Unusual History

Weird and Unusual Facts from History You Never Knew

We learned a lot about history in high school, but there is a lot more we never learned from school. There are so many weird and wonderful facts of history that’s so wacky and unusual that could never be repeated even if someone tries to. The past is full of curious stories, and here are some facts that are fun to know about:

1. The shortest war lasted for 38 minutes

 

Wars are a big part of history, especially the World War I and World War II. A lot of them lasted for years, but there is one that lasted for less than an hour. The Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 was the shortest war on record, with conflict lasting for an exhausting 38 minutes. This was a military conflict between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate. Some say it really wasn’t a war but an attack, because the Zanzibari forces had no chance to win.

2. Turkeys were once worshipped like gods

A male turkey

Ahh the almighty turkey. Loved by all Americans (except vegetarians and vegans) and a favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal, the turkey was once revered by the Mayan people in 300 BC. These birds were viewed as the vessels of the gods and were honored as such. In their culture, the birds were domesticated to play a part in their religious rites and they were symbols of power and prestige.

3. Paul Revere never really shouted “The British are coming!”

A statue of Paul Revere in a horse

If not for the shouts of Paul Revere coming from a galloping horse, unsuspecting colonists may not have been warned of the British army’s impending attack in 1775. His famous ride from Lexington to Concord made him a pivotal figure in the American Revolution. This was the story most Americans know.

However, this info was found to be false. According to history.com, the operation was quiet and stealthy, because the British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Plus, colonial Americans still considered themselves as British at the time. Revere did manage to warn all of Lexington about the British invasion before he spurred a horse towards Concord.

4. Napoleon was attacked by bunnies

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte

Once upon a time, the great Napoleon Bonaparte was attacked by a horde of bunnies. The emperor had requested that a rabbit hunt be set up for him and his men. His chief of staff Alexander Berthier set it up and had men capture up to 3,000 rabbits to be released from their cages. When the rabbits are released the hunt was ready to go. That was the plan. But something strange happened. The bunnies didn’t scurry in fear – they unexpectedly charged towards Bonaparte and his men in a vicious and unstoppable onslaught. Hundreds of bunnies gunned it for the famous conqueror which was once the world’s most powerful man.

5. The Olympics awarded medals for fine arts

A photo of the Olympics logo with the competitors on the background

The Olympic Games held competition for fine arts from 1912 to 1948. Medals were awarded for literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and music. The arts created was required to be Olympic themed. Pierre de Frédy, the founder of the modern Olympics said that the addition of the arts was necessary because the ancient Greeks used to hold art festivals along with the games. Before the art competitions were removed, the Olympics has awarded 151 medals for the arts.

6. The woman’s right to smoke was a hard-won freedom

In 1908, a New Yorker named Katie Mulcahey was arrested for striking a match against a wall and lighting a cigarette with it. Her crime was violating the Sullivan Ordinance, a city law sponsored by Alderman Sullivan that banned women (and only women) from smoking in public. The law was a product of Sullivan’s response to pressure against a Christian anti-smoking lobby that identified tobacco with immorality. Mulcahey was reported to be arrested the day after it was passed.

 During her hearing at the district court the feisty Mulcahey argued about her rights to smoke in public. She was fined five dollars. After two weeks, the city’s mayor vetoed the Sullivan Ordinance. This was seen as a cause for celebration for women’s rights. Just as they should be allowed to vote, they should also be allowed to smoke, reasoned feminists. 

7. A woman was elected to Congress before women were allowed to vote

Throughout history, women were always fighting for equal rights, and one of their most prominent fight was for the right to vote. The 19th Amendment finally allowed American women the right to vote in 1920, but there was a woman elected to the US Congress before that. Jeannette Rankin was elected in Congress in 1916, four years before women can vote. She was the first woman to ever hold a federal office in the US.

8. Salem “witches” weren’t actually burned at the stake

The witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts was a dark period in American history. Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, including the elderly, the homeless and a four year old girl. Witches and other religious heretics of the time were burned at stake for their supposed crimes but not the ones from the Salem witch trials. The popular image of the event involves unfortunate women being burned at the stake, but they did not suffer this cruelty. Of the 20 people who were convicted of being witches, those who were sentenced to death were hung, not burned.

9. A deadly tsunami of Molasses flooded the streets of Boston

The aftermath of the Boston molasses disaster

On an unseasonably hot day in January 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts, a 90-foot wide cast iron tank containing 2.3 million gallons of crude molasses exploded, probably because the contents have expanded due to the hot weather. This event was known as the Great Molasses Flood, or the Boston Molasses Disaster. 

The tank belonged to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company and will use the molasses for rum manufacture. This tank was set 50 feet above street level, and the entire contents of the tank spilled within a few seconds without warning. It resulted in a 15-foot tall wave of sticky molasses flooding the streets, reaching a speed of 35 mph. It crushed houses, demolished buildings, carried off vehicles and drowned horses. People who tried to outrun the sticky wave were drowned and engulfed where they fell. Unfortunately, 21 people died and 150 people were injured, and according to eyewitnesses, the people who were brought to the hospital looked like toffee apples. 

Before the accident, local residents reported hearing rumbles and metallic creaks coming from the tank. The cleanup took weeks, and for decades the locals claimed they can still distinctively smell molasses in the hot weather.

10. A lot of history’s biggest disasters were caused by lack of sleep

The explosion of space shuttle Challenger in the air

Start investing more time for quality sleep, because adequate rest is so very important. So many of history’s greatest disasters were a result of man-made error caused by lack of sleep, including Chernobyl, Challenger explosion, Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island and the American Airlines Flight 1420 crash.

When the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded, the engineers involved has been working for 13 hours or more.

The accident at the Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the most serious nuclear incident on US, happened because the overnight shift workers didn’t notice that the plant lost coolant, and sleepiness is partly to blame. 

The space shuttle Challenger exploded just seconds after its launch, and certain managers involved in the launch was reported to have only slept two hours before arriving to work at 1 AM that morning.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill that spilled 258,000 barrels of crude oil in Alaska was caused by a third mate who was sleeping at the helm, leaving him unable to turn the tanker back to the shipping lanes to avoid disaster. The crew was on a 22-hour shift loading the oil before the accident happened.

The American Airlines Flight 1420 Crash that killed 11 people including the captain was caused by severe thunderstorms, but impaired performance resulting from fatigue was also to blame.

11. Fidel Castro was plotted to be killed more than 600 times

A photo of Fidel Castro in the 1950s

The Cuban dictator Fidel Castro lived for 90 years and survived more than 600 attempts to kill him. The former director of Cuba’s intelligence service claims this, as Castro was attempted to be killed by his political opponents, criminals, the United States and anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Their attempts included using thallium to make his beard fall out, use LSD to make him sound crazy when speaking in a radio broadcast, poisoning his diving suit, having a tide-line of exploding seashells on his visit to a beach, and adding explosives to his cigar. There was also a hired femme fatale who was tasked to seduce him, and Castro claimed he uncovered her intentions. He said he offered her a pistol and told her to kill him, but she didn’t have the nerve.

Because of the many attempts to end his life that has been made, Castro famously said, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”

12. The government poisoned alcohol during the Prohibition

The Prohibition was a weird time in the country’s history, but you probably won’t expect that one of the measures the government used was mass poisoning. Something that’s often forgotten about the Prohibition is that the government didn’t just try to discourage drinking through fines and imprisonment, but the actual poisoning of the industrial alcohol was legal. People continued to consume alcohol despite the ban, so the law officials got frustrated and tried a different kind of deterrent, which is death.

The government ordered poisoning of alcohols, which were the product regularly stolen by bootleggers. They added iodine, chloroform and even kerosene and gasoline to make it nauseating and deadly. By the end of the Prohibition in 1933, an estimated 10,000 people were killed by the federal poisoning program.

13. Forks were once seen as offensive to God

A group of forks

Forks are widely used eating utensils of today, but did you know that they were once seen as offensive and blasphemous? When first introduced in the 11th century in Italy, these spiked spaghetti-twirling tools were seen as an offense to God. Why? Because after all, God has given us natural forks – our fingers – and these “artificial hands” were seen as sacrilegious. Even as late as the 16th century, the English were still ridiculing those people who would dare to use a fork. Slowly though, the West began to see what their Middle Eastern neighbors have discovered for centuries – that forks were neater and more efficient eating utensils.

14. A pope once declared a war against cats

Two cats on the street

Pope Gregory IX, who held the papacy from 1227 to 1241, must have been a dog person. This 13th century pope said that black cats were instruments of Satan that must be exterminated throughout Europe. He issued a decree declaring that Satan was a half-cat and sometimes took the form of a cat during Satanic masses. Many Catholics followed his orders and decimated the population of felines. Of course, the Bubonic Plague also helped motivate the kitty killings as many believed that cat germs contributed to the spread of the plague. However, this plan backfired as history showed that the Black Death was actually caused by rats and fleas, not cats, which means killing of the rats’ main predators was not a good idea.

15. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was based on a real Mary who had a real lamb

A baby lamb on the grass

Everyone knows the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but you probably assumed it was fiction. Fun fact: this was based on a true story. There was an 11-year-old Boston girl named Mary Sawyer. One day in 1817, she was followed to school by her pet lamb. Then, there was someone who wrote a poem about it. A manuscript of the poem signed by Sarah Josepha Hale of Philadelphia was dated January 23, 1823, but it was thought to be written much earlier. The poem was first published in 1830 in an American children’s magazine.

In the late 1960s, Mary helped raise money for an old church in Boston by selling wool and woolen stockings made from the famous lamb. She sold small pieces of wool attached to commemorative cards at 10 cents at the time.

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