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“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” —Roman Payne, Cities and Countries

Who doesn’t love to uncover hidden gems while they’re out in a big city? For tourists it makes them feel like locals. For locals it gives them a place to get away from tourists. Cool restaurants and eclectic boutiques aren’t the only hidden gems that are waiting to be unearthed in cities around the world. Cities have a secret life, a history that is cooler to unearth than a new brunch place. Here are 25 little known facts about the secret life of cities.


25. Plague by the Bay

Most of us remember the bubonic plague –or the Black Death—as that thing that wiped out 1/3 of Europe’s population a long time ago. Or maybe we remember it as the topic of “Ring-around-the-rosey.” Either way, we never think of the plague anywhere but medieval Europe. However, the bubonic plague didn’t just hit Europe in the middle ages; in the early 1900s the bubonic plague struck San Francisco’s Chinatown, killing 119 people.

24. But Was Its Fleece as White as Snow, Though?

Some people might say the most famous person from Massachusetts is Ben Affleck, or maybe John F. Kennedy, but I would say it’s Sterling, Massachusetts resident Mary Sawyer. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She had a little lamb. Mary from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was indeed a real person whose lamb followed her to school. It’s good to know at least this children’s poem isn’t an allegory for the Black Death.

23. The Dead Can Ride

Just outside of New York City there’s the famous horse racing track Belmont Park. On June 4th, 1923, jockey Frank Hayes won his very first race. Too bad he didn’t live to see the end of it. Hayes had a heart attack halfway through the race, but stayed atop his horse until she crossed the finish line first. Since Hayes was still atop his horse, he did qualify as the winner of the race. To date, Hayes is the only jockey to have won a race while dead. Seems no one is eager to try and break that record.

22. Pirate’s Life for Me

Newport, Rhode Island was a main smuggling hub during the colonial period in America. Today, Newport boasts many summer homes for the wealthy, but back in the 1700s, British agents saw Newport as a seedy, filthy place filled with “a set of lawless piratical people…whose sole business is that of smuggling and defrauding the King of his duties.”

21. New England Is for Smugglers

Boston, Massachusetts has many famous citizens, one such citizen being founding father John Hancock. Famous for being able to sign his name really big, what we never hear about Hancock is how he earned his wealth through smuggling. Thanks to tariffs on imports, smuggling was an important part of colonial life, and a quick way for some of the founding fathers to get rich and—like Hancock—bankroll protests against the British government.

20. Survivor

One man has been officially recognized by the Japanese government as surviving both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was from Nagasaki but was visiting Hiroshima for business when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. After surviving one horrific experience, he returned to work at home the day the second bomb went off in Nagasaki. Yamaguchi survived, and went on to be a voice for nuclear disarmament.

19. Trial of the Century

The Salem witch trials are undoubtedly the most famous trials to happen in a town called Salem, and I’m not here to argue that point. I am here, though, to tell you of another famous trial that happened in a different Salem. History might not remember it, it’s not as sexy as a witch trial, but if you love spaghetti sauce, salsa, or BLTs, it’s just as important. On June 28th, 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon defended tomatoes from libelous slander by eating a tomato on the courthouse steps outside of Salem, New Jersey. Previous to this, it was widely believed that tomatoes were poisonous and therefore couldn’t be eaten. After Gibbon proved you could eat tomatoes by, well, eating one and then not dying, people started making them into sauce and putting them on delicious sandwiches.

18. War in LA

In 1942, the US army believed the city of Los Angeles was under attack by the Japanese. Acting swiftly, they sounded the alarms and started anti-aircraft fire over the city. As it turns out, the Japanese weren’t actually attacking the city, and the army blamed “war nerves” as the reason the army got so jumpy out in LA. Unfortunately, five people did die, though not from the anti-aircraft fire. Three died in car accidents, and two were so stressed out by the air raid they had heart attacks.

17. Bone Franklin

Benjamin Franklin once lived in London, England. Apparently though, when he left England he forgot to do something about the bodies buried in his basement. Some 200 years after Franklin moved out, over a dozen bodies were found in the basement of his old London home. While some may suspect Ben Franklin was secretly a mass murderer and that was just somehow skipped over in history lessons, researchers think it was probably just the remains from an anatomy school. Which means Franklin wasn’t a mass murderer, but he was probably a grave robber.

16. 1 Red Balloon

Outside Klamath Falls, Oregon in 1945, a reverend and his wife were out for a drive with their Sunday school class. The Reverend Archie Mitchell pulled over when his pregnant wife Elyse began feeling ill. After they pulled to a stop, Elyse and her Sunday school class wandered around and found something dangerous and interesting: a balloon bomb. Reportedly, the Japanese launched 9,000 armed balloons, and 342 reached the United States, though none had caused any injuries before. That was about to change: the balloon exploded, killing Elyse and five of her students. They were the only combat deaths on the US mainland for all of World War II.

15. Ring Ring Ring, Catphone

In 1929, at Prince University in Princeton, New Jersey, researchers turned a cat into a working telephone. Professor Ernest Glen Wever and his assistant opened up a cat’s skull, attached a telephone wire to the auditory nerve, and successfully used the live cat as a telephone by talking into its ear to the other person. This research, while it seems a little weird, paved the way for cochlear implants.

14. He’s Such a Nice Boy

In 1973, the Seattle police commended a man for chasing down and stopping a purse snatcher. That man was serial killer Ted Bundy, and soon after, he went on his first killing spree. The Seattle PD was really on top of it.

13. There’s No Escape

At a small plantation outside of Manassas Junction, Virginia, the American Civil War started in Wilmer McLean’s backyard. When the Confederate and Union armies had their first major encounter near his home, McLean and his family soon fled to get away from the fighting. He moved across state to the village of Appomattox Court House. If the name of that town sounds familiar, it’s because that’s where the American Civil War ended–and in McLean’s very own home, as his pad had been recruited by a Confederate Colonel for the meeting where Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces. Seems like the Civil War was a bad ex McLean just couldn’t get away from.

12. It’s a B- Flag

At Lancaster High School in Lancaster, Ohio, Robert G. Heft designed the modern-day American flag as a school assignment. They had to redesign the American flag to include two more states. He received a B- for his efforts, but the teacher offered to give him a higher grade if he could get it accepted as the national flag. Heft wrote his congressmen, and lo and behold that teacher had to bump his grade up. That’s right, the American flag as we know it today was created by a high school student who didn’t particularly impress his teacher with his design.

11. Winnie the Pooh

While the famous poet Lord Byron attended Cambridge University, he had a pet bear that he kept with him. Students weren’t even allowed to have dogs at the university, but to be fair–a bear isn’t a dog.

10. This Flood Is Hot, Sticky Sweet

Boston was once flooded with molasses. In 1919 on a not-so-cold winter day, a molasses tank in Boston exploded. The result was a flood of the sticky substance throughout the Boston area that killed 21 people and injured 150. The molasses was waist deep in the streets. Legend has it that on hot summer days, you can still smell the molasses.

9. Too Unbelievable to Be True

At the Haymarket Theatre in London, England in 1749, a magician was supposed to take the stage to perform an impossible trick: he was supposed to be able to climb into a bottle. The feat was heavily advertised, but when no one showed up to perform and the audience realized they weren’t going to get their money back, they destroyed the theater. No one knows who started the hoax, though some believe the Duke of Montagu had staged it to win a bet that he could fill a theater by promising the impossible. If that’s true, it seems like he won.

8. Smoke Up, Ladies!

A woman was once arrested in New York City for smoking a cigarette. In 1908, New York City passed a law that prohibited women (just women) from smoking in the city. The day after the law was passed, Katie Mulcahey was arrested for smoking. Two weeks later, the city decided to reverse the ban on (women) smoking.

Cities facts

7. Death by Hanging

As the story goes, in Hartlepool, England, the townspeople once hung a monkey for being a French spy. In the legend, during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship wrecked outside of Hartlepool and a monkey was the lone survivor. The monkey was dressed up in a uniform, because even back then people knew monkeys in people clothes were funny. Unfortunately for this monkey, the people in Hartlepool had never seen a monkey or a French person before. They promptly put the monkey on trial, and as the monkey was rudely unwilling to answer their questions due to it being a monkey, they sentenced him to death and hung him.

6. Buy a Ticket, Win … a Baby?

Paris, the city of love and baby raffles. Or one baby raffle to be exact. In 1911, a hospital in Paris held a raffle as a fundraiser. The prize? Babies. Orphaned children were given away as raffle prizes in the “Loterie de Bébés” in an effort to not only raise money for the hospital but to find the children homes. Presumably, the people buying raffle tickets at least knew they could be walking home with a baby. And don’t worry, the hospital did at least check to see if the homes were suitable for kids. It was a very responsible baby raffle.

5. Off to the Races

There were a lot of peculiar things that wealthy Toronto lawyer Charles Millar had in his will. In 1926, Millar died, kickstarting a rather strange set of events as lawyers started to distribute his holdings as per his will. But the strangest clause in Millar’s will had to be this: Millar stipulated that the bulk of his estate be liquidated and turned to cash, invested, and then given, “to the mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children as shown by the registrations under the Vital Statistics Act.” This started what was called “The Great Stork Derby” as eleven families competed for Millar’s money. Four mothers eventually won $100,000 each, which is good because they each had nine kids to feed.

4. The British Are Running

There are secret tunnels under the city of Mumbai. The British were so worried about the threat of invasion by the Dutch or the French while they had set up shop in their colony that they built escape tunnels under the city that have only recently been found. One tunnel is set up under St. George’s hospital in Mumbai, the other is under the General Post Office. Guess in the event of an attack the British would be able to get medical treatment and mail.

3. Booze Underground

The city of LA also has secret underground tunnels. Unlike Mumbai, these tunnels were used during the prohibition era so that bootleggers and smugglers could get their product to speakeasies. Seems like all the cool cities have secret tunnels these days.

2. Train’s Here

Secret tunnels aren’t the only thing you can build underground. Underneath the historic Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, there’s a secret train station. It’s called Track 61, so move over platform 9 3/4.

1. They’ll Say Aww Topsy at My Autopsy

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century, was an elephant killer. At Luna Park Zoo in Coney Island, Edison electrocuted Topsy the elephant, killing her. Edison was trying to make a point about the dangers of alternating current as opposed to his method of electricity, direct current. Topsy had already been sentenced to be put to death by the zoo for trampling three people (I’m honestly sure they deserved it–one reportedly tried to feed her a lit cigarette) and Edison stepped in bravely to euthanize her.

Cities facts

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27

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