20 Ridiculously Unreal Facts From History You Won’t Learn Anywhere Else

1Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe

(Saint) Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Catholic priest who was arrested and sent to Auschwitz after publishing anti-Nazi publications. When a prisoner in Auschwitz escaped, it was a common punishment to kill 10 people in his place, and on this day it was decided that 10 would be murdered in starvation chambers. One person chosen at random cried out for mercy, and Maximilian took the place of this stranger. As the 10 lay in the starvation chamber, he led them in prayer and despite two weeks without food or water, he stood up and looked at the Nazi guards calmly every time they entered to remove the dead. Running out of patience, the Nazi guards eventually killed him by lethal injection. He’s a national hero in Poland.

2. One of the more humorous things about the American Revolutionary era is that almost every single Founding Father were worse at managing personal finances than the average American is today (yes, it was that bad). By 1790, they had all amassed a crazy amount of debt, a lot of it was on extreme extravagances, like Washington ordering marble from Italy for his new fireplace or ordering green wallpaper (the most expensive color in the 18th century) from Northern Europe. Jefferson would reportedly spend $800 a day (in today’s dollars) on groceries while he was in the White House, a large portion of that was on wine. He also constantly renovated Monticello, bought books on credit and loaned money to farmers. Many of them were simply drowning in debt and had no clear plans for getting themselves out of it.

3. During the French Revolution, Maximilien De Robespierre was signing a lot of people to the Guillotine for execution, even his own comrades. Long story short, he wasn't telling who was on the list so in fear of the possibility of being on the list a bunch of other revolutionaries came to “arrest” him so Maximilien shot himself in the face, but only managed to shatter his lower jaw and didn't die. They left him to bleed for a while in a cell, healed up his bleeding as best as possible, then executed him the next day.

4. When King Edward I was assaulting a Scottish castle he built the largest trebuchet ever made called “the Warwolf.” The Scots surrendered upon seeing it. Edward then ordered them back into the castle and proceeded to fire on it, because he wanted to see it in action.

5. Prince Mikhail Alekseevich Golitsyn of Russia offended Empress Anna Ivanovna by marrying an Italian woman. After his wife died, the Empress had a giant ice palace built, replete with ice sculptures and even ice cannon in St. Petersburg in 1739. She had the prince dressed as a jester and forcibly married him to an ugly peasant woman in a big mock-ceremony, attended by animals and circus freaks. She then shut them naked into an icy chamber to freeze them to death. They survived only because the prince's new wife managed to bribe a guard for a coat.

6Pu Yi

Pu Yi

In 1920, Yuan Shikai was defeated and Pu Yi was put as the symbolic head of China, although he was confined to the Imperial Palace at all times and had basically no power. When he was about 15 years old, he discovered what a telephone was, and wanted one installed in his palace, but the Eunuchs were really hesitant. What if Pu Yi used his phone to build powerful contacts outside the palace? What if Pu Yi learned about communism? How would this affect the people of China and the people in charge? What if Pu Yi posed a threat? They would have to raze the Imperial Palace and wipe out the imperial lineage once and for all! But he kept persisting, demanding to get his phone, even threatening some people. Finally, they relented. Pu Yi got his phone. He was overjoyed and demanded he be left alone with his new weapon of information. He then spent all afternoon prank calling restaurants and famous authors.

7. In 1859, an insane homeless man from San Francisco named Joshua Norton proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States and the people of San Francisco actually went along with it. He was widely beloved, treated with great deference, and the currency he created himself was honored at the establishments he frequented. Due to (technically) being a poor homeless man, when he died he was going to be buried in a pauper's redwood coffin and not given much ceremony. But he was so beloved and honored by the locals that the San Francisco businessmen's association formed a funeral fund that eventually got enough money for a massive procession and an expensive rosewood casket for his burial. 10,000 people went to his funeral.

8. In 1014 A.D., after defeating a large Bulgarian army at the battle of Kleidion, Byzantine Emperor Basil II had 99 of every 100 prisoners blinded, leaving each 100th man with one eye so that he could lead his comrades home. Upon seeing his thousands of blinded soldiers, the Bulgarian Emperor reportedly died of a heart attack.

