Coffin Cut-Outs and Other Urban Legends You Probably Believe

Updated: Oct. 27, 2023

Have you heard the one about the staircase built specifically to trip up burglars? Let's bust six myths about the history of our homes.

Some stories about our homes seem believable at first. When investigated, however, they crumble like ancient plaster.

As anyone familiar with the term “urban legend” knows, these stories are captivating nonetheless. Writer Mary Miley Theobald, the author of “Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked,” understands the allure.

“Myths in general are more fun than fact,” Theobald said. “They can be funny, sexy, scary. They’re memorable in a number of different ways. They stick in your mind more than the more obvious answers.”

Coffin Corners

Does your home have a mysterious cut-out area in its staircase wall? Those niches are often dubbed “coffin corners.” There’s a common belief they exist so if someone dies upstairs, the people carrying the casket can insert one end into the niche and make a turn at the landing.

Theobald calls this one “nonsense.” Wall niches, she said, are simply useful ways to display art, statues and other items. It would be ridiculous to build them in advance with the assumption someone would die upstairs. If anyone did die there, the body could be carried downstairs before it was put in a bulky casket.

“Lots of the myths are just so illogical,” Theobald said.

Staircases That Trip Up Burglars

Many historic homes have staircases with uneven steps. But it’s a myth they were intentionally built that way to trip up a burglar sneaking up the stairs in the dark of night. Theobald knows that now. But in her days as a tour guide in Colonial Williamsburg, she admits that she, too, spread that myth.

“I told thousands of visitors that (uneven steps) were to prevent burglars,” she said with a laugh.

Realistically, the uneven steps in some older homes are just due to builder error. “As any good carpenter will tell you, building stairs is hard!” Theobald wrote in her book. But it’s still fun to imagine the staircase builder plotting it out with a “Home Alone” thief-thwarting mentality.

Mortgage Button

Some staircases end with a round or square knob known as a newel post. Theobald said many people believe that when a homeowner in the 17th and 18th centuries paid off their mortgage, they drilled a hole in the post, rolled up the mortgage document and stuffed it inside. They then supposedly sealed the hole with a decorative plug called a “mortgage button.”

While not a real tradition for historic homes, Theobald notes some people still believe it. “You still hear ‘mortgage button,’ and you sometimes see online ads for them,” she says.

Venetian Blinds Aren’t From Venice

You know Venetian blinds — window coverings with adjustable horizontal slats that can be drawn up or tilted to reveal the view. The name implies they’re from Venice, Italy, but Theobald says that’s not true.

The blinds seem to have originated in the Persian Empire, or perhaps China or India. Venice, a port city, handled much of Europe’s trade with the East, Theobald said, so perhaps the blinds passed through Venice on the way to the rest of Europe. Venetian, though? That’s like saying you hail from the last airport where you had a stopover.

There Was No Closet Tax

Some people believe that colonial-era homes lacked closets because of something called a “closet tax,” where homeowners had to pay the government for each closet they owned. Theobald laughs at this one. Early taxes varied by colony, she said, but no record of a “closet tax” has been found.

Early homes did have closets, but they were often used for general storage, not clothing. Clothes hangers didn’t come into use until after the Civil War, and early homeowners often kept what few clothes they had in chests or hanging on hooks.

Double Staircases and Naked Ankles

Many large historic homes have two staircases instead of one, and thereon hangs a myth. Theobald says some people mistakenly believe Victorian men and women were so prudish they built one staircase for men and another for women. Why? So women wouldn’t risk a glimpse of naked ankle as men passed them on the stairs. Yep, it sounds ridiculous.

Instead, many homes had a larger, nicer staircase for the family and guests, and a small, steep staircase for servants or slaves. And some homes have sweeping, identical double staircases that mirror each other. Those, Theobald says were “designed to impress, not for modesty.”