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Myths in History: What is “Common Knowledge?”

Nineteenth-century etching of the Salem Witch Trials.

According to the Board for Certification of Genealogists, the standards for documenting call for genealogists to “identify the sources of all substantive information and images they gather, use, or plan to gather or use, except sources of ‘common knowledge’ beyond disputes, such as the years of major historical events.” [1] The problem is, what about when “common knowledge” is incorrect? History is filled with myths from major to minor, stories that have been changed in the repeating so that what we “know” isn’t factual. So, when writing about our ancestors in this period, it is important to be accurate. Details are important. Here are five examples of myths in history:

  1. Salem Witches

It is amazing that there are so many myths associated with this one historical event. Among the information that is incorrect:

Fiction: All the accused witches were women. Truth: Men were accused as well.

Fiction: The accused were all from Salem. Fact: The accused were not only from Salem, but from surrounding towns such as Andover, Gloucester, Ipswich, and more.

Fiction: Everything associated with the witch trials occurred in Salem. Fact: While the location of the trials remains in Salem, many of the actions took place in Salem Village, which is today Danvers.

Fiction: Accusers were under the influence of psychedelic plants and food. Fact: This myth has been debunked several times, including by the noted historian Mary Beth Norton.

Fiction: Victims were burned at the stake. Fact: Those found guilty in the Salem trials were put to death by hanging or pressing. None were burned at the stake.

You can read more about misperceptions around the Salem Witch Trials in a town website, Spotlight on Salem.

  1. Thomas Edison invented the Electric Light.

The electric light was first invented by Sir Humphry Davy in 1802.  Thomas Edison filed his first patent improvements to electric lights more than seventy-five years later, in 1878. It would take another year before the incandescent bulb would go on sale.[2] Discover more about the history of the light bulb.

  1. All Colonial Men Wore Wigs

Wearing a wig in colonial America was not typical for the masses. According  to the supervisor of the Wigmaker’s Shop in Colonial Williamsburg, only about 5% of the population in colonial Virginia wore wigs. This was limited to the gentry, and tradesmen and professionals (such as lawyers, doctors, merchants, ship captains, etc.). House slaves of wealthy men may also have worn wigs. Find out more from the Myth Busters.[3] 

  1. The 1929 Stock Market Crash Caused Many Suicides

Among the things we learned about Black Tuesday when we were young was that this was the warning sign that the Great Depression was on the way. And that the terrible day caused many working in the financial industry to jump out of hi-rise office windows in droves. In reality, only two individuals jumped from tall buildings at the time of the crash, and neither can be definitively tied to the crisis. And there is no evidence of large-scale suicides in New York in response to the events of the day.

  1. Slavery Was a Southern Institution

Slavery in the North website homepage.Slavery was actively practiced throughout the colonies. It was just never as widespread in the North as it was in the South. Famous northern men like William Penn and Benjamin Franklin were slaveowners. The North never had the number of slaves that the South had. In the 1800 Census, New York and New Jersey accounted for almost 80% of the 36,000 slaves in the North. Although it pales in comparison to the 840,000 slaves in the South, these are still states that condoned ownership of other human beings. Only Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and the Northwest Territory had no slaves.[6] And slavery’s legacy of racism and white privilege continues in the North to this day.

 

1 Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Second Edition (Washington, D.C.: the Board, 2019) 5.

2 “History of the Light Bulb” at Bulbs.com (https://www.bulbs.com/learning/history.aspx).

3 “Revisited Myth #40: Most Men Wore Wigs in Colonial America” History Myths Debunked (https://historymyths.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/revisited-myth-40-most-men-wore-wigs-in-colonial-america/ ).

6 United States Census Office. Return of the Whole Number of persons Within the Several Districts of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Census Office, 1801) 2.

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