28. The Guillotine Continued in Use Well Past the French Revolution
The guillotine is so associated with the French Revolution, that it is easy to forget that its use in France continued long after the 1789 upheaval came to an end. Indeed, the instrument, sometimes referred to by the French as “The National Razor”, would continue doing its work well into the modern age.
It serviced its last customer during the Age of Disco, and after Star Wars was released on May 25th, 1977. Later that year, on September 10th, Hamida Djandoubi won the distinction of becoming the correct answer to the question: “who was the last person executed by guillotine in France?”
Hamida Djandoubi was born in Tunis in 1949, and moved to Marseilles in 1968. There, after a series of menial jobs, including a stint as a landscaper that ended when a workplace accident led to the amputation of one of his legs, he settled on pimping as a career. He earned a date with “The National Razor” by kidnapping, torturing, and strangling to death a former girlfriend in 1974, after she filed a complaint accusing him of trying to force her into prostitution.
He was tried for torture, murder, rape, and assorted acts of violence, in February of 1974, and was duly convicted and sentenced to death. After exhausting his appeals, and failing to win a reprieve from the French president, Djandoubi went under the guillotine in a Marseilles prison at 4:40 AM, September 10th, 1977. France did not abolish the guillotine and capital punishment until 1981 – the same year MS-DOS 1.0 was released, and Indiana Jones premiered in theaters.
There are not that many things that are more slippery than an eel – hence, the term. Perhaps that difficulty in getting a hold of them explains why eels were sometimes used as currency during the Middle Ages. Eels may not be a popular dish in the West these days, but they were once such a common staple in medieval England that they were used as currency.
For example, the Domesday Book lists hundreds of English watermills whose rent was paid in eels, bundled in “sticks” of 25. One proprietor who received his rent in eels was “Giles brother of Ansculf”, who got 1000 sticks from his watermill in Bottisham, Cambridgeshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.
The use of eels as currency raises a question: just how much were eels worth? In 1273, King Edward I issued price controls for the sale of certain foods in London, and a stick of 25 eels was listed as 2 pence, or the equivalent of $8.25 in 2017 US dollars. Edward’s price controls were issued almost two centuries after the Domesday Book, but inflation was nowhere near as great in those days as it is day.
Thus, if we assume that 2 pence had roughly the same purchasing value in both the days of the Domesday Book and those of Edward I, Giles brother of Ansculf would have gotten about $8250 in rent for his Bottisham watermill and $16,500 for the one in Bottisham.
24. Which is Older: Nintendo, or Jack the Ripper’s Murder Spree?
Japanese multinational Nintendo Co. Ltd., the giant video game company, is best known as the creator of top-selling franchises such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Pokemon. The company is associated with electronics and is known as a pioneer of one of the world’s most modern technologies: video game entertainment. However, it was founded over a century ago during the steam power era, in 1889 – contemporaneous with Jack the Ripper.
Nintendo came along long before video games were even a theoretical concept. When the company was founded in the nineteenth century, it produced handmade hanafuda playing cards. In 1956, the company began trying its hand at new ventures to supplement its playing cards business, upon realizing that playing cards had limited growth potential. So Nintendo set up a taxi company, before establishing other divisions such as a TV network, a love motel chain, toys, and a food company specializing in instant rice.
Most of Nintendo’s ventures were unsuccessful, except for toys. So by the 1960s, Nintendo was mainly a toy company. In 1974, the company got involved in video games for the first time, when it secured the rights to distribute Magnavox’s video game console in Japan. A year later, they moved into arcade games, with some limited success, until 1981, when they released the smash arcade hit Donkey Kong. The rest was video game history.
Long before all of that, when Nintendo had been founded in Kyoto by Japanese entrepreneur Fusajiro Yamauchi in 1889, the world was still in the steam power era, and electricity and electronics were considered newfangled inventions. When Yamauchi founded Nintendo, London, half a world away, was still trembling in fear from the depredations of the gruesome serial killer, Jack the Ripper, believed to have between active from 1888 until 1891. Perhaps in a nod to that historic overlap, in 2013 Nintendo 3DS launched Mystery Murders: Jack the Ripper, a game rated M for Mature.
