History is composed in the main of broad outlines and major stories known by many, and smaller stories and details known to a relative few beyond the circle of history buffs and aficionados. Following are twenty lesser known but fascinating historical facts that will make you a hit at the next party (or a bore – your mileage may vary, so check the audience)
20. The Dead of Waterloo Were Sold as Fertilizer
The Battle of Waterloo, 1815, ended decades of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and established the broad outlines of European geopolitics for nearly a century. Today, we are used to the notion of honoring those killed in war, as can be seen in the solemnity surrounding Unknown Soldier memorials around the world, or the reverence and care attendant upon the upkeep of war cemeteries. However, it was not always so.
Back then, those killed in action were usually stripped of valuables. Those “valuables” included their very corpses. The dead of Waterloo had their teeth pulled out, to get fashioned into dentures. Waterloo was such a bonanza for Britain’s denture industry, that sets made of human teeth were known as “Waterloo dentures” for years afterwards. Their bones – like the bones of those killed in other Napoleonic battles such as Austerlitz and Leipzig – were shipped to Britain, and ground into fertilizer. As a correspondent wrote in The Observer in 1822: “the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread“.
19. Why Salt Lake City Has America’s Longest Blocks and Widest Streets
It probably takes longer to walk a block in Salt Lake City than in any other American city. That often comes as a surprise to visitors staying in SLC’s downtown, who ask for directions, are told that it is “four or five blocks away“, and end up discovering that it is a fifteen or twenty minute hike. While similar sized cities such as Little Rock or Austin have downtown blocks measuring 300 x 300 feet, or 200 x 200 feet in the case of Portland, SLC’s downtown blocks are a whopping 660 x 660 feet.
Downtown SLC’s streets are similarly wide: at 130 feet, they are double the width of Manhattan’s. That is because the Mormon faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, thought cities should have large blocks, to allow for small farming plots. When the Mormons reached Utah in 1847, church president Brigham Young added wide streets to the plan, in order to allow ample room for farmers to turn their cattle around, without “resorting to profanity“.
18. Abraham Lincoln Was a Badass Who Kicked Butts and Took Names in His Youth
With his craggy features, lanky frame, and stovepipe hat, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps America’s most recognizable historic president, well known for many things. As The Great Emancipator; as the president who successfully navigated the United States through the Civil War; and as the author of the Gettysburg Address, recited by kids on school stages to this day. Less known is that in his youth, Lincoln was a lean, mean, wrestling machine, who performed feats of strength that became part of local legend and frontier lore.
His most famous fight took place shortly after Lincoln, in his early 20s, moved to Salem, Illinois, and was challenged by a local bully named Jack Armstrong. The bout was inconclusive for some time, but when Armstrong resorted to dirty tricks, an enraged Lincoln grabbed him by the neck, and extending his arms, “shook him like a rag doll“, before tossing him to the ground. Standing over his rival, Lincoln then challenged Armstrong’s followers: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come and whet your horns!” Armstrong admitted he’d been fairly beaten, and proclaimed Lincoln “the best feller that ever broke into this settlement“. The duo shook hands, and became friends.
17. Britain’s First Satellite Was Wrecked by an American Nuke
On April 26th, 1962, as part of its Ariel Program, Britain launched the Ariel-1 into space, becoming the third country, after the Soviet and Union and the United States, to have its own satellite. Understandably, it became a source of national pride, and a reminder that although Britain might ceded global leadership to the US and USSR, the country was still a power to be reckoned with. A few weeks later, Ariel-1 was nuked by America.
It came about as a result of Starfish Prime, a high altitude nuclear test conducted by the United States on July 9th, 1962. A Thor rocket, carrying a thermonuclear warhead, was launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific, climbed to a height of 250 miles above earth, and produced a 1.4 megaton explosion. The result was an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) far greater than expected, that caused electric damage in Hawaii, nearly a thousand miles away, knocking out hundreds of street lights, setting off burglar alarms, and wreaked havoc on the telephone system. It also produced debris and a radiation belt that destroyed or damaged a number of satellites, including Ariel-1.
German philosopher Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) is well known for writing TheCommunist Manifesto and Das Kapital, which formed the bases of Marxism, and revolutionized the world for better and for worse. Born in Prussia, he experimented with sociopolitical theories in university, and by the 1840s had become a radical journalist. His writings were viewed as dangerous by the authorities, and in the span of a few years he was expelled from Germany, France, Belgium, then Germany again, before finding refuge in London.
One thing Marx was not was a sentimentalist. He was not a fan of gestures that he judged to be romantic bourgeoisie affectations, and he carried that with him to his dying breath. Literally. On his deathbed in 1883, as he lay expiring from pleurisy, he was solicited for final words. His reply, before breathing his last, was to wheeze out: “Go on! Get Out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”
15. The Roman Republic’s Richest Man Died Choking on Gold
Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was a leading figure of the late Roman Republic, and its wealthiest citizen. He sponsored politicians, including Julius Caesar, whose political rise he bankrolled, and amassed considerable power. He eventually partnered up with Caesar and Pompey to divvy up Rome amongst themselves, in what came to be known as the First Triumvirate. However, the one thing that Crassus lacked, and which his fellow Triumvirs had in abundance, was military glory. He tried to get some, but it ended in catastrophe.
In 53 BC, Crassus marched off to conquer Parthia, leading an army of 50,000 men. After a gruelling march through arid lands, Crassus encountered 9000 Parthian horse archers, and 1000 armored heavy cavalry, near the town of Carrhae, in modern Turkey. Although they outnumbered the Parthians 5:1, the Romans were demoralized by the march, and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership. The Romans were slaughtered, and Crassus was captured. To mock his greed, the Parthians executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat.
14. Douglas MacArthur Wanted to Drop 50 Nukes on China
Douglas MacArthur’s successful Inchon landings in September, 1950, led to the collapse of the North Korean invasion during the Korean War. MacArthur then vigorously pursued the routed enemy up the Korean Peninsula, and blithely dismissed warnings that China would intervene if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border, insisting that the Chinese would do nothing. MacArthur was wrong. Soon after reaching the Chinese border, the Chinese struck, caught MacArthur’s forces by surprise, and chased them back down the Korean Peninsula.
The humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics, and insisted that up to 50 atomic bombs be dropped on China. His plan was to nuke Chinese cities in Manchuria, military concentrations, and communication centers, and create a radioactive belt stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China. Fortunately, president Truman balked, and declined to accept the general’s assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if America dropped dozens of nukes on their Chinese ally. When MacArthur bucked and defied Truman, the president fired him.
13. The Founder of New Zealand Spent Years in Jail For Kidnapping and Marrying a 15 Year Old
British politician Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796 – 1862) is considered by many to be the founder of New Zealand. Before that, however, he spent years in prison for abducting and marrying a 15 year old heiress. She was Ellen Turner, the only daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer, and Wakefield wanted her father’s money to bankroll his political career. Realizing that her father would never consent, he sent a carriage to Ellen’s boarding school, with a message that Ellen’s mother was dying, and wished to see her daughter immediately.
She was taken to a hotel, where Wakefield told her that her father’s business had collapsed, and that her dad was now a fugitive, on the run from creditors. He then convinced Ellen that his banker uncle had agreed to release some funds that would save her father, but only on condition that she wed Wakefield, and that her father had consented to the marriage. Ellen agreed, they were married, and Wakefield took her to France. However, Ellen’s father called in favors from the British Foreign Office, who sent a lawyer and a policeman to France, where they found Ellen and Wakefield in a Calais hotel. She was returned to her father, and Wakefield ended up doing three years behind bars. The marriage was eventually annulled by Parliament.
12. Pope John XII Turned His Palace Into a Brothel
Pope John XII (937 – 964) was history’s youngest Holy Father, having gotten elevated to the Holy See in 955, at age 18. Unsurprisingly, making a teenager pope ended badly. His years as Holy Father were as farcical and venal as one could expect from a person thrust into a position of power and influence for which he was clearly unprepared and unqualified. He showed little interest in his spiritual duties and papal obligations, and dove headfirst into a life of depravity. Devoting himself to hunting, gambling, wine, and women, he was given to invoking pagan gods while playing dice. He was also a violent psychopath, who reportedly castrated a deacon before killing him, and when his own confessor angered him, he blinded, then killed him.
As to licentiousness, contemporaries described him as having turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel. He got a particular kick out of defiling holy sites by having sex in them. He had sex with women and men in the papal palace, and if visitors refused his advances, he raped them. After nine years on the papal throne, he died while having sex. There are two accounts of John XII’s death. One has him dying after suffering a massive stroke mid coitus, while another involves sex with a married woman, that ended with the enraged cuckolded husband bursting in on the couple, and killing the Holy Father.
11. The Record Company That Passed on the Beatles to Sign Brian Poole and the Tremeloes
On New Year’s Day, 1962, the Beatles performed about 15 songs before Dick Rowe, a senior executive with Decca Records, and the label’s chief talent spotter. After the audition, Mr. Rowe passed, telling the Beatles manager: “Guitar groups are on the way out“. The Beatles were understandably dejected at starting the new year with a rejection. By contrast, Dick Rowe thought his new year had started great. That same day, he had listened to another auditioning band and liking what he heard, he signed up Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.
The Tremeloes went on to have some success in the United Kingdom. In 1963, they entered the UK charts with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, and followed it up with a UK chart-topping cover of the Contours’ Do You Love Me. A year later, they did a cover of Roy Orbison’s Candy Man that pleased the Brits, and a cover of the Crickets’ Someone, Someone, which made it to number 2 on the UK charts. Nonetheless, it was nowhere close to the Beatles’ success. Passing on the Beatles made Dick Rowe and Decca Records synonymous with bad decisions.
BMW, have always been known for their high quality cars, and until 1945, for their aircraft engines. The company, which today produces luxury automobiles and motorcycles, is a multinational with plants in Germany, America, the UK, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Less known is that its major shareholders, the Quandt family, were Hitler’s close friends. After a 2007 TV documentary aired unpleasant revelations about the company’s activities during the Third Reich, the Quandt family launched an investigation, which reached troubling conclusions. In a nutshell, the Quandt family patriarch, Gunther Quandt, and his son Herbert, were in deep with the Nazis.
To their credit, the current generation of Quandts, unlike many others with a history of Nazi ties, did not duck the issue or sugarcoat things, but came clean. They commissioned a respected German historian to research the company’s past, and set him loose on BMW’s and the Quandt family’s archives and files. The result was a 1200 page report, which concluded that “[t]he Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis â¦ The family patriarch was part of the regime“.
9. The Creator Of Modern Erotic Fiction Died From Laughter
Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556) was an Italian writer, satirist, poet, playwright, and blackmailer. He also created modern literary pornography – erotic literature, with graphic sexual details, intended to arouse. Nowadays, as it has been for centuries, erotic fiction is a steady (if often downplayed) moneymaker for publishers. Seeing as how Aretino’s whole life seems to have been one long and seedy adventure, it was somehow fitting that he died laughing at a dirty joke.
It came about as a party was winding down on October 21st, 1556, and his sister shared a risque joke. Pietro Aretino laughed so hard that he fell off his chair, and kicked the bucket right then and there. Another version has it that died from a fit of apoplectic laughter after hearing the joke, while yet another variant has it that his death was caused by suffocation from laughing so hard. Whichever version it was, all accounts agree that it was laughter that killed him. Unfortunately, the deadly joke has not survived.
8. George Washington’s Slave Who Fought For the British
Harry Washington was born in Gambia, circa 1740. Enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, he ended up getting purchased by George Washington, who put him to work draining swamps in southeast Virginia. After years of toil in appalling conditions, Harry was taken to Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and tasked with looking after the horses. He escaped in 1771, but was recaptured a few weeks later. When the Revolutionary War started in 1775, Virginia’s governor offered slaves their freedom if they fought for the British.
Mount Vernon’s manager assembled the plantation’s slaves, and urged them to trust the benevolence of slavery’s paternalism over the precarious dangers of freedom. Harry preferred the dangers of freedom over the benevolence of slavery, and risking savage penalties if caught, he fled, and enlisted with the British. He rose to the rank of corporal, and participated in the British invasion of South Carolina. There, corporal Harry Washington was placed in charge of a pioneer unit in Charleston, in 1781. After the war, he was evacuated to Nova Scotia, and later joined the first group of colonial black migrants who were returned to Africa, settling in Sierra Leone.
7. Child Soldiers Were Everywhere You Looked During the Civil War
Roughly a fifth of American Civil War military personnel were under 18. The Union Army had over 100,000 soldiers under 15. There were even children as young as eight in uniform. On land, they were usually used in non-combatant positions, but were often just as exposed to fire as adults on the front line. At sea, children in the US Navy served as “powder monkeys”. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger as everybody else aboard ship.
There were age restrictions – in the Union, enlistees had to be over 16 – but they were frequently ignored. Many under-aged Northern boys, for example, had little trouble finding recruiters willing to sign them up, provided they swore that they were “over 16”. Some reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper and sticking it to the bottom of a shoe, so they could honestly swear that they were “over 16”.
6. The Assassin Who Kicked Off WWI Lived Until 1918
Gavrilo Princep (1894 – 1918) was a Serb from Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a territory ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a teenager, he was radicalized by Serbian nationalists who called for a country unifying all southern Slavs (“Yugoslavia”), and joined an organization dedicated to freeing Slavs from Austria-Hungary’s control. Violent activism got him expelled from school in 1912, so he walked 170 miles to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and joined guerrillas who raided across the border into Austro-Hungarian territory
He was soon recruited by the Serbian Black Hand, who equipped and trained Princep and other terrorists, then sent them to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914. Princep fired the fatal shots, then swallowed a cyanide pill immediately after. However, it had expired, and he was captured. He was tried and convicted, but was only nineteen years old at the time – twenty seven days short of the twenty year old minimum age under Austro-Hungarian law for the death penalty. So he received the maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, and died on April 28th, 1918, three years and ten months after sparking the war.
5. That Time The Dutch Lynched and Ate Their Prime Minister
Dutch Prime Minister Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672) sought to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused so much on his decentralization agenda, however, that he ended up neglecting the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military disasters in 1672, so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.
On August 20th of that year, de Witt, who by then had dominated Dutch politics for twenty years, went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile. Out of the blue, the brothers were attacked by members of the Hague city militia, who shot them and left them on the street to the tender mercies of a Dutch mob. The mob was neither tender nor merciful. If the de Witts had not already been dead from the soldiers’ bullets, they were quite dead by the time the mob was done stabbing and beating them. The mob then strung up the corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate chunks of them in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976) was a guerrilla fighter, soldier, and statesman, who played the key role in his country’s communist revolution. He led the Chinese Communist Party from 1935 until his death, and after the communists won control in 1949, he ruled China until his demise. During his years in power, he was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions Chinese, killed outright by his followers, or starved to death because of his disastrous economic policies. In his free time, he indulged his fondness for classical Chinese poetry and literature, and was a prolific writer and poet.
Incongruously, he liked to compose and pen verses in classical Chinese forms. Mao’s education, like that of most intellectuals of his era, was based on a foundation of classical Chinese literature. However, while most of Mao’s contemporaries moved on to modern styles and themes, he stuck with the old. Since his youth, he composed poetry in the classical style, and his image as a poet played a significant role in shaping his public persona. He was actually considered a good poet. Not just by critics in China, who would have been foolhardy to pan his poetry, but also by literary critics who were outside China, and thus beyond his clutches.
3. The Tank Raid That Sealed the Fate of the Germans in Stalingrad
The Tatsinskaya Raid – also known as the “Christmas Raid” – was a Soviet armored raid on December 24th, 1942, at the height of the Battle of Stalingrad. It sought sought to destroy the Tatsinskaya airfield, from which the Germans were frantically airlifting supplies to their besieged 6th Army. The airfield and its planes were the surrounded Germans’ sole lifeline, thus the need to destroy it and its irreplaceable Ju 52 transport planes. The Red Army’s 24th Tank Corps hit the airfield from three sides and caught the Germans by surprise.
T-34 tanks clattered down the tarmac, machine gunning and shelling buildings and equipment, and destroying precious planes – some still in crates on railway cars. When the tanks ran low on ammunition, they simply rammed the airplanes, smashing through their aluminum frames and crushing them and their engines beneath tons of armor. German pilots and crews were gunned down or run down and mangled beneath the T-34s’ treads. The raiders were eventually encircled, and sustained heavy losses. It was still a Soviet strategic victory: the attackers claimed 300 planes destroyed, while the Germans admitted to losing 72 irreplaceable Ju 52 transports. Whatever the number, the destruction of the airfield and the loss of the transport planes and their trained pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel, doomed the 6th Army in Stalingrad.
Draco the Lawgiver (flourished 7th century BC) was an Ancient Athenian aristocrat, tasked with creating a legal system to replace a private justice system, in which rights were enforced by citizens and their relatives. Draco put Athens’ laws in writing and had them published, thus reducing the pitfalls of traditional oral laws that were known to only a select few, and were arbitrarily interpreted and applied. It was a huge step towards equality under the law, but Draco made the laws insanely severe, and highly favorable to creditors and the propertied classes. Defaulting debtors were liable to be sold into slavery, and those guilty of petty property crimes, such as stealing a cabbage, were liable to the death penalty.
When asked why he legislated death for most offenses, Draco replied that he considered the petty crimes worthy of death, and he could not think of a greater penalty for the greater offenses. Whatever the poor and indebted might have thought, wealthy Greeks apparently liked Draco’s laws so much that they reportedly killed him with applause. Literally. Ancient Greeks showed their approval by throwing hats and items of clothing at the subject of adoration, and during a visit to Aegina, its citizens showered him with so many hats and shirts and cloaks that he suffocated to death under the barrage.
1. Mary Seacole Used to Be As Famous as Florence Nightingale
Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881), a businesswoman and adventurer, set up a convalescence home for British officers during the Crimean War, that came to be known as the “British Hotel”, and cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. A black woman from Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole learned about African and Caribbean herbal remedies from her mother, who ran ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers. The guests’ precarious health gave Seacole firsthand knowledge of dealing with ailments and physical crises.
She was in Britain during the Crimean War, and approached the War Office, asking to be sent as a nurse to Crimea, where medical facilities were scandalously abysmal. Her request was rejected. Undaunted, Seacole funded her own way to Crimea, where she established the “British Hotel” near Balaclava to provide “A mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers“. She also trekked to the battlefields, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Her courage in the face of mortal danger earned her the affectionate nickname “Mother Seacole” from soldiers. History records Florence Nightingale as the Crimean War’s foremost nurse, but during the conflict, and especially among the soldiers on the ground, Seacole’s fame rivaled that of Nightingale.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading