5 Creepy Moments From History You Never Learned In School

History is full of horribly depressing moments.
5 Creepy Moments From History You Never Learned In School

As we've shown time and time and time again, history is full of horribly depressing moments where the only proper response is to scream at the sky and wonder how we wronged the Universe that it must revenge itself upon us so. Actually, that sounds like fun. Let's do it again!

A Nuclear Meltdown Obliterated Three People

HBO's Chernobyl paints a terrifying picture of what happens to the human body when it's exposed to massive amounts of radiation. The show's characters puke like they're coming off a two-day Nuka-Cola bender, peel like overripe fruit, and eventually die in agony. But if anything, the miniseries downplays how badly a blast of radiation destroys the human body. If you want to know the worst-case scenario, all you have to do is look at what happened to the folks who worked at SL-1.

SL-1 was a prototype nuclear reactor built in the 1950s in the Idaho desert. The facility was constructed by the Army as part of an experiment to create a "portable" reactor that could be used to power remote installations (like radar stations). As these facilities would be staffed by military personnel and not atomic scientists, SL-1 was designed to be easier to operate than a standard nuclear reactor. If the reactor crew wanted/needed to control the reactor, all they had to do was raise/lower a series of five control rods. There were no complicated control panels, no glowing red buttons, not even a drinking bird. What could go wrong?

John R. Giles, EPA

On January 3, 1961, a three-man night crew -- CE1 Richard Legg and Army specialists John Byrnes and Richard McKinley -- had to restart the reactor after it had been shut down two weeks prior for the holidays. This task involved raising the central rod only four inches. For some reason, Byrnes lifted the rod 26 inches, and that's all it took to send the reactor supercritical. Its fuel melted and explosively vaporized, launching the reactor nine feet into the air and spreading radioactive debris all over the room.

This chain reaction took four seconds and killed Byrnes and Legg immediately. Emergency personnel rescued a heavily irradiated McKinley from the reactor room, but he passed away from his injuries while en route to a medical facility. In order to prevent him from contaminating anyone, the ambulance containing his body -- which was wrapped in lead blankets -- was dumped in the middle of the desert until it could be dealt with properly.

While McKinley and Byrnes were accounted for, no one could locate Legg. After they returned to the site for a brief search, his body was found pinned to the ceiling by a large plug that entered through his groin and out through his shoulder. It took six days to recover him, via a careful operation that involved guys with long poles knocking him off the ceiling onto a stretcher below, like the world's most horrifying carnival game.

Investigators were never able to figure out why Byrnes lifted the control rod so damn high. The best guess anyone can come up with is that the rod got stuck in its channel, and Byrnes, eager to get the job done, set about wrenching it free ... only for the rod to come loose and suddenly fly up. So let this be a cautionary tale about the value of elbow grease.

Related: 6 True Stories From History Creepier Than Any Horror Movie

Queen Victoria's Stalker Lived In The Walls Of Buckingham Palace

Queen Victoria was kind of a badass. She used herself as bait in an assassin trap, drank copious amounts of cocaine-wine, and practically invented the sext. A larger-than-life character deserves a larger-than-life nemesis, and she got hers in the form of Edward Jones, a crazed stalker who went well beyond creeping her Twitter. No, he actually lived inside the walls of Buckingham Palace like an old-timey Eugene Tooms.

Jones was (first) discovered in the palace in December 1838, after a night porter noticed him staring through a window. The porter raised the alarm, and a chase ensued that ended with Jones apprehended. He was taken to the kitchen and searched, where they discovered that he not only had several pairs of Queen V's underwear in his possession, but was also covered from head to toe in grease. Why? Because that enabled him to squeeze into the palace's chimneys, where he'd been living for the past year.

During the day, Jones would hide in the chimneys, or the walls, or if he wanted to mix things up a little, behind large pieces of furniture -- sometimes getting so close to Victoria that he was able to eavesdrop on her conversations. When night fell, he'd leave his spider hole and wander the halls to steal whatever personal possessions he could get his soot-covered hands on, as well as visit the kitchens to eat and wash his shirt.

After a lengthy trial, Jones was not found guilty (somehow). He repaid the Universe for this stroke of luck by squatting in the palace again. He was arrested and sent back to trial, where -- after attempting an insanity plea -- he was given three months probation. On release, he was arrested again while trying to break into the palace, and at yet another trial, he was given three months of hard labor, presumably to get him too swole to fit in a chimney.

