6 True Stories From History Creepier Than Any Horror Movie
History books are full of grisly details about who got stabbed, what town got burned to the ground, and which kings married their cousins -- so imagine the stuff that gets edited out. Or, you know, read about it in this article instead. As part of our continuing quest to tell you the stuff your teachers didn't want you to know, here are some gruesome and little-known addenda to some of the most famous moments in history.
The Man Who Tried to Save Lincoln Went All The Shining on His Family
You've probably seen this illustration a hundred times, but can you name everyone in it?
That's obviously John Wilkes Booth on the right, followed by Abraham Lincoln going, "But I wanna know what happens next! D'aww ..." and first lady Mary T, but unless you're a history buff you probably don't know that the other two are Union Army Major Henry Rathbone and his wife, Clara Harris, daughter of a prominent U.S. senator. Rathbone is best known for trying to stop Booth and getting a piece of that dagger you see up there for his trouble, and not so much for the Kubrick-esque horror that his life later spiraled into.
Rathbone was seriously injured while attending the most disastrous double date in history, and though he physically survived the attack, his mind never recovered. The officer blamed himself for failing to stop Booth, and even though he eventually married Clara two years later, wedded life only added to his insanity.
Eventually, Rathbone's mind deteriorated to the point that on Dec. 23, 1883, he decided to deck the halls with his family's blood. While serving as a U.S. consul in Hanover, Germany, Rathbone tried to kill his three kids, and when his wife stopped him, he fatally shot and stabbed her, then stabbed himself -- mentally replaying Booth's actions from 18 years earlier.
The police found Rathbone covered with blood and completely out of his mind. According to a widely repeated but unconfirmed report, he claimed that there were people hiding behind the pictures on his wall.
Rathbone spent the rest of his life in a lunatic asylum, where he complained of secret machines in the walls blowing gas into his room and giving him headaches. He died in 1911, becoming the last casualty of the Lincoln assassination nearly half a century after the fact. Incidentally, the house in Hanover where he lived is looking for a caretaker! This could be a new start for us, Wendy.
Syphilitic "Zombies" Wandered the Streets of Italy During the High Renaissance
When most people picture the High Renaissance, they probably imagine Italian folks in posh clothes admiring the works of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. What they do not usually picture is this:
Yes, while Renaissance Florence may have been a good place for the arts (and parkour, if Assassin's Creed II is to be believed), at the same time, Italy experienced something more closely akin to a zombie movie during the first major outbreak of syphilis in 1494. Yeah, before antibiotics, this particular STD was less "secret shame" and more "literally rots your fucking face off." According to one description, the disease (which may have been carried over from New World cooters to Naples bumholes via French dongs) "caused flesh to fall from people's faces, and led to death within a few months." More specifically, the outbreak caused "the complete destruction of the lips, others of the nose, and others of all their genitals."
Meaning, it was not out of place to see victims shambling around who had lost "hands, feet, eyes, and noses to the disease." So if today's Renaissance fairs were accurate, about half the people would look like Walking Dead extras.
As horrifying as the thought of having undead genitalia may seem, the worst part is actually the phrase "within a few months" -- that means that the afflicted somehow lived for months in this condition, the whole time screaming with pain as their flesh "was eaten away, in some cases down to the bone." Which is appropriate, because "the bone" is why you get syphilis in the first place.
In short, for a brief period during the time of the great Renaissance masters, it was common to see people, never mind a whole army of Frenchmen, walking around with their faces falling off their exposed skulls until they finally dropped dead. Why the fuck wasn't this in Assassin's Creed II?
Heads Literally Exploded During the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
Italy's Mount Vesuvius is infamous mainly for erupting so hard on Pompeii's face that the entire Roman city (and all its dick sculptures, since it was the sex capital of the empire) remained buried in ash for the next millennium and a half. What you may not know is that the gods were actually merciful to Pompeii compared with the horror that went down in Herculaneum, which was a smaller city situated even closer to Vesuvius when it started ejaculating magma everywhere.
What Pompeii experienced was a classic disaster flick: huge cloud of smoke, people running, blanketing ash, and maybe a subplot about Tara Reid reconnecting with her ex-husband and showing some sideboob. Herculaneum, on the other hand, experienced a full-blown supernatural horror movie due to them being hit with "superheated pyroclastic flows of molten rock, mud, and gas," which is a fancy way of saying that a whole bunch of people went like this.
Seriously. The human skull is loaded with lots of liquids, and if you heat it up super quickly, it reacts much like a hamster in a microwave. We know this because that's precisely what happened at Herculaneum when everyone in the city was hit by a cloud of gas with a temperature of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In less than two-tenths of a second, "skin vaporized, ... brains boiled, and skulls exploded." Like, without any shotguns or grape shot. It just happened all on its own, just as Mother Nature intended. From the inside.
Here's hoping this doesn't happen to the fine folks in Naples, who stubbornly insist on living in the precise spot where Vesuvius patiently waits to wipe them out again.
The British Pet Holocaust of World War II
There are so many horror stories in war that some just get lost in the pile. That's too bad, because often by discussing things in broad, heroic strokes -- the bombings, the invasions, the cities reduced to rubble -- you lose sight of the more personal horrors that occurred day-to-day. For example:
During the run-up to WWII, the British government formed the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee in 1939 to decide what to do with all their animals once war broke out. The committee's primary concern was food shortages made worse due to people feeding their pets, so to curtail this potential problem, they sent out a pamphlet called "Advice to Animal Owners" ... which came with an advertisement for a specific type of gun. You can see where this is going.
The pamphlet advised the population that if they could not send their pets into the countryside, "it really is kindest to have them destroyed" (the wording suggests that it was written by an early Dalek prototype). How did the British population take this order? With protests across the Isles, surely? Not exactly. Within the course of a week, 750,000 family pets were "destroyed."
Also, please note that this took place during the summer of 1939 -- i.e., before Germany invaded Poland, and during a time when the British government could have done a lot more damage to Nazi Germany if they simply attacked them instead of massacring all family pets and printing posters for when the Nazis conquered London.
The World's First Documented Serial Killer Did as She Pleased During the Pax Romana
The Pax Romana is known for being one of the most peaceful periods in history: The Romans figured, "Meh, the empire is big enough now," and took it easy with all the head-chopping and back-stabbing (as much as they could, anyway) to focus on more productive things like fine-tuning the laws we still use today. How else could Rome have held itself together for so long without routine garbage pickup and laws designed to keep people like serial killers off the street?
Actually, scratch that last part. The first recorded serial killer in history reigned like a mad queen for 15 years during this period: Her name was Locusta, and her career reads like what would happen if Hannibal Lecter was given his own state college.
Locusta's macabre story starts in the mid-first century A.D., where she was arrested for poisoning people. Fortune smiled upon her when Agrippina decided to poison Emperor Claudius, and can you guess who she turned to for help on that one? That's right, Locusta, who subsequently received a pardon for her lethal dose of girl power.
So, what did Locusta do with her freedom? She got busted one year later in 55 A.D. for poisoning people. (Again, serial killer.) Fortunately, the new Emperor Nero needed her for another job, and Locusta was pardoned once more so she could whip up a deadly milkshake for Nero's 13-year-old step brother Britannicus. After that hit, Locusta was awarded a sweet villa and even pupils to aid her in her arts. That's right, even though she was a known murderer and repeat offender, Locusta was given everything she needed to open her own goddamn school for murder.
However, Locusta's luck ran out when Nero committed suicide, leaving her with few allies and a reputation akin to that of a sorceress. The madwoman was arrested and promptly executed by Emperor Galba in 69 A.D. How did she die? Perhaps an ironic "taste" of her own medicine? Nope: She was supposedly publicly raped to death by a wild animal . That's Roman law for you.
Joan of Arc Battled Alongside (Not Against) a Prolific Child Killer
We're not going to lie: We at Cracked have a nerd crush on Joan of Arc. She was real. She was badass. She didn't take shit from anybody. And it's well-documented that she was beloved by God and Merlin both (history's idea of "well-documented" can be a bit shaky).
But while Joan gets most of the credit for helping France stand up to England in the 15th century, she couldn't have done it without the support of allies like Gilles de Rais, her "ardent companion," and one of the bravest knights in the French army. De Rais even made it into the big-budget Joan of Arc movie starring Milla Jovovich, where he's played by Vincent Cassel.
So why don't people name churches after this dude too? Probably because of de Rais' night job as a horrific serial killer who preyed particularly on children between the ages of 6 and 18.
Again, we're talking about one of the few men in the French army who helped make Joan of Arc's career and eventual sainthood possible ... and who also happened to be a torturing, butchering, child-murdering monster. The accounts of his trial and confession make for a soul-scarring read: Not content with killing and abusing his victims in gruesome ways, de Rais would also play with them psychologically, convincing them it was only a game before unleashing something even worse. This guy would have been kicked out of Arkham Asylum for creeping out the Joker.
Depending on whom you ask, de Rais killed as few as 80 or as many as 800 children, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Obviously, Joan of Arc never knew about any of this. And just like his old pal, de Rais was eventually burned by the authorities (the preferred method of getting rid of undesirables back then), though in this case he had that shit coming.
Related Reading: Check out these famous horror movies made realistic by our forums members. If you're more about serial killers, read about this woman who fed her husband to their children. On the upside, horror villains are pretty great wingmen.
And to further expand your noggin, check out Cracked's De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.