25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School

Natasha sheldon - January 28, 2019

Classroom history can excite and inspire- or it can be a dry affair consisting of a reel of names, dates, and places. Either way, history at school concentrates on the bigger picture: the significant events that changed the world and the people behind them. If you are lucky, you might catch a small glimpse of the lives of ordinary people. However, in the main, the obscure, ridiculous, unusual or just plain strange facts and events from history are kept well out of the classroom. So to redress the balance and to show that life in the past was just as odd and random as today, here are twenty-five obscure historical facts your history lessons probably neglected to reveal.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Bust of Quintus Servillus Caepio. Google Images

25. Quintus Servillus Caepio may have been a terrible Roman general. However, he was a most accomplished thief.

Ancient Rome was renowned for its accomplished generals. However, not all commanders were competent, and one of the worst was an insufferable snob called Quintus Servillus Caepio. In 105 BC, Caepio was one of two generals sent against Germanic tribesmen. The aristocratic Caepio despised his co-general Gnaeus Mallius Maximus because he was a Novus homo or new man. He refused to share a camp with Maximus, and when he found out his co-general was negotiating with the Germans, Caepio led his half of the army into battle to spite him. The Germans destroyed the disunited Roman army and Caepio was tried for his ineptitude and expelled from Rome. However, he lived out his exile as a wealthy man. On the way into battle, Caepio had plundered the temples of Tolosa of a fortune in gold and silver.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921.Picture by F Schmutzer. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

24. In 1952, Albert Einstein declined an offer to become the second president of the State of Israel.

In 1952, Albert Einstein could have become President of Israel when the first president, Einstein’s friend Chaim Weizmann, asked the scientist to replace him. Weizmann had been president since February 17, 1949, but by 1952, Weizmann was in frail health. Einstein, a naturalized American citizen, was a known supporter of Zionism and a believer in the importance of cooperation between Jews and Arabs. So Weizmann approached the man he regarded as ‘the greatest Jew alive’ and asked him to take over the reins of the fledgling Israeli state. However, despite being “deeply moved’ by Weizmann’s offer and the assurance that being president would not interfere with his scientific work, Einstein turned the presidency down.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Equestrian portrait of Emperor Napoleon I by Carle Vernet. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

23. In 1807, Rabbits attacked Napoleon

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated Prussia and Russia and forced them to become France’s allies against the Swedish and British. So, feeling rather pleased with himself, Napoleon decided to celebrate by inviting his leaders to join him on a rabbit hunt. Aides captured hundreds of rabbits and caged them in advance of the event. However, once released, the rabbits did not want to play. Instead of running away from the hunters, they attacked them, concentrating on Napoleon himself. The belligerent bunnies bit the dictator’s legs and back while the other hunters tried to drive them off with whips. Finally, Napoleon was able to run for the safety of his carriage- the rabbits still nipping at his heels.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
“Napoleon on Elba.” Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

22. In 1820, a former pirate planned to rescue the ex-Emperor Napoleon from his prison on St Helena using a submarine!

By 1815, Napoleon’s glory days were over. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the British exiled him to St. Helena, a rocky island in the South Atlantic 1200 miles from land. Escape looked impossible. However, Tom Johnson, an Irish-born pirate claimed that in 1820 Napoleonic sympathizers in America offered him £40,000 to rescue the former Emperor. Johnson’s plan was to lower a disguised Napoleon down the sheer cliffs of St. Helena in a boson’s chair before spiriting him away in one of two submarines. However, the rescue came to nothing- mainly because Napoleon insisted on being gloriously rescued by an army rather than skulking away like a criminal.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
“Empress Josephine in Coronation robes,” by Francois Gerard. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

21. Empress Josephine’s favorite companion was an orangutan.

Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine was known for her exotic pets. Kangaroos, emus and black swans are all featured in the Empress’s exotic menagerie. However, her favorite was a young female orangutan named Rose. Rose was the first of her species to reach France and was presented to the Empress by general Charles Decaen, the governor of Pondicherry. Rose behaved so well that she often dined with Josephine, eating her favorite turnips impeccably with a knife and fork while wearing in a white cotton chemise. Josephine so loved Rose, that orangutan often slept with her and Napoleon. However, despite this cossetting, Rose did not survive well in captivity and passed away after just five months.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
An aerial photo of the Isles of Scilly, Great Britain. Picture credit: NASA. Wikimedia Commons. public Domain

20. For 350 years, the Dutch were at war with the Scilly Isles- yet not a single person died.

The Dutch began the English Civil War as allies of the crown. However, as the war wore on, they switched sides. So, the embittered royalists, now isolated on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast took their revenge on their former allies by raiding Dutch vessels. By 1651, the Dutch had had enough. So they sent 12 ships to the isles to demand reparations for the pain of war. The royalists refused. So, on March 30, 1651, the Dutch commander Cornelis Tromp declared war on the Scilly Isles, and then sailed home without firing a shot- or making peace. Representatives finally signed a peace treaty on April 17, 1986, after a historian rediscovered documents detailing the long-forgotten war.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
“Palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar.” Picture credit: Vitopuntocom. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

19. The shortest war on record was the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896

In 1896, Hamad bin Thuwaini the pro-British sultan of the protectorate of Zanzibar died in suspicious circumstances. People believed that the sultan’s cousin, Khalid bin Barghash had poisoned him; a fact made more likely when bin Barghash immediately declared himself ruler without British approval and fortified the palace. The British demanded bin Barghash stand down. When he refused, they began to assemble boats and troops in the nearby harbor. Finally, at 9 am on August 26 they declared war and opened fire on the palace. Within two minutes, the British destroyed bin Barghash’s artillery and the wooden palace began to collapse on the troops inside, while, the short-lived sultan escaped through the back door. By 9.40, the ‘war’ was over after just 38 minutes.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
“Domestic cat sleeping beside a landline phone.” Picture credit: Hindustani language. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

18. In 1929, researchers from the University of Princeton turned a live cat into a telephone

In 1929, Professor Ernest Glen Wever and his assistant Charles William Bray of Princeton University tested how the auditory nerve perceived sound by turning a live cat into a telephone. The pair sedated the cat and then attached a telephone wire to its exposed auditory nerve. They then connected the wire to a telephone receiver. When Bray spoke through the cat’s ears, Wever, who was with the receiver, fifty feet away in a soundproofed room, found he could hear what his partner was saying. The pair’s experiments led to prestigious scientific careers. As for the cat, while it survived the first experiment, it did not survive Wever and Bray’s subsequent investigations.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Paris XII fondation Eugene-Napoleon. Picture Credit: Mbzt. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

17. In 1911, a Paris orphanage raised money by raffling live babies.

A Paris Orphanage happened upon a unique way of fundraising in 1911 when it decided to hold a “Loterie de bebes. “The bizarre raffle was held with full the ‘consent of the authorities’ and involved the winners becoming the proud adoptive parents of an orphaned baby. Reports emphasized that the best interests of the children remained paramount. The orphanage assessed the suitability of the lucky winners to be parents before handing over their ‘prizes’ and split the proceeds of the raffle between several charities. It seems that all concerned saw the lottery as a sensible solution to the problem of finding homes for abandoned children.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
The ‘Mystic Lamb’ panel from the Ghent Altarpiece. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

16. The most stolen work of artwork in history is the Ghent Altar Piece

The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 made Leonardo da Vinci’s painting famous. Few people, however, have heard of the Ghent Altarpiece, which thieves targetted no less than seven times. Also known as the Adoration of the Mystic lamb the 12-paneled piece was painted in 1432 by Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck. Anti iconic Calvinists intent on destroying it, greedy Napoleonic soldiers, unscrupulous art dealers, and the Nazis have all made off with selections of the panels. On six occasions, the stolen pieces were recovered and returned to the artwork’s home in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. However, in 1934, the panel depicting the Righteous Judges was held to ransom. The thieves never returned it.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Relief location map of the Antarctic Ocean. Picture Credit: Uwe Dedering. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

15. The Antarctic’s name had its roots in Ancient Greece.

Most people have heard of the Antarctic from Geography lessons, but few people know how the coldest continent on earth got its name. Norwegians first explored the earth’s most southerly continent in the nineteenth century. These early pioneers awarded Norwegian names to the places they discovered. However, the name of the new continent came from the classical world. The ‘arctic’ element of Antarctic (or ‘anti arctic’) derives from the Greek arkto or bear. The northern polar region was known as the Arctic or the land of bears because the constellations of Ursa Major and minor were visible from the northern hemisphere. So it was logical to view the Arctic’s polar opposite as Antarktikos: “opposite the land of the bears.”


25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

14. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was the only person to survive both of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are famous for ending World War II. They are also infamous for the destruction and human suffering they left in their wake. One man, however, managed to survive both bombings- despite being only 1.8 miles from the drop site on both occasions. Twenty-nine-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on August 8, 1945, when a US bomber dropped the ‘Little Boy” atomic bomb on the city, killing 14,000 people. Yamaguchi sustained non-life-threatening burns to his upper body and two days later returned home to Nagasaki. The very next day, Nagasaki lost 73,000 people to the bomb known as ‘fat man.’ Tsutomu survived with only minor injuries.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
“Woodcut of Niagara Falls from Etats-Unis d’Amerique” by Roux de Rochelle. Published by Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1837. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

13. The first person to survive a drop over Niagara Falls was an American Schoolmistress.

On October 24, 1901, American schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor decided to celebrate her 63rdbirthday most unusually by launching herself in a barrel off the top of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara Falls three waterfalls. A large crowd gathered, confident they would be witnessing the schoolmistress’s inevitable death as the barrel plummeted down the 51-meter drop. However, cuts and bruises aside, Ms. Taylor made it intact- the first person to do so at Niagara Falls.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Louis Antoine de Bourbon-Artois, Duc d’Angoulême. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

12. Louis Antoine de Bourbon-Artois, Duke of Angouleme was King of France for less than 20 minutes.

The reign of Louis Antoine de Bourbon has to be one of the shortest in history. After the fall of Napoleon, France restored the ousted Bourbon dynasty as a constitutional monarchy. However, by 1830, the regime was once again in crisis due to the excesses of King Charles X- the younger brother of the executed Louis XVI. To save his family, Charles decided to bypass his legitimate heir Louis Antoine and abdicate in favor of his nine-year-old grandson, Henri Duc de Bordeaux. However, for Henri to become King, Louis also had to sign the declaration. He hesitated to do this for twenty minutes, during which time he was nominally King of France.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
The Althingi. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

11. The oldest existing Parliament in the world dates from 930AD.

Most people are taught to think of the British Parliament as the “Mother of all Parliaments” and so the oldest in the world. In fact, the Icelandic Althingi is the oldest running Parliament in the world. Icelanders established the Althingi in 930 AD as an annual outdoor assembly that was held 45km from Iceland’s modern capital of Reykjavik. All free men could attend the Althingi. However, it was also the place where Iceland’s leaders made laws and dispensed justice. Although in the fourteenth century the Danish Monarchy limited the Althingi’s role, it continued to survive as a law court and became supreme one more in 1944 when Iceland achieved independence.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
The Great Fire of London. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

10. Official records show only six deaths due to the Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London began on September 2, 1666, in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane. Within three days, it had wiped out 89 churches, and 13,500 houses. 90% of London’s 80,000 inhabitants were left homeless. However, the records record only six deaths from the fire. Amongst them were an unnamed maid from the baker’s in Pudding Lane and three people from St Paul’s Cathedral who were mummified by the heat. However, it is likely that hundreds or even several thousand people died in the fire. To some extent, disarray in administration explains to some extent the low official death toll following the conflagration. However, some bodies became lost amongst the ashes of buildings while other victims went unnoticed as no one missed them.


25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Headrest, with the name of the priest-reader Sefekhy. Alabaster ( calcite ), Egypt, Old Kingdom ( 2650-2150 BC ). Musée de Mariemont. Picture Credit: Vassil. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

9. Ancient Egyptians don’t seem to have used pillows to sleep.

While pyramids, mummies and the River Nile may be hot topics in Egyptian history, the sleeping habits of the ancient Egyptians don’t seem to feature much in classrooms, probably because it is taken for granted they weren’t much different from our own. However, while archaeologists have discovered one 4000-year-old, wax-covered linen pillow, pictures and hieroglyphs suggest that most Egyptians slept resting their heads on uncomfortable-looking headrests. Egyptians made the headrests from wood, ivory or even marble, and consisted of a curved upper section supported by a high base. Often carved with the names of their owners, depictions of the headrests give no sign of any padding.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

8. Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ordered a military burial for his amputated leg.

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was Mexican president 11 times in the violent period following Mexico’s independence from Spain. Essentially a military dictator, Santa Anna saw himself as the “Napoleon of the West,” leading his troops into battle himself much like his French hero. In 1838, this determination to lead from the front led to a French canon wounding the General in the leg so severely that doctors were forced to amputate. Santa Anna initially buried his lost leg at his home. However, when he resumed the Presidency in 1842, he had the limb exhumed. The appendage was paraded through Mexico City in a funeral coach before Santa Anna buried it with full military honors and a monument.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Arabic Numerals. Picture Credit: Vispec. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

7. Arabs did not invent the Arabic Numerical system used in the west today.

The modern western numerical system is often referred to as the Arabic system because it is widely believed to have originated from Arabic numerals. However, the system should more correctly be known as the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, for it developed in India- not the Middle East. Symbols resembling western numerals can be found dating to as early as the third century BC in Indian sources such as the Ashoka inscriptions. Trade with India probably facilitated the adoption of the Hindu system in North Africa and the Middle East, which in its turn found its way to Europe.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Henry Avery. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

6. Pirate Henry Avery was the subject of the first recorded worldwide manhunt.

Henry Avery, also known as John Avery or “Long Ben” was one of the most renowned British pirates of the seventeenth century. Avery’s life of piracy began in 1691 after a stint in the Royal Navy. Within only four years, he was famous and became particularly notorious in 1695 when he attacked 25 ships of the Indian Mughal government, capturing loot worth around 78 million dollars today. The Indian government were outraged and retaliated by closing some of the English East India Company’s trading stations- provoking the company to offer a hefty bounty for Avery’s capture. And so began the first recorded worldwide manhunt. However, despite the $130,070 reward, Avery was never captured and disappeared from history in 1696.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Film still from the D-Day landings showing commandos aboard a landing craft on their approach to Sword Beach, 6 June 1944. Permission granted by the Imperial War Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

5. The “D” in “D Day” is simply a repetition of ‘Day”!

The D Day landings on June 6, 1944, signaled the start of the allied invasion of France and the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Some people believe that the “D” stands for doomsday or decision day. However, the explanation offered by the British Imperial War Museum is somewhat different: ‘D-Day is a general military term for the day on which an operation or exercise is planned to commence. The choice of the letter D has no significance, and any other letter could equally be used. Its only purpose is to provide a point of reference from which all other dates can be reckoned.”

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
The entrance of Berlin zoo c. 1900. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

4. The First Bomb dropped on Berlin during WW2 claimed no human casualties. But it did kill an elephant.

As the capital of Germany, Berlin was a prime target for allied bombers during World War II. On August 26, 1940, British planes dropped the first bomb of the war upon the city. They destroyed a suburban woodshed, and two German civilians sustained minor injuries. However, the only casualty in the city was one of the nine elephants in the Berlin Zoo. The elephants remained curiously safe until an allied raid in 1944 wiped out another seven. Only one elephant in the zoo survived the war: Siam, an Indian bull elephant who was left alone in what remained of the enclosure.

You May Interested: 12 Bomber Aircraft That Carried The Most Devastating Bombing Campaigns of WWII.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Kim Jong-il. Kremlin Presidential Press and Information Office. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

3. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-iI wrote six operas

The composition of classical music is probably not something that immediately springs to mind when the name of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-iI. However, music was one of the many talents advertised by his official biography after his death in 2011. “He wrote six operas, “declared the biography, “better than any in the history of music.” Whether this judgment of Kim Jong’s compositions is balanced is a matter of opinion. However, the dictator did have an enthusiasm for opera which he shared with his father and in 1974, he encapsulated his musical ideas in a book, The art of opera.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Pirate ship by Ambroise Louis Garneray. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

2. America missed out on the metric system due to the misfortunes of a French scientist.

It is possible that in the eighteenth century, the US may have adopted the metric system of measurements if it were not for a series of unfortunate events that befell Frenchman Joseph Dombey. Dombey was sent to America in 1794 to help the Americans reform the imperial system of measurements inherited from the British. He took with him copper prototypes for the newly devised meter and kilometer, which he intended to present to Congress. However, his ship was blown off course to Guadeloupe where French royalists imprisoned him. H, Dombey was released- only to be captured by pirates who stole his measurements and held him for ransom. While in captivity the unfortunate Frenchman died of a fever- thus depriving America of the metric system.

25 Bizarre Historical Facts They Don’t Teach in School
Ronald Reagan as a Lifeguard, Lowell Park, Dixon, Illinois. 1927. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

1. During High School, Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard who saved 77 lives

In 1925, 14-year-old future US President Ronald Reagan took a summer job as a lifeguard at the prestigious Lowell Park sanctuary in Illinois. It was a job he kept up for seven summers. The young Reagan worked every day of the week, for twelve hours a day monitoring guests at the resort that were swimming in the Rock River. During the time Reagan worked there, he saved seventy-seven lives, which he kept a tally of on a log by the river’s edge.


Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Albert Einstein: Fact or Fiction? History.com, August 21, 2018

When Was Napoleon Attacked by a Horde of Rabbits? Reference.com

The Shortest War in History, Ben Johnson, Historic UK

The Cat Telephone, April C Armstrong, Mudd Manuscript Library Blog, April 26, 2017

The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine, Mike dash, Smithsonian .com, March 8, 2013

The Most stolen work of Art, Amy Tikkanen, Encyclopedia Britannica

Did you know that the term Antarctic actually comes from “anti-Arctic”? South Pole 1911-2011

What Are The Origins Of The Names Arctic And Antarctica? Rotich Kiptoo Victor, World Atlas, April 24, 2018

Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duc d’Angoulême: The loyal Dauphin, Heidi Mehrkens, Heirs to the Throne Project

And You Thought Your Neck Cramps Were Bad… (ca. 2000 – 30 BC), The Scribe, The Ancient Standard, August 9, 2007

Numerals and Numerical Systems, David Eugene Smith and William Judson LeVeque, Encyclopedia Britannica, January 7, 2019

How Jan van Eyck’s Masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, Became the Most Stolen Work of Art in History, Open Culture, December 24th, 2020

History’s Most Stolen Art Piece, Medium, Sep 26, 2020

America Has Been Struggling with the Metric System For More Than 200 Years, Kat Eschner, Smithsonian Magazine, July 27, 2017

John Avery, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 19, 2017

The First Bomb Dropped by The Allies on Berlin Didn’t Harm Anyone But Did Hit an Elephant in Berlin Zoo! Christian Oord, War History Online, January 1, 2019

The Strange Musical World of Kim Jong Il, Brian Wise, WQXR, December 19, 2011

Lifeguarding at Lowell Park, Reagan Foundation

Guinness Book of World Records 2016, Guinness World Records dot Com.