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47 Historical Facts That Prove The Truth Is Always Stranger Than Fiction

Christine Tran

History is a long, rich, funny story…and we’re not even finished writing it! Wrap your head around these 47 fun facts about the people and events that have made the past worth knowing! 


Historical Facts

47. When Dogs Aren’t a Girl’s Best Friend (But Diamonds Are)

James I of England and his wife, Anne of Denmark, had a complicated relationship. In 1613, Anne shot James’s favorite dog during a hunting trip. After a brief rage, James showed Anne there were no hard feelings in the best way: he gifted her a £2,000 diamond ring in honor of the canine, whose name was Jewel.

46. Before There Was Tom Sawyer…

To escape Roundhead soldiers at the Battle of Worcester, Charles II of England hid inside of an oak tree, living off bread and cheese for a full day. Afterwards, the king climbed down to attend a celebration of his own alleged death.

45. Big Birds vs. Big Guns

The Great Emu War of 1932 was fought between the Australian Army and… a roving pack of wild emus. The “war” resulted in a humiliating loss for the Australian army as, despite their best efforts, the emu population continued to grow and destroy Aussie crops.

44. Snaked by the Common People

Concerned about Delhi’s venomous cobra population, the British government offered a cash bounty for each dead cobra that could be delivered. However, citizens began to breed cobras for the express purpose of killing them and then claiming the cash. When the government scrapped the award, these owners set the now-useless snakes free. The result: more cobras in Delhi than ever. Today, the “Cobra Effect” refers to an attempt to solve a problem that just ends up making things worse.

43. America’s Next Top Headdress

In 1786, the Spanish government of Louisiana passed sumptuary laws that ordered black women to cover up their distinct hair, as it was thought that the black women were competing with white women in terms of beauty, dress and manners. African American women responded to suppression with style; they adopted the “tignon” (a turban-like headdress), which they often adorned with rich jewelry, beads, and other accents that drew more attention to their beauty than ever.

42. Short-Range Fire

The Anglo-Zanzibar War is the shortest war in recorded history. The conflict lasted between 38 to 45 minutes.

41. Poverty Cosplay

Marie Antoinette built an artificial (but fully functioning) peasant village for herself and her friends called the “Hameau de la Reine” (The Queen’s Hamlet). The grounds were inspired by “naturalist” art that portrayed the simple, rustic life. She brought in milkmaids and herdsman to act like they lived and worked there. Antoinette herself would walk around dressed like a simple shepherdess if she needed a break from the pompous privilege of court life. Peasant life sure would have been nice without all that dang work!

40. Where You’re Headed, You Won’t Need Those

Before the mid-1800s, dentures were mostly made from teeth pulled out of the mouths of dead soldiers.

39. When the Rabbit Hunts You

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte was attacked by a mob of rabbits. The general was at a hunting party hosted by his Chief of Staff, who collected bunnies for this express purpose. Although Napoleon was armed, hundreds of bunnies quickly overpowered him. He and his friends found it funny at first…until the rabbits kept coming, with no end in sight, and swarmed up his clothes. The critters even divided into two wings, flanking the carriage to momentarily prevent his escape. Napoleon, obviously, survived this adorable brush with mortality, but I bet he never looked at a rabbit the same way again!

38. Come on, Big Baby, No Whammies!

In 1912, a Paris orphanage held a raffle where the prize was live human babies.

37. A Heavenly Passage for a Phantom Limb

In 1838, General Antonio López de Santa Anna had his leg amputated in the “Pastry War.” When Santa Anna became President of Mexico four years later, he exhumed the leg and ordered a full military funeral for his departed limb. The ceremony was ornate; the leg was carried in a rich coach, paraded through Mexico City, and serenaded with poems and orations. When Santa Anna’s regime turned against him two years later, crowds dug up and defiled his leg in the streets.

36. United States of Depression

At the start of the American Civil War, Confederate leader Robert E. Lee owned no slaves. Ironically, the Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, did. 

35. Now That’s a Fashion Statement

As a “gift,” Catherine of Aragon sent her husband, Henry VIII, the bloody coat of his brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland. Catherine had led a military defense of England and James died on the battlefield. His coat accompanied a letter, wherein Catherine told her husband how she had wished to send James’s body, but her softy Englishmen thought that would be tasteless. 

34. It Sure Doesn’t Stand for “Creative”

The “Day” in “D-Day” simply stands for “Day.” That’s right: “Day Day”.

33. Whoop$ie Dai$y

Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire is believed to have been be the richest man in history, and the 14th century African ruler was also remarkably generous. These traits combined for unfortunate consequences when Musa gave so much gold to Egypt’s common people that his gifts depreciated the metal’s market value and tanked the Egyptian economy. Oops.   

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32. Now Girls Allowed (We Mean It)

The Knights Templar were a legendary league of poor, pious knights of the Middle Ages who abided by strict rules regarding chastity. You couldn’t even kiss your mom, according to the rule book, or even talk about girls! One thing’s for sure: the Templars did not have cooties.

31. How Does “President Al” Sound?

Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel when the state was first formed. He declined the offer, citing his complete lack of “the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people.”

30. Bummer Epilogue

In 1865, Henry Rathbone was the lucky man who got to watch a play next to the President Abraham Lincoln! Unluckily, the night he was so honored was the night of the president’s assassination. Rathbone tried, but failed, to apprehend Lincoln’s killer and spent the next 20 years rattled with guilt over this perceived failure. Over the years, Rathbone became increasingly insecure and paranoid, eventually attacking his children, killing his wife when she tried to protect them, and then trying to kill himself. He spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum before dying in 1911.

29. It Stings to Be King

At the age of 20, mob boss Al Capone caught syphilis while working at a brothel. He wasn’t diagnosed, however, until he went to prison at the age of 33. That disease (plus gonorrhea and cocaine withdrawal) annihilated the former kingpin’s mental faculties. His letters were said to be gibberish and he spent the last year of his sentence in the hospital. It’s said that at the time of his death, Capone had the mental capabilities of a 12-year-old.

28. Sorry, Mom

Before he was stabbed by his friend Marcus Brutus (and others), Julius Caesar had an affair with Brutus’ own mother. The relationship lasted for decades and it’s said that it was arguably Rome’s worst kept secret.

27. The Axis of Snooze-Button

Adolf Hitler slept in on D-Day. He was known to stay up late watching movies, and since his men initially thought Normandy was a small diversion tactic, they didn’t bother to wake him.

26. Royal Lovin’ Is in Their Blood

Princess Diana Spencer of Wales is descended from Mary Boleyn—sister of the beheaded Queen Anne Boleyn and the mistress of Henry VIII himself. Diana’s daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, also shares Mary’s blood. 

25. Bunny Babies

Being pregnant in 18th century England was a rough deal, so can we really blame Mary Toft for tricking her doctors into believing she had given birth to rabbits? Toft truly was pregnant in 1726, but she miscarried, allegedly after she was fascinated by the sight of a rabbit. Her claim to have given birth to animal parts attracted the attention of doctors, who even brought the news to King George himself. Eventually, Toft admitted that she made it all up and was sent to prison. She was later released without charges, but several high-ranking doctors who believed Toft saw their careers hop into ruin.

24. From Small Boy to Big Man

Adam Rainer is the only human to have been recorded as both a dwarf and a giant. In 1917, when he was 18 years old, Rainer was just four feet tall and considered too short to join the army. Due to a genetic condition, however, at the age of 32 Adam had grown to over seven feet! He kept on growing, and died at the age of 51 at a height of seven feet, ten inches.

23. Extreme Generosity

Despite their own extreme poverty, the Choctaw Native American people donated $170 ($5,000 USD in today’s money) of their own meager wealth to Ireland during the Great Famine, forming a bond between the two peoples that persists to this day.

22. Resistance Sisters

Trưng Trac and Trưng Nhi were sister-leaders of the Vietnamese army against China’s first domination of Vietnam in 40 AD. Versed in martial arts since childhood, they held 65 northern cities from the Chinese and declared themselves as joint queens of an independent state. There, other women also enjoyed leadership roles. Unfortunately, this queendom eventually fell apart; the sisters committed suicide in 43 CE rather than admit defeat to the invading Chinese troops.

21. Net Gains in Nude

Ancient Greeks went to the gym naked. The word “gymnasium” means “school for naked exercise.”

20. If No One Records It, Does It Really Happen?

Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the 1856 Bloomington Convention that was so captivating that every reporter was too enthralled to take notes—thus, there exists no transcript of the amazing oration. Some say the speech was lost because it was such a stirring condemnation of slavery that it was considered too controversial for the time, while others insist that “Lincoln’s Lost Speech” was simply that hypnotic.

19. Creepy News at 7

On November 22, 1987, two Chicago TV stations had their signals hijacked by someone in a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses. For the first station, there was no audio other than buzzing noise and oscillating sound. For the second station, however, the pirate went on a 90-second rant of laughter, moans, screams, and nonsensical catchphrases. A female accomplice in a maid costume then spanked him with a flyswatter before audiences returned to the regularly scheduled Doctor Who episode. To this day, the hijacking remains unsolved.

18. Hunger Strikes Back

Kurt Gödel, the genius mathematician and philosopher, was obsessively afraid of being poisoned; he would only eat food prepared by his wife, Adele. When Adele fell ill and was hospitalized for six months, Gödel starved to death. 

17. The Second Thing They All Had in Common…

All six of Henry VIII’s wives have a common ancestor: Edward I of England. That makes all the queens, and Henry himself, varying degrees of cousins to one another.

16. No Pie for You

In 1644, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans imposed a ban upon Christmas traditions and treats, such as pie and pudding, citing the holiday’s apparent “paganism.” An Englishperson’s right these Yuletide goodies was restored under Charles II in 1660.

15. The 3-Minute News Cycle

On April 18, 1930, the only thing announced by BBC radio was the words, “There is no news,” followed by a piano playing. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant change?

14. Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dotted Nuclear Bomb Test

In 1946, Louis Réard named the “bikini” after Bikini Atoll—the small, tropical island where testing for the nuclear bomb was taking place. Réard hoped that his design would have the same (culturally) “explosive” effect on fashion.

13. Everyone’s a Critic

Mark Twain vocally hated the works of Jane Austen. He once said, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Jeez Sam, take it easy!

12. Passing the Dirt

Doctors were originally resistant to the idea that hand-washing would lower death rates. They accused Ignaz Semmelweis, who suggested the practice, of blaming the large number of hospitals deaths on them, the educated gentlemen!

11. Gingerbread Temples

The first gingerbread recipes date back to 2400 BC, in Ancient Greece.

10. Sexy Shrouds

An early form of the diaphragm was sold in the 1860s. It was called a “womb veil.” Mysterious…

9. Killing Them Sweetly

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured 150. A large molasses tank belonging to the Purity Distilling Company burst, releasing a wave of molasses through the streets that flowed at 35 mph over man, woman, child, and building. According to folklore, you can still smell the molasses on hot Boston days.

8. But Really, Isn’t There a Glass Piano in All of Us?

As a young girl, Princess Alexandra of Bavaria had a bizarre delusion: she insisted that she had swallowed a glass grand piano and that it remained inside of her.

7. A Ball of Their Own

The Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School was designed to assimilate Native American children into white American society by forcibly removing them from their families and sending them to live at the school. The girls at the school managed to overcome the traumatic separation from their families to become the finest female basketball team in the country. In 1897, the team gave their first intramural basketball demonstration, which attracted 300 spectators. By 1903, they were reigning state champions and international celebrities. 

6. The Irony Award

In 1939, Adolf Hitler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. This nomination was almost certainly a satirical joke by a member of the Swedish parliament, E.G.C. Brandt, who was a dedicated antifascist.

5. Housekeep Ka-Ching!

Walt Disney was very fond of his housekeeper, Thelma Howard; he called her the “real life Mary Poppins” and she, in turn, was fond of Disney’s daughters. Disney rewarded Howard for her services with shares in his company. Howard died a quietly rich woman at the age of 79, when her shares were worth $9.5 million.

4. The Weight of the World on His Ego

Many people remember Nikola Tessla for his aversion to sex; he believed that staying chaste kept his scientific abilities in focus. Less remembered? Tesla’s open aversion to fat people. He made his disgust towards overweight folks very clear, and even fired a secretary for being too heavy. Not sure that would fly today, Tesla.

3. Edison Finally Taps That

Thomas Edison taught Morse code to his second wife, Mina, so they could secretly communicate when her family was around. He even used to code to propose to her.

2. Perhaps He Meant “Ryan” or “Burt”?

Edgar Allan Poe’s cause of death remains disputed. A few nights before he died, Poe was found wandering the streets groggily, wearing clothes that were not his own, and repeatedly shouting “Reynolds.”

1. Where’s My Weave?!

In 18th century Europe, powdered wigs (also called periwigs) were so valuable that they became juicy targets of theft. To get their hands on a periwig, hucksters would employ various elaborate schemes. For example, one could hide young boy in a basket, carry them over one’s shoulders, pass by a victim, and have the boy twist off the wig before running off with boy, basket, and big wig in tow.

Sources1, 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, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46


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