History was one of our favorite subjects in school. There's no end to how much you can learn about the world and the people in it. Have you ever wondered how something got its name, or what a notable historical figure was famous for? It's so important that we study history, mostly so we can avoid repeating it (although that still seems to be happening too often nowadays). But sometimes, the most interesting events in history are the ones you very likely DIDN'T learn about in school. There are some strange historical facts that will blow your mind, proving that truth is always stranger than fiction.
Some strange historical facts call into question everything you thought you knew about a particular person or subject. Others give you more context about a historical event or shed some light on little details of some of the most famous people from the past. Some will make you laugh, make you scratch your head, or even horrify you. But all of these strange historical facts are definitely interesting. Memorize some of these and blow everyone's mind when you drop some knowledge at the next gathering you attend, or use them to finally convince your kids once and for all that you actually do know interesting stuff that has nothing to do with snacks.
Dentures are a great option for a lot of people, like the elderly or those with tooth and jaw injuries or damage. You can rock a full set, or get single implants (yay, dental science advancements!). We've all heard the tall tale of George Washington wearing wooden dentures (not actually true). But beyond that, have you ever considered the real history of dentures? Probably not, right? If you had, you'd know that until about the mid-1800's, dentures were actually made from the teeth of deceased soldiers, so that's ... neat. Nowadays, dentures are mostly made from acrylic resin and metal, which seems to be a major upgrade.
Have you ever heard of the "cobra effect"? It's what happens when the solution to a problem actually makes the problem much, much worse. One of the strange historical facts we found explains where the cobra effect came from, and it's pretty funny. While India was still under British rule, the government became concerned with the population of highly venomous cobras in Delhi. So, they began offering cash rewards for dead cobras. In order to milk the system, citizens began breeding cobras to kill them and turn them in for cash. The government ended the incentive program, so breeders just let all these poisonous snakes free since they held no value any longer. The cobra population in Delhi skyrocketed. So, whoops?
One of the best things about researching strange historical facts is stumbling across badass people you might not have heard of. Take Peter Freuchen, for instance. There is A LOT about this guy to admire: he was an explorer, a journalist, writer, anthropologist, and a member of the Danish Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. But, despite this impressive resume, he's most known for something else entirely. During an Arctic expedition, Freuchen was trapped under an avalanche that turned to ice. Without a knife or pick to get out, he fashioned a shiv out of his own frozen poop. Another time, he amputated his own frostbitten toes that had turned gangrenous and made himself a peg for a leg. A true boss.
BPL [Public domain]
The Boston Tea Party — yep, we know all about that. We spent a lot of time learning about that particular protest in school. But have you ever heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster? On January 15, 1919, a 90-foot wide cast-iron tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company and filled to the brim with sticky molasses, exploded and spilled 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses into the streets of Boston. The stuff ran through the streets like a tsunami, 15 feet high and reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour. The molasses tsunami demolished everything in its path, toppling buildings, drowning horses, and eventually killed 21 and injured 150. It took weeks to clean up the mess, and the smell of molasses lingered on hot days for decades.
We had no idea that this ever existed but need to know everything about it immediately. Secret societies have been around for centuries, but we've never heard of one as odd as The Order of the Pug. In 17th century England, Pope Clement XII issued a papal bull banning Catholics from becoming Freemasons (one of the oldest and most recognized secret societies in history). In protest of the papal bull, Roman Catholics founded a secret society and named it "Mops-Orden," or The Order of the Pug.
It's believed that the society was founded by Clemens August of Bavaria, who chose the pug as the symbol of the society because they represented loyalty and trustworthiness. New members being initiated into The Order of the Pug had to wear a dog collar and scratch at common room doors to be allowed entry. Weirdest of the strange historical facts, paws down.
Honestly, who can say for sure that giants didn't exist? Giants are a big (lol) part of Ancient Greek mythology, and the Greeks were pretty sure they proved their existence with the discovery of enormous bones buried throughout the country's landscape. When you don't know what the hell you're looking at, we're sure the discovery of a massive bone would make you say "GIANTS"! We now know that the bones they unearthed were most likely fossilized skeletons belonging to prehistoric creatures like wooly mammoths and mastodons. Or, they belonged to actual giants, who can be sure?
It sounds like a joke, and the Australian army probably wish it was, but they really did lose a war to a bunch of emus. The Great Emu War of 1932 was a nuisance wildlife management operation started by the Australian military. Emus were causing an immense amount of destruction to crops in Australia, so the government deployed the military and armed them with machine guns to curb the population and force the birds out. See, during the breeding season, roughly 20,000 of the large flightless birds had migrated inland, so the soldiers planned to gun them down. However, emus are apparently quite smart, and the flock soon broke up into several smaller units and spread out. The soldiers couldn't get to them all, and eventually retreated after about a month of "combat." All told, only about 968 birds were killed, and the emus declared victory over an actual human army.
The vibrator as we know it today is a thing of beauty. It's there for us in good times and bad and just makes life a little more manageable. How fascinating can it be, though? Well, it didn't land on our list of strange historical facts for nothing. In the Victorian era, doctors routinely diagnosed women with "hysteria." Symptoms included irritability, anxiety, and stomach bloat. To treat the condition, doctors would induce orgasms. So many women started complaining of hysteria (shocking) that doctors got tired of getting them off by hand. So, Dr. J. Mortimer Granville invented the vibrator in the 1880s to take some of the load off of those poor, overworked doctors. Thanks, doc!
Cats are smart little animals and we love them dearly. We've always known they had immense potential for world domination, but this little tidbit was surprising even to us. In 1929, researchers at Princeton turned a live cat into a functioning telephone, but fair warning before you read on, it was not humane. Ernest Wever and Charles Bray removed a portion of a live cat's skull as well as most of its brain and attached an electrode to its right auditory nerve. They attached another electrode to the cat's body. Both electrodes were hooked up to an amplifier, and the signals were sent to a telephone receiver. When they talked into the cat's ear, Wever and Bray could hear the sound in the receiver. This awful experiment was believed to be the inspiration for the eventual invention of cochlear implants.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the height-challenged French general, had a bit of a bad temper. Everyone thinks it's because he was self-conscience about his height (Napoleon complex, anyone?), but maybe it was because he was once attacked by actual tiny rabbits. In 1807, the general was part of a hunting party hosted by his chief of staff. Napoleon, armed with an actual weapon, was attacked and quickly overpowered by hundreds of bunnies. They came in waves, climbing his clothes and at one point even blocking his escape. We have to say, we'd be a little angry if we nearly lost a fight with some rabbits, too.
Some strange historical facts are almost too weird to be true. Heroin kills thousands of people every year as an illegal street drug, but back in the day, it was given to everyone from babies to the elderly to cure any number of conditions. Cough? Take some heroin. Headache? Have some heroin! In fact, Bayer (a pharmaceutical company that's still around today) was the first to use and market heroin as a medicine. In 1885, they started selling it as a "non-addictive" alternative to morphine, which was used in cough medicine. Obviously, Bayer was not being honest, and heroin soon had one of the highest addiction rates among users.
When you enter a raffle, you hope to win something cool, right? A gift card to your favorite restaurant, or maybe a family vacation! What you don't expect is to be in the running for a human infant, but that's exactly what used to happen in Paris in 1911. The Paris Foundling Hospital needed a way to find homes for their orphaned babies and children, and so the Loterie de Bébés was started. Aspiring parents (unable to have biological children) would enter the lottery and hope that their names were chosen to get a baby. It sounds terrible, but considering the harsh conditions and difficult lives homeless and orphaned children were subjected to, it was actually a pretty humane option. Potential parents were investigated in background checks and the proceeds raised were divided and given to charitable causes.
So clearly, ancient societies didn't have a whole lot of options when it came to stuff like medicine, communication, and self-care. They made do with what they had, right? We're in no means judging any of them (probably) lovely people, but when we learned that Ancient Romans used urine as a mouthwash, we had questions. See, when left out too long, pee turns into ammonia. Ammonia is great at getting stains out ... even on teeth. Because of this, Ancient Romans used urine as a mouthwash to help whiten their teeth. They also used it medicinally, as fertilizer, and to clean their togas. They really believed in the power of pee, okay?
Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. [Public domain]
We are most familiar with Albert Einstein's contributions to physics and for developing the theory of relativity, which is one of the two pillars of modern physics. But Einstein was also a very politically outspoken activist and he used his fame and influence to advance causes that were important to him. He openly criticized racism in the United States, spoke out against Nazi Germany, and campaigned for statehood for Israel. Einstein was so beloved in Israel that he was even offered the opportunity to become the country's second president. He turned it down, saying "I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it."
Black cats have sort of a bad rap, don't they? They're associated with evil and bad luck, but really they're just fuzzy, adorable jerks like every other cat. But where did the bad reputation come from? Pope Gregory IX ruled the church from 1227 till his death in 1241. While in power, he decreed that black cats were evil and associated with devil worship. He called for them to be exterminated, and issued a papal bull called Vox in Rama, which was the first official church document that labeled the black cat as satanic. Kind of a d*ck move, Pope.
National Photo Company Collection [Public domain]
We're all very familiar with the presidency and assassination of Abraham Lincoln, yes? Well, that night at the Ford Theater had a detrimental effect on more than just the Lincoln family. Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara were guests of the Lincoln's that night, and Rathbone was the last person to talk to Lincoln before he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. Rathbone tried to apprehend Booth but was injured with a knife when Booth slashed at his arm.
He spent the rest of his life racked with guilt over not being able to stop the assassination. He suffered from bouts of depression and became increasingly paranoid and delusional. On Christmas Day in 1883, he attacked his children, stabbed his wife Clara to death when she tried to protect them and tried to take his own life. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum before dying in 1911.
There's no denying how important cadavers are for medical research. They're what medical students practice on, and what doctors use to perfect their lifesaving skills and techniques. But the way modern medicine uses cadavers is a far cry from how rich people used them back in the 16th century. Really wealthy people believed, for some reason, that cadavers could cure diseases. So what did they do? Well, they ate them of course! Apparently there was also a hierarchy of bodies, with Egyptian mummies being the most sought-after. A decaying and mummified body a day keeps the doctor away?
Chicago Bureau (Federal Bureau of Investigation) - Wide World Photos [Public domain]
The stories about Al Capone could fill a hundred books (and probably do!). He's most famous for being a brutal gangster who terrorized Chicago. Despite years and years of committing heinous crimes, he was eventually nabbed and sent to prison in 1931 on charges of tax evasion. But, while at Alcatraz, Capone deteriorated rapidly, as syphilis he contracted in his 20s ravaged his brain. He never sought treatment for the disease and wasn't diagnosed until he was in prison. His behavior became increasingly erratic and his mental faculties were annihilated by the disease. He spent the last year of his sentence in the infirmary, and was released in 1939 for "good behavior," but more likely, because syphilis had reduced his mental capabilities to that of a 12-year-old.
War can drag on for years and is devastating to the countries, resources, and people involved. However, not every war is a long, drawn-out conflict. The shortest war recorded in history took place on August 27, 1896 (literally just that one day) between the United Kingdon and the Zanzibar Sultanate. In a nutshell, a pro-British sultan died and another guy took his place. The British weren't too keen on this other guy and in accordance with a treaty requiring that the British sign off on any accession to the sultanate, they demanded that he order his forces to stand down and vacate the palace. The sultan barricaded himself in the palace, and the British bombarded the place. The Zanzibar defenders were outgunned, and the flag at the palace was shot down approximately 38 minutes after the war began. That was the end of that!
It's not often we get to combine two strange historical facts into a new strange historical fact! But this particular historical fact is still debated, so take it with a grain of salt. So, the Pope who thought that black cats were the devil incarnate and ordered their extermination en masse really screwed the pooch, apparently. Once people started killing off all the cats, there were no rat catchers around to curb the rat population. Rats, specifically black rats, were instrumental in the spread of the Black Plague, which killed HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people across Europe in the 1300s. Like we said, there is some debate on the validity of this particular story. But some historians believe that the cat purge contributed to the plague, at least peripherally.
Public Domain Dedication (CC0)
Listen, no one likes being cheated on, but when you've got a harem 280 people deep, is one woman going astray really such a big deal? Apparently yes, if you're the Ottoman Empire's Sultan Ibrahim I. He was known to be mentally unstable and suffered from frequent panic and nervous attacks. He had a harem of 280 concubines, but when one of them allegedly slept with another man, he ordered the entire harem to be drowned in the Bosphorus Sea. All 280 women died because of one lady, who probably didn't even do what he accused her of doing.
When that stupid alarm clock goes off in the morning, it takes all our self-control not to chuck it out the nearest window. Doing that a hundred years ago would have resulted in possibly injuring the human alarm clock standing outside! Knocker-ups were people who were hired to get people out of bed in the mornings. They were armed with long sticks or pea-shooters, and they would bang on or shoot at the windows of the clients who hired them. Knocker-ups were paid a few pence a week, which was a steal in comparison to how expensive actual alarm clocks were at the time. They didn't have a snooze button either — they would bang at the window until the client was up and out of bed.
Usually, we would consider dwarfism and gigantism to be on opposite ends of the size spectrum. One is very small, the other is very large! But one man experienced both within his lifetime. Adam Rainer was considered a dwarf for much of his life, reaching a height of 3 feet 7.9 inches at the age of 19. However, because of a tumor on his pituitary gland, he hit a massive growth spurt. At age 33, he stood 7 feet 2 inches tall. That's a growth of nearly four feet in 14 years! Sadly, Rainer's gigantism kept him bedridden for the rest of his adult life, and he died at the age of 51. At the time of his death, his height was recorded at 7 feet 8 inches.
Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the United States, and while the success of his political career and contributions may be debatable, he was generally a pretty well-liked guy. He had a successful career in Hollywood before turning his sights on politics, but he was also apparently a very skilled lifeguard! In 1926, Reagan started working as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, near Dixon, Illinois. He worked there for seven summers and is credited for saving 77 lives during his time as a lifeguard. Pretty solid stats, Ronnie!
If you're a parent, then you are VERY familiar with just how much a lack of sleep can wreck your mind and body. We hear about car accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel, kids being injured or worse when their sleep-deprived parents doze off, but did you know that sleep deprivation has been linked to some of the worst disasters in human history? The engineers working the night the Chernobyl power plant exploded had been working for 13 hours or more without a break or rest. Managers involved in the tragic launch and explosion of the Challenger shuttle had only slept for two hours before arriving to work at 1 a.m. The third mate of the Exxon Valdez fell asleep at the helm and was unable to steer the boat back in time to prevent crashing and causing the destructive oil spill.
Kurt Gödel was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher credited with discovering theorems that changed the math world. But he was also a troubled man, suffering from extreme paranoia and delusions. He became convinced that people were trying to poison him, so he would only eat food prepared and tasted by his faithful wife Adele. In 1977, Adele fell ill and was hospitalized for six weeks. During that time, Gödel stopped eating altogether. He was admitted to Princeton hospital in 1977, and died two weeks later. His cause of death is listed as "malnutrition and inanition caused by personality disturbance" on his death certificate. At the time of his death, he was 71 years old and weighed just 65 pounds.
If you suffer from any degree of claustrophobia, then the idea of being buried alive is probably something that's kept you up at night at least once or twice. It pretty much never happens now, but before modern medicine improved and professionals could tell the difference between death and conditions like paralysis or a coma, it was a pretty frequent occurrence! It happened so much, in fact, that people invented safety coffins, so those trapped inside who weren't really dead could alert those above ground that they were STILL ALIVE. It's an absolutely terrifying thought, right?
Skulls are pretty cool — we really like ours! It gives our head a nice shape, keeps our brain safe, makes our face a face and not, you know, a smooshed collection of face parts. Still, we've never really considered the functionality of a human skull outside of the obvious. Apparently, history is full of civilizations who used human skulls for all kinds of things. Most notably as cups or food vessels. The oldest recorded historical record of this dates back to 5th century BC, when the Scythians used the skulls of their enemies as drinking cups. Sometimes, they lined the cups in gold (fancy), and they often used the scalp and skin as leather.
Infidelity sucks, sure, but there are better ways to deal with it than murdering your wife's lover and preserving his head as a keepsake. Peter the Great did just that, however, when he discovered his wife Catherine had an affair. William Mons was a young German man who acted as the secretary and confidant for Catherine, and their relationship apparently developed into more. When Peter found out, he ordered Mons to be beheaded, and then he kept the head in a jar pickled with spirits. He apparently forced Catherine to keep it by her bed. When Peter died three months after Mons, Catherine kept the head and it remained in her possession until her own death.
Boy Scouts of America [Public Domain]
Thelma Pearl Howard worked for the Disney family for 30 years as a live-in housekeeper and nanny for the Disney children. She was a beloved member of the family and Walt Disney often referred to her at the real-life Mary Poppins. Every year for the holidays, Disney would gift Howard and other employees with Disney stock. It wasn't worth much then, but when Howard died in 1994 at the age of 79, Howard's estate was worth over $9 million dollars, because of all the Disney stock she held. Howard left half to her son Michael, who was living in a home for the developmentally disabled. The other half was used to benefit homeless and disadvantaged children.
The Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 wasn't the sole cause of the Great Depression, but it certainly accelerated the global economic collapse. People had to get really creative when it came to scrimping and saving, and many families turned to making their own clothes. Flour was a food staple in most households and it came in cotton sacks. Out of desperation and cleverness, women started using the sacks to make clothing, dishcloths, diapers, and more. When flour manufacturers got wind of this repurposing, they started packing their flour in pretty sacks with colorful patterns, so the clothing could be more fashionable.
Even though the battle for access to affordable birth control rages on, strange historical facts can help us appreciate just how far we've come. For example, women in China used to drink mercury to prevent pregnancy (yes, it's poisonous). Ancient Egyptian women used pessaries made out of crocodile dung. Early condoms were made of animal intestines. Victorians used an actual wooden block like a diaphragm, and women in North American used to prevent pregnancy by soaking dried beaver testicles in alcohol and drinking it. So ... things could definitely be worse.
In 1788, the Austrian army defeated ... itself. Yes, you read that right. It all started when Joseph II decided he wanted to do some conquesting. He rounded up his army to defeat the Transylvanian Turks, but things started going bad when 30,000 soldiers (including Joseph himself) got malaria. Then, a fight over booze made things ten times worse. Some infantry guys wanted some alcohol and the Calvary guys didn't want to share, so the infantry guys decided to launch a fake attack on them to scare them off and steal their booze. Calvary caught on and played along and fired off a few drunken shots. However, nobody else in the entire army knew what the hell was going on, assumed that they were under attack and started shooting in a panic. It went on all night before anyone realized what had happened and there were 10,000 casualties.
Oh, the British. So proper! And quaint! So proper and quaint that all of their armored vehicles and tanks manufactured since 1945 come equipped with actual tea makers. The "Vessel Boiling Electric" was invented at the end of World War II when soldiers were looking for a way to make tea without having to leave their tanks. It's a water heating system that allows the crew to heat water and cook food using power drawn from the vehicle's electric supply. So, even in the midst of war, British soldiers are able to fix themselves a nice cup of tea. Sort of brilliant, and VERY British.
So, given all that happened, maybe giving Saddam Hussein the key to the city of Detroit wasn't the best idea in the world? That's exactly what happened more than three decades ago. Hussein is largely regarded as an evil man in this country and by most of the world, but starting around 1979, he routinely donated large sums of money to churches in the Detroit area. Reverend Jacob Yasso of Chaldean Sacred Heart traveled to Iraq in 1980 at the request of then-president Hussein, and it was there that Yasso presented him with a key to Detroit (courtesy of then-Mayor Coleman Young).
The Salem Witch Trials, which took place in 17th century New England, are a pretty significant part of American history. Individuals suspected or accused of witchcraft were put on trial and sentenced to death with a very thin margin of provability. Between 1692-1693, 20 people were executed and another five died in jail. However, one expert believes that more than 600,000 people lost their lives during the medieval period after being branded as witches. To be suspected of being a witch, the criteria was pretty low — single women, childless women, old, young, rich, poor, having too many children, or even having a birthmark mad someone suspect.
Listen, we'll be the first to admit that sometimes our pets can be the worst. But they're animals so we tend to let a lot of their shenanigans slide. Not in medieval Europe! "Criminal" animals were routinely put on trial and executed because people held them to the same moral standards as humans. Therefore, they were expected to uphold the same laws, and when they didn't, they were subject to the same punishments which could include rotting their lives away in jail or being executed. Pigs seemed to spend a lot of time in court for their constant wandering around and perceived aggression, but they weren't the only ones. Records show that horses, eels, dogs, bulls, sheep, and even a dolphin were all executed.
She might not have uttered the infamous phrase, "Let them eat cake!" but Marie Antoinette did have a weird faccination with the "little people." The Queen of France, not exactly well-liked among her people, routinely escaped the rigors of being lazy and spending money like crazy by visiting her very own "peasant's village." The Hameau de la Reine was a country getaway inspired by a simple, rustic life. She brought in performers of sorts — milkmaids and herdsman who pretended that they lived and worked there. Marie Antoinette herself would stroll the grounds dressed in simple peasant's garb. Who knew she was into cosplay?
Saying goodbye can be so hard! In 1838, General Antonio López de Santa Anna had his leg amputated after a war. Four years later, he became President of Mexico. He decided to have his leg exhumed and ordered a full military funeral... for his leg. It was carried on an ornate coach through Mexico City and serenaded with songs, poems, and prayers. His regime turned against him two years later, however, and his leg was dug up and defiled by citizens. There's a lesson here: if you value your amputated limbs, keep them hidden from the public lest they be ruined after your regime gives you the boot.
It's no secret that Winston Churchill was a big fan of cigars. He was almost always photographed with one between his fingers or in his mouth. But just how much did he love them? Apparently, QUITE A BIT. Churchill was known to smoke between 8-10 cigars a day, sometimes as many as 15. Those are cigars, NOT cigarettes. He would sometimes let them burn down so he could chew on them. Churchill allegedly called smoking "one of the greatest pleasures in life".