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.”


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

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.



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!

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

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.



Revisited Myth # 137: “Sleep tight” refers to tightening the ropes on a bed.

December 9, 2017

Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”  

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 


Previous comments

  1. Do you have any other source for this than that “tight” can mean soundly or securely? And how does it relate to “sit tight”? I have never heard “sit tight” nor understand its relation to sitting securely or soundly. Just the sound of it would make me think it was related to “hold your horses” or sit still or be patient. I can vouch that if your ropes on your bed aren’t tight, you don’t sleep well. Just wonder if there is more proof for your reasoning.

    • Mary Miley says:

      No, historians pretty much defer to the OED, although there is some more information from England at

      As for the “sit tight” reference, I probably shouldn’t have thrown that in, but I meant to show that this other use of the word tight did not mean anything to do with ropes, it meant securely, in other words, sit still.

      • Evelyn Noyoga Zak says:

        Interestingly I just was binge watching a bedroom series by Lucy Worsley on History of the Home the Bedroom. and they reference this very phrase tightening the ropes and also don’t let the bed bugs bite using wormwood sprinkled on the straw “mattress”. Could it be our friends across the pond have it wrong? (or right)

      • Mary Miley says:

        I clicked on your link and enjoyed watching the show. A wonderful British series! At around minute 10, the museum docent told Lucy that “Sleep tight” meant tighten the ropes. I believe they are mistaken, and that it sounds so logical that no one bothered to check with the OED on word origin.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Sit tight’ was a phrase my mother used when we were children to mean ‘sit in this spot and don’t get up until I tell you you can.’

  2. Uh, oh I told that to someone a few days ago. I was told it meant to make sure the ropes were tight when I was on a tour of an historical home years ago. Guess I’d better tell my friend it’s an urban legend! Thanks for this blog. It’s really very interesting!

  3. Stephen Herchak says:

    Hi, Mary– loved the bed post (little pun, there) and while I always took it in the sense you mention (sit tight) when I was growing up I began hearing the tight rope version from docents when I was a volunteer at a Colonial home, so thanks for setting that one straight.

    Speaking of which (sort of), it immediately reminded me of another one I heard having to do with Colonial home furnishings — that the rooms were more multipurpose back then than they are now, furniture would be moved from room to room as needed and when a room was not in use would be pushed back against the walls (leaving the center of the room clear) and it is from that moving of chairs/furniture against the sides of the room after using it is where we get the expression and notion of “squaring a room away”.

    Other than the general notion we carry of four corners indicating order and having “everything covered” (going to the four corners of the earth even when it is not rectangular) no other connection jumps to mind for me so my natural inclination of giving the benefit of a doubt to a plausible story wants to believe this one is so.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks again so much — hope you have a great weekend.

    Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments.
      You are aware, I’m sure, that the pushing-furniture-against-the-walls story is long established as true. But I’ve never heard the expression “squaring a room away,” so I can’t comment on whether or not it stems from this practice. I think looking that up in the OED is unlikely to help . . . what word would you look up? Room? Square? I tried to look the phrase up in my two slang dictionaries, English Through the Ages and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but nothing resembling “square a room” was there. Even checked Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then I googled the phrase and came up with no hits. Sorry I can’t help.

  4. Dave E. says:

    Words and sayings from history usually have a practical background to them. Therefor to wish someone to sleep well would possibly refer to the bed set up properly, such as having the ropes properly tightened. A simplified dictionary definition often leaves out the historic and practical reason for the saying or term.

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

Hemingway Didn’t Say That

April 9, 2017

I thought you’d like this NPR piece I came across. It’s about a new book and false attributions–a form of history myth. You know, all those things that Yogi Berra supposedly said that he didn’t say. Garson O’Toole is the author. Check out his blog at

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee marked Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by sharing a charming, if banal, aphorism attributed to Lincoln: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

The problem is there’s no evidence Lincoln ever wrote or said it, which critics on Twitter were only too delighted to point out. The RNC took down the tweet, but all that trouble could have been avoided if they’d first checked in with Garson O’Toole. That’s the pen name of a man who has tracked down the true origins of hundreds of quotes on his website, Quote Investigator.

O’Toole has collected some of those investigations into a new book called Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. He says, “It’s a lot of fun to uncover these hidden histories, and I’m also very glad when I get to give credit to the person who actually said it.”

Interview Highlights

On why quotes often get wrongly attributed to Mark Twain

Mark Twain is known for having a fantastic sense of humor, and if you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it, to think that it’s wonderful. Many quotations, they’re anonymous or from lesser-known comedians reassigned to Twain. There might be a joke and somebody would say it’s Twain-like and then the next person will say, “No, actually, it’s from Twain.”

Hemingway Didn't Say That

On the origin of the quote “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt,” which has been wrongly attributed to both to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain:

The earliest evidence that I was able to find was a 1907 book by Maurice Switzer. And it seems to contain a lot of original material and it includes the statement “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” So it’s slightly different phrasing, but I believe that is what evolved to generate the modern common version.

On the quote by author Anne Rice that even she mistakenly attributed to Franz Kafka:

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.” … It was in an introduction to a collection of stories by Franz Kafka, and she was talking about how she’d been inspired by him. It was her perception of the way Kafka thought when he was writing his stories, but somebody reading that introduction thought that it must have been Kafka that said this instead of Anne Rice and so it started being distributed in that way.

I got an email from an individual who said that on Facebook Anne Rice had posted this quotation and she had attributed it to Kafka. And so that was enormously confusing to me because I thought that if anyone would be able to recognize that quotation, it would be the person who created it. So I sent a Facebook message to Anne Rice; she replied very quickly and said she would look into it to try to find out who actually created it. And then she came back with another reply saying that she’d discovered that in fact it was her words and that she had written it in this introduction, and as evidence of that she gave me a URL that pointed to my website. … And it’s understandable: She’s written a large number of words and she’d written this more than a decade in the past.

Author Garson O’Toole has a simple explanation for why quotes are often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain: “If you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it.”

Many of these quotations are cultural landmarks. They affect the way we think about, say, environmentalism. Let me find this quote: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” That’s been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson; it’s considered a Native American proverb; an Amish saying. But the earliest evidence I found: There’s an activist named Wendell Berry and he was discussing good stewardship of the environment … and I think he deserves credit for this kind of a cultural landmark.

Editor Melissa Gray and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

February 24, 2017


There are several myths associated with the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.”

One says it was a warning to watch out for cheating bartenders who would short you when you ordered a pint or a quart.

Another says it means to watch your “pieds” (feet) and “queus” (wigs), or watch your behavior from head to toe. Yet another says it comes from the master printer reminding his young typesetters to distinguish between the letter P and the letter Q, which are virtually indistinguishable in lower case.


The author of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) notes that of the several explanations he had heard, none were “wholly satisfactory,” but he preferred the interpretation “Be very circumspect in your behaviour” from the French dancing master’s caution to mind your “pieds” and “queues.” I don’t agree.

Personally, I lean toward the printing shop origin. A typesetter in those days had to arrange the type in rows in mirror image, and frankly, looking at a lower case P (p) and a lower case Q (q), which are the backward versions of each other, I can see how that would be very, very easy to confuse. But there is no sure-fire answer to this claim, so you’ll have to decide for yourself.


Previous Comments:

Pat Smith says:
April 28, 2013 at 9:11 am (Edit)
I like the print shop one, of course!

oldud says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am (Edit)
I believe Ockam’s razor would apply to this myth. The explanation with the least stretch would be the print shop.

Lynn Thornton says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
As a teacher the p and q one makes a great deal of sense – especially in a print shop with a dyslectic typesetter

Dani Stuckle says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:43 am (Edit)
P’s would be “Please” and Q’s are “Thank You” –just a reminder to mind your manners.

