The Old World's Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts

Khalid Elhassan - March 17, 2020

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur in a scene from The Golden Girls. The Mary Sue

15. Bea Arthur Was a WWII Marine

Actress, comedian, and singer Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009) had a rich career in entertainment. Her ambitions began while attending a girls’ boarding school, where she was the tallest girl, and also the one voted “wittiest” by her classmates. She became an avid participant in drama programs and theatrical productions. Entertaining her friends with imitations of Mae West, she dreamt of a career in show business, but did not think her parents would support her dreams.

She eventually made it, and had an entertainment career that spanned seven decades. During those years, she became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Before that, however, Bea Arthur had been a WWII US Marine.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur’s US Marine enlistment photo. National WWII Museum

14. Marine Sergeant Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur downplayed her WWII contributions, denying having served and steering questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more. However, the documentary record shows that in 1943, aged 21, she had enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. She worked as a typist and truck driver, and moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant, before her honorable discharge in 1945.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Bea Arthur US Marine ID photo. Wikimedia

It was while serving in the Marines during the war that she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur, whose last name she took. The marriage was short-lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense character would probably nod their heads at the aptness of Maud or Dorothy Zbornak having been a Marine sergeant.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Wikimedia

13. The Earthquake That Devastated Lisbon on All Saints Day

In the eighteenth century, Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, was one of Europe’s wealthiest cities and busiest seaports. On the morning of November 1st, 1755, just as it began celebrating the religious festival of All Saints’ Day, Lisbon was almost completely demolished by a powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake, whose shocks were felt as far away as Finland, North Africa, and the Caribbean.

Striking around 9:40 AM, the upheaval opened fissures nearly 20 feet deep in the city’s streets. Because of the religious festival, a significant percentage of the population were gathered in churches and cathedrals when the tremors began, and thousands were crushed to death as the houses of worship collapsed atop them. As the tremors subsided, another danger arose as fires erupted around the city, first individually, then joining together to transform Lisbon into a giant inferno. Then things got worse.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Life After 40

12. A Tsunami Wave Swept Away Earthquake Survivors Praying For Divine Help

Shaken and frightened survivors of the Lisbon earthquake sought to escape the fires and falling debris. So they rushed towards the harbor, where the large open squares of the royal palace promised safety from both conflagration and collapsing buildings. There, they were further alarmed when they encountered the incongruous sight of a harbor without water, with ships resting on the seabed.

Gathering in the drying silt of the harbor’s bottom, the survivors were led by priests in fervent prayers, beseeching God’s mercy and forgiveness of whatever sins had occasioned such divine wrath. Many were still praying and begging God’s mercy in the harbor when the sea returned with a vengeance: a tsunami, with a wall of water 40 feet high, swept in and drowned them.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Encyclopedia Britannica

11. The Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami Raised Thorny Theological Questions

Total casualties of the Lisbon earthquake are estimated to have been as high as 60,000 deaths in the city alone. 100,000 or more deaths might have occurred in the Lisbon region, plus many more injured. The earthquake occurred as the Enlightenment was getting into full swing, and it inspired significant philosophical discourse and exchanges. The tragedy furthered the development of theodicy or the question of how a just and good God could allow what happened in Lisbon to take place.

The thorniest theodicy question was why God had sent an earthquake to crush His worshippers by the thousands in cathedrals and churches as they gathered in prayer to celebrate All Saints Day and glorify His name. The question was compounded and made thornier yet by His subsequent sending of a tsunami to drown the survivors who had been praying for His mercy in Lisbon’s harbor.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Ludwig II. Schloss Neushwanstein

10. The King Who Bankrupted Himself Building Fairytale Castles

Ludwig II of Bavaria, better known as “Mad King Ludwig” (1845 – 1886), reigned from 1864 until his death in 1886. A generous benefactor of the arts, he was an admirer and patron of the composer Richard Wagner. During his reign, Ludwig devoted himself to artistic and architectural projects, including opulent fairytale castles and palaces, whose construction he lavishly funded to the point of bankrupting himself.

After Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871, Ludwig withdrew from governance. Concerning himself only intermittently with affairs of state, he went into morbid seclusion and devoted himself to his true passion: the arts. He worshipped the theater and the opera, especially the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong patron he became. He also developed a mania for extravagant building projects in the Bavarian mountains.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Neuschwanstein Castle. Wikimedia

9. Castle Construction Mania

Ludwig II kicked off his mania with the Linderhof Palace, patterned on the Trianon Palace and built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he began building his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. Built from 1869 to 1886, it inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. As that one was being built, Ludwig started an even more ambitious project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace, a copy of Versailles. It was never completed, because the Mad King went bankrupt.

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, he was declared insane by a panel of doctors, and sent to a remote palace by a psychiatrist. Three days later, the deposed monarch drowned himself in a lake, and took his psychiatrist with him. Today, the Mad King’s architectural and artistic legacy includes many of Bavaria’s biggest tourist attractions.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Charlie Chaplin. ABC

8. The Lovable Tramp Was a Total Perv

English actor Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) was and remains one of Hollywood’s most readily recognizable stars. The silent film era’s most famous figure, he is one of the silver screens all time greats. In addition to being a pioneer who revolutionized acting and comedy, Chaplin was also a sexual pervert who liked ’em young. So young as to cause scandal, derail his career, and get him deported from the US.

Chaplin also seems to have been Harvey Weinstein before there was a Harvey Weinstein. He is credited within pioneering the “casting couch”, whereby powerful Hollywood figures extracted sexual favors from actresses during auditions. Reportedly, Chaplin used caption cards during auditions to prompt aspiring actresses into increasingly suggestive acts and poses, until they stood before him naked or nearly so.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Pretty women and pies did it for Charlie Chaplin. Pinterest

7. Charlie Chaplin Got Off On Throwing Pies at Women

Charlie Chaplin’s kinks went beyond run-of-the-mill quid pro quo sexual harassment and entered the realm of the… unusual. For one thing, he had a thing for pies – and not just as comedic props and gags. After getting actresses to disrobe during auditions, Chaplin would begin by groping them in exaggerated ways. Then, having worked himself up by getting them to do a strip tease on demand, followed by a groping session, he would stand them naked against a wall and throw pies at them.

Chaplin also had a penchant for orgies, and liked to organize them with his friend and fellow comedic film star, Fatty Arbuckle. Those orgies came to a screeching halt in 1921, when Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping a woman to death, and tried for her murder. Although Arbuckle was acquitted, the Chaplin-Arbuckle orgy parties never resumed.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Chaplin, right, receiving an honorary Oscar in 1972 – his first time back in the US in two decades. Wikimedia

6. Charlie Chaplin’s Cradle Robbing Got Him Deported

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest scandals arose from his propensity for cradle robbing: he liked much younger women. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a pervert himself if ever there was one, had long disliked Chaplin’s political leanings, and used his sex scandals to launch a smear campaign against him. In 1944, he had Chaplin prosecuted for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes. Chaplin was acquitted, but his reputation was severely damaged.

In 1952, while Chaplin was in London for a film premiere, the US Department of Justice revoked the British actor’s re-entry visa. It stated that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his politics and morality before reentering the United States. Chaplain decided not to bother, cut his ties with the US, and settled in Switzerland.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Philip IV of Spain. Mad Monarchist

5. When Europe Was Swept By Poisoning Panics

Seventeenth-century Europeans were prone to paranoid episodes about poisoning. They seemed to have a standing fear that nefarious people planned to spread a plague throughout Christendom via sinister means, such as sorcery and witchcraft, or mysterious “poisonous gasses”.

Such fears led to a great panic that swept the city of Milan, Italy. It began in 1629, after the city’s governor received an alarming message from King Philip IV of Spain. It warned the governor to be on the lookout for four Frenchman who had escaped from a Spanish prison, and might be en route to Milan to spread the plague via “poisonous and pestilential ointments“.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Milan in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Wikimedia

4. “The Great Poisoning Scare”

For months after receiving a royal warning, tensions kept steadily mounting in Milan. The alarmed citizens kept a wary lookout for suspicious characters, and grew steadily more stressed out and frazzled as fears mounted of an imminent poisoning. The city thus sat on a powder keg for months, before finally erupting in what came to be known as “The Great Poisoning Scare of Milan“.

