Historical Facts You’ll Wish Weren’t Really True
History is stranger than fiction... and often grosser and creepier too.
King Tut’s parents were most likely siblings
Once you’ve finished shuddering with disgust, here’s what researchers know about the boy king and his family. His father was almost definitely Akhenaten, who preceded Tut as pharaoh in the fourteenth century BC. The identity of his mother is pretty much unknown, but recent DNA samples from his and other mummies have revealed that she was probably one of Akhenaten’s sisters. King Tut was rather frail and suffered from a bone disorder, perhaps due to his parentage. Incestuous relationships, though, weren’t out of the ordinary in ancient Egypt, a fact which is not exactly reassuring. Despite Tut’s health issues, and his short life even by the standards back then (he died at 19), he’s gone down in history as one of Egypt’s most famous and wealthiest pharaohs. Check out these other unsolved mysteries about the ancient world.
Someone tried and failed to save Abraham Lincoln—and his life just got darker from there
You’re probably familiar with the 1860s illustration The Assassination of President Lincoln. But who’s that pair sharing the private box with the ill-fated president and his wife? The man on the far left, rushing into action, is Major Henry Rathbone. President and Mrs. Lincoln specifically asked him and his fiancée, Clara Harris, to accompany them to the theater. After Booth fired the shot, Rathbone tried to tackle him to the ground, but Booth was able to get free by slicing Rathbone in the arm with a dagger. Rathbone was never free of the memory and guilt of that night, and he reportedly felt responsible for letting Booth get away. In the years to come, he experienced a myriad of health issues, from stomach ailments to heart palpitations, and his mental state deteriorated as well. On December 23, 1883 (18 years after the assassination), he attacked and killed Clara, now his wife, and attempted to kill himself. He would spend the rest of his life in a mental institution. Don’t miss these timeless Abraham Lincoln quotes.
In 1494, Europe experienced the closest thing to a real-life zombie outbreak
Italy’s Renaissance period has a major, though little-known, dark side. Sailors returning from the New World brought with them a massive outbreak of syphilis, which spread through an entire French army. The troops then brought what would become known as “the great pox” to the rest of Europe. With no such thing as antibiotics back then, the disease was able to spread unchecked—and its effects were nasty. The skin on victims’ faces would essentially rot away from the disease’s grisly ulcers. In some cases, the noses, lips, or other body parts of the affected people were essentially gone, and several of the victims eventually died from the disease. So while there was a lot to love about the Renaissance in Europe, the concurrent syphilis outbreak was basically the real-world version of the zombie apocalypse. No big deal. These are the famous moments in history that never actually happened.
19th-century New Englanders dug up a young woman’s body… because they thought she was a vampire
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Salem Witch Trials, but what about the “Rhode Island Accused Vampire”? In the late 1800s, a bout of tuberculosis (then called “consumption”) struck Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, and the residents didn’t know what to make of it. Since its victims tended to look sunken, pallid, and drained, people assumed that they’d fallen prey to vampires. So, naturally, a “vampire hunt” soon commenced. When members of an Exeter, Rhode Island family began dying of consumption one after the other, the other townspeople decided that someone in the family must be “feeding” on the others. Even after the mother, Mary Brown, and her two daughters had died, the townspeople decided to exhume the dead bodies, suspecting that one might, in fact, be “undead.”
Brown’s 19-year-old daughter Mercy had died much more recently than her family members, so her body was in much better condition. Her heart even still contained some decayed blood—a sure sign of vampirism, in those days. So, to prevent her from “striking” again, they burned her heart and liver and mixed the ashes with water. They then gave the concoction to another affected townsperson as a “cure.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Here are some more freaky old-fashioned remedies you won’t believe existed.
Thomas Edison created a seriously creepy baby doll
For all of his successful inventions, Thomas Edison did experience a pretty major failure when he tried to create the first-ever talking dolls. His 1877 development of the tinfoil phonograph was a major breakthrough in terms of sound recording, and the endless possibilities for this technology were not lost on Edison. In 1890, thanks to the development of the wax cylinder, he was able to produce a line of baby dolls. With wooden bodies, porcelain heads, and miniature phonographs in their chests, the dolls were unlike anything the world of toys had ever seen—or heard—before. The phonographs played back recordings of young women reciting nursery rhymes like “Hickory Dickory Dock” and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”
And if ever there were dolls that deserved their own horror flick, it was these. The old, garbled technology, the shrill voices, and the dolls’ eerie faces combine to make them into nightmare fuel for us today. (Take a listen here, if you dare.) But that’s not actually the reason the dolls were unsuccessful. Their failure was due more to several different things; the pieces were easy to lose, the sound didn’t last long and was hard to understand, and the mini phonographs were highly breakable. And, finally, the dolls were simply expensive. Here are the Thomas Edison inventions you didn’t know about.