Chris D. says:
April 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm (Edit)
I’m all for the print shop origin, as it makes the most sense. Somewhat related: I teach classes on both home and industrial sewing machines, and I’ve borrowed this phrase to remind people that different machines require different ways of loading a bobbin. When holding a bobbin with the thread tail dangling it looks like a p or q, depending on which side the tail’s on. It is inserted in the q position for our industrial, and the p position for our home machines (may be different for other folk’s machines though). Mind your Ps & Qs helps them remember that they can’t just pop it in any which way!

Mary Miley says:
April 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Edit)
Very creative!

Daud Alzayer says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
The print shop does not make sense because it has nothing to do with manners. Dani offers the best theory if you ask me; simple wordplay seems a lot more plausible than something specific to a single trade, especially when the meaning doesn’t match.

Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:39 am (Edit)
Most proverbial analogies have little to do with the originating inspiration. It’s the poetic irony that makes the point.

Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:37 am (Edit)
It’s more likely to mistake p and q on a composing stick than it is to mistake a pint from a quart. I’ll go with the printing analogy as being the most plausible off all.

Beth says:
April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm (Edit)
There is a good discussion of the various possible origins of “Ps and Qs” at the awesome “Phrase Finder” website:

I’m pretty sure I made mention of this site before for “Pop goes the Weasel.” It’s well-researched and fascinating. Everytime I visit, I invariably end up losing an hour or so if I’m not careful 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Edit)
Yes, an excellent site. Thanks for reminding us.

Keith says:
April 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
I had heard that the Ps and Qs were for a tally board at a tavern where the # of pints and quarts were recorded per customer.

Mike says:
May 21, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Edit)
The French word “queue”, means tail, not wig. It is also used for a line up, or a queue, as for in front of a cinema. In vulgar slang, it is also used for a certain male body part.

Andrew says:
June 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm (Edit)
Definitely comes from the world of the movable press. Since typesetting was done in mirror image, a p would be a q when typeset and the q a p. No other two letters are so close when reversed and thus they had to mind these two in particular.

Tina Gubbings says:
August 18, 2016 at 6:37 am (Edit)
b & d ?

Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:29 am (Edit)
Mind your Bs and Ds???

Curtis Cook says:
February 18, 2017 at 7:27 am (Edit)
Speaking as someone who spent ten weeks as a typesetter (and hopes never to have to do that again), in the font we were using the ‘b’ and ‘d’ WERE the ‘q’ and ‘p’, respectively. We simply rotated the ‘p’ 180 degrees to get a ‘d’ and rotated the ‘q’ when we needed a ‘b’.

I, of course, find the typesetter solution to be the most likely. Trying to keep the ‘p’s and ‘q’s straight was the bane of my existence.

Mary Miley says:
February 18, 2017 at 8:53 am (Edit)
So say all the apprentices at Colonial Williamsburg’s printer’s shop.

Gary Bulthouse says:
October 2, 2016 at 3:30 pm (Edit)
I think it has it’s origin in the math expressions in LOGIC. E.G. In Modus tollens: if P then Q… and all the other logical equations. It makes more sense than any other explanation offered here because it’s saying quite clearly “mind the rules”.


Revisited Myth #109: Laws allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and that’s where the phrase “rule of thumb” originated.

January 28, 2017


There are actually two myths here: 1) that laws allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was small, and 2) that this is the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb.”

First par first. In the various American colonies, laws differed from place to place and year to year. In Maryland, at least in the 1600s, beating one’s dependents with a small stick was allowed. Dependents included indentured servants, slaves, children, and wives. “The community expected him [a husband and landowner] to keep good order and the law allowed him to correct any of his charges with physical punishment, provided that any stick used in beating was no thicker than a man’s finger at its thickest end. Beating even his wife was permissible.” Lois Green Carr, “From Servant to Freeholder” Maryland Historical Magazine (Fall 2004), p. 298. Legal reference not cited. No similar references have been found that refer to thumbs and beatings, only to fingers.

