History is not always grim, dreary, and serious. For those who to bother to look, history has no shortage of bizarre and often hilarious details. Take the time Napoleon Bonaparte was attacked – and forced to retreat – by bunny rabbits. Or the time the Nazis set out to breed super cows. Unsurprisingly, they turned out to be aggressive and murderous. Following are thirty things about those and other bizarre moments from history.
30. English Parents Used Napoleon to Scare Their Children Into Obedience
Napoleon Bonaparte was not as murderous as Hitler or Genghis Khan, but in his day, he was feared and loathed by his foes just as much as contemporaries feared the Fuhrer and the great Mongol conqueror. As he roamed Europe at the head of his armies, gobbling up countries as if they were popcorn at a movie theater, Napoleon was scary enough to serve as a boogeyman. Indeed, English parents used to scare their children into obedience with “Boney the Bogeyman”.
Napoleon, who was often belittled in newspapers read by adults as “Little Boney” in a bid to belittle him and play down his threat, was portrayed as a larger than life figure to England’s young. He was depicted as a giant ogre who would take away naughty children and eat them for breakfast. “If you don’t behave, Boney will come for you” was usually quite effective in getting rambunctious kids to pipe down. It is thus surprising that the scary Boney was once attacked – and forced to retreat – by bunny rabbits.
Napoleon’s worst defeat came at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However, his most humiliating defeat might have occurred years earlier, when the mighty Emperor of the French was trounced in a bizarre incident by a horde of cute bunny rabbits. It happened in 1807, when he was at the height of his power and bestrode Europe like a colossus. He had vanquished the Russians and Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz, and humiliated the Prussians at the twin Battles of Jena-Auerstedt. He capped off his string of victories with the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended the War of the Fourth Coalition against him.
Feeling good, Le Empereur decided to celebrate, and what better way to celebrate than by killing small animals? Accordingly, Napoleon ordered his chief of staff, Alexander Berthier, to arrange a rabbit hunt, and invite the top military brass. Berthier prepared an outdoors luncheon, and collected about 3000 rabbits. They were arranged in cages along the fringes of a grassy field, to be released for the bigwigs to shoot as they fled. Something went wrong, however. When the bunnies were released they did not jump away in terror, but bounded in their thousands towards Napoleon.
28. Napoleon’s Bizarre Retreat From Hungry Bunnies
With thousands of rabbits bounding towards them rather than fleeing for their lives, Napoleon’s party laughed at first. The laughter stopped and concern grew, however, as the onslaught continued. The bunnies swarmed Bonaparte’s legs, and climbed up his jacket. He tried shooing them with his riding crop, while those around him tried chasing them away with sticks. There were just too many of them, however, and Napoleon fled to his carriage. According to historian David Chandler: “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach“.
Some jumped into the carriage with Le Empereur, who ordered his coachmen to whip the horses into a hasty retreat. Europe’s hegemon had been beaten by bunnies. It turned out that the bizarre debacle had been Berthier’s fault. Instead of capturing wild hares, he had bought tame rabbits from nearby farms, who were accustomed to people. When released from their cages, they did not fear Napoleon’s hunting party as potential predators. Instead, they bounded towards them in the expectation that the Emperor of the French and his companions would feed them their dinner.
27. When France’s Best Detective Made a Fateful Beach Trip
In 1887, things were going well for Robert Ledru, a 35-year-old Paris police officer who was considered to be one of the best detectives in all of France. So when the authorities in Le Havre asked Paris for help with a mysterious case of missing sailors, Ledru was sent to lend them a hand. He arrived in the Normandy port at evening and went to bed early. When he awoke the next morning, he was surprised to discover that his shoes and socks were wet.
When he got to Le Havre’s police station, Ledru was informed that the missing sailors case was now a low priority. There had been a murder during the night at the beach. The victim was a prominent businessman named Andre Monet, who had been discovered face down in the sand, shot through with a bullet. What initial investigators found odd was that the victim had not been robbed, and nothing pointed to any reason, motive, or suspect. Little did Ledru know at the time just how bizarre the murder investigation would turn out.
Detective Robert Ledru went to the beach to investigate the crime scene, and noticed footprints leading up to and away from the corpse. After he examined them, he seemed troubled, and remarked that they looked familiar. He ordered plaster casts made of the clearest footprints. When that was done, he sat right there on the beach, and looked at the plaster cast footprints for hours. Finally, he got up and told the gathered gendarmes that there was no need for further investigation, as he had solved the crime and found the killer. There was a bizarre twist, however: the killer was none other than himself.
For the life of him, Ledru told the stunned listeners, he had no memory of shooting the victim. However, one of the footprints had a missing big toe and matched that of Ledru’s, who was missing a big toe. There was also an empty chamber in his revolver, which was always kept fully loaded. Finally, there were the wet shoes and socks he woke with that morning. From all the preceding, Ledru concluded that he had been sleepwalking on the beach that night, when he encountered and shot the victim.
Upon hearing Detective Robert Ledru’s bizarre confession to murder, the Le Havre police were skeptical at first. His bosses back in Paris thought that their star detective must have suffered a temporary crisis caused by overwork and stress, that made him imagine himself a killer. However, ballistics testing proved that the bullet recovered at the crime scene had been fired from Ledru’s revolver. That solved the crime, but did not explain why Ledru did it. He was jailed for his own good, and kept under constant watch.
While in prison, the authorities, acted upon medical advice to test a theory that might explain how and why Ledru murdered the unfortunate Andre Monet. They gave the distraught detective a revolver loaded with blanks. One night, Ledru got up and fired it at a guard. That convinced the authorities that he was a homicidal sleepwalker. From that day until his death fifty years later in 1937, Ledru was kept in a secluded farm outside Paris, where he was watched over by doctors and armed personnel.
24. This Dictator’s Wife Took Her Love of Designer Shoes to Bizarre Extremes
Filipino politician and public figure Imelda Marcos (1929 – ) is the widow of former dictator and president Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1966 to 1986. During her years as First Lady, she held various government posts and wielded great power, such that she became a de facto co-ruler of the country. Known as the “Steel Butterfly” for her combination of fashion sense and steely resolve, Imelda took full advantage of her access to power to enrich herself with rampant corruption and blatant graft. The Marcos dictatorship was a kleptocracy, and the ruling couple plundered the country to their hearts’ content.
The thieving duo were eventually overthrown in a 1986 popular uprising, and were forced to flee the Philippines. By then they had stashed enough wealth in secret Swiss bank accounts, and accumulated various properties overseas, to afford an extremely comfortable retirement in Hawaii. However, they were unable to take all their ill-gotten gains and goodies with them. When the revolutionaries entered the Marcos palaces, they found evidence of an extravagant and opulent lifestyle. The greatest symbol of that was Imelda’s passion for designer shoes, which went beyond mere love to out and out bizarre obsession.
The Filipino public was fascinated – and repelled – by Imelda Marcos’ apparent addiction to expensive designer shoes. The former First Lady had splurged and accumulated thousands of pairs. When protesters stormed one of her former residences, the Malacang Palace, they discovered over 2700 pairs of expensive designer shoes in Imelda’s wardrobe. Thousands more were found in other palaces, mansions, and villas throughout the Philippines. A single pair of those pricey pumps could cost more than an entire city block in a lower class Philippines neighborhood earned in a year. After the 1986 revolt, Imelda’s shoes were displayed at the presidential palace as a symbol of the dictatorship’s corruption.
Eventually, hundreds of her shoes found a permanent home in the Shoe Museum, in the northern city of Marikina. The collection became a symbol of excess in a country where many walked barefoot in abject poverty. However, because life is often unfair, Imelda never paid for her corruption. She was eventually allowed back in the Philippines, was elected to Parliament, and as of 2021, is one of that country’s wealthiest women. She even turned the shoe scandal into an asset, and has been a frequent visitor to the Shoe Museum. There, she signs autographs and proudly poses for photos next to display cases of her collection.
Hitler was neither blue-eyed nor blond, but that did not stop the Fuhrer from obsessing about producing a race of blond and blue-eyed pure Aryans. The Third Reich’s social structure and legal framework was geared towards that end, and people were encouraged to raise huge Aryan families. They even had a human selective breeding program, the Lebensborn. In it, SS men and unmarried women with the officially approved racial characteristics were paired to produce what the Nazis termed “super men”. The obsession with purity did not stop at racially engineered humans – it also extended to breeding special cattle.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting Nazi cows turned out to be murderously aggressive. In 2015, English farmer Derek Gow of West Devon, had a serious problem with his cattle – a rare breed with massive horns, called “Heck super cows”. Gow had imported them in 2009, but out of a herd of thirteen super cows, he was forced to kill seven. They were excessively belligerent, and repeatedly tried to murder him and his farm workers. As Gow discovered, his imported cattle were of a breed bio-engineered by the Nazis.
