There are certain events that we always associate with fixed periods in history, like the Great Depression was in the 1930s, Woodstock was in 1969 and the brief window when men were allowed to get perms was in the fall of 1983. Any grade school history book can tell you that.
But sometimes old habits die harder than you think, and you find out that stuff you only thought existed in grainy old pictures continued until just a few years ago. You know, things like ...
A guillotine execution (aka where they drop a huge blade on your neck and your severed head falls into a basket) probably ranks among the five worst things that can happen to you. It's the perfect symbol of a terrifying practice from a barbaric, primitive era.
Selling tickets to executions. That's how we can fund our schools!
It's easy to forget that the entire point of the method was that it was considered humane; the alternative execution method for French nobility was usually getting their heads chopped off with a sword or ax, which sometimes took several painful whacks. And commoners just got hanged, which sucked even harder. So even though we imagine that the walk to the guillotine was pretty nerve-racking, getting your head lopped off in one swift blow was mercifully brief compared to the torturous alternatives.
That's not to say that the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, which ended with over 16,000 heads, is up for a retroactive Amnesty International award for employing a relatively mild form of capital punishment. But hey, at least they weren't 16,000 disembowelments. And it's all ancient history anyway -- in a world where most countries have done away with executions completely, beheadings have to be the stuff of the powdered wig era.
Most of history was just folks passing time, waiting for the Internet to be invented.
But Actually ...
Death by guillotine was the official method of execution in France until capital punishment was banned ... in freaking 1981.
The Guillotine Headquarters
The last public guillotining was in 1939. Then "morality" stepped in and ruined public murder for everyone.
No, they didn't always do it in the town square in front of a crowd -- they had the decency to switch to private executions in 1939. Between 1940 and 1977, dozens of criminals were executed by the National Razor, just in the privacy of their prisons, rather than in front of bloodthirsty onlookers. The last French execution by guillotine was in 1977. So around the same time that Star Wars was playing in the theaters and Apple Computer was getting its start, a convicted murderer could still get the old head chop.
And that was just in France. The Nazis managed over 16,000 beheadings during their reign. You'd think the fact that "Oh, now that's a Nazi thing" would be the end of guillotine altogether. Not if one Georgia legislator had his way. As late as 1996, Doug Teper proposed replacing the electric chair with the guillotine as the official method of execution for the state of Georgia, but only so the state could harvest criminal organs after their deaths. See? Humane.
When you picture the Middle Ages, you probably imagine a lot of filthy people slowly dying of some kind of plague. That's thanks to the infamous bubonic plague, aka the Black Death.
In the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out 60 percent of Europe's population in as horrifying a fashion as you can imagine without a handsaw being involved. And in case you're not aware of how the disease works, fleas catch it from rodents, then pass it on to people. As if catching rat sick from an insect isn't bad enough, the victim's lymph nodes begin to swell to hilariously unnatural sizes, his fingers and toes develop gangrene and he eventually starts bleeding out of the ears. Within four days, he'll die in a disgusting heap of diseased skin that no one will want to touch, for obvious reasons.
Man, are we glad that nightmare is well behind us.
These people are either dying of plague or in high school.
But Actually ...
Who said it ever went away? Sure, these days we can treat it with antibiotics. But you can still totally go to the doctor and hear him say, "Yeah, you've got a little bit of bubonic plague."
"We can probably just lance it."
An Oregon woman was treated with the bubes in 2010. And a New Mexico man had it in 2011. Also in 2010, Peru had an outbreak that affected 31 people and killed a 14-year-old boy. And the awful news doesn't end there, folks! While bubonic plague is strictly an animal-to-person disease, its wicked stepsisters pneumonic plague and septicemic plague can totally be spread from person to person. And they're deadlier than bubonic ... if left untreated.
So, yes, the deadliest disease the planet has ever known is still out there, hiding in our rats and raccoons and squirrels, just biding its time until it can make its big comeback to remind us who really rules the planet (hint: it's bacteria).
"Thanks for keeping it warm and filthy for us!"
Think back on the last time you walked out onto your cul-de-sac and saw your neighbors resolving a property-line spat via a gentleman's duel with comically oversized pistolas. It's probably been a while, right? A while, as in never? Because dueling as a dispute settlement option died out once people realized how cool it is to go to TV court and settle things there. Or in the latter part of the 19th century. We can't remember which.
Above: What college students did before beer pong.
But Actually ...
While it's true that dueling has been an anachronism since before World War I, that hasn't stopped individuals from using one-on-one combat to settle matters of honor. Hell, we've all seen the video for "Beat It."
"Wanna drop some acid before we try this?"
It started when Defferre called his colleague Ribiere an "asshole" for fidgeting during a political debate. You'd think that Ribiere would be the one who'd have an ax to grind over getting publicly humiliated, but no -- it was Defferre who demanded their differences get settled by the sword.
And Ribiere accepted. He also lost the duel, which was formally refereed by another colleague. The good news was that Ribiere didn't die during the fight. He just got slashed twice before he quit. Oh, and we have video -- here's footage of the very last duel (which was captured by French newsreel cameras):