Beatings with this size stick could be severe, and several cases appear against masters who beat their slaves or servants excessively, “Whereuppon mr Ouerzee beate him wth some Peare Tree wands or twiggs to the bignes of a mans finger att the biggest end, wch hee held in his hand” and the slave died. (Maryland Provincial Court Proceedings 1658) but I found no mention of wives or children being beaten with sticks, perhaps because none sued in Court. Again, the reference to stick size is a man’s finger, not a thumb.

Now for Part 2) the origins of the phrase “Rule of Thumb.” Our old reliable friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, disputes this claim. The Rule of Thumb, it says, is “a method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method.” The earliest known instance of the term is 1692: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” More examples from later years follow, but nothing pertaining to beating one’s wife.

In her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers spends five entire pages discussing the origins, legal and journalistic, of the phrase, “rule of thumb.” It is too long for me to retype the entire section and the book is not available online to cut and paste, so I can’t post it. You’ll have to read pages 203-207 at your local library if you want more detail. Suffice to say that Sommers’s exhaustive research uncovered no link between the phrase and the law, other than misguided journalists quoting one another in magazine and newspaper articles. Which is how such myths are spread.

In a nutshell, Sommers debunks the oft-repeated statement that rule of thumb laws permitting wife-beating can be found in the famous legal commentaries of William Blackstone (1723-1780), which is the basis of much U.S. common law, and that these laws prevailed in state courts throughout the 19th century. Blackstone does state, “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children . . . But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.” This conforms to the Maryland law, mentioned above. (Charles II ruled 1660-1685)

“In America,” Sommers says, “there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. . . . The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense . . . “

But a couple of careless judges stated in their opinions the erroneous belief that this myth was true, and these men are often quoted as proof. In Mississippi in 1824 and in North Carolina in 1874, judges referred to an “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no wider than his thumb. There is no ancient law. None. And even here, neither judge referred to the supposed law as the “rule of thumb.”

Even the much-maligned Wikipedia has got this right. But there are many online sites that cheerfully and wrongly explain the origin of this phrase.



Cassidy says:
March 23, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
Interesting, but can I ask if English laws were examined and/or why they weren’t? Because what I’ve heard is that the supposed “rule of thumb” is from Sir Francis Buller, called “Judge Thumb“. I mean, I’ve also heard that Buller never actually said anything about sticks as wide as a man’s thumb, but there must be something (perhaps blown out of proportion and exaggerated for comic effect) that sparked Gillray’s cartoon.

Mary Miley says:
March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Edit)
I surmise from this cartoon that there was some British law about size of sticks, like the one mentioned above in Maryland about finger-size sticks. (And I’d be delighted if you wanted to look into the topic and report back!) But the origins of the phrase, Rule of Thumb, is explained by Oxford English Dictionary (above), and I always bow to their wisdom.

nunya says:
November 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm (Edit)

And another article from Yale Law would disagree with this article (at least the feminist aspect of it). Just because something is illegal/legal on the books does NOT mean it didn’t happen.

Lisa Denton says:
August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm (Edit)
I recently watched some old BBC episodes of what I’d call experimental archaeology/reality show, Tudor Monastery Farm (2013). In the 3rd episode, one of the historians is visiting a miller (flour). The miller mentions rule of thumb. It’s 25m 45 sec into it.
Has anyone ever heard of this origin? Or is this another misguided historical interpreter? Or is there a difference between British and American usage?

Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:23 am (Edit)
Frankly, this sounds like a possible origin of the phrase, but I can’t prove it.


Raining Cats and Dogs ?

December 30, 2016
Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks--what a storm!

Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks–what a storm!

“Back in the old days, when it rained people would put their cats and dogs up in the rafters so they would not get wet. [Variation: animals would climb up themselves to avoid the weather.] But the roofs often leaked, and the beams would get slippery so the animals fell, and it really was ‘raining cats and dogs’!”
There’s no myth here, just a question about the origins of this common saying. The best I can do  is to report that a word search in JSTOR made me think the origin of the phrase may be Irish, as those are the earliest written usages I found. My opinion: this is a nonsensical phrase, like “raining pitchforks,” used to indicate severe rainfall and is not based on anything concrete. 

%d bloggers like this: