History textbooks are full of terrible things -- warfare, genocide, plague, the dark days when video games were all text-based. It's heartrending to even contemplate. But every now and then, history's horror stories are so over the top that they have to be left out of the classroom entirely, lest they pollute the entire zeitgeist with terror. For instance ...
Prime Minister Johan de Witt of Holland had the worst year in political history. It was 1672, and the Dutch had unexpectedly found themselves at war with nearly all of their neighbors. Large parts of the country were rather effortlessly conquered, and Johan fell from public favor because of it. Over the course of two months, he was badly wounded by an assassin, forced to resign, and saw his brother Cornelis arrested, tortured, and sentenced to exile on trumped-up charges. Johan tried to visit his brother one last time, but the soldiers guarding the men were mysteriously ordered away, and then the pair were attacked by an angry mob.
The brothers were shot repeatedly, stripped naked, and hung by their feet from a scaffold. Then their genitals were cut off, their bodies were sliced open, and their hearts and guts were pulled out. And then people began eating them. According to one account, Cornelis was still alive when the mob cut him open and began feasting on his innards. If it's any consolation (it's not), Johan did get a few commemorative statues built centuries after the fact, as a sort of national "our bad on the rage cannibalism."
You know the expression "cut off one's nose to spite one's face"? What a weird idiom. Where did it come from? Well, one terrifying theory is that it originated with some especially hardcore nuns.
The story goes that the Scottish abbey of Saint Ebba the Younger was attacked by Vikings sometime around 870. Rather than see herself and her fellow nuns raped, Ebba grabbed a razor and cut off her nose and upper lip, then wallowed in the resulting torrent of blood. The other nuns, "filled with admiration at this admirable deed," followed her example.
And it worked! The Vikings were so horrified that they refused to approach the nuns, allowing them to retain their virginities. Although it was more of a moral victory than anything else, as the Vikings then promptly burned the abbey down.
Giovanni Battista de'Cavalieri
Maybe next time, cut parts off of them. You know, the raping parts.
In 19th-century Madagascar, justice was abandoned in favor of a challenge straight out of Fear Factor. The Malagasy people of the island often determined guilt through a method called tangena, which was a favorite of Queen Ranavalona I. The practice involved swallowing a poison made from the nut of the tangena tree, along with three pieces of chicken skin. If you successfully vomited up all three pieces of skin, you were declared innocent. But if you failed or just flat-out died, then you were guilty. Only guilty people retain chicken skin -- you know that.
The average citizen's belief in the divine righteousness of tangena was so strong that most people preferred it over eyewitnesses, and even those who failed the test largely accepted their fate as the will of some higher power. The trial was also popular among elites as "a judicial instrument to systematically deprive potential rivals of their wealth." Making someone eat nut poison was basically their version of rich people suing each other into oblivion. Which, fatalities aside, we could stand to see make a comeback.
But you can't put those fatalities aside. Despite often being used for minor infractions, tangena had a fatality rate in the range of 33-55 percent. And it was so popular during Ranavalona's reign that between 1828 and 1861, it killed an average of 3,000 people a year. Oh, except in 1838, when it killed as many as 100,000, or 20 percent of the population. America's judicial system has its flaws, but at least you don't have to eat poisoned peanut butter every time you hit a Mercedes.
Carl Panzram had the makings of a real-life Coen brothers villain. After being brutally beaten and raped all throughout his youth, he went on a one-man rampage across America. Vandalism, larceny, arson, rape, murder ... he even wanted to start a goddamn war between America and Great Britain. The man had a dream -- a terrifying, sheet-ruining dream, but a dream nonetheless.
In 1920, Panzram burgled the home of former President William Howard Taft. He had a bone to pick with Taft -- he had been sentenced to three years at Fort Leavenworth military prison for enlisting in the army but refusing to work while Taft was secretary of War. Panzram was the sort of guy who could see that as Taft's fault. Anyway, Carl made off with cash and bonds, thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry belonging to the former first lady, and Taft's Colt .45 pistol.
The Bridgeport Times via Library of Congress
We gotta work on your hyphen placement, typesetters.
Panzram used the profits from his crime to buy a boat, then lured sailors aboard with the promise of work before getting them drunk, raping them, and murdering them with Taft's gun. He then weighed their bodies down and threw them overboard. He killed at least ten people this way, part of the 21 murders he claimed to commit.
Panzram was eventually caught and arrested for robbing Taft's house. While in prison, he beat someone to death, and was executed for it, but not before he wrote some of the most depressing memoirs in human history. As further punishment, he was later portrayed by James Woods in a very unfortunate movie.
World War I often takes a backseat to its gritty sequel, but it was nonetheless a total horror show of trench warfare, mustard gas, and existential poetry. And that's merely scratching the surface! For example, the Battle of Passchendaele saw some of the heaviest rain Europe had endured in 30 years. It absolutely poured for a full week, while artillery destroyed canals and drainage ditches all over the swampland. So the field itself turned into a muddy disaster. Did you know you can drown in mud? You can. It just takes a while.
One battalion lost 16 men to mud alone. One soldier wrote about that unique feeling you get when you successfully navigate the mud, only to realize you were stepping on corpses the whole time. A Canadian and German solider were found drowned together while "locked in struggle," because sometimes metaphors for the horrors of war are really on the nose. Here's one survivor's firsthand account:
A khaki-clad leg, three heads in a row, the rest of the bodies submerged, giving one the idea they had used their last ounce of strength to keep their heads above the rising water. In another miniature pond, a hand still gripping a rifle is all that is visible, while its next-door neighbor is occupied by a steel helmet and half a head, the eyes staring icily at the green slime which floats on the surface almost at their level.
So there you go. You got a new phobia out of this after all.
Canadian Armed Forces
Don't say we never gave you nothin'.
To read more horrific tales from history, check out Jacopo's novels The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, License To Quill, and his short story "Sleep Debt" in the upcoming thriller Hardboiled Horror, which you can order here!
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