Oh history, you do keep showing us you’re full of weirdness. Is it any wonder that today’s landscape of people who get famous for simply existing online, Japanese ‘girlfriend pillows’ and bacon-flavoured soda came into existence when our past was even more wacky?
Here are 10 more odd tales from history to add to Estelle’s great list from earlier this year, Top 10 Historical Events That Sound Too Strange To Be True.
10Those Who Live By The Sword…
This entry might literally be ‘too strange to be true’, in that it may not be true. Charondas was an Hellenic lawgiver from Catania on the island of Sicily who lived at some time between 580 BC and 476 BC. So far, so normal. His contribution isn’t anything special either, but the example he set certainly is.
His laws were, according to Aristotle, very run of the mill. He is credited with introducing legal measures to deal with perjury, as well as the meticulous precision in his wording of the laws. So exact was Charondas that, when he was found to be in contravention of one of his own (minor) laws, he promptly enacted the proscribed punishment upon himself – he took his own life.
So which law did he break? The wearing of a weapon at a public assembly – he’d simply forgotten to leave his sword at home, it seems. How did he kill himself? With that very same sword. Full respect for practicing what he preached, but he must be seen as unlucky to have lived in a time before high-priced defence attorneys. He would have easily gotten off on a technicality.
9The French King of Sweden
History will sometimes give us a very counterintuitive fact. One such fact is that not all Kings and Queens came from a long inbred familial line. Sometimes, a normal bloke or blokette were given a go at ruling whilst wearing a shiny metal hat. The King of Sweden (actually, he was King of Sweden and Norway) in 1818 was the son of a common prosecutor in the small French Pyrenean town of Pau. King Karl XIV Johan was originally Jean Bernadotte, a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He rose through the ranks and, on the formation of the first French Empire, was made one of eighteen ‘Marshals of the French Empire’, taking the lead of multiple army corps in many military campaigns.
Bernadotte had been pegged as the next Governor of Rome in 1810 but was elected as the heir to the Swedish throne – he was a popular choice, especially amongst the Swedish military who longed for a soldier to sit on the throne.
The only person who seemed not to want Bernadotte to be King was Napoleon Bonaparte himself, preferring his son-in-law, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg. This slight against Bernadotte boiled over years later when, as King of Sweden, Bernadotte allied with Britain, Russia and Prussia in the sixth coalition. Writing this, even though it happened, feels strange. The dude was French! Imagine if Queen Elizabeth II was from Kentucky.
8The Slow Death of King Stanislaw
There was a period in American history where almost every ethnic joke where the punch line was that the subject was stupid, it was a Pole. Maybe stories like that of King Stanislaw I are responsible for this stereotype.
The twice-removed King of Poland found himself living in the semi-autonomous Duchy of Lorraine and Bar in France. He had received the Duchy as compensation for his abdication and went on to run the region very well, making it a cultural hub and quite prosperous. At the ripe old age of 88, he was snoozing by the fireside in his palace at Lunéville… wearing some highly combustible silk clothes. A spark ignited his attire and the aged king suffered terrible burns all over his body, dying in agony a few days later.
7The First Aerial Bombardment Of The Continental US
‘La Cristiada’ was a 3-year-long war between the Mexican Government (with a little help from the KKK, looking to kill a few Catholics) and a Catholic civil rights group known as the ‘Cristeros’ (backed by the Knights of Columbus). The root of the conflict was in the rabid anti-religious stance that the secular Mexican Government had instantiated into law in the 1917 constitution, seeing many crackdowns on the rights of people to worship freely. This war largely took place in Northern Mexico, providing townsfolk in the neighbouring south-western US with something to watch on a sunny Saturday afternoon – full scale battles!
The rebellious Cristeros hired American biplane owners to help out in their war effort – these Americans would provide air support by dropping improvised explosives on government forces. One such ‘mercenary’ was Patrick Murphy. One day, near the town of Naco, Arizona in 1929, Murphy was busy dropping his suitcase held payloads of dynamite, nuts, bolts and nails on the enemy… until the winds blew him back across the border. The Herculean alcohol intake he had enjoyed before taking to the skies had stopped him from realising he was above his own country. He dropped more bombs, causing the shocked American townsfolk to scatter in fear. Murphy got shot down by the Mexicans, deported and promptly arrested by the US authorities. He was never charged for his actions.
6The USA Had An ‘Emperor’
All hail Emperor Norton, ruler of the United States of America, protector of Mexico! Of course, this guy wasn’t a ‘real’ North American emperor. He was a down-on-his-luck businessman from South Africa who ended up pretending he was emperor of America whilst living in a local doss house. Emperor Norton I was just a local ‘character’ in San Francisco whose antics and ravings amused readers of the SF Chronicle. But was he all that nuts?
Like many ‘crazy wackaloops’, Emperor Norton sometimes made sensible suggestions. This was one of his ‘proclamations’ in 1869:
“Norton I, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, being desirous of allaying the dissensions of party strife now existing within our realm, do hereby dissolve and abolish the Democratic and Republican parties…”
Who’s the crazy one now? This guy was a national treasure who would have been the most followed man in the Twitterverse had he been alive and making such proclamations today.
5The Maori Joseph Smith
There aren’t many column inches dedicated to the flurry of ‘new’ religious movements taking hold across the globe. From Brazil’s ‘Valley of the Dawn’ movement to Eastern Europe’s various Pagan/nativist religious groups gaining strength , there seems to be a wave of religiosity breaking across the world.
Despite these religions appearing to be ‘new’, many are actually quite old. Romuva, Lithuania’s neo-pagan religion, claims to be the re-emergence of their pre-Christian faith, rather than an entirely modern invention based on the old faith. That would make Romuva, if its practice is unbroken by Christianisation in the 1300s, the oldest practiced faith in Europe, comparable to Hinduism in age.
New Zealand’s Ringatu Church is a melange of quite disparate traditions, rather than a revival.. Much in the way that Mormonism is a mix of Christianity and emerging American identity, Ringatu mixes the Old Testament with Maori tribal customs and traditions. But, once again, it’s older than many think.
Also similar to many early Mormon leaders, Ringatu’s founder was a bit of a badass, willing to literally fight for what he believed. His name was Te Kooti, a former bandit who studied the Bible intently whilst imprisoned. Through a mix of his newly honed religious knowledge, some parlour tricks he’d learned from sailors (using match heads on his fingertips to create the illusion that fire was springing from his hands) and a panache for storytelling, Te Kooti amassed a significant following. The new religious movement, called Ringatu, declared that Te Kooti was the true King of the Maori people and waged a war against the government in the late 1860s. Te Kooti was eventually pardoned by the government and he was allowed to travel the islands, preaching and gathering new followers. The church is still popular today, with around 16,000 adherents.
4The Progressive Medieval Legal System…Unless You Couldn’t Pay
Have you found yourself in the unfortunate position of having killed a neighbour to take his shiny new boots? Well, if you did that in early medieval Wales, don’t sweat! All you need to do is pay his family a fine, and you can go about your business. Can’t pay? Ok, now you have a problem… aside from finding yourself over a thousand years in the past.
It is true that, under the laws of King Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), there were some astonishingly ‘modern’ elements – women had greater autonomy and legal protections than other contemporary legal systems. But by today’s standards and social mores, it was downright weird.
Rape, for instance, was regarded as an act of theft, an offence that simply required payment of a fine to the aggrieved party. Too lax, too progressive? Well, if you committed the offence and couldn’t pay, they’d cut your balls off. Too barbaric? Tough luck. You would have to pay, one way or another.
3Burial Mystery Becomes Poignant History
The mystery of the ‘six-headed chief’ has puzzled archaeologists for a couple of decades. After a dig at St. Colman’s church in the Scottish Highlands back in 1997 uncovered the bones of a warrior along with 4 extra skulls and a whole other buried person, experts were left baffled by this odd burial arrangement. Who were they? Why were they buried in this odd manner, creating the effect that this fallen fighter had six heads? The truth turned out to be rather mundane, but quite touching.
This seems to have been a family grave plot. DNA analysis has uncovered that all save one of the different skeletons were of multiple generations of the same family, including a father and son. The outlier? This was the skull of a man who lived much earlier (around the 8th century, the related skeletons were dated as dying between the 13th and 15th centuries). It seems that this skull belonged to a Pictish monk and was probably buried as a holy relic with the fallen warrior family.
2Great Minds (Think Stupid Things, Sometimes)
Isaac Newton knew a thing or two about science. ‘How to cure the plague’ was not one of the things he knew. A recent auction had a very interesting lot, a wonderful piece of Newton memorabilia – celebrating ‘kooky’ Isaac Newton, not ‘genius who ushered in modern enlightened science’ Isaac Newton. The hand-written pages detail his idea for treating the ‘Black Death’… toad puke lozenges.
First, according to the genius, you suspend a toad by the legs inside a chimney for three days until it vomits up various bugs. These bugs should be captured in a dish of yellow wax. When the toad dies, you must grind it into a powder and mix the whole shebang together, forming little lozenges. You then wear these pukey amulets around the bubo-covered, blackening area. This should cure you… how hard did that apple hit his head?
1Not The Parthenon
We seem to have 2,000-year-old egg on our faces. Dutch researchers have unveiled that, since Roman times, we’ve been using the wrong name for one of the world’s most famous monuments.
Jarnick van Rookhuijzen, an archaeologist from the University of Utrecht, discovered that the nearby Erechtheion was probably the ‘true’ Parthenon, being a more likely fit for the word’s meaning (‘a room for virgins’). So what was the Parthenon actually called? According to van Rookhuijzen et al, ‘Hekatompedos’ (‘100 ft-long room’) fits better.
Imagine the Sphinx was actually called the ‘Great Pyramid’! And the Great Pyramid at Giza was actually known as ‘The Big Pointy Alien Base of Giza’.
C’mon, CIA, we’re ready to know…