21. Unsurprisingly, the Nazi Super Cows Were Murderously Aggressive
As Derek Gow described his imported cows: “We have had to cut our herd down to six because some of them were incredibly aggressive and we just couldn’t handle them … The ones we had to get rid of would just attack you any chance they could. They would try to kill anyone. Dealing with that was not fun at all. They are by far and away the most aggressive animals I have ever worked with“. It turned out that the Heck breed was initially produced by German zoologists commissioned by the Nazis. The Nazis, nostalgic for the days when “pure” Germans wandered Europe’s dark forest, wanted a breed of cattle based on the aurochs – a big wild European bull, hunted into extinction by the seventeenth century.
So they used selective breeding to extract wild genes from cattle descended from the aurochs. The result were the Heck super cows, which had a muscular physique, dangerous horns, and a fierce and aggressive disposition. They also had a powerful and menacing look about them, that the Nazis just loved. So they were used in propaganda posters as symbols of the Third Reich’s purity and strength. Most were killed during WWII, but a few survived, to carry their Naziesque aggression and murderousness into the present.
Ludwig II (1845 – 1886), also known as der Marchenkonig (“The Fairy Tale King”) and “Mad King Ludwig”, ascended the throne of Bavaria in 1864 when he was eighteen, and reigned until his death in 1886. A generous benefactor of the arts, Ludwig was an admirer and patron of composer Richard Wagner. During his reign, he devoted himself to various artistic and architectural projects. The most famous – or infamous, if you were a Bavarian taxpayer – were fairy tale castles. Ludwig spent so much building them, that they ended up bankrupt.
Two years after he was crowned, Ludwig’s Bavaria fought on Austria’s side against Prussia, and lost. Two years later, his kingdom went to war again, this time on Prussia’s side in the Franco-Prussian War. It ended in victory, capped by the formation of the German Empire, which Bavaria joined in 1871. From then on, Ludwig withdrew from governance, and stopped caring about affairs of state. Instead, he went into a morbid seclusion and devoted himself to his true passion: the arts. He worshipped the theater and opera, especially the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong patron he became.
19. A Bizarre Spending Spree on Fairy Tale Castles
In addition to his passion for Wagner, Ludwig II also developed a mania for extravagant building projects in the Bavarian mountains. He started with the Linderhoff Palace, patterned on the Trianon Palace and built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he started construction of his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. It was built from 1869 to 1886, and inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. As that one was being built, he started an even more ambitious project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace, a copy of Versailles.
Herrenchiemsee was never completed, because the Fairy Tale King’s bizarre obsession with building fairy tale castles drove him into bankruptcy. Between the abandonment of his official duties, profligate spending, and withdrawal into the life of a recluse among other odd behavior, Ludwig’s ministers finally had enough. In 1886, they convened a panel of doctors that declared the king insane, and sent him to a remote palace with a psychiatrist. Three days later, he drowned himself in a lake, and took the psychiatrist with him. Today, the Fairy Tale King’s architectural legacy is among Bavaria’s biggest tourist attractions.
Mike Tyson was not the first to become famous as “Iron Mike”. That distinction goes to Michael Malloy (1873 – 1933), who was a not a boxer, but a homeless Irish immigrant who lived in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Malloy fell victim to a criminal plot whose execution became more and more bizarre with the passage of time. He became legendary after he survived repeated murder attempts by acquaintances who befriended him, then sought to kill him in order to collect life insurance policies that they had taken out on him.
That endurance earned Malloy the nicknames “Iron Mike” and “Mike the Durable”. An alcoholic, Malloy was a longtime and loyal client of Marino’s, a rundown speakeasy in the Bronx. There, he drank on credit until he passed out on the floor more often than not. He paid when he could whenever he drifted into temporary employment such as street cleaner or coffin polisher, and let the tab run for months when he drifted out of employment and had no money.
In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Marino’s proprietor and namesake, Tony Marino, was in a financial bind and desperate for a way to get his hands on some money. That June, he concocted a plan with four acquaintances to make some quick cash. They would connive with a corrupt insurance agent to take out multiple life insurance policies on Michael Malloy, get him to drink himself to death, and collect when he perished. After taking out the policies, Marino extended Malloy unlimited credit at the speakeasy. In of itself, it was not the most bizarre of plans, but the way it was carried out after Malloy failed to die of drink in a timely manner certainly was.
Day in and day out, the old Irishman drank all his waking hours, and showed no ill effects. To speed him along, the plotters added antifreeze to his booze, but old Malloy simply drank until he passed out, then asked for more when he came to. The coconspirators then upped the ante, and replaced antifreeze with turpentine. Malloy was unfazed. They switched from turpentine to horse liniment – basically, liquid Bengay. Malloy poured it down the hatch and asked for more. They then added rat poison to the mix. Malloy’s constitution did not seem to notice. Oysters soaked in wood alcohol did not do the trick, nor did a spoiled sardines sandwich sprinkled with metal shavings. With each passing day in which Malloy continued to draw breath, Marino and his accomplices grew more and more desperate.
Tony Marino and his coconspirators figured that nothing he ate or drank could dent Michael Malloy’s bizarre durability. So they decided to freeze him to death. One cold winter night when the temperature dipped to minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit, they waited for him to pass out, then carried him to a park, dumped him in the snow, and poured five gallons of water on his chest to make sure he froze solid. Malloy showed up the next day for his booze on credit. They then ran him over with a taxi owned by one of the plotters. That only put Malloy in a hospital for three weeks with broken bones, and he reappeared at the speakeasy upon his release.
Finally, on February 22nd, 1933, the plotters stuck a gas hose in Malloy’s mouth after he passed out and turned on the jets. That did the trick. The plotters collected on the insurance, but rumors of “Mike the Durable” began making the rounds, and soon reached the ears of the insurers and cops. Malloy’s body was exhumed and reexamined, and the truth came out. The plotters were tried and convicted in 1934. One of them got a prison sentence, while the other four, including Tony Marino, the speakeasy’s proprietor, got the death penalty and were executed in Sing Sing prison.
1835 was one of the more bizarre years in the history of the United States. That summer, excitement gripped the country when a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. It began with a newspaper article, the first of six in a series, that was published on August 25th. In it, the newspaper announced that Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of the Moon’s surface.
What Sir John saw was stunning. It astonished him, and upended all human knowledge to date. As The Sun described it: “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Herschel had discovered planets in other solar system, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“. All of that was just a tip of the iceberg, however: the prominent astronomer had discovered life on the Moon.
According to The Sun, Sir John Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon was teeming with life. From his observatory in the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. A variety of animals roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffalos, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures with bat wings who built houses and temples. It was all detailed in a 17,000 word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science.
Herschel had travelled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and a string of pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came bizarre blue goats that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment. All of that was nothing, however, compared to what came next.
The biggest shocker in The Sun’s series about Sir John Herschel’s lunar observations arrived in the fourth installment. In it, the newspaper announced the discovery of human-like beings, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings. “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when the mounting excitement grew into a fever pitch. It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility.
The articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. Instead, they were taken as gospel truth by the public. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass. The result was a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the bizarre astronomical discoveries attributed to him.
Do you still remember Beanie Babies, planking, the Ice Bucket or Mannequin Challenge, or any of the tons of similar fads that seem to grip the country from time to time, quickly spreading like wildfire, before fading into oblivion? Their 1950s equivalent was the phone booth stuffing fad. It was just what the name says: people around the world – or at least in the English-speaking world – competed to see how many folk they could cram into a phone booth.
It is often assumed that the fad began on college campuses in the US West Coast. It actually kicked off in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth. They pulled it off, and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their bizarre stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US.
11. The Phone Booth Stuffing Competition Got Seriously Heated
To participate in the Phone Booth Stuffing Challenge, people – usually college students – squeezed themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. It seems straightforward, but there was plenty of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began skipping class to devise plans to beat the record. Schematics were drawn to figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, like a 3-D Tetris. In Britain, where the fad was named “telephone booth squash”, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. In MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration for cramming bodies into a tight space.
As the competition heated up and competitive juices flowed, accusations of cheating were hurled. Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that a booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone a call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, that contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the bizarre fad died out in late 1959.
King Bela I of Hungary (circa 1020 – 1063) reigned from 1060 until his death. During his years as monarch, he solidified Hungary’s Christian identity by putting down a final pagan rebellion. He also fought a successful war against Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to defend Hungary’s independence. Bela accomplished much during his relatively brief tenure on the throne. Unfortunately for him, it was his very throne that proved his undoing. In one of the Middle Ages’ most bizarre demises, Bela’s throne killed him.
Bela’s father, Prince Vazul, had been a nephew of the childless Hungarian King Stephen I. When the king bypassed Bela’s father to name another nephew heir, Vazul rebelled, but was captured and blinded as punishment in 1031. Bela and his siblings fled Hungary, but returned in 1046, when Bela’s eldest brother successfully deposed the king and seized the crown. According to Hungarian royal custom, whereby crown passed from brother to brother by seniority, Bela was made a duke and named heir.
While Bela was away from Hungary, his brother changed the succession and named his four-year-old son heir. So Bela raised an army in Poland, and marched into Hungary to reassert his rights. During the ensuing struggle, the brother on the throne was killed, and Bela was crowned in his place. Soon thereafter, an uprising of recently-Christianized Hungarians erupted. They demanded a return to paganism, and an end to Christianity, which had become the official state religion a few decades earlier. Bela mobilized an army and crushed the pagans. In 1063, he successfully fought off a German invasion under the auspices of the Holy Roman emperor, and asserted Hungarian independence.
Bela’s bizarre end came later that year, after his throne tottered and fell. “Throne tottered and fell” is not meant as a figure of speech or an allusion to a weakening of his power and authority, but literally. One September day in 1063, Bela I held court in his summer palace in Domos. Flanked by his senior advisors, and with his noblemen and officials gathered before him, the king regally ascended the steps to his throne and took a seat. Unregally, the heavy wooden throne collapsed once the royal posterior sat down. Bela I was severely injured in front of his horrified court, and died of his wounds.
Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947), born Edward Alexander Crowley, was an English occultist, novelist, poet, painter, and a mountaineer who also claimed to be a magician. Not the stage tricks pull a rabbit from a hat or doves from a coat kind of magician, but the warlock, spells and sorcery type. An L. Ron Hubbard type before there was an L. Ron Hubbard, Crowley also founded a religion in the early twentieth century, Thelema, whose prophet he asserted himself to be.
From the preceding, it goes without saying that Crowley was as bizarre as bizarre gets. As the prophet of the Thelema faith, Crowley declared that he was entrusted with guiding mankind to the “Aeon of Horus”. A fundamental principal of Thelema was that the twentieth century would usher in the age of Horus, which would overthrow all existing codes of morality and ethics. In the new age, people’s “True Will”, which they would discover via magic, would be all that matters.
Aleister Crowley summarized the ethics of the Aeon of Horus as: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law“. His magic religion included lots of sex with his followers, which he termed “Sexual Magick”, with a k. Orgasms and bodily secretions were used as spell components. At the core of Sexual Magick was the requirement that adherents be completely open and uninhibited about sex, without social limitations or restraints. Also, followers should expose their children to sex from infancy, and accustom them to witness all kinds of sexual activity.
In 1920, Crowley and his followers established the Abbey of Thelema, a religious commune in Sicily. It did not take long not long before the bizarre and perverse goings-on there led to controversy, scandals, and denunciations. The abbey and its inhabitants became regular fodder for the press. The Italian government finally responded to the outcry, shut down the commune, and evicted everybody in 1923. Crowley then hit the road, and split the remaining two decades of his life traveling between Britain, France, and Germany, to promote and initiate people into Sexual Magick.
6. The Lesser Known Maccabeus Who Met a Bizarre End
Eleazar Maccabeus (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, who led the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid King Antiochus IV had banned Jewish religious practices, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped instead. Mattathias ben Johann, the father of Eleazar and Judas, would have none of that. He killed a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols as an apostate, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons. There, they launched a guerrilla campaign that soon flared into a rebellion.
After Mattathias’ death, his son Judah took over the revolt. In 164 BC, he and his followers entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah. However, the city’s conquest was incomplete, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress within its walls, facing the Temple Mount. As to Eleazar, he met a bizarre end at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother’s capture of Jerusalem.
Judas Maccabeus besieged the Temple Mount fortress, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. So he lifted the siege and marched out with 20,000 men to intercept the enemy. Unfortunately, Judas abandoned the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well until then. Instead, he lined up his men to meet the Seleucids in formal battle. It was a mistake. Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants that especially unnerved the Jewish defenders.
The Jews began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms, so Eleazar Maccabeus tried to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. He charged at the biggest pachyderm he could find, got beneath it, thrust his spear into its unarmored belly, and killed the beast. He did not get to savor his success for long, however: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar and crushed him to death. His comrades, appalled by his bizarre demise, did not rush in to emulate him, and the courageous demonstration did not keep the Jewish army from breaking soon thereafter.
In 1874, the Imperial Russian Navy commissioned one of history’s most bizarre warships, the monitor ship Novgorod. It featured a circular hull, and gained one of the poorest reputations ever attached to a ship. The idea behind the round hull was to give her as shallow a draft as possible, and allow her to carry a heavier weight of armor and weapons than other ships of a similar size but conventional designs. It turned out to be one of modern history’s worst designed warships. A 2500-ton vessel, it was powered by six steam engines that drove six propeller screws, and was so clumsy that contemporaries compared it to a floating soup dish.
On the plus side, the Novgorod was largely immune to ramming – a common tactic back then. It featured an armored belt that was nine-inches thick, its round shape deflected strikes, and its vital components were well inside the hull. It sported a pair of eleven-inch guns, which were powerful for the era. Its shape and flat bottom also gave it a draft of only twelve feet, which allowed it to operate close to the coastline in shallow waters. That was about it for the ship’s advantages. As seen below, they were greatly outweighed by the disadvantages.
3. This Weird Ship’s Design Defects Were Matched by Terrible Manufacturing Defects
The bizarre circular hull of the Novgorod played havoc with the rudder’s ability to steer the ship or turn it around. In a storm, she was unsteerable, and even in calm weather, it took 45 minutes for the ship to make a full circle. On top of that, in rough seas the wide flat bottom made the vessel susceptible to pitching so severe that the propellers came out of the water. The blunt hull did not slice through water so as to reduce its resistance, but pushed large volumes of water out of the way by sheer brute force.
The preceding made the ship very fuel-inefficient, and caused it to consume coal at a prodigious rate. In addition to design defects, the Novgorod was plagued with sundry manufacturing defects. Low quality materials and poor workmanship led to persistent recurring problems with the ship’s propulsion, from blades to shaft to drive, that lasted for the vessel’s entire career. Additionally, she suffered from poor ventilation that no amount of troubleshooting could fix, even after ventilation cowls were installed on the gun emplacements.
2. Firing Her Guns Made The Novgorod Spin Like a Top
The Novgorod not only looked weird and handled bad, it also sucked at it the core mission of a warship: she was a poor fighting platform. The ship’s pair of eleven-inch had a muzzle velocity of 1290 feet per second, and could punch through eleven inches of armor at 800 yards – respectable for that era. However, the guns had an exceptionally slow rate of fire: it took them ten minutes to let off a shot. The rotating mounts on which the guns were placed were also slow, and took three minutes to traverse 180 degrees.
The problem was exacerbated by weak locks, that caused the gun mounts to rotate on their own from the guns’ recoil. To add to her woes, the guns’ firing caused the ship to rotate uncontrollably, like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Because the flat-bottomed vessel had no stabilizing keel to keep her in line and keep her guns pointed towards the target, the only solution was to moor the Novgorod in a fixed position. That effectively transformed her from a ship to a floating fortress anchored in place, with her guns pointed seaward.
1. The Russians Could Tried to Palm this Bizarre Ship Off on the Bulgarians, but they Were Not Interested
The Novgorod and other round hulls were summarized thus by a naval historian: “they were a dismal failure. They were too slow to stem the current in the Dniepr, and proved very difficult to steer. In practice the discharge of even one gun caused them to turn out of control and even contra-rotating some of six propellers was unable to keep the ship on the correct heading. Nor could they cope with the rough weather which is frequently encountered in the Black Sea. They were prone to rapid rolling and pitching in anything more than a flat calm, and could not aim or load their guns under such circumstances“.
During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878, the Novgorod was assigned to the defense of Odessa in the Black Sea. It was discovered that her outer engines contributed little to her performance, so they were removed. The modifications brought her already low speed lower down still, to a mere 6 knots (6.9 miles per hour). After the war, she was stationed in Sevastopol, where she deteriorated and gathered rust until she was finally stricken from the Navy list in 1903. The Russians tried to sell her to Bulgaria in 1908, but the Bulgarians were uninterested in the bizarre ship, so it was sold for scrap in 1911.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading