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10 Creepy Historical Facts You Were Never Taught in School

by Duane Wesley
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Since the advent of the Internet and instant access to massive amounts of information, it didn’t take long for many of us to learn how much we were never taught in school. In fact, when you think about it, especially when it comes to history, they barely scratched the surface of just about everything they taught us. If they thought they were “protecting us,” well, they obviously never saw the world wide web coming. Wanna be creeped out? Then read on and enjoy the strangeness. There’s a lot of it.

Related: Top 10 Attractions To Visit For A Weird Tour Of Europe

10 Slug Soup

Guido da Vigevano was a 14th-century doctor during the reign of King Philip VI of France and is credited with discovering an ingenious antidote for aconite poisoning. Commonly known as monkshood, it is still found in gardens today. However, it is extremely poisonous—so lethal, in fact, that the Muslims used it against the Crusaders during, well, the Crusades.

You’re probably wondering how a 14th-century doctor came up with an antidote for a deadly poison? Aconite roots contain a variety of chemicals, including Aconitum alkaloids. The most toxic aconitine is what allowed the plant to be weaponized by the Muslims. It kills by affecting the heart, muscles, and central nervous system, with cardiac damage being the most lethal.

One day the doctor noticed slugs voraciously eating aconite leaves, and it dawned on him that if these creatures could tolerate the toxin, then maybe they could be used as a cure. So he collected a bunch of slugs and boiled them. He first tested his concoction on animals, and after being satisfied with the results, he tried it on himself.

Needless to say, he was a brave man since he first had to poison himself with aconitine and then drink his seriously creepy slug soup. He reported that he threw up 3 times, but afterward, he started feeling better again. That’s gutsy.[1]

9 Bomb Shadows

The Nuclear Shadows Of Hiroshima and Nagasaki In Japan Grim Reminders of Atomic Bombs Use

In the wake of the WWII atomic attacks on two of Japan’s largest cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, survivors were shocked to see “shadows” of objects like bicycles and cars on sidewalks and buildings, but the worst were shadows of people. They quickly realized they were looking at the last millisecond of a person’s life. Very reminiscent of the macabre remnants of the people preserved in volcanic ash at Pompeii.

After getting over their shock, the obvious question was how these shadows were formed. As it turns out, they’re more like photographs than shadows. According to Dr. Michael Hartshorne of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, when an atomic bomb detonates, extremely intense light and heat fan out in all directions from the area of implosion.

So any object in the direct path of this energy shields the area behind it while the area around the object gets lambasted by it. Those areas get bleached out by this massive amount of energy, leaving the areas behind the object in its shadow dark, effectively taking a picture. In this sense, an atomic bomb is like a really sinister giant camera that kills all of its subjects while taking its horrific picture of them. Definitely, a creepy way to capture an image.[2]

8 Animal Trials

Why was a Pig put on trial in Medieval Europe? (Strange History)

Over the course of centuries in Europe, nations such as Switzerland, France, Italy, and others, filed lawsuits against animals, such as rats, grasshoppers, pigs, and even snails, for crimes against God, people, and property. These animal trials came in two flavors: secularists would file a lawsuit against a single animal that had attacked someone; clergymen and priests would file lawsuits against pests such as locusts or rats, who were excommunicated by the church for stealing grain.

Here’s a good example of an animal trial from the 15th century: In the Paris suburb of Savigny, in December 1457, a sow with six piglets became so violently angry and lethally violent that she attacked and killed five-year-old Jehan Martin. The seven pigs were caught red-handed in the commission of their vicious crime, smartly captured, thrown in the stockade, and scheduled for trial.

In the meantime, the owner was charged only with negligence and got off scot-free when no further action was taken against him. Unfortunately for the sow, she didn’t fare so well and was handed the death sentence. Although the piglets were drenched in blood, they were all exonerated since it couldn’t be proved they were in on the attack. This one’s not only creepy but reeks of high strangeness too.[3]

7 Pharaoh Pepi

The Strangest Pharaoh | Pepi II And Untold Stories | History Profiles

Pharaoh Pepi, or Pepi II Neferkare, an Egyptian pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, was put on the throne at the tender age of six in 2278 BC, with his mother as his guardian. Later in life, Pharaoh Pepi became a rather strange character. He would do things like having his slaves drench themselves in honey to ward off flies.

The absurdity of this is strange enough, but as the pharaoh despised the creatures, his people regarded them with a high degree of respect and admiration for their dreadfully annoying tenacity and lightning-like speed. As a result, the insect became a living representation of perseverance. This eventually led to gold flies being awarded to soldiers who performed beyond the call of duty on the battlefield. The Golden Fly may be the first “medal of honor” in history.