9. There was a reason people wanted George Washington to be the king of America. Of all the great things he did, his refusal to become one is perhaps his greatest legacy. He was revered by all but he was very proper and stern. One guy, however, thought it was perhaps overblown and was talking smack that George wasn't all that awe-inspiring in person. Governor Morris thought that it couldn't be that intimidating meeting George Washington, so Alexander Hamilton made him a bet. If he would, upon meeting the general, clap him on the shoulder and say “My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!” (which would be the modern equivalent of saying “Hey Georgie boy, how they hanging?”), Hamilton would buy an expensive dinner for him and 12 of his friends. Well, Governor Morris did it and won the bet, but Washington immediately removed Morris’s hand from his shoulder, stepped away, and fixed Morris with an angry frown until the trespasser retreated in confusion. Hamilton paid up, yet at the dinner, Morris declared, “I have won the bet but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

10. When Ivan III of Russia married Sophia Palaiologina, niece of Constantine XI, her uncle gifted them a library along with many other treasures. This library somehow survived the Burning of Moscow in 1493 and continued to be passed down to her son, Vasili III, and then on to her grandson, Ivan IV. During Ivan IV's reign of terror (the second half of his reign), he feared that the library was too precious a treasure and was worried it would be stolen. So he and a few men took the collection out of Moscow (what was most likely a 1-3 day horse ride) and buried the books. To ensure the location of the library would never get out, he had the men killed. Ivan IV died before the location of the library was ever revealed. We have no idea what could have been in this library or if the contents have even survived. Though some historians have speculated that Plato's Hermocrates (the final dialogue pertaining to Atlantis) could have been part of the collection, but there's no proof that this is true.

11Bitch Wars

Bitch Wars

Ever heard about the “Bitch Wars”? Within the Soviet gulags there became a society of organized criminals called “Thief in laws” or the “Vors” (Russian). They were viciously anti-authority. They refused all orders, just to spit in the face of officials. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed prisoners to fight them on the front in exchange for their freedom. So these hardcore, anti-authority criminals were now fighting on behalf of the Soviet Regime and some fought well while some other refused to. Being career criminals, soon after the war, once they were free, they continued to commit crimes, and many were sent back to the gulags. Now the “Vors” that agreed to not fight the Nazis began to call these traitors “Sukas” or “bitches” in English. The Sukas became a sect and were at the bottom of the pyramid of the gulag’s hierarchy. But Sukas were now war hardened fighting machines and because they were treated badly by the “Vors”, they eventually rebelled and the gulags were torn apart in extremely bloody battles. Literally, tens of thousands of prisoners died. It was no joke and the guards allowed them to get away with it too because it was a means of population control. These clashes were called the “Bitch Wars.”

12. During Operation Cottage in 1943 United States and Canadian forces landed on the island of Kiska which had been occupied by Japanese forces. They successfully took control over the island but lost 32 soldiers. 50 more soldiers were wounded and 191 soldiers went missing. The most bizarre thing about this island was that the Japanese weren't even there. They had secretly left the island two weeks prior to the assault. The 191 that went missing were said to be because of friendly fire, booby traps, and environmental causes.

13. During the 1950s the British government, in a plan backed by Winston Churchill tested biological weapons on Gruinard Island in Scotland. British scientists formulated a plan of dropping anthrax-laced linseed cakes into cattle fields as a bio-nuke of sorts once it worked up the food chain. After initial experiments destroyed pretty much all life on the island, they decided that possibly killing off everything in continental Europe probably wasn't a good idea. The experiment left the island uninhabitable for 56 years. That was not the end of it. The government wasn’t even planning on cleaning up the island until a group of scientists dropped off contaminated soil at a military research facility and threatened to make further drops in order to “ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the general public.” Therefore the cleanup of the island started in 1986.

14. In the trenches of France of World War 1, General Monash was given with the unenviable task of punching through the German line to claim the French town of Le Hamel. The way that Monash went about doing this was both revolutionary, and sneaky. German forces were well equipped, well-fortified, reinforced with heavy artillery and machine guns, and the troops were well trained. Faced by these odds, Monash began to “condition” the German forces. Every day at dawn, he would let loose a barrage of smoke bombs followed by mustard gas canisters. The Germans, following their training, would equip themselves with gas masks which protected them. Monash kept up this bombardment for two weeks, and soon the Germans became accustomed to the pattern of attack, and would immediately don their gas masks and hunker down at the first sign of smoke, but on the dawn of the 4th of July, the smoke bombs were not followed by gas, but by the Australians. The German gasmasks protected them from mustard gas and smoke, but they also vastly impeded their vision, hearing, and ability to communicate, with the noise of the battle, and the obscuring smoke, they were deaf and blind on the battlefield, and to make things worse, this was not an unprotected infantry massed-attack, but a creeping barrage supported by a division of tanks, heavy artillery, and aircraft. The tanks protected the vulnerable infantry, and the artillery and aircraft prevented the Germans from effectively deploying anti-tank measures. The battle was over in just 90 minutes and marked the rise of mixed-arms warfare.

15. During World War 2, the first V1 flying bombs were being launched by Germany against London and they were hitting Central London accurately. Germany had no agents in Britain. Not one. They thought they did, but every agent they sent over was caught and then either 'turned' or executed, and the other agents were all fictitious: imaginary ones dreamed up in a British campaign of disinformation that was and is breathtaking in and of itself. The government in the UK didn't want to risk the buildings, architecture, and heritage of the heart of London (quite a lot had been bombed out anyway), so the 'agents' reported back to Berlin that the V1s were overshooting their targets and coming down in North London. Fake stories planted in newspapers reinforced the deception. The Germans dutifully shortened the range, and the V1s bombed South London to ruins. One reason why a lot of Croydon in the 1960s was concrete is because of the damage done by the V1s in 1944.

16Dardanelles Gun

Dardanelles Gun

A 340-year-old museum piece was once used to repel an invasion. The Dardanelles Operation of 1870 was a fairly minor skirmish during the Napoleonic wars. The Ottomans aligned with the French against Britain and Russia. The British sent a fleet to intimidate the Turks and force them to reopen the strait. As the British fleet sailed towards Constantinople, French engineers worked with the Turkish army to repair and improve shore defenses. Part of this included reactivating a 340-year-old super cannon modeled on the one used in the famed Turkish conquest of Constantinople in the 1400s. This cannon weighed 17 tons and fired stone cannonballs that were two feet in diameter. After meeting little resistance from the Turkish fleet, the British were forced to withdraw after taking heavy damage from the shore batteries, including from the colossal “Dardanelles Gun.” So yeah trebuchets are nice, but can they fire a 360 kg projectile over 2400 meters?

17. In Britain, unlike in the US, the Manhattan project had almost no security. Instead, they called the project ‘tube alloys.’ It was deemed that it sounded so boring that nobody would investigate it and they were right nobody did. It is the same story for military tanks. The project was named ship water tanks, seeing that the subject was bland and held no interest. It served to keep armored tracked development a secret. In the end, these tracked vehicles kept the name “tank” after the ruse name.

18. The capture of Fort Detroit in the War of 1812 was made possible by one great bluff paying off. British general Brock took the fort (guarded by 582 Regulars and 1600 militiamen) with a minimal force (50 regulars, 250 volunteers, and 200 natives) by shelling the walls, screaming, and continuously marching his men around to make it appear as though they had a force of several thousand regulars and natives. The British continued to support this by sending a letter they knew would be intercepted by the Americans that asked for no more natives be allowed into the area as there were already 5000 there. All of these mind games made American General Hull believe he was facing a superior force and he surrendered the fort to them without a fight.

19. In Qin China, 2 generals were late for a battle unfortunately due to rain and flooding. Given that the penalty for being late for a government job was death, they decided to take their soldiers and start a rebellion to fight for their freedom, as the punishment for rebellion was also death. So began the Dazexiang Uprising of 209 B.C., all due to rain. In another similar instance, the Han dynasty, which ushered China's golden ages, was started by a prisoner transport guard who realized he was going to arrive late with his prisoners, so he freed them, recruited them, and then started a rebellion.

20. When Britain was fighting to conquer India, a General named Charles James Napier was told not to attack the city of Sindh. However, he had an opportunity, went ahead and attacked Sindh, and captured it. When he sent news back to Britain of his victory, his telegram consisted of a single word: “Peccavi.” This is not an English word, but a Latin one and most people know of it through the Catholic Church. Directly translated into English it means, “I have sinned” (which was a pun on “I have Sindh”).