Something as seemingly minor as missing keys played a significant role in sinking the Titanic. When it sailed on its maiden voyage, the Titanic had a new second officer, Charles Lightoller, who forgot to ask the guy he replaced for the keys to a locker that contained the ship’s binoculars. Considering how important binoculars are for a ship’s lookouts, one might have expected those in charge to simply break the lock, but no. The Titanic simply ploughed through the Atlantic, with lookouts relying on their naked eyes to spot danger.
Around 11:40 PM on the voyage’s fourth day, a lookout spotted the fatal iceberg, and alerted the bridge. The officer in charge ordered the engines stopped and the ship steered around the obstacle. Unfortunately, given the distance to the iceberg when the alarm was sounded, the Titanic’s speed, and the ship’s mass, disaster was inevitable. Over 1500 lives were lost. In the subsequent investigation, the lookout testified that he would have spotted the iceberg sooner, and the ship would thus have had more reaction time to steer away from a collision, if he’d only had binoculars.
17. The Guy Who Became a Millionaire Selling Common Rocks
One night in 1975, Gary Dahl was out drinking with friends, who complained about the time and effort spent caring for their pets. So he joked that a rock would make a perfect pet, since it requires no care. It was a stupid drunk idea, but when he mulled it over sober, Dahl figured there might be something to it. So he collected smooth rocks from Rosarito Beach in Mexico, which cost next to nothing. Then he wrote a humorous 32 page owner’s manual, titled “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock“, with instructions on how to care for and raise one.
Dahl then stuffed everything in a straw lined box that represented his biggest expense, and marketed his Pet Rocks for $3.95 each. They sold like hotcakes. As he put it later during an interview: “I was the only one sold on my idea. My wife thought I was crazy. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy. Andâ¦ it worked“. The craze lasted for only a few months, but in just two and a half months, Dahl sold about one and a half million Pet Rocks. Before they went out of style, 5 million Pet Rocks had been sold, and Gary Dahl had become a millionaire.
16. Napoleon’s Soldiers Spent Their Time in Egypt High on Hash
When Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, he and his French forces found themselves in a Muslim country bereft of alcohol. And after the British destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, the French were cut off from home, including the resupply of wine. Without alcohol, the French in Egypt cast about for an alternative intoxicant. They discovered hashish, and soon developed an insatiable taste for it. Before long, an epidemic of hashish addiction swept the French forces in Egypt. The new habit eroded military discipline, and undermined the French military’s effectiveness to such an extent that Napoleon issued a total ban on hashish.
French commanders reasoned that their troops were more effective back when they were alcoholics, than they were now as junkies. So to help wean his men off of hash and return them to wine, Napoleon commissioned the production of date wines and spirits. It did not work: French troops drank the newly introduced date alcohol, and discovered that it went great with hash, which they kept right on smoking. So instead of just dealing with soldiers who were high, French commanders ended up dealing with soldiers who high and drunk.
Sergius III (circa 860 – 911) was Holy Father from 904 to 911, during an exceptionally scandalous period of pontifical history. However, even by the standards of scandalous popes, Sergius III stands out for the dubious distinction of being the only pope to have ever killed another pope. Or to be more accurate, popes: Sergius III rose to the papacy by killing his two immediate predecessors, popes Leo V and his successor, Christopher.
In 898, Sergius got an aristocratic faction in Rome to elect him pope, but another faction elected a rival pope, John IX. John was supported by the Holy Roman Emperor, so his election stuck, and Sergius was forced to flee Rome. There followed a period of turmoil that saw the election of other rival Popes, until 903, when an antipope named Christopher drove the sitting Pope Leo V out of Rome. Sergius returned to Rome at the head of an army, and seized the city and both competing popes. Sergius then ordered Christopher and Leo V strangled, and had himself appointed Pope Sergius III in 904.
14. The Greatest Ballet Dancer of All Time Was Addicted to Prostitutes
Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 – 1950) was one of history’s greatest ballet dancers. His ability to dance en pointe – on tippy toes – was rare for male dancers in his day, and he captivated audiences with his spectacular leaps and sensitive interpretations. He got his start performing in classical ballets such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, before joining the Ballets Russes – a ground breaking company of that era. His talents were so remarkable that special ballets were created just for him, to showcase his skills. The man was a revolutionary force in ballet, until his career was cut tragically short by schizophrenia.