Again, Pharaoh Pepi was well-known for his strange behavior. For example, a letter was found that he wrote to the ruler of Aswan, Harkhuf, who was leading an expedition into Nubia. The letter requested that the “dwarves be captured at once.” Hmm? Dwarves, huh? Okay. On a more serious note, Pharaoh Pepi is widely considered to be the longest-reigning pharaoh in history, with various sources citing that he reigned for 94 years, while others say 64. Some strangeness with a dash of creepy.[4]

6 Syphilitic Zombies

The HORRIFYING History of Syphilis

There are two theories on the origin of syphilis. One is dubbed the Colombian Theory and hypothesizes that the disease was brought back to Europe by the men of the world-famous explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493. The other is the Pre-Colombian Theory based on sources that vaguely suggest that the Ancient Greeks had discovered treatments for some symptoms of syphilis. However, these sources are difficult to verify, so historians are forced to resort to guessing.

The first European outbreak of the disease was reported by French troops after surrounding Naples in 1806. Syphilis can eat away at your flesh so bad it can literally fall from your face. It also rots away body parts causing grotesque disfiguration and excruciating pain. These poor people were walking serene streets with body parts trailing behind them like, well, syphilis zombies. Since they were undoubtedly in so much agony, they probably didn’t look or walk much differently than the zombies we see in movies today.

Although this story is creepiness to the extreme, it has a somewhat brighter side. Wealthy people had the means to treat the disease much more effectively, and some even survived. Those that did developed early forms of plastic surgery and lived somewhat normal lives. Real, barely-live zombies. It doesn’t get much creepier than that.[5]

5 Minnie Dean

The Strange & Terrifying Case of Minnie Dean

Sometime around 1890, police in the town of Invercargill, New Zealand, were growing suspicious about a local “baby farmer”—a term used for a foster parent. They were concerned about the large number of babies one Minnie Dean had, and her notices in the newspaper advertised that she was actively seeking even more.

They also uncovered information that she was trying to procure life insurance on them, which isn’t unusual, but it did make the cops wary. Soon rumors were flying about how these babies were disappearing. She lived in a run-down and dirty house, and in 1889, she lost a six-month-old child. Two years later, it was a six-week-old.

Now, the police started to keep a closer eye on Minnie Dean. Then, in 1895, they got a lead. On May 2, she was seen by a reporter getting on a train with a hatbox and a baby. When she returned, she had the hatbox but not the baby, and it was reported that the hatbox was heavier than it should’ve been.

Her excuse was that the baby had died mysteriously during the night, and she panicked. She then crammed the poor child into the hatbox, got off the train, and calmly strolled out of the station. The reporter called the cops, and they searched the tracks, but it was all in vain since they would eventually find the tiny girl’s body buried in Minnie Dean’s garden alongside the bodies of two other kids.

Minnie Dean was tried, convicted, and hanged on the morning of August 12, 1895. A fitting end to the creepiest foster parent ever.[6]

4 Cruentation

Creepy Things That Were Normal in Elizabethan England

There was a very medieval way for elucidating evidence to prove the guilt of someone suspected of murder called cruentation. It was well-known that when the murderer got near the victim’s body, it would spontaneously start bleeding. In more complicated cases, the jurors would determine guilt or innocence with a Trial by Ordeal.

For this, the suspect would be taken to the victim and would be forced to place their hands on the corpse. A guilty verdict would be charged to the accused if any wounds on the body began to bleed or if anything else strange happened. However, if something did happen, it would be considered God’s verdict (judicium Dei), proclaiming guilt.

Ironically, cruentation actually worked probably more than we’ll ever know. This downright creepy practice had success due to the intense psychological stress placed on a murderer when forced to see into those dead eyes and physically touch the cold corpse of their victim while gaping at their gory deed. The experience broke people so bad mentally that they couldn’t handle their guilt and crumbled, offering a confession.[7]

3 Death Photography

Bizarre Ways People From Victorian England Mourned The Dead

In death photography, the images are disturbing and poignant, with entire families posing with corpses of their dead and with babies that all look asleep. In others, girls with consumption regally relax while a disease snatches their young lives away, somehow enhancing their allure.

Life during Victorian times was rife with death and the dead. A wave of epidemics like cholera, typhus, and diphtheria had ravaged the nation, and in 1861, the grieving Queen made mourning a fashion statement. These were hard times indeed. During the Victorian era, photography was in its infancy, so it was quite an operation to take a picture. These weren’t Kodaks that just spit out an image. With such slow shutter speeds and long exposure times, the living subjects were quite often blurry, some with faces completely blurred out. But the dead person. They couldn’t move, so they were always in the best focus possible.

I don’t know why, but for some really strange and unfathomable reason, they’d paint eyes on the dead person to make them look more alive in the photograph. Now tell me that ain’t creepy. Mourners would also take locks of hair from the deceased to wear on rings or in lockets. They would make death masks of wax, while artists created myriad pieces depicting symbols and scenes of death.

The popularity of portraits of death continued to grow with later epidemics since a photograph was the only link they may ever have to a loved one. As Victorian nurseries were suffering from potentially fatal diseases such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, and rubella, death photographers had job security.

Death was definitely in the air, and the Grim Reaper was there, watching, grinning, with eyes gleaming—while he took a death selfie.[8]

2 Mummy Unwrapping Party

It’s a Mummy Unwrapping Party!

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans became totally and utterly enchanted by Ancient Egypt, the afterlife, and anything and everything that had to do with mummies. The allure was so strong it received a name: Egyptomania.

Fascination with mummies dates way back to the 15th century when mummies started to be shipped out of Egypt by merchants into Europe, often for grotesquely morbid reasons. A good example is mumia, a medicinal product made with ground-up mummies. Another was a color of paint that was produced called “mummy brown.” Nice.

Demand for mummies reached an all-time high in the 19th century, partly due to the success of Napoleon’s Egyptian and Syrian campaigns. This caused a huge rise in interest in all things ancient. Of course, this wasn’t purely scientific interest; it was more like, “Let’s have a mummy unwrapping party, yeah!” These Victorian unwrapping parties were simple: Send invitations, get together on the chosen day, cook up some food, down some drinks, and unwrap a mummy.

Quite ironically, it was the highly distinguished English surgeon Thomas Pettigrew who got the Victorian ball rolling on the mummy unwrapping party thing. There are reports of mummy unwrappings dating back to earlier days, but they most assuredly were fewer and farther between.

The actual unwrapping part of the party normally started with a lecture or speech concerning the history of the mummy. This would be followed up with the unrolling of layer after layer of ancient cloth and the removal of the items that were included in the burial until they got to the body. Discussions would then come next about anything from the state of preservation of the body to the color of its hair. Now that would be one creepy but very interesting party indeed.[9]

1 Gibbeting

The Gruesome Truth About Gibbeting: Explored

Throughout history, convicted criminals have been served brutal and gory punishments that fell far short of fitting the crime. Even today, there are places where if you are caught stealing, they’d cut off a hand right where you stand. One of the worst punishments of all time, though, was the infamous gibbet: a downright evil device. Gibbeting took incarceration to an entirely different level and punishment beyond the realm of what it is to be a human being, especially when a criminal was gibbeted alive.

Most criminals were executed, but occasionally one would be gibbeted alive, while most occurred after a criminal’s death. When you are gibbeted alive, you’re locked into a wooden cage shaped like a human and hung up on the main drag for everyone to gawk at. You can’t move. You just hang there and die of thirst—if you’re lucky—since it’s a lot quicker than starving to death over the course of a month.

Only men were gibbeted since the bodies of women were prized by surgeons and would always be dissected instead of gibbeted. Bizarrely, the practice of gibbeting was hugely popular, drawing crowds into the tens of thousands to watch a good gibbeting.

Watching a gibbeting may have been fun for some, but not when one was hanging in front of your house. This would’ve been especially bad for you on a 90-degree humid day in mid-August. The stench would be so putrid you’d have to close your windows and cook inside your home. They could also be terrifying to people, the way they clinked and clanked, creaked and groaned, all the while swaying and twisting in the wind, with maggots and rotting pieces and parts falling to the street below.

Living near one, you’d constantly catch glances at bugs and birds hungrily going at the corpse as it swayed back and forth in a stiff wind, its occupant seemingly trying to escape the grisly onslaught. Gibbets wouldn’t be taken down until there was nothing left but bones, so they could be there for years.

The authorities, who didn’t want them to be tampered with or taken down, would hang them on 30-foot (9-meter) poles and sometimes even taller ones. Once, a pole was studded with over 12,000 nails to protect it from being taken down. They seriously didn’t want people messing with that gibbet. It can’t get much creepier than gibbeting, can it?[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen