5. The Great Empress Who Died While Taking a Great Dump
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796), was Tsarina, or empress, of Russia from 1762 until her death. A German born princess, she ascended the throne after she had her husband, Tsar Peter III, assassinated. She continued the westernization work begun by Tsar Peter the Great, and by the end of her reign, Russia had fully joined the mainstream of European political and cultural life. However, Catherine’s regal reign was not to be matched by a regal demise.
Rumors circulated that the insatiable Tsarina had died after sustaining injuries from having sex with a horse. The truth was less scandalous, but embarrassing all the same. Catherine had been feeling constipated, and during a heroic effort to force relief on the toilet, she overstrained herself and suffered a fatal stroke. When her loud gruntings ceased, her maids waiting outside assumed that her majesty had finally found relief. They started getting nervous, however, as the minutes dragged on without Catherine emerging or summoning them. Eventually they delicately inquired if all was well. Hearing no answer, they took a peak, and found the Empress dead on the toilet.
4. The King Who Bankrupted Himself Building Fairy Castles
Ludwig II, AKA “Mad King Ludwig” (1845 – 1886), was all about artistic and architectural projects, and his chief hobby was building fantastic fairy tale castles. When Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871, Ludwig withdrew from governance, and devoted himself wholly to the arts. He could not get enough of the theater and the opera, particularly the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong benefactor and patron he became. Ludwig’s greatest and costliest passion, however, was building castles in the Bavarian mountains.
He started with the Linderhoff Palace, built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he commenced construction of his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. Built from 1869 to 1886, it was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. While that one was being built, Ludwig began an even greater project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace – a copy of Versailles. It was never completed, because Ludwig went bankrupt. Between abandonment of his official duties, profligate spending on expensive hobbies, and withdrawal into the life of a recluse, Ludwig’s ministers finally had enough. In 1886, he was declared insane, and sent to a remote palace. Three days later, he drowned himself in a lake, taking his psychiatrist with him.
Sarah Wilson (circa 1754 – circa 1865) was a maid to one of British queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting, but was caught stealing some of the queen’s jewels and gowns. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, but her sentence was commuted to penal transportation to Maryland. Upon arrival in 1771, Sarah was sold as an indentured servant, but escaped within a few days. She had managed to hang on to some of the queen’s belongings, and wearing her majesty’s dress, Sarah claimed to be Queen Charlotte’s sister, “Princess Susana Caroline Matilda of Mecklenberg-Sterlitz”. She explained her presence in America by inventing a royal family quarrel, and a scandal that required her to temporarily leave Britain until things calmed down.
Many locals bought it, and Sarah parlayed that into a life of luxury. For years, “Princess Susana” travelled up and down the Colonies, from New Hampshire to the Carolinas, hosted in style by government officials, wealthy Americans, social climbers, and others eager to befriend and win the favor of a royal. She grifted many out of considerable sums by promising royal appointments, or that she would put in a good word for them with her sister and brother in the law, Britain’s queen and king. She also took out numerous loans, and bought many luxury items on credit from merchants and shopkeepers eager for royal patronage and the custom of a princess. The scam finally ended when her master caught her and took her back to Baltimore.
During the Korean War, American troops in the Chosin Reservoir had it bad. They were outnumbered 8 to 1, supplies were running low, temperatures plummeted to minus 25 degrees, and food was almost impossible to warm up. They were also running low on mortar shells. In ordering mortar shell resupplies, they used a codename established for the munitions: Tootsie Rolls. Somebody took that literally, however, and airdropped the beleaguered troops crates of the candy, instead.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Tootsie Rolls were among the few food items that were actually edible when frozen, and the sugar boost gave the weary fighters a needed jolt. Additionally, the troops soon found innovative uses for the candy. Chewed up Tootsie Rolls became like putty in the mouth, but froze solid when exposed in the frigid conditions of the Chosin Reservoir. So using Tootsie Rolls as improvised epoxy, the troops patched up bullet holes in equipment, and repaired broken tools. Then, on a sugar high and with their equipment fixed, the American forces broke out of the Chosin Reservoir, and fought their way to safety.
1. The Snake Eradication Plan That Disastrously Backfired
British India’s rulers were worried when Delhi became infested with venomous cobras, so they offered a bounty for dead cobras, payable upon delivery of their skin to designated officials. Before long, natives were thronging to the drop off points, whose store rooms were soon bulging with cobra skins. However, the city’s cobra population remained unchanged, no matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities. Officials eventually figured out why: many locals had turned to farming cobras. Since the bounty on the snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop.
So the authorities cancelled the plan, and stopped paying out bounties for cobra skins. That made things worse. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras became worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers did the economically sensible thing, and released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The infestation grew by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than it had possessed before the authorities launched their ill advised plan.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading