About Jane McGrath

The youngest of five, Jane grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in a family that discussed (read: argued about) such light topics as politics and religion over dinner every night. Raised on old movies, she wanted to be Barbara Stanwyck when she grew up (since Stanwyck played writers a lot, Jane figures she did pretty well). While studying English literature at the University of Maryland, she cultivated a love of stories and writing. There, as an English major begrudgingly taking the necessary science credits, she discovered an unexpected love of physics and learned about HowStuffWorks.com from one of her professors. She graduated and moved to Atlanta, and the rest is history.

Most Recent: Jane McGrath Postings

With a heavy heart, I write today to say goodbye to Stuff You Missed in History Class and HowStuffWorks.com. I’ll be moving away from the Atlanta area, and unfortunately that means leaving the podcast and blog behind. I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of such a great organization where I get to learn so much by studying interesting subjects every week.

It’s been a joy getting to work with Candace as well as the rest of the team here, who have always been supportive. I’m also indebted to the fans of the podcast, who have sent such positive and helpful feedback. Needless to say, Josh is a tough act to follow, but I’m grateful to our fans who’ve been so accepting of my joining.

I look forward to opportunities to continue writing for the Web site in the future, but for now, I’ll leave you with a smattering of some of my favorite blog posts and articles I’ve written…

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You might consider me a tad biased as a history podcaster/blogger, but I think history is an under-appreciated major (along with English, of course). I like it when anyone takes the time to draw parallels to history or looks to the past for a deeper understanding of a concept. So I also appreciated how the famous documentary filmmaker Ken Burns emphasized the importance of history in his speech to the Boston College graduates yesterday.

In case his name isn’t ringing a bell, Burns is known for his documentaries on American history subjects, particularly the Civil War, baseball and jazz. According to BC’s Web site, Burns said in his speech that in 30 years of studying it, he’s learned that history is “the greatest teacher there is.” He mentioned that past events and people act as “guiding lights” and sources of help and solace.

He also shed light on how complex and difficult it can be…

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If you think things got tense over President Obama speaking at Notre Dame this weekend, consider what it was like the day a senator was violently beaten by a fellow congressman on the Senate floor in 1856. Podcast listener Dan asks us to investigate the bizarre incident in which Rep. Preston Brooks repeatedly beat Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane. This attack had to do with the issue of slavery and served as a bloody prelude to the Civil War, which would break out just a few years later.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had recently done away with the Missouri Compromise, and now a vote (popular sovereignty) could settle the matter of slavery in new states, according to History.com. By 1856, violence in Kansas brought the matter back to Congress, and abolitionist Charles Sumner launched a two-day diatribe against the pro-slavery South, including Sen. Andrew P. Butler in particular.

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Scholars will be able to take a closer look at an important letter from Henry VIII to Pope Clement VII now that the Vatican has announced the release from its Secret Archives. The New York Times Arts Beat blog reports that the Vatican plans to sell facsimiles of the document next month. According to the Vatican Web site, the letter is dated July 13, 1530 and includes 85 seals and signatures of the Peers of England in solidarity with the king.

At the time, Henry was seeking an annulment from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. After Henry began annulment proceedings in England, Clement thought this inappropriate and moved the case to Rome. The pope knew this was a sensitive issue, and so he took his sweet time before announcing his decision. Meanwhile, Henry was growing impatient.

The Vatican clarifies that this particular letter is “not a plea for the annulment.”

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You might remember a news story out of Germany last summer about a man who tore off the head of a wax figure of Adolf Hitler. The figure, depicting a forlorn and defeated Hitler in his bunker, was already a highly anticipated and controversial exhibit before the Madame Tussauds wax museum opened in Berlin. Unlike other exhibits, the public wasn’t allowed to touch or pose with it for pictures. In Germany, where it’s against the law to display Nazi symbols and art that glorify the movement, many complained that the exhibit was “tasteless,” reports Reuters.

Despite the extra security, on Saturday, July 5, minutes after the museum opened its doors for the first time, a 41-year-old German man broke past guards and tore off the figure’s head. A few months later, the museum replaced the wax head and put the figure behind glass with two guards, says New York Times.

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Ever since joining the podcast, I’ve grown more sympathetic towards people who flub their history a little in public statements. As a writer, I try to diligently fact-check everything before it gets published, but in conversation that gets recorded, it’s easier to slip up and say something inaccurate. Luckily, our fans are quick to help us out and let us know whenever this happens. Unfortunately for the president, he’s held up to a higher bar and gets scrutinized by every expert historian. And, he’s made some significant errors that they won’t let him forget.

Back in February, when a podcast listener brought it to my attention, I posted on Obama’s mistake about who invented the car. Recently, Obama has come under fire for a comment about Winston Churchill’s opinion on torture. An article from the Times Online discusses how Obama doesn’t have a great record when it comes to World War II history.

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On Feb. 4, 1974, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped Patty Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst (the notorious yellow journalist and basis for Citizen Kane). The SLA was made up of about dozen radical leftists, including two black ex-cons and several white, middle-class activists, all bent on starting a revolution. They made up the word “Symbionese” to represent their goal of symbiosis among people in society — though their tactics included murder and bank robbery in addition to kidnapping. Now, the last captured member of the SLA has been released on parole, reports AP.

Robert Stone, director of the documentary, “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” sheds some light on why exactly the SLA decided to kidnap her. It had to do with the fact that two members of the SLA were in jail at the time — arrested for the murder of a superintendent. Taking cues from Latin American terrorists, the SLA originally hoped to make a prisoner exchange with Hearst.

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If I were to write an article about the 10 biggest mistakes in history (like my 10 Biggest Lies article) I’d probably have to include the long-running map error depicting California as an island. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of this major cartographical mistake until podcast listener Laurie e-mailed us wanting to know more about it. After a little research, I thought this was a prime topic for fan mail Monday.

In his Coast Lines, Mark S. Monmonier dates the mistake back to Hernán Cortéz, the 16th-century Spanish conquistador, who sent out expeditions to explore the coast. In the 17th century, based on erroneous reports from (or, depending on which source you read, misinterpretations of) such expeditions, a Spanish friar, Father Antonio Ascension, drew a sketch of California as an island separated from the mainland by a “Mediterranean Sea of California.”

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Although I live in Atlanta, I have a confession: I’m not a Coke fan. But Pepsi doesn’t do it for me either. For me, it’s Dr. Pepper all the way. It doesn’t have such an international reputation as Coca-Cola, but it shares a similar history. Like Coke, Dr. Pepper has a secret recipe which can be traced back to a pharmacy more than a century ago. According to Snopes, the company that owns Dr. Pepper has separated the formula into two documents and keeps these in two separate banks in Dallas. So, even if you got your hands on one of these documents, you still wouldn’t have the whole recipe. Now, the company might be a little nervous at the news released this week that someone has stumbled upon what could be the original formula.

Recently, while browsing through antique stores in Texas, Bill Waters found an old notebook filled with recipes for quirky formulas for such things as hair restorer and piano polish…

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Justice Souter recently addressed the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, like he’s done every year since joining the Supreme Court in 1990. But given that this was the first speech he’s given since last week’s announcement that he’s retiring, it made for an especially emotional event this time around. Although he only spoke for 14 minutes, he shared a surprising viewpoint about judges’ impact on history.

For some context, David Souter was tapped for the country’s highest bench by George H. W. Bush. But, that’s not to say he’s always handed down opinions that cohere with conservative justices like Clarence Thomas, another Supreme Court Justice chosen by Bush 1. Like President Obama has said, according to USA Today, Souter has “consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes.” A biography from the Oyez Project calls him “quirky” and “a man of unusual and peculiar sensibilities” who has faced criticism from both left and right political groups.

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