The police begged Jones to do something productive with his talents, but he remained fixated on Victoria. After he was arrested for a fifth time, he was hauled off to Brazil, returned to Britain, and then sent away again, this time to Perth. As karma for a life spent violating people's privacy, Jones spent the rest of his days annoyed at jokes about being the creep who stole the queen's panties.

Related: 5 Horror Scenes Deleted From History For Being Too Creepy

The Brooklyn Theater Fire Was A Nightmare Of Melted Corpses

On December 5, 1876, the Brooklyn Theater's performance of The Two Orphans was well-attended, with over 900 guests. At roughly 11:20 p.m., a small fire broke out in a backstage area. The flames grew until they became noticeable even to the audience, who were understandably getting a little worried. In an attempt to calm everyone down, the actors broke character and began reassuring people that there was nothing to worry about, and that the flames were all part of the show.

This explanation swiftly fell apart when a piece of flaming debris fell and nearly hit an actor, causing them to freak out and run. Panic erupted, and everyone sprinted for the doors. But while the audience on the ground floor could escape easily enough, the stairways leading to the balconies quickly became blocked, and then became crush zones where dozens were trampled to death.

The fire department initially figured that the majority of the crowd had escaped. That's because someone entered the flaming building and quickly surveyed the balconies, but didn't see anyone. In the cold light of morning, however, firemen found charred bodies in the lobby, the stairwells, the backstage area, and the auditorium -- some of which had been subjected to such insane temperatures that they'd fused with other corpses to create a nightmare flesh rat-king.

The fire killed so many people that local morgues were swiftly overwhelmed, and the only way to bury them in a timely fashion was a mass grave in a nearby cemetery. Today, that's where you'll find a granite monument to what was contemporaneously called "Brooklyn's Holocaust."

Related: 6 Real-Life Horror Movies Your History Teacher Skipped Over

A Candy Maker Accidentally Killed 20 People With Poisoned Mints

Back in 1850s England, sugar was so expensive that many candy makers would only buy half the sugar they needed and "cut" it with cheaper powders, like limestone or plaster. William Hardaker didn't make that kind of candy, but he did sell it. A Bradford candy man, he was given the kindly nickname "Humbug Billy" for the mint humbugs he sold from his market stall. Then, in October 1858, a consignment of his sweets killed 20 people and injured 200 more.

John Leech/Punch Magazine
Who could've ever foreseen that food made out of inedible ground rock might be dangerous?

Thanks to a mix-up at the pharmacist where Billy's candy maker got his supplies, this latest batch of sweets weren't cut with talcum powder or granite, but arsenic -- a mistake that went unnoticed thanks to a labeling error and the fact that powered arsenic looks a whole lot like sugar substitute. The humbugs Billy sold each contained enough arsenic to kill two grown men. And they did, among other people. Probably still better than Necco Wafers, though.

Related: 5 True Stories That Put Every Horror Movie To Shame

The Stasi Would Drive People Insane

After Germany was partitioned in 1945, East Germany became the domain of the Ministerium Staatssicherheit, also known as the "Stasi" -- a secret police force that had eyes and ears in practically every house. The Stasi had both the tools and imagination to surveil and dispose of any "subversive individuals," and they used them liberally. One monstrous method, zersetsung, was devised solely to drive these subversives insane. It was like weaponized passive-aggression.

The Stasi would arrange for paperwork and permit applications submitted by the "target" to be lost or delayed. They would have doctors dispense incorrect medication. They would start rumors or even fabricate evidence that the target was corrupt or engaged in an extramarital affair in order to destroy their social standing. They would even break into people's homes and rearrange their furniture or steal innocuous objects -- including, we kid you not, odd socks.

It's not that any one of these things would break a person, but collectively, they're a nightmare. Your worst days are the ones where everything goes wrong, and for these targets, that was every single day. Zerzetsung wasn't a one-and-done tactic; it was a calculated strategy designed to gradually wear down people's confidence, mental stability, and social relationships until they had nothing left. The English translation of the term, by the way? "Decomposition."

It was devastatingly effective against many people who were targeted not for being dissidents or troublemakers, but because they'd been grassed up by vindictive colleagues, neighbors, or friends and family. That's perhaps the scariest thing of all. You could be living your best life one day, then somebody whispers something nasty about you, and the state starts gaslighting you into oblivion the next.

You can find more from Adam on Twitter! If you liked the cut of this article's jib, he also has a newsletter about depressing history facts.

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