized?  

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really-change-names-immigrants-180961544/#WMjuCszSzCHjSYB1.99


Revisited Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

January 7, 2018

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is still found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no historical foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”

18th-c female with typical sleeves and exposed elbows

For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary [1789]: ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’” [Ouch!]

Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t. 

John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.

It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns,  double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century! 

Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows. 

 

 

Previous comments.

  1. James Meek says:

    As to whether the violin was unsuitable for women in the 1700’s, maybe in America.

    But tell that to Anna Maria from Venice, (1696-1782) for whom Vivaldi wrote numerous violin concertos.

    There’s a wonderful book about this

    http://www.barbaraquick.com/annamaria.html

    and a superb BBC4 video (both visually and musically).

    The full documentary is here:

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Another great and informative posting!

  3. Ha! I was hassled by a very entertaining interpreter a year and a half ago at a tavern in CW, and she rebuked me for showing my elbows. I raised my eyebrow but didn’t challenge her. Vindicated in retrospect!

  4. Lisa D says:

    Perhaps at least with instruments that required a certain lung capacity wearing a corset could make it more challenging

  5. Stephen Herchak says:

    Enjoy these very much — just yesterday I was thinking about something I might as well pass along to you now.

    I know you’ve addressed the notion of “sleep tight” and the ropes supporting mattresses but something I often hear also associated with Colonial furnishing and in the Heyward Washington House where I used to volunteer here in Charleston, is the expression “to square a room away” comes from the practice of moving the furniture against the walls and out from the center of the room when not in use.

    Is that the origin of the term, or is “squaring” something just like “tight”, be it sleep tight, sit tight, just hold tight a minute — and so forth?

    Thanks once again for the great posts, Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve never heard of that phrase, Stephen, but since furniture was often pushed to the edges of the room when it wasn’t being used, I imagine the origin might have come from that practice.

  6. Deborah Brower says:

    Up until your post I had seen a woman playing fiddle in two other 18th century images. One was Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment and the other was a French print. Thanks for tackling this question.
    Big thank you to James Meek for his comments and link. That documentary is stunning, it gave me chills.

    Mary, thanks many times for keeping this blog going. You add so much to our understanding of myths by providing a forum where the weirdest statements can be put under the microscope.


Revisited Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

December 3, 2017

(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 

 

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.

4 http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/tabMS-2.pdf


President Kennedy on Myths

October 23, 2017

I came across this quotation by John F. Kennedy, and it seemed to me as if he was referring directly to history myths. His words ring very true. Wouldn’t they have made a great blurb on the back cover of my book, Death by Petticoat?

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11, 1962


%d bloggers like this: