Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches

Shannon Quinn - December 29, 2022

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
The winner of the marathon had to be helped across the finish line. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The 1904 Olympic Marathon Was A Complete and Total Disaster

One of the most disastrous athletic events in history was the 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis, Missouri. It was terrible in every way possible. Runners were forced to travel over several hills, on dusty dirt roads, and through crowded traffic. It was also 90 degrees outside, and yet the race organizers insisted that the runners were not allowed to drink water. Several of the runners collapsed with medical issues. One man was chased by a dog for an entire mile. And one man cheated by getting a ride to the finish line in a car. The man who won the race drank eggs and rat poison before running, because it was considered to be a performance-enhancing tonic.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
James Madison as a student at Princeton, portrait by James Sharples. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

James Madison Got Paid to Write Several Letters to Himself

After he became the first President of the United States, George Washington hired James Madison to ghostwrite his letters for him. One of the very first letters was addressed to Congress, telling them how excited he was to get started with work. Congress wanted to respond to Washington, and guess who they hired? James Madison! (There weren’t a lot of freelance writers around back then.) Funnily enough, Washington and Congress hired Madison again, making a total of four letters in a row that were all written by the same person. Years later, James Madison would go on to become the 4th President of the United States… And he probably wrote his own letters.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
In the Middle Ages, a farmer tried to sue a group of rats. Credit: Shutterstock

A Farmer Once Tried to Sue Rats For Eating His Barley

In the middle ages, it was common for people to try taking animals to court. Most of the time, the animals would be put to death after being found guilty for their crimes. One time, a farmer tried to sue rats for eating his barley. A lawyer named Barthélemy de Chasseneuz was hired to defend the rats. Obviously, the rats didn’t show up for their court date. Chasseneuz argued that the notice was not spread widely enough, and they just didn’t see it. When the rats failed to show up a second time, he asked the judge to forgive them because of the perils of the journey, especially when cats are trying to eat them. In the end, the rats were acquitted.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
French people were tricked into planting potatoes. Credit: Shutterstock

A Pharmacist Used Reverse Psychology to Get French People Interested in Growing Potatoes

Today, potatoes are incredibly popular in the United States and Europe. But in the beginning of the 18th Century, French people actually believed that potatoes caused leprosy. A French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a prisoner in Prussia, where he was forced to eat nothing but potatoes. After this experience, he put himself on a mission to convince other French people that they are actually delicious, nutritious, and leprosy-free. Together with Louis XVI, they planted 100 acres of potato fields outside of Paris. They hired armed guards to watch the fields 24/7 as if these potatoes were extremely valuable. One day, the guards took a “break”, and people immediately snuck onto the fields and began stealing the potatoes. This is actually exactly what they intended, using reverse psychology to trick people into wanting what they couldn’t have. Farmers started growing potatoes in France, and the rest is history.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Portrait of Napoleon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Napoleon Versus Bunnies

In July of 1807, Napoleon had just signed the Treaties of Tilsit, which marked the end of the war between France and Russia. To celebrate, he suggested that he and his men should have a good old fashioned rabbit hunt. His chief of staff, Alexandre Berthier, gathered over 3,000 rabbits and set their cages around a large field. When it was time to release the rabbits, they all began hopping, as bunnies do. There was just one problem. Instead of running away, the rabbits started hopping towards the men. It turns out that these rabbits were raised by humans, and expected to receive food from their new masters. Some of the rabbits actually jumped into Napoleon’s coach. This took all the fun out of the hunt, and it was a major flop.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
A 1925 painting by Fausto Zonaro, showing a jetty on the Golden Horn, Istanbul. Credit: New Humanist

The President of Turkey Banned Fez Hats, And It Caused Riots

In 1925, the President of Turkey decided to ban fez hats. As silly as this law sounds, there was a lot of deep-seated religious bias built into this new law. Many Muslim men wore fez hats, because it was possible for them to bow down during prayer. And in 1829, the fez was actually a mandated replacement for the turban for all government officials. At that point, it was a huge part of Turkish culture for nearly 100 years. The President’s push for brimmed western hats was an idea of a “new” Turkey that was more secular. People were so angry about this, that they rioted in the streets. Over 100 people were arrested, and 57 people were actually executed for passing out anti-hat pamphlets. Technically, it is still illegal to wear a fez in Turkey. (Though no one actively enforces the law anymore.)

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
“Lord” Timothy Dexter, engraved 1805, published 1806; “…a full length portrait of the Eccentric Character with his Dog, engraved from Life, by James Akin.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Timothy Dexter May Have Been The Most Ridiculous Accidental Rich Man That Ever Lived

Most self-made millionaires earned their riches by making smart business and financial decisions. In the case of Timothy Dexter, he made loads of mistakes, and it always seemed to work out in his favor. For example, he sold heating pans to the West Indies, despite the fact that it was very hot there, and no one needed them. So he re-marketed them as “molasses pans” and made a profit. There are countless examples of mind-boggling business deals that should have flopped, but he just got incredibly lucky. At one point, he started to lie to people, claiming that his wife was dead. When they saw her walking around the house, he said it was her ghost. And he faked his own death, just to see how people would react at his funeral. He punished his wife for not crying enough.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
A later woodcut of the defenestration in 1618. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Defenestrations of Prague

In case you didn’t know, the word “defenestration” means “to throw someone out the window”. Yes- There’s a word for that. Maybe that’s because in Prague, Czech Republic, there have been three incidents in history where members of the government were tossed out the window. The first defenestration happened in 1419, the second in 1483, and the third in 1618. Two of the incidents incited war, while one actually brought peace. The defenestration of 1419 sparked the Hussite War, which were a series of conflicts between the Hussites and the Catholic Church. Centuries later, in 1618, it would set off the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that lasted from 1618 to 1648 and involved most of the major European powers.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Final moments in the life of Chrysippus. Engraving from 1606. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Philosopher Chrysippus Died Laughing From His Own Joke

The Greek philosopher Chrysippus of Soli was given the title of the Second Founder of Stoicism. He excelled in logic, the theory of knowledge, ethics, and physics. And he created a new system of propositional logic to better understand the universe. Sorry to say, though, philosophy is not that funny. But what is funny is the way he died. As the story goes, one day he saw a donkey eating the figs. Chrysippus said, “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” He laughed so hard at his own joke that he died at 73 years old. Severe fits of laughter have been known to sometimes trigger cardiac arrest, asphyxiation or a loss of consciousness. Believe it or not, this is not the only time that someone has died of laughter in history. In fact, there is an entire Wikipedia page on the subject.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portraying three people affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Dancing Plague of 1518

One of the most famous instances in history of mass hysteria was The Dancing Plague of 1518. The people of Alsace, France, suffered multiple years of horrible events like a breakout of the Bubonic Plague and crops dying. Before the dancing plague, people in the town begin claiming that they saw the ghosts of their dead relatives walking through town. Obviously, their mental health was already in the toilet. In July of 1518, one woman began dancing uncontrollably in the street. This triggered between 50 to 400 people who also began dancing nonstop. There is no rational explanation as to why this happened to this day. Some people believe it was demonic possession, while others try to find some sort of medical explanation.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Citizens of Hartlepool hanging a monkey for being a French spy. Credit: The Telegraph

The Hartlepool Monkey Incident

This next story is a famous legend, but some people claim that it’s not actually true. But the story is still pretty funny. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship crashed on the coast of Hartlepool, England. At the time, people were scared of a possible French invasion, and they were always on the lookout for spies. But instead of men coming off this ship, there was a single monkey wearing a French uniform. Apparently, the citizens of Hartlepool had never seen a monkey before. But they had also never seen a Frenchman before, either. So they assumed that this monkey was a spy, so they hung him in the town square. People who live in Hartlepool will insist that the story is true, even though it makes their ancestors look foolish. Today, Hartlepool’s local Rugby team is called the Monkeyhangers in honor of the story.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Dancers in Nicholas Roerich’s original costumes. From left, Julitska, Marie Rambert, Jejerska, Boni, Boniecka, Faithful. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Igor Stravinsky’s Ballet “Rite of Spring” Caused a Riot

Fans of classic music will be familiar with the works of Igor Stravinsky. But when he first premiered his ballet called “Rite of Spring” in May of 1913, the Parisian audience was shocked by the music. The ballet was performed by a Russian dance company called Ballets Russes, who were known for choreography that was out of the box. They were often called “primitive and untamed.” When the performance began, people found the music to be too jarring. And the dancing was so odd, it didn’t seem like ballet at all. The audience began to boo, hiss, and shout for someone to call a doctor. If you’re curious to know what kind of dancing could have possibly enraged French audiences so much, there was a 100-year anniversary performance of Ballets Russes reenacting the Rite of Spring in 2013, and the video is available on YouTube.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
A painting by Jean-Paul Laurens called, “Pope Formosus and Stephen VI”, 1870. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

That One Time a Dead Pope Stood Trial

History is filled with strange events that would never happen in the modern world. One of these events was the Cadaver Synod, when a dead pope was forced to stand trial for his crimes. Pope Formosus had been dead for seven months, when the acting Pope Stephen VI demanded that the body should be exhumed. Stephen wanted Formosus to pay for his alleged crimes. He accused the man of illegally obtaining his role as Pope, and that he presided over more than one diocese at the same time. Obviously, Formosus had nothing to say in his own defense, so he lost the trial by default. His papacy was retroactively declared null and void. Surely, Pope Stephen hoped that by doing this, he could erase Pope Formosus from history. But what really happened is that he made himself look like a crazy person in the history books.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
The damage from the aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

On January 15, 1919, a large storage tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst in the middle of Boston, Massachusetts. This resulted in a massive wave of molasses traveling at 35 miles an hour down the street. It killed 21 people, and injured 150. Besides the human casualties, it also destroyed several of the surrounding buildings. It’s not funny that people died, but it’s absolutely ridiculous to imagine a tidal wave of sugary syrup crashing down onto the streets of Boston. As you can imagine, it was a nightmare to clean up. According to locals, you could still smell molasses on a hot summer day years after the event took place.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
An old advertisement for men’s straw hats. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A Riot Started Over Socially Unacceptable Straw Hats

Many of you have probably heard of the statement that you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day. But back in 1922, there was an unwritten rule that men should stop wearing straw hats by September 15, known as “Felt Hat Day”. If you continued wearing straw hats past the deadline, it opened yourself up to insults from strangers. Teenagers also enjoyed knocking straw hats off men’s heads and stomping them on the ground. Two days before, on the 13th, a group of teenagers decided to get an early start knocking hats off dock worker’s heads and stomping them on the ground. This led to fighting, and the teenagers were arrested. After this event, this inspired over 1,000 teenagers to riot in the streets of New York for eight days straight, hitting men in straw hats with large sticks. Several people were arrested, and some were injured.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Portrait of Genghis Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1254 C.E. the Khan Organized a Drunken Debate Between Different Religious Representatives

One of the things Genghis Khan is praised for was granting universal religious freedom. Since he encouraged people to keep their own religious beliefs, he decided to organize a debate among Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to see who would win. Of course, everyone was drinking heavily. The debate went on for multiple rounds on a variety of theological topics until the participants became so drunk that it concluded without any clear winner. According to the book called Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World, “Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in an effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation.”

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Leo Major, after he lost one of his eyes. Credit: Defining Moments Canada

A Single WWII Soldier Liberated An Entire German Occupied City By Himself

The story of a Canadian soldier named Leo Major is both funny and deserves to be in an action movie. In April of 1945, Leo was by himself when he entered a German occupied town in the Netherlands called Zwolle. He captured a German soldier, holding a gun to him and shouting orders in a loud, authoritative voice. Leo told the German soldier that the town was surrounded. They would consider letting them live, as long as they surrendered peacefully. Next, he began running through the streets of Zwolle firing a machine gun into the air, and tossing random grenades to make as much noise as possible. This was the middle of the night, so most of the German soldiers were asleep in their beds, startled awake by what they thought was an attack by the entire Canadian army. The Germans surrendered, and Leo Major liberated the entire town.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
False Dmitry takes an oath of allegiance to king Sigismund III Vasa by Nikolai Nevrev (1874). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Curious Case of the False Dmitrys

Many people have heard of the story of Russian women pretending to be the long-lost Princess Anastasia. But it turns out that there seems to be a Russian tradition of people impersonating royals for their own financial gain. After Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich of Russia, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible died, it led to not just one- but three different men coming forward that they were the true Dmitry, and that they had miraculously escaped their assassination attempt at 8 years old. The first False Dmitry actually became the Tsar of Russia, and reigned from 1605-1606. All three of these imposters ended up getting killed. So it probably wasn’t a great idea to impersonate the Tsar in the first place.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
The Dreadnought hoaxers in Blackface and Abyssinian costume. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pranksters Pretended to be Royals During “The Dreadnought Hoax”

In 1910, an Irish prankster by the name of Horace de Vere Cole organized a hoax with a group of his friends. They showed up to the UK’s Royal Navy wearing foreign costumes and blackface, claiming to be “Abyssinian royals” from Ethiopia. This convinced the navy officers to allow them a personal tour of the HMS Dreadnought. The famous author Virginia Woolf was friends with Cole, and later wrote that the naval officers of “the Hawke and the Dreadnought had a feud. … And Cole’s friend who was on the Hawke had come to Cole, and said to him, “You’re a great hand at hoaxing people; couldn’t you do something to pull the leg of the Dreadnought? They want taking down a bit. Couldn’t you manage to play off one of your jokes against them?” It totally worked, and it was forever remembered as “The Dreadnought Hoax“.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
Caligula’s soldiers attacking the ocean because they were ordered to kill the god Neptune. Credit: Reddit

The Roman Emperor Caligula Declared War on Neptune, and Sent His Soldiers Into the Sea

The Roman Emperor Caligula is remembered for doing and saying a lot of insane things in his lifetime. But one of the most ridiculous orders he gave to his army was to battle Neptune, god of the sea. He had just gone on a campaign to capture Great Britain, and got as far as the shores of Gaul. But when it was obvious that he couldn’t succeed, he had to abandon the mission. But instead of going back a loser, he demanded that his army fight Neptune, instead. His soldiers obeyed his orders, and whipped the water violently. Then they were instructed to take sea shells home with them as a prize for their “victory”.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
A caricature of the Berners Street hoax. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Berners Street Hoax

Back in 1809, a man named Theodore Hook made a bet with his friend Samuel Beazley that he could make any house the most popular address in London. They picked a random house on 54 Berners Street that belonged to a woman named Mrs. Tottenham. Theodore proceeded to send Mrs. Tottenham a total of 12 chimney sweeps, lawyers, priests, and other service people. He also ordered multiple wedding cakes, pianos, fish, shoes, and other goods that were all being delivered to the address at the same time. This caused a traffic jam surrounding the house as a large crowd of people began to gather. Theodore and his friends were watching the chaos unfold from a house across the street. The police put out an award for the capture of whoever was responsible for the prank, but he was never caught.

Side-Splitting Historical Facts That Will Leave You in Stitches
A newspaper clipping of the time hippo meat almost came to America. Credit: Library of Congress

There Was a Campaign For Americans to Start Eating Hippos

In 1910, there was a major monopoly on meat in the United States, which caused meat shortages and price gouging at butcher shops and grocery stores. A senator named Robert Broussard suggested that Americans should start importing hippos from Africa, and let them live in the rivers of Louisiana. Hippos are so large that they could feed a lot of people with their meat. Obviously, Broussard didn’t mention the fact that hippos are incredibly dangerous animals, and it would be a terrible idea to set them free in the wild in the United States. This plan was highly publicized in newspapers, but it never actually came to fruition. Eventually, the meat market stabilized again when there was an increase in “factory farming” across the nation.

How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Systems Thinking and The Cobra Effect. Barry Newell and Christopher Doll. United Nations University. 2015.

The History of Roller Skating. James Turner. New York Times. 2015

The Greatest Mistranslations Ever. BBC. 2015.

The Ashtray of History. The Atlantic. 2007.

Fidel Castro: The CIA’s 7 Most Bizarre Assassination Attempts. Alexander Smith. NBC News. 2017.

Elmer the Flying Monk. Athelstan Museum.

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been The Strangest Ever. Smithsonian Magazine. Karen Abbott. 2012.

15 Historical Facts That Are The Funniest Things I’ve Ever Heard. Andy Golder. Buzzfeed.

The Strange History Of Potatoes And The Man Who Made Them Popular. Amber Kanuckel. Farmers Almanac. 2021.

Napoleon and the battle of rabbits. Telangana Today. 2022.

Let Them Wear Hats. Sami Kent. New Humanist. 2020.

This Greek Philosopher Died Laughing at His Own Joke. Ethel Dilouambaka. Culture Trip. 2018.

The Hartlepool Monkey, Who Hung the Monkey? This Is Hartlepool.

The riot at the Rite: the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Ivan Hewett. The British Library. 2016.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Jack Weatherford. 2005.

Hippopotamus Steak: Topics in Chronicling America. Library of Congress.

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