A Brief History
On September 22, 1692, eight people convicted of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials were executed by hanging. The trials took place between February 1692 and May 1693 and resulted in the execution of twenty people, most of them women. Contrary to the common belief that witches were typically burned, most of those condemned in Salem and the surrounding areas died by hanging.
As in our previous article on 10 Things History Got Wrong about Women, this article explores 10 more common misconceptions involving women in history. These misconceptions may be due to legend, malicious gossip, Hollywood depictions, incorrect reporting, false beliefs, assumptions and guessing or even simple ignorance.
For more generalized lists involving historical falsehoods, please also see articles from the series History Got it Wrong, parts one, deux, drei, quarto and five (movie edition). But now on with the women…
1) Mary Magdalene was a Prostitute
For years, Christians were taught that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and that Jesus’ acceptance of her showed that he did not judge her and was welcoming and forgiving of all “sinners.” It turns out, however, that her identity had been merged with that of an unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet. None of the four gospels in the New Testament in which she is mentioned made any reference to her being a prostitute. The image of her as a repentant prostitute was most likely due to a misconception that then got propagated en masse within the Western Christian Church during the Middle Ages but somehow was not picked up by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This image was so prevailing that until recently it influenced most of the art that ever depicted her as well as just about all of the movies, plays and musicals in which her character had a role. She is even the patroness of “wayward women,” and the Magdalene asylums that were established in the 18th century to help save women from prostitution were named after her.
2) Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for 9 Days
Queen Jane never formally existed. At the time of Edward VI’s death, his sister Mary Tudor automatically become queen as stipulated by the Third Succession Act of 1543 that was passed by Parliament and that had restored Mary and Elizabeth Tudor to the line of succession after their brother Edward, despite their illegitimacy. This had been the wish of their father Henry VIII who followed it up with the Treason Act of 1547 that made it high treason to interrupt that line of succession. His son and immediate successor, Edward VI was Protestant and not did wish for his Catholic sister to follow him on the throne. As he lay dying, he wrote a legal letter in which he named his cousin Lady Jane Grey his successor in place of Mary. This order, however, did not override the two acts that had been passed by Parliament, and it cost Jane, the poor Protestant pawn, her head.
3) The Women Condemned at the Salem Witch Trials Were Burned at the Stake
As stated in the introduction, most of the people convicted of witchcraft at the Salem Witch Trials and condemned to die were executed by hanging. The idea of burning goes back to Europe and the time of the Reformation when Protestant “heretics” were burned by Catholics. The most famous examples are “Bloody Mary” and the Spanish Inquisition. It must be noted, however, that Queen Mary I of England, a.k.a. “Bloody Mary” was no more “bloody” than any of her counterparts. With “only” 280 victims in 5 years, she was quite “tame” by the standards of the day. In other parts of Europe, this policy of burning later extended to witches, as laid down by the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina of 1532, a penal code that defined crimes and punishments, the punishment for witchcraft being “execution by fire.” Burning, however, seemed to be a Catholic phenomenon, and those involved with the Salem Witch Trials were Puritan. Perhaps that is why they opted for hanging because they themselves had often been persecuted and punished with the flame for their beliefs.
4) American Women Could Not Vote Before the 19th Amendment was Passed in 1920
It is commonly assumed that no American women was able to vote before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. This was not the case. Individual states had individual laws, and some states based the right to vote off of property. That meant that widowed women with significant property or single women who had inherited enough acreage could vote. If female landowners married, however, their property automatically became that of their husbands, and he would assume the right to vote.
5) Agatha Christie Planned to Commit Suicide in Order to Frame Her Husband’s Mistress for Her “Murder”
In 1926 famous mystery novelist Agatha Christie famously went missing for 10 days. She had quarreled with her husband about his girlfriend and then took off. After an extensive manhunt, she was finally found in a hotel having registered under an assumed name. Doctors attributed her disappearance to a case of amnesia. The public reaction was not positive, with many claiming it was a publicity stunt or her attempt to raise suspicion that her husband had murdered her. The 1979 film Agatha elaborated on the latter belief and explained the disappearance as part of Christie’s plan to commit suicide and frame the mistress for her “murder.” This plot was vehemently contested by Christie’s heirs, but with Christie never voicing herself to this incident during her life, in fact she omitted it from her autobiography, all that the public can do is speculate and create imaginary scenarios.
6) Marie Curie Died of Cancer
Many people believe Marie Curie died of cancer caused by the radiation she studied. There is even a charity in Great Britain known as Marie Curie Cancer Care which provides services to terminally ill people. Instead Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia. In Curie’s time, the effects of radiation were not yet known, so safety measures such as protective clothing had not yet been implemented. It is commonly assumed that her illness was a direct result of radiation exposure, however, she did not die of cancer. Aplastic anemia is a disease of the bone marrow in which the blood stem cells that are found there are damaged and cannot produce enough new blood cells. The sufferer is then left feeling fatigued and with a higher risk of infection and uncontrolled bleeding. Despite her brilliance (She was the first women to win a Nobel Prize, and she won two of them!!!) and her achievements (the theory of radioactivity and the discovery of 2 elements), Curie never acknowledged that her health woes could be due to her line of work.
7) A Picture of Rita Hayworth was NOT on the Atom Bomb
This one is confusing. At the conclusion of World War II, the United States wanted to further develop the capabilities of atom bombs. Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean was selected as a testing location in 1946. There was the long-standing belief that Rita Hayworth’s picture was on an atomic bomb. Then recent research suggested that only the name “Gilda,” her most iconic role and the one that gave her bombshell status, was etched on the bomb. Even the Wikipedia article on Rita Hayworth incorrectly states that her image was never on the bomb and elaborates on this extensively. The author of this article, however, found a radio broadcast by Rita’s husband, Orson Welles, that confirms that her picture was on the bomb (see above Youtube video). Furthermore, the author also found a picture of the bomb that shows both the name “Gilda” AND an image of Hayworth.
8) Before She Died, Eva Peron uttered the Quotation, “I will return, and I will be millions.”
The quote “I will return, and I will be millions.” is falsely believed to have been uttered by Eva Peron. She is supposed to have said it before she died. If she did do so, what did she mean by it? That she would live on in the millions of her Argentinean countrymen and women? That there would be millions on little “Evitas” running around emulating her? No point in speculation though since she never said it. Instead it is from a poem by José Maria Castiñeira de Dios which he wrote in Evita’s first-hand narrative more than 10 years after her death. In other words a fictional account by someone else is now attributed to her.
9) Marilyn Monroe was a Size 16!
This famous misconception that is often used by “more rounded” girls to feel somewhat better about themselves is false. Although Marilyn’s weight fluctuated, she was never as large as a modern-day size 16. Of course, it is difficult to say what exactly a size 16 is, since there are no standardized measurements, and every clothing manufacturer comes up with their own definitions, often keeping the vanity and insecurities of their female customers in mind. In other words, a size 16 in the 1950s is not what a size 16 would be today, and size 16 by company A would not be a size 16 coming from company B. So, with nothing much to go by, the author used herself as a comparison, and luckily both Marilyn and the author share the same height and weight (approx. 5’5” and 120 lbs). To make accommodations for body shape, the author even took out the measuring tape, and determined that Marilyn had a smaller waist and hips than her (only the bust was larger). The author is a size 6 or 8. That means Marilyn could not have worn a larger size. And to those who say she gained weight and became fat, even the author was once heavier at 150+ pounds and never wore a size larger than a 10. It is safe to assume Marilyn was never a size 16, 14 or even 12 for that matter. Maybe in 1950s sizes but certainly not in modern-day sizes.
10) Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house!”
In September 11, 2008 interview by Charles Gibson of ABC News, Sarah Palin is supposed to have famously uttered the words, “And I can see Russia from my house!” This was not the case. Instead she said of the Russians, “They’re our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia, from land, here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” The former quotation actually came from a Saturday Night Live skit in which Tina Fey famously impersonated the vice-presidential candidate. This situation can be described as life imitating art; the comedic sketch was so popular that the public began attributing the quote to the real person and not the character. The actual quotation, however, came from an edited part of the interview, where key parts that led up to that statement had been omitted. This editing might have been done to make poor Sarah seem simple when it came to foreign affairs. At any rate, the SNL skit solidified that public perception of her.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware of any of these misconceptions? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cade, Jared. Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days: The Revised and Expanded 2011 Edition. Peter Owen Publishers, 2011.
Higgs, Liz Curtis. Unveiling Mary Magdalene: Discover the Truth About a Not-So-Bad Girl of the Bible. WaterBrook, 2004.
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.