6 Historical Events That Are Way More Modern Than You Think
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 ...
Executions by Guillotine
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 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.
Hamida Djandoubi, murderer, pictured here with the guillotine that ensured he never knew who Luke's father was.
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.
The Bubonic Plague
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."
And in real life, you have people like Rene Ribiere and Gaston Paul Charles Defferre, who decided that the only way to settle their differences was in an old-fashioned epee duel -- in 1967.
"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):
Biplanes in Military Service
In the early days of flying, half of the fun of getting in the air was impressing your friends with acrobatic feats and novelty stunts, and that was where the biplane came in handy.
"You know, we really should have brought a spare ball."
Sure, it was an awkward early start to what would eventually develop into sleek flying machines, but what could you expect from people who sat on poles for a good time? Thanks to jets and common sense, the clunky, laughably slow biplanes went the way of the flapper.
But Actually ...
Meet the extremely popular Russian-built Antonov An-2.
"The bottle of vodka under the seat may be used as a flotation device."
It looks better suited for pesticide dumping than strategic military purposes. Yet 50 different nations are still cleaving these clunkers to their military bosoms, and some of them, like Germany and China, aren't even that poor. They're using these relics on purpose! To find out why, we have to look harder at the planes themselves.
For one thing, the An-2 was designed for agricultural work, so it can fly pretty close to the ground. You'd think that would be a bad thing, on account of anti-aircraft guns and trees and such, but it's not. Because radar looks way higher when trying to detect aircraft, the An-2 can go unnoticed -- when you get close enough to the ground, radar loses you in the clutter.
"Now we just have to hope they don't, like, use their eyes or anything."
And the other thing about the An-2 is that it can sustain flight at wicked slow speeds; we're talking 30 mph slow. Apparently, the wings have slats that stay closed until the plane hits school-zone speed, then the slats lift, which allows the plane to glide to the ground like a drifting autumn leaf. When you want to be sneaky, there aren't many better options.
That's why oil-starved North Korea switched from bigger, badder planes to the An-2 for reconnaissance missions as late as 2007, and why Croatia used them for bomb-dropping in the Croatian War for Independence in the early '90s. Can you imagine fighting a war today and seeing this thing coming after you? You'd be only slightly more surprised if you were attacked by Snoopy on his flying doghouse.
World War II
Even if you don't know the exact date when WWII ended, you've seen the photographic evidence of the days it happened. And the kiss that apparently ended hostilities.
"The war isn't officially over until we consummate this peace."
Victory in Europe Day was May 8, 1945, and Victory over Japan Day was August 14, 1945, when the above liplock was taken. So, victory was declared, the Axis powers surrendered, war was over. Nothing could be simpler.
But Actually ...
What if we told you that, in very technical terms, the peace wasn't established in Germany until 1990? While some of us were wearing Hammer pants and Urkel was making grandmas everywhere laugh, World War II was still raging in Europe. And by "raging," we mean "quietly simmering in a crock pot no one noticed."
"Boy, that sure is one sour kraut."
At the heart of it was Germany, who was like a kid caught in the middle of a custody battle between the Soviets and USA in the postwar years. And lost in the shuffle over weekend visitation rights was the little fact that, technically, no one declared peace in Germany. When the war ended, the Allies created a provisional arrangement deciding how they would govern the mess that was the tatters of the German nation. And one of those stipulations was that once Germany got its denazified act together, a permanent peace treaty would be put in place, one that Germany could sign itself.
It never happened. The four powers who signed that provisional treaty -- the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain and France -- quickly devolved into a room of exes who could no longer handle a simple family function together. In 1948, the Soviet representative on the council walked out altogether -- and never came back.
"Please to be fucking this noise."
Which meant that both Germanys, East and West, were under military occupation until the Berlin Wall fell and, in 1990, the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany was finally signed. In it, the four powers who provisionally took over back in 1945 FINALLY relinquished all authority they once had over the place. Which meant that East and West Germany could start the process of getting back together.
The whole thing was a big enough deal that it warranted some street-kissing of its own.
Spouses of Civil War Veterans
This one's a no-brainer. The Civil War ended in 1865 -- almost 150 years ago. The very last Civil War veterans died back in the 1950s. What, are we going to hear about some Civil War era survivor revived from suspended animation, Captain America style? The freaking thing ended two lifetimes ago.
But Actually ...
While the last Civil War soldiers died in the '50s, their widows have lived into the new millennium. How is that possible? Prepare to get really grossed out.
This sweet old lady was Maudie Hopkins. She died in 2008.
But back in 1934, she was just a 19-year-old girl when 86-year-old Confederate veteran William Cantrell asked her to marry him. As a bonus, he promised her the deed to his house if she bit the bullet. She did, and they lived in icky wedded bliss for three whole years before he croaked.
To distract you from the accumulating mental images, here's a picture of terrible Civil War carnage.
And then there's Alberta Martin, who has a kind of similar story, but with a nasty twist. At age 21, Alberta married 81-year-old Confederate vet William Jasper Martin, mostly so she could get her hands on his pension to help raise her son from a previous marriage. Ten months later, she had a baby -- the last baby (presumably) sprung from the loins of a veteran of the Civil War. We say "presumably" because within two months of her husband's death, she remarried. His grandson. Mrs. Double Martin passed away in 2004.
Finally, there's Gertrude Janeway, the last widow of a Union soldier. Like the other ladies on this list, Gertrude married her very old beau as a teenager, but she got a whole 10 years with her lover before he passed away. Unlike the other ladies on this list, Gertrude collected his pension check from the United States government until the day she died in 2003. That $70 a month may have been modest, but it spanned three centuries.
We're going to guess that the century:erection ratio wasn't much better than 1:1.
If there's anything you should take from these ladies' stories, it's that you should never underestimate the power of a horny old man.
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