The internet’s a wonderful thing for trivia hoarders like myself. We meander through it in idle distraction; perusing great tomes of Wikipedia pages, starting Youtube searches with something like ‘HISTORY - Offa’s Dyke - Keith Ray’ and coming out the other end of the wormhole at ‘Mantis Shrimp Destroys Clam’.
There are great DIY Youtube storytellers like ‘The History Guy’ and top ten lists that are a dime a dozen, and entertaining nonetheless. This means, like some grizzled old seadog living out his retirement at the local watering-hole, I’ve got a few stories to tell ya.
I’ve built up a wealth of pub quiz ammo, and now, I pass it on to you. With this list of hidden gems from history you’ll be able to bedazzle and awe your in-laws, relatives, colleagues and friends.
One Lucky Trucker, 1999
Luck can be like buses, you wait for ages then several come at once, and so it happened to Aussie trucker Bill Morgan. The tale doesn’t start well however, he had a nasty crash and once at hospital reacted badly to the drugs he was given, suffering a massive heart attack which stopped his heart for 14 minutes. He was put into a coma. His doctors declared him clinically dead and his family were preparing to say their goodbyes before turning off his life support.
12 days in, however, he miraculously awoke from his coma and was absolutely fine. It was a miracle! Bill’s newfound appreciation for life made him quit his trucking career and he proposed to his long time girlfriend within a year. What’s more Bob wanted to see how far his streak of luck could go. He went out to buy a scratch card (a ‘scratchie’ as they’re known ‘down under’) and won himself a $17,000 car.
Normally winning a car wouldn’t be a newsworthy event, but in the wider context of what Bob had gone through, a local Melbourne news channel thought it would be good to do a story on him and asked him to go back to reenact the win on camera. So Bob duly did, he bought another scratchie and, on camera, began scratching off another card… and only won himself another $250,000 on air!
The Most Bizarre Book Ever Written, 15th Century
A book was once written that’s had everyone from cryptographers to professional code breakers scratching their heads in bemusement. Who wrote it, What does it mean, or even, what language is it written in? No one has a clue.
The Voynich Manuscript, named after a Pole who purchased it in 1912, has been carbon-dated from the early 15th Century. It’s a fantastic piece of craftsmanship — too good to be some prank. It’s over 240 pages long and written in a language which no one’s been able to identify and crammed with 6 types of exquisitely drawn illustrations:
- Plant/herbal — none of which have been clearly identified.
- Astronomical/Astrological — includes suns, stars, moons, some symbols of zodiac signs and female figures arranged in concentric bands.
- Balneological — dense text interspersed with images of small nude women.
- Cosmological — circular diagrams, includes a 6 page foldout with a possible map of islands or ‘rosettes’ connected by ‘causeways’ with castles and a possible volcano.
- Pharmaceutical — many labelled drawings of plant parts ranging from the mundane to the fantastical.
- There’s also a recipe section.
Very weird. The best guess for its purpose is that it was a kind of medieval technical manual to cover medieval or early modern medicine. Experts speculate that the Voynich Manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language that has been hidden in the VM ‘alphabet’ through a cypher of some sort; this was the working hypothesis for most 20th-century deciphering attempts, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s.
Great Molasses Flood, 1919
Molasses (Black Treacle) is a thick, heavy substance refined from sugar cane. In Boston, 1919, the Purity Distilling Company used it to ferment ethanol, the stuff used to manufacture alcohol and even munitions at the time.
Shipments were stored in a giant tank on the harbourside which stood 15 m (50 ft) tall by 27 m (90 ft) in diameter and contained as much as 8,700,000L (2,300,000 US gal). At midday in mid-January in midwinter, possibly due to thermal heating, the stored liquid expanded and the huge container burst open and collapsed. Witnesses reported that they felt the ground shake and heard a roar, a long rumble similar to the passing of an elevated train; others reported a tremendous crashing, a deep growling, “a thunderclap-like bang!”, and a machine gun-like sound as the rivets shot out of the tank.
The liquid is much heavier than water and so was extremely destructive as a wave smashed and sploshed across the harbour, 8 m (25 ft) high at its peak and moving at 35 mph (56 km/h). Several blocks around were flooded.
The Boston Post reported: “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage… Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.”
21 people and several horses died, and over a hundred were injured. The clean-up took weeks. The event passed into folklore and for years afterwards the streets still reeked sickly sweet on hot Summers’ days.
Sawney Bean, 16th Century
The tale of Sawney Bean is a gruesome tale from Scottish history. The man was born in the 16th Century and fathered by a ditch digger but quickly gave up on following in his father’s footsteps. Marrying a like-minded woman named “Black” Agnes Douglas, together they became a couple of real savages. Incredible though it sounds, they went on to head an incestuous family of 45 cannibals.
They started out as simple robbers and made a home in a deep cave on the coastline. Its entrance would flood at high tide which explains how they lived undiscovered for the next 25 years. The two quickly turned to eating their victims whose discarded possessions began to quickly pile up amongst dismembered limbs, bones and flesh. Their eight sons and six daughters grew up feral, and bred like rabbits, their numbers multiplying until they were more of a warband than family.
They would ambush locals as they travelled between nearby settlements, their numbers quickly overwhelming their prey before they could escape or defend themselves. The steadily growing tally of missing did not go unnoticed but the Bean clan stayed well hidden, only coming out at night.
Their luck eventually changed. Riding back from a fayre nearby, a couple on horseback got ambushed. The young wife was quickly unhorsed and disembowelled as the husband fought desperately for his life. He was a skilled duellist, however, and deftly fought off the savages with sword and pistol before a large party of fayre goers arrived on the scene. For once outnumbered, the fiends fled back to their cave, this time leaving behind witnesses and a very vengeful husband.
The locals went at once to Edinburgh to report to the King of Scotland himself no less, James VI. Hearing the terrors this family had committed, he personally led a small army of 400 men with several tracker dogs and finally discovered the cave entrance. Horrified by the gory sight inside, they subdued the family, taking them back to the capital to devise a suitable fate for such heinous people.
The entire family was executed. The males first were dismembered like their victims as the women were made to look on and then the females were burned at the stake. And so passed into lore the story of the Sawney Bean Family.
The Wolf Truce, 1917
Winter 1917 and WW1 was into its fourth year. The war on the Eastern Front, between German and Russian forces, was being fought with no less single-mindedness than the slaughter on the Western Front, so what could have caused the two sides to not only pause their fighting but momentarily join forces?
It seems the war was destroying wolves’ homes just like it was many people’s homes and they were driven by a desperate hunger. Perhaps the lack of men to shepherd livestock in the fields and villages imbued these pack predators with a newfound boldness too.
A report from Berlin stated that large packs of wolves had moved from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock. In two cases children have been attacked by them.”, it reported.
It got worse. Around armies in the area, wolves went from picking off lone individuals to whole groups of soldiers. In one instance a large wolf pack set upon wounded soldiers as skirmishers from both sides were hotly engaged. Seeing this, both sets of troops instinctively turned their rifles on the new foe and, together, killed 50 before each side returned to their lines.
Yet the attacks continued unabated, their aggression undiminished. So, a tacit agreement came to pass that both sides would unite to fight this newfound enemy. Several hundred wolves were corralled and shot before conventional hostilities resumed.