History tends to get a bad rap. The word tends to make many people think of boring high school classes about guys in wigs. What could possibly be interesting about that?
Well, as it happens, history is full of inexplicable, bizarre, and eerily improbable happenings. Here are just a few real historical events that definitely sound like fiction. Live long and learn, baby!
45. Catch Me If You Can
A Chinese emperor once ran in circles around a pillar to escape an assassin. He survived.
44. Hoppy Ending
Some guy in Australia decided he wanted to hunt rabbits, but rabbits aren’t native to Australia. So instead he released like 12 in his backyard and now there are a ton of rabbits in Australia.
43. BS Baffles Brains
During the Han Dynasty, a famous general named Zhuge Liang received word that an army was approaching. He had almost nobody to defend the town where he was because his main force was elsewhere. Instead, he ordered the townsfolk to casually sweep the road, while he sat atop the wide open gates to the city and played his guqin (stringed instrument).
When the enemies arrived, they were so creeped out by the scene that they assumed it must be a trick ambush, so they retreated.
42. You Got Glide On Your Side
In 2007, a paraglider got trapped in the updraft of two colliding thunderstorms and rose up to an altitude of 10 kilometers! She landed 3.5 hours later, about 60 kilometers north of her starting position, having survived extreme cold, lightning, and lack of oxygen.
41. I Want My Mummy
In the 1800s there were street vendors in Egypt who sold…ancient Egyptian mummies. Just lined them up on a street corner and sold them like they were umbrellas on a rainy day. English tourists would buy them to display as oddities.
40. Back In The USSR
In 1987, a teenager (19) from West Germany piloted a small Cessna and flew it into the USSR (without permit of course) all the way to Moscow, where he landed on a bridge next to the Red Square and near the Kremlin.
He was one of the catalysts for the fall of the USSR, as the military’s failure to shoot him down gave Gorbachev a perfect reason to sack key opponents in the USSR military.
39. Dance Trance
A town in France nearly danced itself to death in 1518 because of a ‘dancing plague.’
One interesting theory is that they had consumed ergot, a psychoactive fungus that can grow on grain in certain conditions. They were unknowingly baking this tainted grain in to their daily bread and as a result were all out of their minds.
38. Play It Again
The longest piano piece of any kind is Vexations by Erik Satie.
It consists of a 180-note composition which, on the composer’s orders, must be repeated 840 times so that the whole performance is 18 hours 40 minutes. Its first reported public performance in September 1963, in the Pocket Theater, New York City, required a relay team of 10 pianists.
The New York Times critic fell asleep at 4 a.m.
37. Working On The Railroad
Jack was a baboon who was employed to change rail signals.
“After initial skepticism, the railway decided to officially employ Jack once his job competency was verified. The baboon was paid twenty cents a day, and a half-bottle each week. It is widely reported that in his nine years of employment with the railroad, Jack never made a mistake.”
36. I Thought That Was Just On TV
There really were a few Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender after World War II and remained on duty in the rain forest for decades after the war ended.
35. Living Smell
The Great Stink of London in 1858.
One summer, the heat dried up the River Thames (where all the human waste went) and an unbearable smell pervaded throughout the entire city. All Parliamentary representatives were eventually coerced out of their homes outside of London to convene and solve the issue. Much to the citizens’ glee, Parliament was held in their building on the bank of the River Thames, resulting in one of the fastest Parliament decisions ever made to reform the London sewer system.
34. Shoulda Got The Shot
The rise and fall of Alexander the Great. Never lost a battle in his life, conquered the whole known world, and only stopped because his soldiers were tired. And then he died of flu when he was like 32.
33. I’ll Be Back
I think the return of Napoleon is the most fake-sounding historical event ever.
After Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France, an army was sent to intercept him. Instead, they ended up fighting for him as he took over the country one last time. If it were shown in a movie, most people would have considered it cheesy and unrealistic.
32. For The Greater Good
The town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany is one of the country’s best-preserved cities.
Essentially, during the 30 Years War, the Catholic army wanted to destroy the town because they resisted the church. Count Von Tilly (real name) was going to destroy the town, but as a gesture of peace the town offered him a bunch of local wine. He declared that if anyone in the town could drink all of it in one go, he would spare the town and move on. Then someone just walked up and did it. So the army left.
Much much later, during World War II, when the US was performing air raids, someone in the White House knew of this town and pleaded to spare it. So it has been saved from two wars all because one guy chugged a bunch of wine.
Apparently there was some damage done in WWII but it wasn’t destroyed.
31. Wile E. Capitalist
Check out the CIA’s assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. Some highlights include:
Planting a bomb in a large seashell, painting it bright colors, and placing it on the ocean floor in hopes Castro would see it while swimming and pick it up.
Poisoned cigars that were supposed to be given to Castro but were instead given to an “unknown individual”.
Poisoning Castro’s shoes so that his beard would fall out
Poisoning a chocolate milkshake — the pills froze together in the freezer and shattered before they could be placed in the shake.
Contaminating a diving suit with a toxic fungus and giving it to Castro.
A ballpoint pen with a very fine hypodermic needle.
30. One Crazy Person Can Do A Lot Of Damage
The entire Taiping Rebellion.
It was a war started by a Chinese peasant who dreamed (and believed) he was Jesus’ younger brother. Although poor, the first thing he did was have a giant demon-slaying sword forged. Took over a city. Asked the British why they wouldn’t pay him tribute as the new head of their faith. Engaged in total war with the Qing. Applied pseduo-communist policies like abolishing private property. Separated women and men from ever interacting, and sent the women to the front lines.
Over 20 million people died, with some estimates as high as 40 million. It was the fourth deadliest conflict in human history. It killed more people than WWI. Only WWII, Transition of the Ming, and Quing conquest of the Ming were deadlier
29. Grin And Bear It
During WWII the Polish army had a bear serving in its ranks. His name was Wojtek.
The bear was given rations, a bunk, even drinks and smokes just like any other soldier. And he actually served in the field! The unit was responsible for distributing munitions like artillery shells, and Wojtek (and I am not joking here) would help them move crates. The bear would literally pick up 100lb crates of shells by himself and stack them up where they needed to go. Wojtek was not a mascot enlisted for giggles, this bear was a soldier.
He survived the war and wound up in a zoo.
28. Now That’s A Survivor
During WWII, soldiers often used serious substances to stay alert. These were easily available.
A Finnish solder managed to escape capture after losing his squad in. Being the doctor of the group, he was carrying ‘medicine’ for the whole squad. In order to survive and escape his pursuers, he took the whole pill box, 30 pills, when the allowed dosage for a grown man was ONE.
He survived in the Soviet wilderness for two weeks eating only pine buds and one time a Siberian jay that he caught and ate raw. When he was rescued, he was 45kg and had a resting heart rate of 200bpm.
27. Taft Punk
Serial killer Carl Panzram broke into the home of former president William H. Taft and stole jewelry, bonds, and a gun. With the money he got from the first two he bought a yacht in which he used the gun to kill a bunch of sailors.
26. Art Of War
During the First World War, navies from different countries hired artists to paint crazy patterns on their ships in order to throw off the aim of enemy U-boats.
One of the people who tried to assassinate Franz Ferdinand and failed promptly tried to kill himself with a big ol’ double whammy: eat a cyanide pill and drown himself in the nearest lake. Unfortunately for him, the lake was only 10cm deep and the cyanide was out of date, causing vomiting instead of death. The image of someone splashing head first into a puddle and throwing up shortly after instead of honorably killing himself to avoid capture… It’s a lot.
24. A Mighty Wind
The Japanese “Kamikaze” (Divine Wind) that saved the country from an amphibious invasion by the Mongolian hordes. The Mongols captured a foothold on some outlying Japanese islands, and started to attack the mainland. The Japanese army pushed them back, and they had to retreat to China. When they did, a typhoon ravaged their navy and sank their ships.
The Mongolians, (probably reasonably) seeing this as a fluke, decided to rebuild and attack again. Seven years later. Unfortunately for them, the Japanese fortified their coastline. After basically months of sailing around seeking a place to land, ANOTHER typhoon struck their fleet and destroyed them.
There would be no third invasion.
23. Hold Your Fire
During WWI, Christmas 1914, the British and German forces on the western front unofficially made a ceasefire without the authorization of their superiors in order to celebrate, trade goods, and play football.
Also during WWI, the Russian and German armies in Poland stopped fighting each other in order to fight off an enormous pack of wolves that had been attacking both armies.
22. Second Time’s The Charm
In 1956 a man named Tommy Fitzpatrick stole a small plane from New Jersey for a bet and then landed it perfectly on the narrow street in front of the bar he had been drinking at in Manhattan. Two years later, he did it again after someone didn’t believe he had done it the first time.
21. Once Is Bad Enough
Ted Bundy escaped from custody twice, the first by jumping out of a 3 story building, second time by taking a guard’s outfit and walking out the front door.
20. At This Point, It Might Be Your Fault
There was one person who survived the sinking of not only the Titanic, but also the Titanic’s its sister ship the Britanic and the collision of its other sister ship, the Olympic.
Her name is Violet Jessop. And yes: both the Titanic and Britanic were indeed sunk, and the Olympic crashed into a British warship but did not sink. What are the odds?!
19. Long Live The King
Paddy Roy Bates — the founding King of the fake country of Sealand — had his country (a small naval platform) invaded and his son Michael taken hostage by Dutch and German Mercenaries. They came in riding jet skis, speed boats, and helicopters while he was in England buying groceries.
He hired a helicopter ,came down a rope with a shotgun, reconquered Sealand, and took the mercenaries hostage. As a result, an official German diplomat was sent to negotiate the release of the ringleader.
18. Sending A Message
To summarize, some Americans were killed by the North Korean military while cutting down a tree in the Korean DMZ. In response to this, to show the North Koreans that you don’t mess with the United States, America went back to finish cutting down the tree with a little bit of backup firepower to help keep them safe.
Specifically, America and South Korea sent a convoy of 23 vehicles and about 140 men, armed with rifles, grenade launcher, vehicle mounted chain guns, chainsaws, some with axes and tae kwon do training. They had 27 helicopters circling behind them (7 of which were attack helicopters). They had B-52s flying overhead, escorted or accompanied by F-4s, F-5s, F-86s, and F-111s, all of which were armed and ready to engage. On top of all that, they moved a carrier offshore. Just behind the border, they had full infantry, artillery, and armor divisions standing by.
All this, just to chop down a tree. And to send a message, of course.
17. Speak Of The Devil
During the Second Iraq War, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, Iraqi Information Minister under President Saddam Hussein, was saying everything was fine and the Coalition was losing. While he was making this statement from Baghdad, there was American gunfire and even tanks in the background. This was during a live CNN interview.
16. Gotta Hand It To Him
In 1504, a German Imperial Knight lost his hand to a cannon shot.
He lived, pretty amazing for that time, and instead of, you know, giving up fighting and living the rest of his life in peace, he had an iron hand forged. JUST LIKE JAMIE LANNISTER.
Let me repeat that: this guy had an iron hand prosthetic over 500 years ago. He continued fighting for 40 years, after which he chilled in the castle of Hornburg for his final years.
His name was Gotz of the Iron Hand, and the hand itself is still on display.
15. We Lost -1 Men
The last time Liechtenstein went to war was the Austro-Prussian war. The fact that makes it sound like fiction is that they were forced to send 80 soldiers… and came back with 81. They made a friend in the form of an Austrian liaison officer who decided to come back toLiechtenstein, apparently.
14. The Rasputin Of The Pub
The owner and bartender of a bar once tried to take out and insurance policy on one of his regular customers with one of their friends, in an attempt to make some fast cash.
They immediately opened his tab up, hoping he would drink himself to death. That didn’t work, so they began spiking his unlimited drinks with anti freeze. That didn’t work, so they decided to pump carbon monoxide into his apartment one night. Even so, he still wouldn’t die. They then assaulted him savagely and put him in the back of their car. Assuming he was dead, they went to bury him in a rural area.
Halfway out there, they heard noises coming from the trunk of the car. He still hadn’t died, and when they stopped and got him out, he began walking away under his own power. The bartender had to hit the customer with a car three times to finally kill him.
That man may be the closest thing we’ve ever seen to a superhero His name was Michael Molloy, if anyone wants to read further about his story.
13. Feline Frontline
The Persian leader Cambyses II used cats to defeat an Egyptian army. He had his soldiers paint cats on their shields and brought hundreds of cats and other animals that the Egyptians held sacred to the front lines. The Egyptians refused to fight the “cat army” and were easily defeated because of it.
12. Ride Into The Sunset
When King Edward I was young, before he was King, he was a prisoner of Simon De Montfort during a civil war. During his captivity he asked to ride the horses at the castle where he was being held.
He proceeded to ride them one by one, tiring them all out. When it came to the last horse he mounted, bade his captors farewell and rode away. All of the other horses were too tired to give effective chase.
10. The Real Enemy Is Thirst
There was that time Austrian hussars got some schnapps on their way to attack to Ottomans, got silly, and fought their own infantry over access to the schnapps.
In the multilingual confusion someone shouted, “The Turks!” which caused widespread panic and a full retreat by both the cavalry and infantry. Officers shouting “Halt!” in German sounded to their non-Austrian allies like they were shouting “Allah!”, which only deepened the confusion. As they retreated into the rest of the Austrian army those commanders also thought it was a Turkish attack and ordered artillery to fire into the oncoming men.
That was the story of the Austrians routing their own army because of schnapps, known as the Battle of Karansebes. Casualty estimates range as high as 1,200 men.
9. Starfish Prime
Operation Starfish Prime reads like science fiction. Back in 1962 USA pondered what would happen if you detonated a nuclear warhead in outer space so they did just that. The result was an EMP that made the test instruments go off scale so it was difficult getting accurate measurements. In Hawaii, almost 900 miles away, the EMP knocked out 300 streetlights. After the detonation of Starfish Prime several bright auroras could be observed:
“The visible phenomena due to the burst were widespread and quite intense; a very large area of the Pacific was illuminated by the auroral phenomena, from far south of the south magnetic conjugate area (Tongatapu) through the burst area to far north of the north conjugate area (French Frigate Shoals)… At twilight after the burst, resonant scattering of light from lithium and other debris was observed at Johnston and French Frigate Shoals for many days confirming the long time presence of debris in the atmosphere. An interesting side effect was that the Royal New Zealand Air Force was aided in anti-submarine maneuvers by the light from the bomb.”
8. Apparently, They Gave Him A Parachute
The American Air Force shot a bear out of a B-58 while testing ejector seats.
7. That’s A Boss
A British dude in WW2 carried a sword into battle instead of a gun. He deprive three Germans of their heads with one swing. He even took a bunch of enemy outposts and camps with significantly fewer men than the enemy.
His name was Jack Churchill, and besides his broadsword he also brought a bow and bagpipes into battle.
Americans declared war on passenger pigeons, the most abundant bird ever known in the history of mankind. At their peak there were estimated to be around 5 billion of them. Their swarms passed for three days straight and would block out the sun.
This was around 1800 when they declared war on the pigeons.
The last known wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1901. In 1916, the last captive one died and the species went extinct.
5. Beaten By A Balloon
Sky pirates are a real thing. During World War I, German Zeppelins would board and search foreign ships. For instance, the boarding party of the L23 once captured the Norwegian 3-masted cargo schooner Royal by bluffing the crew with a flare gun after they accidentally dropped their machine gun into the sea while lowering from their airship.
4. Ice Cream, You Scream
The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars — yes, that was a real thing. Six people died in a turf war over ice cream van routes. (Granted, they were dealing illegal substances out of the vans.)
3. Race To The Bottom
The Marathon at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis was the greatest farce in the history of sport. Here are some of the things that happened:
The first place finisher did most of the race in a car. He had intended to drop out, and got a car back to the stadium to get his change of clothes, and just kind of started jogging when he heard the fanfare.
The second place finisher was carried across the finish line, legs technically twitching, by his trainers. They had been refusing him water, and giving him a mixture of brandy and rat poison for the entire race. Steroids weren’t illegal yet (and this was a terrible attempt at it), so he got the gold when the first guy was revealed.
Third finisher was unremarkable, somehow.
Fourth finisher was a Cuban mailman who had raised the funds to attend the olympics by running non-stop around his entire country. He landed in New Orleans, and promptly lost all of the travelling money on a riverboat casino. He ran the race in dress shoes and long trousers (cut off at the knee by a fellow competitor with a knife). Dude probably would have come in first (well, second, behind the car) had it not been for the hour nap he took on the side of the track after eating rotten apples he had found on the side of the road.
9th and 12th finishers were from South Africa and ran barefoot. South Africa didn’t actually send a delegation — these were students who just happened to be in town and thought it sounded fun. 9th was chased a mile off course by angry dogs. Note: These are the first Africans to compete in any modern Olympic event.
Half the participants had never raced competitively before. Some died.
St. Louis only had one water stop on the entire run. This, coupled with the dusty road, and exacerbated by the cars kicking up dust, lead to the above fatalities. And yet, somehow, rat poison guy survived to win the Gold.
The Russian delegation arrived a week late because they were still using the Julian calendar. In 1904.
Seriously. This needs to be a movie.
2. Should Be Impossible
In 1972, Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović was working a flight when an explosion tore the plane to shreds. Vesna then fell from a height of 10,160 meters… and lived. She holds the world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
1. A Good Run
The Catalonian Republic lasted 8 seconds before it’s existence was suspended.