Dentures used to be made from the teeth of dead soldiers
Why have false teeth when you can have real teeth?! That must have been the mentality of nineteenth-century dentists. They combated the outbreak of tooth decay with makeshift dentures—ivory base plates with real human teeth attached. Scavengers were already looting corpses from the Battle of Waterloo for their teeth, and now they could sell the teeth to dentists. The dentists would boil the choppers, cut off the roots, attach them to ivory plates, and sell them to customers. Mental Floss doubts that the customers had any idea where the teeth came from. Whether that makes it more or less creepy is up to you to decide. Here are 60 more weird facts that will blow your mind!
Researchers once turned a cat into a telephone. A live cat.
We know what you’re thinking: “You’ve got to be kitten me!” Well, unfortunately not. In 1929, a pair of scientists at Princeton University wanted to test how the auditory nerve perceives sound. Their test subject was a heavily sedated, but alive, cat. The scientists, Ernest Wever and Charles Bray, cut out part of its brain and attached one end of a telephone wire to its auditory nerve and the other end to a receiver. When Bray said something into the cat’s ears, Wever could hear him through the receiver in a soundproof room. Though it might just seem like a sick experiment, it actually did have some beneficial effects; many researchers believe it helped lead to the development of cochlear implants. As for the feline-turned-phone, it incredibly survived the experiment… but Wever and Bray didn’t release it back into the world. Instead, they killed it to see if the experiment would work on a dead cat. It didn’t. Learn about some more of the weirdest science experiments of all time.
Boston experienced a deadly molasses flood
This makes the Boston Tea Party look tame. In January of 1919, an enormous molasses tank burst in the North End of Boston. While a molasses flood might sound like a scene from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it was no laughing matter. The tank contained—and released—nearly two and a half million gallons of the sticky substance, which surged through the streets at a whopping 35 miles per hour. It was essentially a full-on tidal wave, reaching nearly fifteen feet tall and killing twenty-one people. A hundred and fifty more people were injured, and buildings and houses were knocked from their foundations. Emergency responders had trouble reaching the victims since they had to clamber through the sticky sludge. It took Bostonians weeks to clean up the mess, and many residents would claim that, in the summer heat, they could smell the sickly-sweet odor of molasses even years later. Don’t miss these tricky U.S. war history questions most people never get right.
A computer once did in 40 seconds what took a mathematician an entire lifetime
Say it isn’t so! While not gross or scandalous, this history fact is still something of a downer. William Shanks, a nineteenth-century mathematician, spent his entire life calculating the digits of pi. He successfully calculated the first 527 digits, and found another 180 digits, though those calculations were incorrect. But calculating the first 527 digits is still impressive… or, rather, it was in 1873. In 1958, a computer calculated that same number of digits in less than a minute…and then calculated another ten thousand. Perhaps it’s better poor Shanks wasn’t alive to see that. If it’s any consolation, though, humans did invent that computer. These are the most bizarre coincidences throughout history.
A king made his subjects worship the corpse of his beloved
This case of star-crossed lovers got weird fast. In fourteenth-century Portugal, the king’s son, Don Pedro, fell in love with Inês de Castro. There were only a couple of problems with this: for one, his father, King Afonso IV, did not approve, because Inês was illegitimate. For another, Don Pedro was married. His father had arranged for him to marry a noblewoman named Constanza, and Inês was Constanza’s lady-in-waiting. When Don Pedro refused to stop seeing her, the king had her killed. When Don Pedro acceded to the throne two years later, he exhumed her body, had it clothed in royal dress, and “crowned” her queen. According to historical legend, he made the other nobles all kiss her hand as a sign of their devotion. These are the history questions everyone gets wrong.
- National Geographic: “King Tut Mysteries Solved: Was Disabled, Malarial, and Inbred”
- The White House Historical Association: “Illustration of President Lincoln’s Assassination”
- New York Historical Society: “Attending Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns: the tragic lives of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone”
- JMVH: “Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin, and the Debate on its Origins”
- The Line Up: “Mercy Brown and the Great Vampire Panic of Rhode Island”
- Smithsonian Magazine: “The Epic Failure of Thomas Edison’s Talking Doll”
- BBC: “The dentures made from the teeth of dead soldiers at Waterloo”
- Mental Floss: “When Dentures Were Made From the Teeth of Dead Waterloo Soldiers”
- Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University: “The Cat Telephone”
- Mental Floss: “101 Years Later: Remembering Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919”
- Britannica.com: “Inês de Castro”