For all too many of us, history lessons at school were nothing more than a catalog of dates, battles and long-gone empires. But dig a little deeper into history and you’ll soon find plenty of fascinating facts, many of them gruesome, disgusting or weird and some a combination of all three. Read on for 20 of the best bizarre facts from history, ranging from exploding dogs to vicious Vikings.
20. The bare facts about Corporal Wojtek
Polish soldiers bought Wojtek the Bear in Iran when he was a cub in 1942. It seemed to them only logical to enlist the bear in the Polish Army, and he was duly enrolled as a private. Eventually rising to the rank of corporal, Wojtek served with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company in Italy at the hard-fought Battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek was transferred with his unit to the Scottish Borders after World War II, and he ended his days at Edinburgh Zoo, dying in 1963 at the age of 21. A bronze statue commemorates the heroic bear in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.
19. Morbid molars
In our modern world, the toothless are able to replace their missing molars with dentures or dental implants. But choices were much more limited in the bad old days before contemporary dentistry. One gruesome option was to use someone else’s teeth to fill unsightly gaps in your smile. For example, a London dentist, Mr. Woffendale, advertised in 1792 newspaper, “Wanted – Several Human Front Teeth.” Teeth were also obtained from the casualties of war, and the poor would sell their teeth.
18. Islam in Scandinavia 1,000 years ago
In modern times, there are Muslims in Scandinavian countries, just like any other part of the world. But you would be forgiven for thinking that the Scandinavians would have known nothing of Islam back in the days of the Vikings. In fact this seemed so unlikely that evidence that Vikings and Muslims interacted was overlooked for decades. The evidence comes in the form of funeral costumes from the ninth and tenth centuries. The clothes are woven with Arabic lettering spelling out words such as Allah.
17. Really big birds
Argentavis magnificens was a gigantic bird with a wingspan of some 20 feet, and an adult specimen would have weighed as much as 160 pounds. Standing, it could have looked a tall human right in the eye since its height was up to 6½ feet. But sadly that encounter never happened due to the fact that Argentavis went extinct some six million years ago.
16. Decapitation dangers
Chopping off an enemy combatant’s head was all in a day’s work for the second Earl of Orkney, Sigurd Eysteinsson, or Sigurd the Mighty to his friends. Sigurd was a ninth-century Viking warrior who conquered northern Scotland, a task accomplished by extreme violence rather than sweet words. After decapitating one Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, Sigurd attached the head to his saddle. But the protruding teeth scraped Sigurd’s leg, causing an infection that killed him. So you might call the Sigurd versus Máel fight a draw.
15. The Flying Tailor
The Flying Tailor was French citizen Franz Reichelt, born in 1879. Not content with running up suits and frocks, Reichelt also went into the business of inventing a parachute. Early tests were not promising with one jump from 25 feet breaking Reichelt’s leg. Undeterred, he decided that jumping from a far greater height would prove the practicality of his parachute. So on February 4, 1912, he ascended the Eiffel Tower to the first platform. Balancing himself on a stool atop a table, Reichelt jumped from a height of 187 feet. His parachute failed to open and the unfortunate – or perhaps foolhardy – Reichelt smashed into the ground and died almost instantly from his catastrophic injuries.
14. All in the cause of justice
That Clement Vallandigham was a conscientious lawyer can hardly be doubted. Employed in 1871 to defend one Thomas McGehan who faced a murder charge in Lebanon, Ohio, Vallandigham’s thoroughness proved to be his undoing. McGehan was accused of shooting Tom Myers to death in a bar. Vallandigham intended to show the court that Myers might have shot himself accidentally. Demonstrating how this might have happened to some colleagues, Vallandigham did actually shoot himself and died from the wound. This practical demonstration led to McGehan’s acquittal, although he survived for only four years before he too died from a gunshot wound.
13. Shoo fly, don’t bother me
Many of us have had jobs that we really didn’t enjoy. But one of the tasks that Pharaoh Pepi II ordered his slaves to carry out was truly unpleasant. Pepi II came to the throne in ancient Egypt about 4,000 years ago at the age of just six, and it’s said that he lived to be 100. He obviously had a thing about flies. To stop them bothering him, he would drench one of his slaves in honey. The unfortunate slave would then stand at attention, and all the flies would be attracted to him.
12. Disaster at a royal funeral
William the Conqueror is best remembered for defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, heralding the Norman Conquest of England. Harold was killed during the battle, probably finished off by an arrow through the eye, so William now became king. By the time of his death in 1087, William had by all accounts become rather fat. At his funeral, the monks officiating had some difficulty fitting his corpse into its stone sarcophagus. Forcing the issue caused his body to burst, releasing a cloud of stinking gas. Most of the congregation then fled.
11. Roland the Farter
Roland the Farter was a professional flatulist who plied his trade as a jester in the employ of King Henry II in 12th-century England. In fact, farting was not his only talent. He was required to whistle and to jump as well. At Christmas time he had to perform one jump, one whistle and one fart for the king. He must have been good at his job since Henry gifted him Hemingstone Manor, a handsome mansion with 30 acres of land in the county of Suffolk. Not a bad pay-off for breaking wind in front of royalty.
10. Deadly prankster
Emperor Elagabalus, a keen cross-dresser who ruled the Roman Empire from 218 to 222 while still a teenager, was famous for his pranks. Actually “prank” seems a somewhat frivolous word for what Elagabalus got up to. At one of Rome’s famous feasts he had some of the guests tied to a water wheel which rotated until they drowned. At another, he released a pack of wild lions and leopards among the diners. Eventually, tiring of his tricks, his own guards assassinated Elagabalus and his mother, chopped off their heads and tossed the bodies into the River Tiber.
9. Horrible Highland games
Think about Highland Games nowadays and you’ll picture elegant dancers in Scots costume performing traditional reels and brawny, kilted men tossing cabers. But in bygone days the games were not quite so genteel. At the 1822 Inverness Highland Games for example, one of the sports involved strong men pulling the legs off of cows for a substantial cash prize. The best you can say is that the unfortunate beasts had been slaughtered first by blows with a sledgehammer. Even so, this “sport” is unlikely to be revived any time soon.
8. Multi-skilled barbers
If you go to the barbers nowadays, you really expect only a couple of things – a haircut and perhaps a beard trim. Okay, you might get some chat as well, but that’s about it. But in days gone by, from about the Middle Ages, the barber offered some other services. Dentistry, for example. Yes a barber, would style your hair, then whip out a tooth if you so desired. And as they were handy with a razor, barbers also sometimes performed surgical procedures and bloodletting.
7. Killer statue
Theagenes of Thasos was an ancient Greek who lived some 2,500 years ago. He was renowned for his physical strength and his sporting abilities, taking many titles at the Olympic Games of his day. The Greeks, of course, had a habit of erecting statues to their heroes, and Theagenes was no exception. But there was someone who had such a strong dislike of Theagenes that he attacked the statue. The sculpture fell on the man, killing him. The statue was subsequently tried, found guilty of murder and cast into the sea, although it was later recovered and believed to have healing qualities.
6. Heraclitus of Ephesus
Another Greek from about 2,500 years ago was the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus suffered from the illness dropsy, an unpleasant and painful condition characterized by the accumulation of fluid under the skin. Doctors were unable to relieve Heraclitus’ suffering so he decided to try his own remedy. This involved immersing himself in dung. Unfortunately, the result of this unorthodox treatment was death. He was either killed by lying too long in the sun covered in manure or by being eaten by dogs, depending on whose account you believe.
5. Defeated by the rear
The Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, was widely recognized as the most skilled fighting general of his time. So how was he so soundly beaten by the English and the Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815? One answer may have been Napoleon’s rear-end. The great man suffered terribly from hemorrhoids, and it’s been theorized that the discomfort this affliction caused might have stopped him mounting his horse to get a clear view of the battle as it unfolded. What a way to lose an empire.
4. What is the cruelest way to kill a goose?
We heard earlier about pulling the legs off of a dead cow at the Inverness Highland Games. But the sport of goose pulling is even more barbaric since a live goose was used for this. Pursued in various European countries from the 12th century, as well as in the U.S. from the 1600s to the 1800s, the sport involved hanging a live goose from a stake. The gooses head was greased and mounted men galloped by the goose. The winner was the man who managed to grab the goose’s head and pull it off.
3. Beaten by cats
The Battle of Pelusium was fought in 525 B.C. between the Egyptians and the Persians near the Nile Delta. The crafty Persians hit upon a clever tactic to defeat the Egyptians. For the Egyptians, the cat was a sacred animal that should under no circumstances be harmed. So the Persians went into battle, so the story goes, holding cats in front of them. Anxious to avoid harming the cats, the Egyptians lost the battle.
2. Exploding dogs
While we’re on the topic of using animals in warfare, it’s worth a mention for the Russian anti-tank dogs deployed during World War II. Dogs were specially trained to carry explosives strapped to their backs and to run at German tanks and other likely military targets. At first the handlers tried to train the dogs to leave the bombs and return. But, sadly, it proved much more effective to send the dogs on suicide missions equipped with bombs that detonated on impact.
1. Rough justice Roman-style
The Latin phrase “poena cullei” translates as penalty of the sack, and there’s little doubt that this Roman punishment was one of the most severe imaginable. In fact, it was reserved for one single crime, parricide, the murder of one’s own parent or close relative. If found guilty of killing your father, you’d be tied up in a leather sack. But you wouldn’t be alone. In the sack would be a selection of animals that might include a dog, snakes, a monkey and a cockerel. Then, as a finale, the entire sack would be thrown into a river or lake.