It started on the night of May 17th, when some citizens reported seeing mysterious people placing what appeared to be poison in a cathedral partition. Health officials went to the cathedral but found no signs of poisoning. The following morning, the Milanese woke to find that all doors on the main streets had been marked with a mysterious daub.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Execution of suspected poisoners and plague-spreaders in Milan. Getty Images

3. Mysterious Daubs Lead to City-Wide Panic

Milan’s health officials inspected the mysterious daubs that had appeared on city walls, but found nothing harmful in them. They concluded that the markings were a prank by some mischievous people with a sick sense of humor, out to get some laughs out of the citizens’ fears.

Official reassurances did not assure, however. Taking the mysterious daubs as a sign that the expected poison attack had finally arrived, Milan’s citizens went into a citywide bout of mass hysteria. They began accusing random people of acts of poisoning, ranging from passersby on the streets to various nobles to Cardinal Richelieu of France or general Wallenstein, commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire in the then-raging Thirty Years War.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Great Milan Poisoning Scare. Committee For Skeptical Inquiry

2. Hysteria Sweeps in Victims

Among the early victims of Milan’s poisoning hysteria was an elderly man who was spotted wiping a bench in church before sitting down. A mob of crazed women accused him of poisoning the seat, and seized and violently assailed him in church. They then dragged him to the magistrates while continuing to beat him on the way, and ended up killing him en route. Even more tragic was the case of a pharmacist who was accused of being in cahoots with the Devil when he was found with unknown potions.

After prolonged torture and stretching on the rack, he changed his protestations of innocence to a confession of guilt, repeating whatever his torturers wanted to hear in order to end the pain. Admitting to being in league with the Devil and foreigners to poison the city, the pharmacist named other accomplices who were innocent of any crime. They in turn were arrested and tortured, and to end their suffering, they named yet more innocents, repeating the process. All were tried, convicted based on the confession extracted under torture, and executed.

The Old World’s Medieval Untouchables and Other Random Historical Facts
Milan in 1630, during a plague. Wikimedia

1. Hysteria Led People to Voluntarily Accuse Themselves

As Milan’s mass hysteria and mounting insanity tightened its grip on the fevered city, many Milanese stepped forward to accuse… themselves. Many went to the magistrates and voluntarily confessed to amazing deeds of the supernatural, describing meetings with the Devil, witches, sorcerers, and sundry practitioners of black magic, in which they plotted to poison the city.

As reported, “The number of persons who confessed that they were employed by the Devil to distribute poison is almost incredible“. Many were executed based on their voluntary false confessions. The hysteria did not subside until the city was struck by an even bigger catastrophe: an actual plague that swept through Italy and lasted into 1631.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bartholomew, Robert E. – Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion

Bleacher Report – MMA History: How Pankration Champion Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Chortle – You’d Never Get Away With It Today: Six Comedy Icons With a Seedy Reputation

Cracked – 5 Weird AF Facts History Class Left Out

Eisler, Benita – Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame (1999)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pancho Villa

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Roberts – Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior: Milan Poisoning Scare (2009)

Geosphere, Volume 13, Number 3 (2017) – What Happens to the Boats? The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and Portuguese Tsunami Literacy

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe II (1994)

Imperial War Museum – Grenade, Anti-Tank, No. 74 Mk I (‘Sticky Bomb’)

Independent, July 28th, 2008 – The Last Untouchable in Europe

MacCarthy, Fiona – Byron: Life and Legend (2002)

Maland, Charles J. – Chaplin and American Culture (1989)

National WWII Museum – Bea Arthur, US Marine

United States Army Center of Military History – Reports of General MacArthur, the Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific, Volume I, Chapter XIII: “Downfall”, the Plan For the Invasion of Japan

Arnold, Oren – The Mexican Centaur: An Intimate Biography of Pancho Villa (1979)

Whiting, Marvin C. – Imperial Chinese Military History (2002)

Wikipedia – Frane Selak

Wikipedia – Operation Downfall

Wikipedia – Sticky Bomb

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