In Middle Ages England, Lent season often featured a rough ball game known as mob football. There were regional variations, but the basics were similar. Teams from different villages and towns, with anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of players, met in a fairly central location. Then a ball was thrown, and the competing teams vied with each other to capture a ball and take it back home – usually to their church’s front porch.
There were few restrictions as to team sizes or ball handling. The massive matches usually lasted for an entire day, with many players dropping out because of injury or fatigue. Bruises, scratches, cuts, and lacerations were common occurrences, with the occasional death thrown into the mix. Despite those risks, medieval mob football remained popular for centuries. Because of its destructive nature, however, it was eventually banned in England by King Edward II in 1314. In what might or might not be a coincidence, Edward II went down in history as one of England’s most unpopular and despised kings.
During Game Four of the 1945 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers, tavern owner William “Billy Goat” Sianis, and his actual Billy goat, Murphy, were enjoying the game in Wrigley Field. Their joy was interrupted, however, when they were pulled aside by Chicago Cubs officials, who informed the duo that Murphy would have to leave.
When Sianis showed them a ticket proving that Murphy had actually paid for his seat, and complained that they were discriminating against his friend because he was a goat, he was informed that nothing could be further from the truth. Murphy was not being kicked out because he was a goat, but because some fans had complained that he stank and that his odor offended them. So Sianis turned around and issued modern sports’ greatest curse.
An indignant “Billy Goat” Sianis, offended that the Chicago Cubs had kicked his Billy goat buddy out of the ballpark, fired off a telegram to Cubs’ team owner Philip K. Wrigley. In relevant part, it stated: “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat“.
The Chicago Cubs, who until then had been leading the World Series 2 to 1, dropped game 4, to even it at 2-2. They then proceeded to lose the best-of-seven series, 4 to 3. It was just the start or considering that the team was already in the midst of prolonged title drought, an extension, of the misery and heartbreak that marked Cubs’ fandom for over a century.
19. Until 2016, the Cubs Had Not Won a World Series Since The Days of the Ottoman Empire
By 1945, the Cubs were already in the midst of a long title drought, having last won a World Series in 1908. In 1908, Babe Ruth had still not made his MLB debut. Teddy Roosevelt was still in the White House. Mark Twain was still alive. Russia was ruled by a Tsar. Kaiser Wilhelm II still ran Germany. A sultan still headed the Ottoman Empire. A Hapsburg emperor still ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In Vienna, a young weirdo named Adolf Hitler was chasing his dreams of becoming an artist. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was still alive, and nobody had dreamt of WWI, let alone its sequel, which had concluded only a month before Murphy was kicked out of Wrigley Field. By 1945, things had already changed drastically since the Chicago Cubs’ last World Series victory. Sianis’ dire warning became known as the “Curse of the Billy Goat”, and it took the Cubs’ already long World Series drought, and extended it another 71 years, until 2016.
18. “Town vs Gown” Beefs Were Around For Centuries
Town and Gown, the distinct populations of university towns with the former being the locals and the latter the academic community, have often been at odds. One of the earliest examples of the two communities beefing occurred on February 10th, 1355, St. Scholastica Day. Two Oxford University students, Roger de Chesterfield and Walter Spryngheuse were having drinks at the Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford. At some point, they complained to the taverner, John Croidon, about the quality of the drinks, and he did not take kindly to their complaints.
One thing led to another, heated words were exchanged, and the students ended up throwing the drinks in the taverner’s face, as a prelude to beating the daylights out of him. Oxford’s mayor asked the university to arrest the thuggish students, but his request was ignored. Instead, 200 students sided with Springheuse and Chesterfield, and went on a rampage during which they assaulted the mayor and other Townies. Then it got ugly.
The Oxford students’ rampage was too much for the locals, who mounted a counter-riot of their own. Hundreds poured in from the countryside to hunt down the students, crying: “Havoc! Havoc! Smyte [smite] fast! Give gode knocks!” The students were routed, with 63 of them killed, while 30 locals also lost their lives.
In the aftermath, the authorities sided with the university, and every year thereafter, on February 10th, Oxford’s mayor and councilors were made to atone by marching bareheaded through the streets. They then had to attend mass, and pay a penny for each student killed. That tradition lasted for nearly four centuries, until 1825 when an Oxford mayor finally put his foot down and refused to participate.
16. A Civil War Widow Was Still Alive When Obama Was Elected President
The US Civil War, driven primarily by the issue of black chattel slavery, ended in 1865 with a Union victory that put a de facto seal on the demise of slavery. In 2008, 143 years later, America elected its first black president, Barrack Obama. Incredible as it may sound, A Civil War widow, who had been married to a Confederate soldier, was still alive in 2008.
Maudie White Hopkins (1914 – 2008), born Maudie Cecilia Acklin in Arkansas, grew up in an impoverished family of 10 children during the Great Depression in the hardscrabble Ozarks. To help put food on the table and make ends meet, a teenaged Maudie cleaned house and did laundry for an elderly Civil War veteran, William Cantrell, who had been widowed years earlier.
William Cantrell enlisted in the Confederate army at age sixteen, and served in the Army of Tennessee in the Western Theater. He was captured in 1863, held in a prison camp in Ohio, and eventually released in a prisoner exchange. He returned to civilian life after the war, moved to Arkansas to stay with relatives, eventually started a family, and after a long married life, was widowed in 1929. In 1934, when Cantrell was 86 and Maudie Cecilia Acklin was 19, he offered to leave her his house and land, if she would marry him and take care of him in his final years.
It was not too uncommon for young women in Arkansas at the time to marry Civil War pensioners, so Maudie accepted. For much of her life, she generally kept that marriage a secret, to avoid gossip about her having once married a much older man, and fearing that people would think less of her as a result. In her later years, however, she openly acknowledged the marriage.
As Maudie Acklin put it in a 2004 Associated Press interview: “After Mr. Cantrell died I took a little old mule he had and plowed me a vegetable garden and had plenty of vegetables to eat. It was hard times; you had to work to eat. â¦ I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve worked hard my whole life and did what I had to, what I could, to survive. I didn’t want to talk about it for a while because I didn’t want people to gossip about it. I didn’t want people to make it out to be worse than it was“.
Cantrell supported her with his Confederate pension of $25 every two or three months. The pension benefits ended upon his death in 1937, but true to Cantrell’s promise, he left her his house and land upon his death. Maudie Hopinks remarried three more times, and had three children – two daughters and a son. She died in a nursing home on August 7th, 2008, a few months before Obama was elected president.
Were witches getting burned left, right, and center, during the Middle Ages? Compared to the present, medieval people were extremely superstitious. However, their superstitions were not expressed in witch hunts. While there were some witch trials in medieval Europe, they were relatively rare, and were usually done by the secular authorities, not directed by the church.
Indeed, throughout most of the Middle Ages, the standard message disseminated by churchmen regarding magic was that it was silly nonsense that did not work. The European witch craze was more of a sixteenth and seventeenth-century phenomenon. It took off after Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Mallificarum in the late fifteenth century, in an attempt to convince a then-disbelieving public that witches were real. When it first came out, the church actually condemned the book and warned inquisitors not to believe what it says.
12. Which is Older: The Oregon Trail, or the Fax Machine?
The roughly 2200 mile long Oregon Trail connected the Missouri River to Oregon. It began as rough tracks and trails blazed and cleared through the wilderness by fur traders, in progressive stages, between 1811 to 1840. Initially, the segments were only passable to travelers on foot or horseback.
By 1836, the trail section between Independence, Missouri, and Fort Hall, Idaho, had been cleared to accommodate wagons, and the first migrant wagon train made that journey. Thereafter, wagon trails were gradually cleared westward, until, in 1843, they reached the Willamette Valley in Oregon. From then on, the wagon route came to be known as the Oregon Trail. Is it older than the fax machine?
The Oregon Trail became one of nineteenth-century America’s iconic symbols, as it pumped a seemingly inexhaustible torrent of land-hungry migrants from the settled east to the open spaces of the west. Wagon trains of pioneers inexorably pushed the new country’s frontier ever westward, displacing Native Americans from their ancestral lands, and exploiting the newly seized territories for agricultural and mining usages.
Between the 1830s and 1860s, the Oregon Trail was used by about 400,000 farmers, ranchers, miners, and other settlers and their families, who loaded their goods and hopes upon wagon, and trekked west in pursuit of their dreams. The trail’s use finally went into decline when the first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, as trains made for a faster, cheaper, and safer journey.
It sounds unbelievable, but the fax machine is as old as the Oregon Trail. In 1843, the Oregon Trail was finally completed by an enterprising wagon train of about 1000 migrants. After a difficult trek, they cleared a final segment to make the trail passable by wagon all the way from the Missouri River to Oregon. That same year, a Scottish inventor named Alexander Bains secured a British patent for what he termed the “Electric Printing Telegraph“.
The invention relied on a clock to sync the movement of two pendulums to scan a message line by line. Using a metal pin arrangement in a cylinder, Bain devised a system whereby on-off electric pulses would scan the pins, send a message across wires, and reproduce it at a receiving station far away. That device became the forerunner of the modern fax machine. It eventually led to the first commercially practical telefax service between Paris and Lyon in 1861 – 11 years before the invention of the telephone.
Medieval Europe had elections. They were not as common as they are today, and there was no universal suffrage, but there were elections. People back then routinely elected aldermen, members of parliament, bishops, abbots, popes, and sometimes even kings. There were important differences between then and now, not least among them just how narrow was the slice of the population that got vote. However, there were also striking parallels, chief among them the belief that elections conferred legitimacy.
Views on elections were ambivalent in the Middle Ages. On the one hand, the medieval belief in elections was based on biblical examples, such as the Old Testament accounts of the Israelites electing Judges and Kings. Also, kings sometimes died without issue, the papacy was not hereditary, and town burghers needed to select people to fill local government positions. On the other hand, elections were also seen as occasions for strife, and potential starting points for riots, rebellions, or civil war.
8. Which Happened First: the Building of the Great Pyramids, or the Extinction of Woolly Mammoths?
Woolly mammoths flourished during the Pleistocene epoch. The extinct pachyderms were roughly the size of modern African elephants, with males reaching shoulder heights greater than 11 feet, and weighing in at around 6 tons. Females reached nearly 10 feet at the shoulder, weighed around 4 tons, and calved newborns that weighed around 200 pounds at birth.
The furry pachyderms are most commonly associated with the Ice Age. Their shaggy coats, comprised of outer layers of long guard hairs atop a shorter undercoat, made them well adapted to the harsh winter environment. Other evolutionary adaptations included short ears and tail, to minimize frostbite and heat loss. That enabled them to thrive in the Mammoth Steppe – the earth’s most extensive biome during the ice age, extending from Canada and across Eurasia to Spain, and from the Arctic Circle to China. Were they still around when the Great Pyramid was built?
When, exactly, did woolly mammoths go extinct? The Ice Age ended about twelve thousand years ago, circa 9700 BC. It is widely assumed that woolly mammoth must have vanished into extinction sometime around then, if not sooner. However, contrary to popular perceptions, woolly mammoths did not vanish that far back.
While no man ever saw a live dinosaur, mankind and its hominid ancestors did share the planet with woolly mammoths for hundreds of thousands of years. Woolly mammoths, in fact, were still around while the Ancient Egyptians were busy building the Great Pyramids.
Most woolly mammoths were hunted by humans into extinction, and disappeared from the continental mainland of Eurasia and North America between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago. The last mainland population, in the Kyttyk Peninsula in Siberia, vanished about 9650 years ago. However, small populations survived in offshore islands, such as Saint Paul Island in Alaska, where woolly mammoths existed until 5600 years ago.
The last known population survived in Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean, until 4000 years ago, or roughly 2000 BC. That was well into the era of human civilization and recorded human history, and centuries after the Great Pyramid of Giza, whose construction concluded around 2560 BC, had been built.
5. Did People in the Middle Ages Really Drink Booze Instead of Water?
A common trope accepted by many as fact has it that people in the Middle Ages only drank beer and wine instead of water, because water was too contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is not true. Just like it has been throughout all of humanity’s existence, water was the most popular drink during the Middle Ages – for the simple reason that it was free.
It is true that people in the Middle Ages did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. While contamination was a problem, medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew enough to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water. For example, people had enough common sense and common knowledge to know that swampy, muddy, and cloudy water was not good for drinking.
4. Water Was Actually Recommended In the Middle Ages
Medical texts and health manuals in the Middle Ages actually praised water as being good for you – so long as it came from good sources. Indeed, authorities in the Middle Ages went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed âThe Conduit‘ in the 1200s, using lead pipes to bring fresh water from a nearby spring to the middle of the city, where people had free access to it.
Those who could afford it drank wine, but they usually mixed it with water to dilute its power. For those who could not afford wine on a regular basis, beer and ale were plentiful and cheap. However, beer and ale back then were far weaker than they are today. Also, considering the long days and hard labor medieval workers put in, whether in the fields or shops or other employment, beer and ale did more than just quench thirst. They also provided a significant intake of calories throughout the day to keep people going.
Actress and comedian Betty White is an entertainment dynamo or Energizer Bunny, who has been performing for over 70 years. She was a television pioneer, and her accomplishments include being the first woman to produce a sitcom. She is perhaps best known for her Emmy-winning roles as Sue Ann Nivens in the popular and groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as Rose Nylund in the even more popular and groundbreaking sitcom, The Golden Girls.
As of 2019, Betty White’s career has spanned 76 years, during which she won a Grammy, 8 Emmy Awards in various categories, 3 Screen Actors Guild Awards, and 3 American Comedy Awards. She is in the Television Hall of Fame, and has her own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today, Betty White holds the record for the longest television career of any female entertainer. But is Betty White the greatest thing sliced bread?
“The greatest thing since sliced bread” dates to 1928, when loaves of bread that had been sliced with a machine, then packaged for convenience, made their first appearance. It began when Otto Frederick Rohwedder (1880 – 1960), an inventor and engineer, created the first automatic bread slicing machine for commercial use. He sold his first machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which became the first bakery to sell pre-sliced bread loaves.
The new-fangled sliced bread was advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped” – a bold assertion that contrasted greatly with the experience of actual consumers. Among other things, in the days before preservatives, sliced bread went stale faster than its intact counterpart. It had an aesthetic problem as well: customers simply thought the sliced loaves were sloppy-looking. A stop gap solution was to use pins to hold the sliced loaves together, and make them appear intact inside the packaging.
1. Betty White Is Actually Not the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
Improvements to the slicing machine made the loaves appear less sloppy, and sliced bread eventually gained in popularity until it became an American staple. By then, the early and over-the-top advertising puffery had caught on with the public, and made the introduction of sliced bread a marker and frame of reference in the popular lexicon for subsequent claims of greatness.
So, could Betty White possibly be the greatest thing since sliced bread? Well, America’s sweetheart and a most beloved grandmotherly icon was born on January 17th, 1922. That was about six and a half years before the Chillicothe Baking Company sold its first loaf of sliced bread, on July 7th, 1928. Since her birth predates sliced bread, it follows that Betty White could not be the best thing sliced bread. Thus, as a matter of straightforward historic fact, the answer must be in the negative: Betty White is not the best thing since sliced bread. However, sliced bread can make the argument that it is the best thing since Betty White.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading