8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

Larry Holzwarth - November 2, 2017

The modern-day triumvirate comprising weapons of mass destruction is usually rendered as Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC). Of these three in many ways, biological weapons may strike the greatest fear in the hearts of their potential victims. Both nuclear and chemical weapons are designed and their use geared towards the rapid demise of intended victims, although both do contain the potential for long-term effects which continue to kill for many years.

The use of nuclear weapons would, of course, be quickly known by survivors outside the killing range of the weapons, and events in Syria in recent years, and in Iraq years before, provide ample evidence of the use of chemical weapons against civilians and military targets.

Biological weapons contain hidden terrors because their use could cause epidemics of disease which may take time to fully unfold. Biological weapons can be deployed in the drinking water supply, the food supply, and in the air. Diseases which bring with them medieval horrors can be unleashed, without the dramatic explosions of bombs or rain of incoming missiles. Biological agents used as weapons can be deployed quietly, secretively, and even after their worst effects are felt may still escape scrutiny as the cause of death of millions.

While it is difficult to construct nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them while avoiding detection, many biological weapons can be designed under the guise of legitimate medical research. And there is precedent for their use, going back not just to relatively recent events, but to the days of antiquity. Here are several samples of the use of biological agents as weapons of war that have occurred in history.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Not all historians accept that Hannibal committed suicide, as dramatically pictured here. Wikimedia

Hannibal of Carthage

Hannibal’s legend is centered on crossing the Alps and Pyrenees mountains during the opening phase of the Second Punic War, equipped with war elephants. Hannibal, despite ultimate defeat by the Romans, is known to history as one of the greatest battlefield tacticians of all time. In one of his lesser-known victories towards the end of his life, he directed a fleet in a naval battle, defeating the powerful Greek city-state Pergamon which was then allied with Rome.

Beset by enemies, Hannibal took shelter and service with Prusias I, ruler of Bithynia, a province in the region of Asia Minor. With Prusias providing refuge, Hannibal led a fleet of vessels into battle against those of Pergamon’s King Eumenes II. Knowing that his fleet was outnumbered by ships and men, Hannibal had his command gather venomous snakes and store them in clay pots aboard their ships, small enough so that each pot could be handled by one man.

He then sent a messenger to parley with his foe, in a manner deliberately calculated to be insulting and thus provoke a reckless attack on the perceptibly weaker fleet Hannibal commanded. When Eumenes attacked, Hannibal had his ships assume defensive positions alongside their enemies and the pots full of kraits, cobras, fer-de-lances, and death adders – some of the deadliest snakes known to mankind – were thrown into the hulls of the enemy vessels where shattering, they released their angry contents among the bare legs of the enemy.

Panicked by the attacks of the poisonous serpents, the Pergamonites were soon overwhelmed by their enemies, with many dying of multiple bites from the venomous weapons Hannibal had deployed. Hannibal’s use of biological weaponry in the form of poisonous snakes led to his last great victory. Throughout his military career, Hannibal was aware of the value of organic poisons. According to some historians, he died from self-inflicted poison, a bag of which he had carried on his person throughout his military career.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Death of Achilles, wounded with a “divine” arrow shot by Paris. The Trojan War is a combination of historical events and mythology, nearly impossible to separate. Wikimedia

The Trojan War

Scholars disagree on the level of historic truth regarding the Trojan War, immortalized by the Greek poet Homer in his epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is accepted by many scholars that the stories related by Homer and since oft-repeated in film and other media are based on historical events, but separating legend from historical truth is a nearly impossible undertaking. What is known is that in Homer’s recounting of the tales of the Trojan War and the siege of Troy, biological weapons were used by the Achaeans against the Trojans.

These weapons were in the form of poisons which were used to treat the tips of arrows and swordpoints, causing death even from relatively minor wounds. The “divine” arrow fired by Paris at the Greek hero Achilles, striking him in the heel, was one such weapon. Odysseus used the poison hellebore – derived from a plant named for the Greek word to injure – to make the arrows shot from his bow more lethal, as Homer relates in The Odyssey.

Another Greek hero of myth, Hercules, killed the Hydra as one of his Twelve Labors and celebrated by dipping his arrows into the venom of the dead beast, increasing his own lethality. Alexander of Macedon is known to have used poisons including hemlock and hellebore in his campaigns in India during the 4th century BCE.

During the First Sacred War, a historical conflict between the ancient Greeks of the Amphyctyonic League of Delphi and City of Kirrha, that city was besieged by their enemy. In order to expedite the reduction of the city the attackers, who had discovered a water pipe leading beneath the city’s walls, cut the flow off to the city. When the inhabitants were suitably craving water, it was restored by the attackers, fortified with quantities of the same hellebore favored by Odysseus.

The poison, which is obtained from the leaves of plants, caused severe gastrointestinal distress in the inhabitants, weakening them to the point that they could no longer effectively repulse the assault.

The entire population of the city was slaughtered. The use of the poison is believed to have been suggested by a doctor named Nebros, whose direct descendant was Hippocrates, author of a famous oath which begins, “first do no harm.”

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Mongols outside the fortress walls of Vladimir. The Mongols brought the Black Death to Europe, often using it as a weapon. Wikimedia

The Siege of Kafa

It was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who brought to Europe, along with conquest and terror, the slew of disease-infested rats and other rodents which unleashed the Black Death – bubonic plague – throughout the continent. The expanding Mongol Empire established an unbroken link between the lands Khan overran in Europe and the birthplace of the plague in Central Asia.

Europeans had no knowledge of or defense against the disease, which would ravage the continent until it had killed what is now estimated as 30-60% of Europe’s population. The Mongol’s too had little defense, but it wasn’t long before the virulence with which the disease spread was observed, and bodies of the deceased quickly removed for disposal.

Believing the dead to still be capable of infecting others (the disease is actually transmitted most commonly by the bite of fleas and lice) it soon became apparent to the Golden Horde that those who had died from the plague retained a measure of military value. Bodies were then kept rather than burned in funeral pyres and converted to delivery devices for spreading the plague.

In 1347 the Mongol’s besieging the city of Kaffa (in what is now Crimea) were finding their army ravaged by the disease to the point that their fighting strength was making the capture of the city unlikely. Saddled with rising numbers of dead victims of the plague, the Mongol’s began catapulting those who had died over the walls of the city, where infestation soon spread to the inhabitants.

Many scholars attribute the rise of the Black Death in Europe to this event, as refugees from the endangered city fled to other points in Europe. Reaching ports in Crimea, many of these refugees fled to Italy, taking with them bodily pestilence which was soon spreading across all of Western Europe. Northern Europe gained its exposure through yet another military action.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Castle of Karlstein as it appears today. In the 14th century Hussite wars, bodies and manure were catapulted over the walls to create disease among the defenders. Wikimedia

The Hussite Wars

The Hussites were a religious sect from the central European region of Bohemia, who predated the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther but nonetheless opposed the political and societal domination of the Roman Catholic Church. They were opposed by most of the Royal Houses of Europe, which derived their perceived legitimacy from the Pope and thus upheld Papal Authority.

The Hussites were engaged in ongoing warfare from 1420-1434, a period that also led to the rise of Czech nationalism. The wars began upon the death of King Wenceslaus – of Christmas Carol fame – with his brother Sigismund claiming the throne of Bohemia. Sigismund was an ally of Rome and believed it his Holy duty to eliminate the heretics, and soon a conflict in which the Catholics and the neo-Protestants bent upon destroying each other in the name of God inflamed the region.

The Hussite Wars became a series of eventually five Crusades ordered by Rome to destroy the heretic Hussites. In 1422 Hussite forces attacked the Castle of Karlstein, which had prior to the wars been home to King Wenceslaus and the Imperial Regalia – essentially the Crown Jewels of what the Catholic Church in Rome had designated as the legitimate rulers of Bohemia. The Regalia had already been removed to safety, but that did not lessen the intensity of the fighting. The Catholic troops were motivated by their dispensations from Rome, the Hussites by nationalism and their own spiritual convictions.

Like all armies of the time, more casualties occurred from sickness than from fighting, often due to the nearly non-existent levels of hygiene and sanitation. The Hussites fighting outside the walls had many dead from disease. They also had large quantities of raw manure from both animal and human production. Both the dead bodies and the manure were routinely catapulted over the walls of the castle in the hope of inducing illness among the defenders.

The Hussites were successful in severely weakening the fighting strength of the Catholic troops through disease within the walls of the castle. More than 2,000 wagon loads of manure were used as a biological weapon, with fair success in accomplishing their goal of weakening their enemy.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Plague traveled through Europe in the wake of armies, driven by refugees. Wikimedia

Great Northern War

In the early 18th century Russia and Sweden were both infested with the plague and at war with each other. The Swedish city of Reval (now Tallinn) in the region of Estonia was attacked by a Russian force of over 5,000 men. Reval was a walled city on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. It was overcrowded with refugees who had fled behind its walls to escape the approaching Russian Army, which had merrily destroyed all the villages and farms it had encountered during its approach.

By the time the Russian Army arrived before Reval’s gates, the walls of the city were sheltering nearly 20,000 people, with limited sanitation facilities available, overcrowded and unprotected. To make their presence and intentions clear, the Russians catapulted the bodies of many of the Swedes they had encountered during their march to Reval, and many of these were victims of the plague. The infected dead thus added to the strained conditions, (they probably didn’t help morale much either) and the lice and fleas carried in the clothing and hair of the dead soon found new living bodies on which to feed, spreading the disease within the overcrowded city.

Reval surrendered to the Russians before they launched a full attack, on the 30th of September. The Russians then chose to remain outside of the city which they had deliberately bombarded with disease. Within 10 weeks, the living population of Reval was reduced to less than 2,000 with more than 15,000 having succumbed to the plague.

Those who had been allowed by the Russians to leave fled to other cities in Europe, in many cases taking the plague with them to their destination. A large number of these fled to nearby Finland, which was soon being ravaged by the disease, with over 60% of the population of Helsinki dying of the disease before the end of the year.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
Idyllic Lake George was the scene of a massacre following the fall of Ft William Henry on 1757. The rampaging Indians contracted smallpox from their victims. Wikimedia

French and Indian War

During the siege of Fort William Henry, later chronicled by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans, the English and American defenders of the post suffered a recurrence of smallpox. Many Americans had been inoculated against the disease, and many more had survived it after contracting it at an age in which they were strong enough to survive its symptoms.

George Washington, who was not present at the siege of William Henry, was one such survivor of smallpox and bore the pockmark scars on his face for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, smallpox was one of the terrors of 18th century life and frequently fatal, especially when children or the elderly became afflicted.

When the fort was surrendered to the French Army and its Native American allies, many of them from the Abenaki and Huron tribes, the English and Americans left behind their sick and wounded to French care. The native Americans, not considering themselves party to the arrangements made by the English and French leaders, massacred the helpless and looted the encampments taking whatever caught their eye but especially blankets, always useful on the frontier.

Many of these items were infested with smallpox which had sickened their previous owners. According to Major Robert Rogers of Roger’s Rangers fame, the Huron even dug up some of the graves to obtain scalps for which they would be paid a bounty by their French allies. In doing so they further exposed themselves to smallpox for which they had no natural immunity and the idea of inoculation was to them totally unknown.

The French, English, and Americans had limited immunity to smallpox but the natives did not. By the following winter, after many of the warriors had returned to their villages, smallpox ran rampant through the tribes. The distance to the encampment of their French ally precluded the natives from reaching help in time. Whole villages were wiped out by the disease before it ran its course, and those that did survive were severely weakened, less able to resist the raiding parties dispatched against them by Ranger companies and the American militia. Although there is no evidence of an organized effort at William Henry to cause smallpox infestation, the Americans were certainly aware of the potential havoc it would cause and did nothing to stop it. They and their allies also took note of its effect for future use against their enemies.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
During a Treaty Conference the English gave the Native Americans smallpox infected blankets, leading to an epidemic among the tribes. Library of Congress

Pontiac’s Rebellion

Following the victory of the British Empire over the French in North America, many Native Americans viewed with growing alarm the encroachment of colonial settlers on what they viewed as their lands. Pontiac was an Ottawa war chief who built a fragile coalition of tribes along the edges of the Ohio Country and the area of the Great Lakes. Many of these tribes were historical enemies, creating an uneasy alliance.

The American colonists and settlers were officially proscribed from settlement west of the Allegheny mountains, but growing numbers ignored the King’s edicts and as the tribes felt the growing pressure they responded with open warfare. Lord Jeffrey Amherst commanded the King’s troops in the region and sought a quick solution to the problem.

Serving under Lord Amherst was one Colonel Henry Bouquet, a veteran of the French and Indian War who had served in the Swiss Guards in Europe before being acquired for British service as a mercenary. Bouquet was familiar with the events surrounding Fort William Henry and its aftermath. In response to a request from Amherst, who was also familiar with the earlier events, Bouquet suggested that an infection of smallpox among the “…Indians by means of blankets which may fall in their hands…” was not only possible but desirable.

A parley was arranged under the guise of preventing conflict and the opportunity was taken to present the arriving chiefs with “gifts”, including smallpox-infected blankets and other clothing and leather items. These the chiefs took home to their villages.

Modern-day estimates claim nearly a half-million Native Americans died of smallpox during Pontiac’s Rebellion – the number could be much higher – reducing Pontiac’s forces in the field and devastating the non-combatants in their villages. In the end, concerned with the cost of protecting the frontier, the British issued the Royal Proclamation which largely closed the Ohio country to settlement, and became a major contributor to the causes of the American Revolution.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge is the final resting site of many smallpox victims of 1775-76. Flickr

The American Revolution – The Siege of Boston

Following the opening shots of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British Army remained holed up in Boston surrounded by an American militia army. When George Washington arrived to take charge of this new “Continental Army” it was still made up of largely New England troops, famous for their intransigence towards authority of all types.

Boston itself was steadily reduced by starvation rations and disease, and British guards denied passage in and out of the city, with few limited exceptions. When smallpox broke out in the town the British were largely immune – most of their troops had been inoculated against the disease. Not so the New England troops outside of the town. British commanders attempted to take advantage of this by releasing some Bostonians infected with smallpox to the Americans outside of the city, weakening Washington’s army.

Washington was aware of the vaccination process – called inoculation – and that it still made the individual receiving it sick, but only for one or two days and with much milder symptoms. He organized and required participation in a plan to inoculate his entire army against the British attempts to spread the disease.

When Washington, was made aware by evacuees from Boston that a major British attempt to release victims of the disease – particularly slaves – into the American lines was forthcoming he redoubled his efforts. Washington’s program worked to some extent, but the overcoming of suspicious New England minds to inoculation led to numerous disciplinary problems for the American troops.

The British made several other attempts to spread disease in American camps as the Revolutionary War progressed, perhaps unsurprisingly since they had used similar operations in preceding wars. In 1781 in Virginia, en route to Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis was informed by a subordinate of a plan to release “700 Negroes” infected with smallpox among the plantations and towns of the Tidewater region. Another British officer by the name of Robert Donkin published a pamphlet suggesting the use of smallpox-infected arrows against the American troops.