30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History
You may not have learned these tidbits in your history class.
A funny thing happens when you take a close look at some of history’s more interesting fun facts: You realize very quickly that your basic understanding of several major events and historical figures was either too narrow or totally inaccurate. For instance, did you know that Richard Nixon was a brilliant and mesmerizing musician? Or that the world’s first submarine mission launched as early as 1776? Or that officials in Italy once deemed the humble fork as an offensive utensil before the eyes of God? It’s all true. And for more trivia on weird history facts, read on—and enjoy living your life from a newly enlightened perspective.
Paul Revere Never Shouted “The British Are Coming!”
You’ve heard the story a thousand times. During Paul Revere’s famous ride, the patriot shouted “The British are coming!” at the top of his lungs to warn the colonial militia of the approaching enemy. But historians agree that such shouting would have been dangerous and foolish. As History.com explains, “The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the ‘Regulars’—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.” And when you’re ready for more eye-opening trivia, bone up on these 30 Astonishing Facts Guaranteed to Give You Child-like Wonder.
Marie Antoinette Never Said “Let Them Eat Cake”
A version of this quote originally came from the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who mentioned a princess saying it and which would then be attributed to Antoinette. But at the time Rousseau recalled hearing it, Antoinette would have been just 14 years old and living in Austria, making it highly unlikely she would be the princess to which he referred. And for more myths that became legend (or, at the very least, are definitely not historical facts), don’t miss the biggest myths in American history.
The Current U.S. Flag Was Designed by a 17-Year-Old
That would be Robert G. Heft, who created the design in 1958 as part of a school project when he anticipated Alaska and Hawaii joining the United States. After getting a B- for the assignment—”[At the time my teacher asked,] ‘Why you got so many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have,'” he told NPR—he wrote the White House 21 times until eventually President Eisenhower gave him a phone call and told him that his design would be made official.
Many of History’s Biggest Disasters Are Caused by Lack of Sleep
The Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Challenger explosion. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. All were caused in one way or another by exhaustion and lack of sleep on the part of the men who were responsible for preventing such disasters. Don’t let yourself be part of the problem: Try these 40 Tips for Better Sleep on Summer Nights.
Nixon Was a Brilliant Musician
We think of Richard Nixon as a bit of a square—someone obsessed with power and little else. But the man could play five instruments (piano, saxophone, clarinet, accordion, and violin) and did so frequently. He played a piano rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the White House for Duke Ellington and “My Wild Irish Rose” in honor of his wife at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. For more on his darker nature, however, see the 30 Craziest Things U.S. Presidents Have Done.
Abe Lincoln Was a Wrestling Champ
Here’s an interesting history fact you probably didn’t learn in school: Before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was a champion wrestler, taking part in about 300 matches and earning a reputation as a tough fighter (also, being 6 feet, 4 inches tall didn’t hurt).
Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin Were All Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
Fortunately none of these very un-peaceful men’s nominations went very far, but the fact is that per the Nobel committee’s rules, any “professor of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology” and any judge or national legislator of any country can nominate someone they believe is deserving…so being a “Nobel nominee” does not actually mean that much. But still!
Audubon Killed Lots of Birds
John James Audubon’s pioneering paintings of birds are so stunning that many overlook the fact that to get such detail, the artist would often kill his subjects, posing freshly killed birds into active poses so he could create a realistic painting without worrying they would fly away.
The Pope Once Declared War on Catsl
Pope Gregory IV must have been a real dog person. The 13th-century pope stated that black cats were instruments of Satan and ordered that they be exterminated throughout Europe. His followers followed his orders and decimated the population of felines.
But cats may have gotten the last laugh, as the reduction in their population is among the factors that led to a spike in the population of plague-carrying rats. It’s just one of the interesting historical facts that changed life as we know it.
Women Were Once Made to Wear Muzzles
In the UK in the 17th century, women who were viewed as having spoken out of turn or said something inappropriate would be forced to wear “branks” or a “scold’s bridle”—a metal muzzle that locked around her head and sometimes included a spiked plate that would be placed in her mouth.
The Iron Maiden Was Never Really a Thing
The iron maiden is a staple of wax museum torture chambers and medieval tales, but they were actually invented by writers long after the Middle Ages.
As Live Science explains, “The first historical reference to the iron maiden came long after the Middle Ages, in the late 1700s. German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote about the alleged execution of a coin-forger in 1515 by an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. Around that time, iron maidens started popping up in museums around Europe and the United States. These included the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, probably the most famous, which was built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.”
Space Travel Was Proposed in the 17th Century
You thought space travel was a modern concept, but it turns out that English theologian John Wilkins was kicking the idea around in the 1600s. In his books, he suggested that “flying chariots” could take men to the moon—which he believed were inhabited by other beings that could prove to be great trade partners. Though there were a few blind spots in his plan: He believed that astronauts wouldn’t need any special equipment to breathe because they would just grow used to the purer air high in the sky. And for more amazing facts, check out these Crazy Facts about Life That May Freak You Out a Little.
Pilgrims Never Wore Buckles on Their Hats
Though we always picture pilgrims rocking buckles on their hats and that’s how they’re portrayed in any depiction of the first Thanksgiving, the truth is quite the opposite. That image of them formed later, in the 1800s.
Cleopatra Was Not Egyptian
As best as historians can tell, she was actually Greek—a descendent of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian general Ptolemy.
More Than 600 Plots on Fidel Castro’s Life Were Made
You probably knew that Castro had a target on his back, but you probably didn’t know it was quite so large. According to the former director of Cuba’s intelligence service, there were more than 600 attempts made to kill the Cuban dictator—by political opponents, criminals, and the United States, among others. These ranged from an exploding cigar, a poisoned diving suit, and psychedelic drugs to make him sound crazy when speaking in public.
There Was Someone Named Mary and She Had a Little Lamb
The nursery rhyme you probably assumed was fiction was actually about a real person—Mary Sawyer, an 11-year-old girl in Boston who was followed to school one day in 1817 by her pet lamb. In the late 1860s, she helped raise money for an old church by selling pieces of wool from the famous lamb.
Joan of Arc Was a Fashion Icon
Joan of Arc has become a hero of France and canonized as a saint, but few know that she was also a style goddess. Years after she cut her hair short, a decision prompted by the voices in her head, she became a style icon when she became the inspiration for the famous “Bob” haircut. Who knew?
Escalators Used to Be Terrifying
While escalators seem pretty innocuous today, people used to really be frightened of them. When first introducing them on the London Underground, executives for the escalator’s manufacturer, Mowlem & Cochrane, tapped the services of a one-legged man named William Harris to demonstrate how safe it was, riding up and down to show that those who took it were unlikely to lose their balance.
Shopping Carts Were Also Unpopular
Though we can’t imagine life without them now, shopping carts did not catch on right away. When their inventor, Sylvan Goldman (who owned the Humpty-Dumpty chain of grocery stores in the South), first rolled out his new invention, nobody wanted to use them. He had to hire “decoy shoppers” to wheel them around his stores and demonstrate their convenience. They soon caught on after that.
The Titanic‘s Owners Never Said it Was “Unsinkable”
A key detail in the telling of the story of the Titanic is the hubris of the ship’s owners who claimed it could not be sunk. In fact, the White Star Line never actually used that phrase. As historian Richard Howells explains, “The population as a whole were unlikely to have thought of the Titanic as a unique, unsinkable ship before its maiden voyage.” And for more on the Titanic, here are 20 Facts Titanic (the Movie) Gets Wrong.
Salem “Witches” Were Never Burned at the Stake
The popular image of the Salem witch trials involve the unfortunate women being burned at the stake. But, while these women were horrifyingly treated, that is one cruelty they did not suffer. Of the 20 people who were “convicted” of being witches, those who were sentenced to death were hung, not burned.
The First Fax Machine Was Patented the Year the Oregon Trail Began
We think of fax machines are relatively modern technologies with their heyday in the 1980s. But as Paul Tamburro explains, “Scottish inventor Alexander Bain put forward the patent for the first fax machine, then known as the facsimile machine, in 1843 — the same year that the “Great Migration” on the Oregon Trail began.
Women Once Marched for the Right to Smoke
While we’re familiar with Suffragettes and women’s fight for the right to vote, less known is women’s fight for the right to smoke. The same organization that fought for the ban on alcohol pushed to ban women smoking in public. In 1929, a group of women took to the streets, smoking cigarettes and carrying signs stating that cigarettes were “torches of liberty.”
Forks Used to Be Seen as Sacrilege
When first introduced (in 11th century Italy), forks alarmed religious leaders who said that using artificial hands was an offense to God.
A Woman Was Elected to Congress Before Women Could Vote
Jeanette Rankin became the first female member of the U.S. Congress in 1916—four years before women could vote.
Nazis Rarely Called Themselves “Nazis”
The term “Nazi” was originated as an insult—meaning ignorant peasant—and was in use long before Adolf Hitler rose to power. As a Telegraph columnist explains, it was “a shortened version of Ignatius, a common name in Bavaria, the area from which the Nazis emerged. Opponents seized on this and shortened the party’s title Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, to the dismissive ‘Nazi’.”
The Bloody Mary Was Originally Known as “Bucket of Blood”
Not the most appetizing name, but the familiar vodka-and-tomato-juice beverage originally carried that title when it was introduced at Harry’s New York Bar. A patron named Roy Barton coined the name and it stuck…until New York City’s King Cole Bar, at the St. Regis Hotel, reintroduced the drink and rebranded it first “Red Snapper,” then, finally, “Bloody Mary.”
The U.S. Poisoned People as a Drinking Deterrent
Prohibition was a weird time in the country’s history, but you probably wouldn’t expect that one of the weird history facts on this list would be mass poison. Something often forgotten about Prohibition is that the government did not just try to dissuade drinking through fines and imprisonment, but by actually poisoning the industrial alcohol that was legal.
Sure, this stuff was nasty already and not meant for drinking. But when desperate drinkers made a habit of imbibing rubbing alcohol, officials began to “denature” it, adding iodine, chloroform, and even gasoline and kerosene to make it nauseating and even deadly. People still drank it, and an estimated 10,000 people were killed because of it.
Wormwood Was Originally Used for Medical Purposes
Known as a key ingredient in absinthe, and often reputed (falsely) as the reason for its hallucinogenic properties, wormwood actually began as a medicine, used by Egyptians as far back as 1550 BC and used as remedies by the ancient Greeks.
The First Submarine Attack Occurred in 1776
While U-boats are central to 20th-century war stories, they first made their appearance during the Revolutionary War. Turtle, built by American David Bushnell in 1775, was the first submersible vessel ever used in combat. It was used to attempt an attack on the British ship Eagle on Sept. 6, 1776, but the plan failed when it proved too tough to navigate against the current.
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