People Share Unbelievable But True Stories From History

Christine Tran

They say that history is written by the victors. Others will lend more nuance to this hot take and say, instead, that history is written for the victors. In this sense, they highlight the practical purpose of history—it doesn’t reflect the mindset of a given narrator, but instead provides a most practical past for people in the present to define themselves against. But what about the chaotic histories?

What about when history seems too weird to be true? Because humans are weird creatures, why shouldn’t the stuff they do and the things they say be any less bizarre? Or violent, or irrational, or simply icky? When asked, the people below shared some of their wildest stories from the history of being human. From bucket wars to deadly waves of molasses, partake in these 35 stories from world history that sound made up but are 100% real.

35. Mothership Down

The time that Nero tried to kill his mother by putting her on a ship that was supposed to sink. Except it didn’t work because she climbed onto a bed and floated back to the shore. To fix this, he sent a small group of soldiers to go meet her on the beach and stab her to death.


34. Even Casper Can’t Escape Justice

When the English monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II ordered the posthumous execution of the Members of Parliament involved in his dad’s execution who had died during the Interregnum.

Basically, he wasn’t going to let the fact that the guys were dead get in the way of vengeance. He literally had them dug up, hung the corpses, and then beheaded them.


Why let the death get in the way of a good execution?


33. The Absolutely Last Man Standing

There were still Japanese soldiers well into the 1970s who had no idea WW2 was over. Like, they just got left behind by the Navy and held out on isolated islands. For decades.

One guy in particular spent his time feuding with the Filipino police. Everyone tried to tell him the war was over, but he thought it was a bunch of propaganda. Word eventually got back to Japan, where they had to look up his commanding officer (who had since left the military for a career as a businessman) and fly him to the Philippines. Only after receiving a direct order from his commanding officer did the guy stand down.


32. When Bigotry Backfires

The Newport sex scandal.

IIRC, this was shortly after WWI. There was an investigation launched to root out homosexuals in the Navy.

The investigation was conducted by having undercover agents, well…have sex with men. And to report their “findings” in very vivid detail to the guys heading the investigation.


31. Style to Blow Your Top Off

The dude who first wore a top hat caused a riot by wearing it out on the street.

Apparently, women fainted, and a mob of screaming people formed. He was arrested for breaching the peace.

For wearing a top hat.


30. Catholics Fly When You’re Having Fun

In 1618, a political dispute between Catholics and Protestants was attempted to be settled by throwing the Catholic regents out of a window in Prague. It wouldn’t be so unbelievable except for the fact that in 1419, radical Catholics [also] threw 7 members of the Prague city council out of a window.


29. The All-American Emperor

This dude, Emperor Norton, was a real hoot. Declared himself emperor of the US, and many just sort of went along with it—he even exchanged letters with the Queen.


Joshua Norton was buried on Sunday, the 10th of January 1880. 10,000 people filed past the body as it lay in state; his funeral cortege was over two miles long.

His burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun.

He was the first and last Emperor of the United States of America.


28. Why Let A Good Head Go to Waste?

A Russian sculptor was commissioned to make a statue of Christopher Columbus as a gift for the Americans (kind of like the Statue of Liberty.) After the painstaking process of making it and shipping it to America, the Americans essentially said, “No thanks,” and sent it back. So, the sculptor cut off the head of the statue, sculpted a new one, and called it a statue for Peter the Great. You can still see it in Moscow.


27. Dance ‘Til You Literally Drop

Dancing plague around the 14th and 17th centuries, large groups of people dancing on the streets until they collapsed from exhaustion. It is so strange that it’s hard to believe.


26. Do They Give Gold Medals For Getting Freaky?

During the 1904 Summer Olympics Marathon, the winner was given a mixture of rat poison and brandy by his trainers, a Cuban postman finished in fourth despite getting food poisoning midway through the race, and a couple runners were nearly killed due to the generally poor conditions and organization/officiating of the race.


25. MacGyver Was at Pearl Harbor?

On March 10, 1942, just over three months after Pearl Harbor, the Americans fled Java Island. But they inadvertently left behind 18 Americans. So, a person called Master Sergeant Harry Hayes repaired a B-17 and, despite having no flight training before, let alone flown a plane, he successfully piloted the bomber, along with the other 17 Americans, to Australia, even without maps and instruments.


24. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Take a Lunch Break, and Kill Again

World War I started because a Serbian terrorist plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary failed miserably.

When a terrorist threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car, he forgot there was a 10-second delay and so it harmlessly bounced off the Archduke’s car and exploded under the car behind him. The terrorist who threw the bomb then tried to swallow a cyanide capsule and drown himself in a river, but the river was only a few inches deep. The capsule just made him sick and so he was arrested.

Then Ferdinand’s driver got lost looking for the hospital, so the Archduke could visit those injured in the attack, and during his search for the hospital he went down a street that he had to slowly reverse out of. That street just happened to be the street where one of the terrorists decided to stop for lunch at a deli after his failed assassination plot, and so the terrorist whose group’s initial attempt failed suddenly found himself 10 feet (literally) away from the Archduke and was able to kill both the archduke and his wife with 2 shots from his gun which promptly jammed. (The Archduke was hit in the jugular; his wife in the abdomen).

All of this was done in the name of Serbian independence from Austria-Hungary and at the behest of Serbian military officers. Serbia then dissolved the group in 1916 (2 years after the start of the war) and executed its leaders.


23. Best Friends Forever (Or At Least Until Your Crucifixion)

When ya boi Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates, and he laughed at them for the low ransom and told them to raise it.

Then over the course of time it took the Romans to raise the money, Caesar developed something of a friendship with the pirates to the point where he was joining in with their games and exercises.

When the ransom arrived, he handed it over to the pirates and was set free. With his freedom he returned to the pirate ship (which was still where he left it), took them as prisoners and then crucified them. (Edit: yeah I forgot to mention that he told them previously he’d crucify them, but they thought he was joking.)


22. Sea You Later, Mr. Prime Minister

Didn’t Australia name a pool after a drowned PM??? Like, really guys??


Harold Holt, the Australian Prime Minister who went in the ocean for a swim and disappeared.


21. Can’t Take a Good Canuck Down

The 1995 break-in at Sussex Drive (Canadian prime minister’s home). Attempted murder thwarted by PM’s wife brandishing loon statue. My favorite part is PM Chrétien, after his wife woke him in a panic, tried to tell her, “It’s just a dream.”

Tl;dr: a very Canadian assassination attempt.


Comes in handy!

20. Never Officially Moved In

The most respectful territory control that currently happens. Hans Island is a small island that is contested territory between Canada and Denmark.

Every few months, a platoon from one of the nations goes to the island, takes down the other country’s flag to put up their own, drinks a crate of booze left behind by the other army. They’ll drop a crate of their own booze and then leave.


19. A Holiday Time-Out

The Christmas Truce in World War I. Guys from both sides crossed the lines and celebrated Christmas with each other, then went back to their respective lines and resumed killing each other. Some people find it touching, I find it straight up bizarre.


18. The War They Forgot to End

The 335 Years War between the Isles of Scilly and the Netherlands started in 1651 and ended in 1986, when a historian was trying to debunk the myth that the two were at war. He discovered that the two were in fact at war and didn’t know it. This prompted the signing of a peace treaty to end the longest war to have zero battles and no bloodshed. The Dutch more or less declared war and forgot about it.

The Dutch ambassador joked that it must have been harrowing for the Scillians “to know we could have attacked at any moment.”

Edit: To correct some ambiguity, the Isles of Scilly are a region of Britain, not a country.


17. You Can’t Train the Germanic Tribalism Out of the Boy

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest. So, there’s this Germanic Chieftain, Segimerus, and as punishment for fighting Rome, the Romans took his son Arminius and attempted to turn him into one of them. He was raised by a Roman family, given a Roman military education, and ended up as an officer in a force under general Publius Quinctilius Varus. In the meantime, Segimerus dies, so his son is, by all rights, the Chieftain of this tribe. Varus was sent to Germany to fight Arminius’ tribe, and, wouldn’t you know it, Arminius disappears one night. In the morning, the army moves off through the forest, and, shockingly, gets ambushed by Arminius and an army of angry Germans, who wipe out Varus’ army. Varus himself commits suicide to avoid facing punishment for this disaster, and Rome never tried to take territory on that side of the Rhine ever again.


16. Mass Death Never Tasted So Sweet

The great molasses flood of 1919. A storage tank at a factory in Boston burst killing 21 people and injuring 150 more in a 35-mph tidal wave of molasses.


15. Commander in Kicking Your Butt

A guy manages to sneak up to Andrew Jackson with two pistols and tries to shoot him. Both his pistols misfire, despite such a thing being statistically impossible, and Jackson realizes what just happened. Jackson proceeds to nearly beat the would-be assassin to death, and probably would have, if he hadn’t been pulled apart from the man by several congressmen, including then incumbent Davy Crockett.


14. A Patriotic Excuse to Manscape

After being exiled, Napoleon returned to France in his Hundred Days. When he arrived, his former armies faced him. He exposed his chest and told them to shoot their emperor if they so wished. No one shot him up, so we got Waterloo to read about in the textbooks.


13. Take a Bite Out of This Mean, Green Military Machine

Battle of Ramree Island. A WW2 offensive to retake part of Burma held captive by Japan that resulted in the largest number of crocodile-related deaths in a single historical event. Quote from a solider & naturalist who participated in the effort:

“That night [19 February 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M. L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch-black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left… Of about one thousand Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about twenty were found alive.”

Pretty wild.


12. A Less-Than-Glorious End

The eagle that’s been depicted on many U.S. Coins and currency are modeled after an actual bird that lived near the Philadelphia Mint in the early 1800’s.

His name was Peter and he used to watch the coining machinery until, one day, he inexorably flew in and was killed. He was stuffed and used as a model ever since.


San Diego Zoo

11. One Man’s Treasure Is Another Man’s Ammunition

In Greece’s fight for independence, a Turkish garrison in Acropolis was besieged by Greek fighters. When the Turks ran low on bullets, they began to cut the marble columns to use the lead within as bullets. The Greeks sent them ammunition saying: “Here are bullets, don’t touch the columns.”


Hop in Sightseeing

10. Classic Napoleon

A very interesting story happened to Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign. In Egypt he found out that Josephine was having a very public affair. He was devastated. Shortly after that, he met a beautiful wife of one of his officers, Pauline Fourès. She had been smuggled to Egypt by her husband dressed as Cavalry Chasseur. When Napoleon saw Pauline, he knew it was a perfect opportunity for revenge. He was hoping to punish Josephine. Within days of their meeting the couple embarked on a relationship and the army began to call Pauline his Cleopatra.

Napoleon sent Pauline’s husband Lieutenant Fourès back to Paris with allegedly important dispatches. It took three months for the round trip from Egypt to Paris, which suited Napoleon perfectly.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, Pauline’s husband’s ship was intercepted by the British the very next day. Instead of taking him prisoner, the British sent him back to Alexandria, hoping to play a trick on Napoleon. The husband reappeared in Cairo ten weeks before he was expected only to find his wife living with Napoleon at his palace.

There was nothing for Fourès to do but divorce his wife whom he only married a few months previously. Soon Pauline became Napoleon’s official mistress in Cairo, acting as hostess in his palace and sharing his carriage. Josephine knew what was going on but in view of her own infidelity she couldn’t complain. When Napoleon left Egypt, Pauline became Junot’s mistress and later Kleber’s mistress. She would eventually make a fortune in a Brazilian timber business and finally settle in Paris with her pet monkeys and parrots. She lived until she was 90.


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9. Whoops

Henry Tandey was the most highly decorated British private of the First World War, and a recipient of the Victoria Cross. During the war, on 28 September 1918 near the French village of Marcoing, a weary German soldier wandered into Tandey’s line of fire. The enemy soldier was wounded and did not even attempt to raise his own rifle, so Tandey chose not to shoot either. The German soldier saw Tandey lower his rifle and nodded his thanks before wandering off. The name of the German soldier? Adolf Hitler.


8. Loyalty Loyalty Loyalty

Lauri Torni is a good one.

Finnish soldier during WW2. He received training under the SS and led an extremely successful unit during the Continuation War that would penetrate deep behind enemy lines and slaughter Red Army troops left and right. Once the war ended he hopped the border into Germany and was accepted into the Waffen SS due to his previous training and reputation. He served in Germany until the end of the war. After it ended he tried to go home but was seen as a traitor. He fled to Sweden where he met an old contact from the Finnish Army who transported him to America. He joined the Army and ended up as an instructor for the Rangers in guerrilla warfare. He fought in Vietnam until he was killed in a helicopter crash.

As far as I know he was the only SS officer to serve as an officer in the US Army Rangers, maybe the military in general.


7. Don Juan

The death of the poet Lord Byron.

This guy was eccentric as hell. One day Byron, who was English, decided he was going to help the Greeks fight for independence from the Ottomans. He spent his own money to outfit the Greek fleet and took command of part of the Greek army even though he had no military experience. Then he randomly died of a fever.

He’s still considered a hero in Greece and there’s a famous statue of him in Athens.


Poetry Foundation

6. The Man, Not the Biscuit

Now mostly known for his biscuit namesake, Garibaldi was a general who was key to the unification of Italy. His backstory began in Piedmont, in the north of Italy, where he was involved in the failed 1820 revolution. Sentenced to death, he escaped on a boat to South America where he learned guerrilla warfare by fighting in the Uruguay Civil War. He then returned in 1849 to Italy when he arrived in Rome, a recently proclaimed republic led by his ideological companion, Mazzini, while the Pope had fled. Garibaldi was the leading general of what was a shining beacon of liberal democracy in a city state.

Eventually, the French reinstalled the Pope, after a hard fought defense. Garibaldi escaped yet again, this time moving to New York where he became a pirate. He returned soon after, as his home town (Nice) had been ceded to France as part of a deal for Piedmont to gain more territory (the first steps of unification). Cavour, another very important figure for another time, recognised the danger in Garibaldi trying to take back Nice, so he encouraged him to go south instead.

Garibaldi landed in Sicily with 1000 men. He left the island, after conquering it, with 3000. He marched on Naples with 15,000, outnumbered by the Neapolitan army by 10 to 1. The king retreated to the river rather than face him, where his army slowly decayed away under siege. Garibaldi entered the city by train to a hero’s welcome, and promptly handed over all the territory to the Piedmontese king. He had succesfully conquered half the entire Italian peninsula by himself.

He then retired to a small island called Caprera with a years supply of macaroni pasta and not much else.


5. Astronauts Are Serious People…

During Apollo 10 (the dress rehearsal for the moon landing) communications were interrupted while the astronauts found a turd floating around the spacecraft. Take a look at the transcripts.


Astronomy Trek

4. Triumphant Return

Most people know that during the Space Race, American spacecraft splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and were recovered by Navy vessels.

The Soviets, on the other hand, went for a different approach. Their spacecraft launched out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and instead of recovering spacecraft from the Ocean then transporting them back to Baikonur, they decided to cut out the middleman and have the spacecraft land as close to the Cosmodrome as possible. The pilot/crew would eject from the reentry module and parachute to the ground, while the chutes on the reentry module would deploy afterwards to lessen the impact and allow for recovery of the spacecraft. This led to some interesting and pretty funny encounters.

When Yuri Gagarin returned to Earth after being the first man in space on Vostok 1, he was supposed to land fairly close to Baikonur. However, like the American space missions, landing points were more of a general guideline than a certain point on the deck that the spacecraft would touch down.

In Gagarin’s case, he touched down almost 300 km away from the intended landing site. Two schoolgirls on their way home from school saw the reentry module plummet from the sky, bounce a couple of times, then come to a stop. Gagarin himself, clad in a bright orange spacesuit complete with a bubble helmet, touched down on the farm of a very surprised Kazakh farmer and his young daughter. Gagarin assured them that he was a Soviet, like themselves, and informed them that he had just returned home from space, and requested to borrow their telephone in order to call Moscow and arrange for a pickup.


3. Russian Fleet

The voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Russo-Japanese war, and particularly the Dogger Bank incident.

Russia is losing badly to the Japanese. The Tzar decides to send the Baltic fleet to assist. This is a hugely long voyage made even more difficult logistically because Russia doesn’t have any holdings in Africa or South Asia where they could refuel. Add to that the Baltic fleet spends much of every year frozen in port, so many of the crew are grossly inexperienced and don’t know how to do their jobs. Some of the ships are so outdated and in need of repair that they’re referred to as the “sink by themselves” squadron.

Upon setting out, there is a (wholly unfounded) paranoid hysteria among the crew. Everyone is jumpy that they’ll be ambushed at any moment by Japanese cruisers and torpedo boats.

After several false alarms reporting Japanese ships in the fog, they come near to Britain and encounter a small group of fishing trawlers at Dogger Bank.

The Russians panic. Some charge about with cutlasses expecting to repel boarding parties, some put on life jackets and lie prone on the deck. The whole fleet opens fire on the “Japanese torpedo boats” for twenty minutes. They succeed in sinking one British trawler and damaging two of their own ships. One ship reportedly hits nothing with 500 shells.

This incident comes extremely close to having Britain declare war on Russia, but in the end they withhold themselves to merely denying the Russian fleet use of the Suez canal.

This completely screws up the Russian plans, and they now have to chart a course all the way around Africa, refueling at several points using supply boats provided by the Germans.

They slowly make their way around Africa, fighting off several more “torpedo boats” and picking up a variety of exotic pets like crocodiles and snakes that now roam the ships. Their refrigerated ship fails and they have to dump large quantities of rotten meat, causing a swarm of sharks to follow them around.

They had a long stopover in Madagascar. During a funeral for a crewmember who died of illness, a live shell was mistakenly used in the gunnery salute, hitting the cruiser Aurora.

They order a gunnery practice against a stationary target. They succeeded in scoring only a single hit…on the ship towing the target.

After successfully avoiding mutiny, they finally manage to get in close to Japan. The admiral decides to try and sneak between Japan and Korea under cover of darkness and make for Vladivostok.

All ships extinguish their lights to maintain stealth. Except for the hospital ship Orel, who kept them burning in accordance with the rules of war. A Japanese ship spots Orel, comes close to investigate, and determines it could be a support vessel to a larger fleet. Orel, for its part, misidentifies the Japanese vessel as a Russian one, and signals it to be cautious about the rest of the Russian fleet.

The Battle of Tsushima ensues. 4000 Russians die and 7000 are captured, compared to Japanese losses of ~100 dead. The Russians lose the war soon after in a negotiated peace. Its the first time a European power is defeated by an Eastern one.

The Japanese go on to read very deeply into Tsushima and it informed a lot of their naval doctrine in WWII, but honestly after reading about the misadventures of the Baltic fleet I can’t help but feel that they overthunk it.


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2. Delicious. Refreshing. Armed.

There was that time Pepsi became the 6th most powerful military in the world. So, Pepsi signed a deal with Russia in the 60s to trade bottles of vodka for Pepsi, and since the Ruble wasn’t an international currency yet they couldn’t pay in cash.

Fast forward to the 70s and the deal expires, so the USSR has to come up with a new one, so, for 3 billion dollars’ worth of Pepsi the USSR give them 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. Pepsi then sent them to Sweden to be dismantled. But for those few days, they were a great military power.


1. Other Wars Will Pail In Comparison

War of the Bucket.

This was a war in 1325 between Bologna and Modena fought because, I kid you not, Modena stole Bologna’s town bucket.

Modena won and still holds the bucket today.


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