He was also an addict, whose drug was prostitutes. After his death, it came out that Nijinsky had a flat out obsession with hookers. He was ashamed of what he viewed as an unfortunate affliction, but he simply could not refrain from gratifying his craving for prostitutes, whom he referred to as “tarts”. Nijinsky’s diary frequently describes his disappointments when he would “look for [a prostitute] all day long and not find one“. It also describes his joy upon finding them, and how he “made love to several tarts a day” on such occasions.
History could have furnished great material for Scooby Doo. For example, in 1762, the landlord of a property in Cock Lane, London, lost a lawsuit against a former tenant. So he had his daughter pretend to be the ghost of the former tenant’s deceased wife. The “ghost” claimed that she had been poisoned by her husband, the landlord’s former tenant, and she was widely believed. It took a commission, whose members included Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive English dictionary, to clear the widower of suspicions that he was a murderer. The landlord was convicted, pilloried, and got two years in prison.
Another case involving a ghost impersonator occurred in the 17th century, when a grifter and cardsharp pretended to be the restless ghost of a recent suicide who had done himself in with a razor. The conman haunted a gambling den by covering himself with a white sheet, and waving a bloody razor around while making “woooo, woooo, wooo” sounds. As the terrified gamblers stampeded for the doors, the “ghost” snatched their money and vanished. The conman also used the same ruse to rob an elderly gentleman and make love to his young wife.
12. The Famous General Who Was Killed by a Crone With a Roof Tile
Pyrrhus of Epirus (319 – 272 BC) was a general and statesman who started off as a tribal king, before becoming king of Epirus in the western Balkans. A distant relative of Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus earned a reputation as a brilliant general, fighting throughout the Hellenistic world, and was a particularly formidable enemy of both the kingdom of Macedon and a rising Rome. His costly victories against both gave rise to the term “pyrrhic victory” – a win that comes at such a high price, that it amounts to a de facto defeat.
After a career that saw him fighting in Epirus, Illyria, Egypt, and Italy, Pyrrhus’ end came in 272 BC, when he took sides in an internal dispute in the southern Greek city of Argos. There, an old woman threw a tile from a roof that hit Pyrrhus in the head, knocking him off his horse and snapping his spine. Whether or not he survived the fall, his fate was sealed when an enemy soldier rushed in and beheaded the Epirote king.
King Martin I of Aragon (1356 – 1410) reportedly died shortly after consuming an entire goose. Something about the fowl was foul and did not agree with him, and gave the king indigestion. So he retired to his chamber and summoned his court jester, who took his time in arriving. When he finally showed up, Martin asked him where he had been, and the jester replied: “in the next vineyard, your majesty, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if somebody had punished him for stealing figs“.
Something about that joke and the image it evoked struck the king as extremely funny. It seems that while some jokes are timeless, many others are time and culture sensitive, and in 15th century Aragon, deer hanging by the tail as punishment for theft were considered to be super funny. So funny, in Martin of Aragon’s case, that he laughed uncontrollably for three hours nonstop, until he finally fell out of the bed and hit the floor, dead as a doorknob.
10. History’s First Recorded Serial Killer Operated in Ancient China
Prince Liu Pengli (2nd century BC) was a member of China’s Han Dynasty, and the first serial killer in recorded history. In 144 BC his cousin, Emperor Jing, appointed Pengli to govern the city of Jidong and the surrounding district. That was terrible news for the good people of Jidong, who would be ruled by Pengli for the next 23 years. As described by Han historian Sima Qian:
“Liu Pengli was arrogant and cruel, and paid no attention to the etiquette demanded between ruler and subject. In the evenings he used to go out on marauding expeditions with twenty or thirty slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport. When the affair came to light â¦ it was found he had murdered at least 100 or more persons. Everyone in the kingdom knew about his ways, so that the people were afraid to venture out of their houses at night. The son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the [Han Emperor], and the Han officials requested that he be executed. The emperor could not bear to carry out their recommendation, but made him a commoner and banished him to Shangyong“.
9. The Know-it-All Who Starved to Death While Correcting Others
Long before grammar Nazis, there was Philitas of Cos (circa 340 – circa 285 BC). Ancient sources describe him as an annoying and overly pedantic busybody, who could not stop himself from constantly correcting others.. A poet and scholar who tutored Egypt’s king Ptolemy II, Philitas played a key role in popularizing the Hellenistic school of poetry, which flourished in Alexandria. Later poets, such as the Roman Ovid, refer to him as their model.
According to ancient sources, he got so caught up in correcting others’ mistakes, investigating false arguments and poor word choices, that he starved to death while researching and writing an essay about somebody’s erroneous word usage. An inscription in front of his tomb read: “Stranger, Philitas is my name, I lie – Slain by fallacious arguments, and cares – Protracted from evening through the night“.
8. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Men Almost Destroyed the Statue of Liberty
In the early 20th century, Black Tom Island, in New York Harbor, was one of the East Coast’s biggest munitions depots. When WWI started, its warehouses could barely keep up with the combatant’s orders for American munitions. While both sides could buy American munitions, only the Entente, whose navies controlled the sea lanes, were in a position to transport purchases made in America. So the Germans sent secret agents and saboteurs to America, with orders to disrupt the delivery of munitions.
On the night of July 30th, 1916, Black Tom Island had about two million pounds of artillery and small arms munitions in freight trains and barges. Sometime after midnight, guards noticed a series of small fires on the piers, and took to their heels. At 2:08 AM, July 30th, 1916, a massive explosion hurtled debris for over a mile, shattered windows up to 25 miles distant, and caused about half a billion dollars in damages. The actual death toll is unknown, as there were many housing barges nearby, and many victims are thought to have been incinerated. The blast and debris struck the Statue of Liberty, popping rivets in its upraised arm holding the torch, and that part of the statue has been closed to the public ever since.
7. The Nazis Kidnapped Over 400,000 Children To Raise As German Aryans
In May of 1940, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler issued a circular titled “The Treatment of Racial Aliens in the East“. Its goal boiled down to destroying the recently conquered Poles as an ethnicity, and reducing them to a pool of slave labor to be used up within a decade. Within 20 years, Poles were to be completely eradicated. Not all Poles, however: children of Aryan stock were to be salvaged, and added to the Third Reich’s population. An annual selection was to be made of children between ages 6 and 10, to identify any who met German racial criterion.
Those who did were to be taken from their families, shipped to Germany, given German names, and once sufficiently Germanized, they were to be put up for adoption. Hitler approved of Himmler’s child abduction directives on June 20th, 1940. Orders to implement the plan in Poland and other conquered territories, were sent out to the SS and German governors and officials in occupied Europe. By 1945, over 200,000 children had been kidnapped in Poland, plus another 200,000 from the rest of Europe.
In a history that had no shortage of weird rulers, Caligula (12 – 41 AD) was probably Rome’s most batshit emperor. His often terrifyingly bizarre behavior included cackling uncontrollably at parties, giddy at the thought that he could have anybody present killed on the spot, with just a gesture from his finger. One time he got mad at a noisy crowd in an arena, so he pointed out two bald guys at opposite ends of a section, and ordered his guards to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead“. He was into raping the wives of party guests, then rating the victims’ performances to their husbands. He also reportedly turned a section of the imperial palace into a whorehouse, staffed by the daughters and wives of prominent Romans.
However, it was not the preceding craziness that doomed Caligula, but his grievous error in offending his own bodyguards. The commander of his security detail, a man named Chaerea, had a high pitched voice, and Caligula got a kick out of mocking him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality, and whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, which he would waggle obscenely. In 41 AD, Chaerea finally had enough, hatched a plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.
5. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Athlete Got Himself Stuck in a Tree, and Was Eaten Alive by a Lion
Milo of Croton (flourished 6th century BC) was the Ancient Greek world’s most celebrated athlete and wrestler, as well as a renowned warrior. A strongman, his training regimen included carrying a bull on his shoulders. His daily diet reportedly included 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread, and 10 liters of wine. Whatever his training and diet, Milo’s string of athletic victories was unprecedented and unsurpassed. He dominated the quadrennial Panhellenic Games – the Olympic, Pythian, Nymean, and Isthmian games – for decades.
His remarkable life came to a bizarre end one day while he was strolling through the woods, and came upon a tree trunk partially split with wedges. Always on the lookout for opportunities to challenge himself with feats of strength, Milo tried to rend the tree apart with his bare hands. However, the wedges fell off, and his hands got stuck in the crack. It was the start of a bad day for the strongman. It got worse when a lion passed by while Milo was struggling to free himself, and ate him alive.
After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, king Bonaparte ended up in New Jersey. Not that Bonaparte: emperor Napoleon ended up giving himself up to the British, who eventually exiled him to the remote island of Saint Helena. However, fate was kinder to his older brother Joseph, whom Napoleon had made first king of Naples, where he was popular, then king of Spain, where he was anything but. Following his younger brother’s final defeat, Joseph chartered an American ship, the Commerce, for an escape to the United States.
Fortunately for him, Joseph had looted the Spanish treasury before he had been forced from the throne, so he was able to lead a comfortable life in America. After a few years in New York City and Philadelphia, Joseph bought a large estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, named Point Breeze. There, he hosted many leading luminaries and intellectuals, such as Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the Marquis de Lafayette. He also claimed to have run into the Jersey Devil – a mythical monster, said to inhabit the state’s Pine Barrens.
In June of 1969, Honduras and Salvador’s soccer teams met in home-and-away matches to qualify for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. The rivalry on the pitch became a proxy for real life tensions caused by Honduras’ mistreatment of immigrants from the more populous neighboring Salvador. The matches ended up exacerbating the preexisting tensions. Instead of soccer acting as a proxy for war, real war ended up acting as a proxy for soccer. The first game, played in Honduras and won by the home team 1-0, was marred by fan fights. In Salvador, a girl killed herself in grief over the loss, and became a popular heroine, with a televised funeral that ramped up the emotions.
Salvador won the second leg, played at home, 3-0. Once again, fans fought, and some Hondurans were killed. In Honduras, the locals retaliated by taking it out on Salvadoran immigrants. Hondurans did so again, when Salvador won a final tiebreaker match played in Mexico on June 27th, 1969, 3-2. The Salvadoran government severed diplomatic ties in protest over the mistreatment of Salvadorans in Honduras. Two weeks later, on July 14th, Salvador’s military marched into Honduras. By the time a ceasefire was declared on the 18th, about 900 Salvadorans, mostly civilians, had been killed, while the Hondurans lost about 250 military dead, plus 2000 civilians. About 300,000 Salvadorans were displaced, most of them having fled Honduras.
During WWII, Hitler became a full blown drug addict. It began with his daily use of Pervitin – a commercially marketed pill whose chemical formula was identical to that of crystal meth. Trusting in a quack doctor, Theodor Morell, the Fuhrer got hooked on daily shots that included Pervitin. Morell, who had eased Hitler’s chronic digestive ailments by prescribing him cultures of live bacteria, became the dictator’s personal doctor, causing the physician’s popularity to skyrocket among Nazi bigwigs. That popularity was helped by the fact that Morell routinely treated his patients by injecting them with addictive drugs, that had them coming back for more. Herman Goering, himself an all out junkie and copious pill popper, sarcastically referred to Morell as “the Reichmaster of the injections“.
In addition to getting Hitlerhooked on crystal meth, via Pervitin, Morell also made the Fuhrer a cocaine addict by prescribing it to soothe the dictator’s sore throat and clear his sinuses. Hitler soon had a compulsion to frequently soothe his throat and clear his sinuses. By 1945, Hitler was an out and out junkie, complete with rotting teeth, addicted to a bewildering variety of drugs. When his drug supplies ran out in the war’s closing weeks, the Fuhrer suffered all the symptoms of severe withdrawal: delusions, psychosis, paranoia, extreme shaking, and kidney failure.
1. American Doughboys Suffered Thousands of Needless Casualties During the Last Hours of WWI
American military commanders’ aggressiveness is usually admirable, but that was not the case on the last day of WWI. The Armistice bringing the conflict to an end was signed at 5AM on November 11th, 1918, to take effect six hours later, at 11AM. However, American commanders, especially general John J. Pershing, who headed the American Expeditionary Force, were unhappy with the Armistice and its conditions. Pershing in particular thought that the terms were too soft, and he believed that the Germans should be severely defeated militarily, in order to “teach them a lesson“. So in the last few hours of the war, American commanders continued to launch their men against German trenches.
The result was thousands of needless casualties, both American and German, but mostly American, since they were the ones attacking heavily fortified positions. The US 89th Division, for example, was ordered to attack the German held town of Stenay on the morning of November 11th, and successfully took it – the last town forcibly captured on the Western Front. However, that achievement came at the cost of more than 300 American casualties. The American V Corps alone suffered over eleven hundred casualties in the war’s final hours, including over three hundred killed. All in all, over 3500 Americans became casualties on the war’s last day.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading