June 13, 2018 | Rachel Seigel

Mysterious Facts About The Secret Life Of Cities

"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.

Secret Life of Cities Facts

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.

Secret Life Of Cities facts Wikipedia

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.

Secret Life Of Cities facts Wikipedia

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.”

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikimedia Commons


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.

Boston Tea Party facts Wikimedia Commons

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.

'Nijuuhibaku: Twice Bombed, Twice Survived' Screening and Q&A with Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Survivor of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings.Getty Images

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsFlickr, tonynetone

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.

Scandalous Historical FactsWikipedia


Sign up to our newsletter.

History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.

Thank you!
Error, please try again.

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikimedia Commons


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.

Michelle Obama FactsWikimedia Commons

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.

Debbie Harry FactsWikipedia

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.

Aleister Crowley factsFlickr, Image Catalog

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.

John Mayer FactsWikimedia Commons, Tim Pierce


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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.

George Brent factsPicryl

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia

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.

Anne Lister FactsWikimedia Commons

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsPicryl

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.

Travel talesWikipedia


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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsFlickr, J Jakobson

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.

Facts to Make You Smartest Person in the RoomFlickr

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.

Secret Life Of Cities factsWikipedia


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

More from Factinate

Featured Article

My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.

Dark Family Secrets

Dark Family Secrets Exposed

Nothing stays hidden forever—and these dark family secrets are proof that when the truth comes out, it can range from devastating to utterly chilling.
April 8, 2020 Samantha Henman

Featured Article

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.

Madame de Pompadour Facts

Entrancing Facts About Madame de Pompadour, France's Most Powerful Mistress

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
December 7, 2018 Kyle Climans

More from Factinate

Featured Article

I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.

These People Got Genius Revenges

When someone really pushes our buttons, we'd like to think that we'd hold our head high and turn the other cheek, but revenge is so, so sweet.
April 22, 2020 Scott Mazza

Featured Article

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.

Catherine of Aragon Facts

Tragic Facts About Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Wife

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but very few people know her even darker history.
June 7, 2018 Christine Tran

Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team

Want to learn something new every day?

Join thousands of others and start your morning with our Fact Of The Day newsletter.

Thank you!

Error, please try again.