5 Urban Legends From History That Were Wacky As Heck

It's easy in retrospect to dispel the many myths of yore, but we should always show patience and kindness to our pre-science, pre-Google ancestors and their superstitions. However, occasionally there's a piece of bonafide folklore so insultingly obvious in its fakery, you'd think even gullible people back then should've seen straight through the bullshit and gone: "Really?" Far-fetched fairytales like ....

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5
The Green Children Of Woolpit Were Bean-Eating Aliens

It’s a Grimm tale as old as time. Two children abandoned in the woods, relying only on each other to survive and failing horribly. But in the case of two forest urchins near Suffolk, England in the 12th century, they emerged from the forest not just victorious in their survival, but welcomed back into civilization with open arms -- as aliens. 

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One foggy morning, peasants of St Mary’s of the Wolf Pits (or Woolpit, as the locals call it) encountered a disturbing sight. Near the wolf traps, at the edge of the fields, stood two elfin looking children staring at the peasants with vacant eyes. When someone approached these strange visitors, they noted the children had green skin, strange clothes and could not understand the English language.

Now, when someone emerges from the woods with greenish skin and babbling like a madman, you might quickly conclude that they are suffering from being feral, feverish and malnourished. Or specifically, in the case of the Green Children, that they were likely Flemish immigrants fleeing one of England’s many many pogroms, which would explain the lack of English, forest abode, strange European clothing and, as we all know about the Flemish, their lizard-like skin.

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But that reasoning proved a bit too complicated for the superstitious people of Woolpit, who simply assumed that these greenish children were alien freaks. At first, the pair would also only eat green beans, which only served as further proof that these two were visitors from another (bean-heavy) plane of existence. That the children eventually lost their green coloring after eating regular food did not deter the Woolpitians from this extraterrestrial theory. Sadly, the brother died from being an alien soon after rescue, while the sister managed to live long enough to be taught to speak the King's English. Or, let’s be specific here, Woolpit’s English, seeing as you can’t travel ten miles in Britain without encountering a dialect so foreign to your own that it sounds like a joke language from The Hobbit.

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Finally able to communicate after many years of being treated like an actual extraterrestrial, this impressionable child told her story. According to her, the Green People came from St. Martin’s land, a place outside of this world clouded in eternal twilight (like, say, a heavily forested area) that for some reason named itself after an obscure French saint. While tending her alien father's alien sheep, she and her brother had walked into a cave and arriving as if by a miracle in England.

Rod Bacon, Wikimedia Commons
What these days is called ‘taking the Eurostar.’
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Fortunately, there was a happy ending for the green girl. Having survived her ordeal, she grew to be a strong and willful adult (too willful, according to some). The so-called alien woman then lived happily ever after married to a man whose life story would later serve as the inspiration for half of all Star Trek storylines.

4
Victorians Believed Alcoholism Caused Self-Combustion

Old-timey medicine can be seen as being very superstitious and jumping to facile conclusions -- nothing a good leeching can't cure, mind. But sometimes, they really got it right. After all, when was the last time anyone died of gout, or polio, or from exploding due to excessive alcohol consumption? 

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While stories of people being magically or divinely turned into pillars of flames go back to ancient times, scientific reports of "spontaneous human combustion" began in the very reasonable 17th Century. German mathematician John Sturmius put to paper the scandalous story of several Latvian noblemen (whose names weren't recorded out of decency and definitely not because he was making it up) exploding in great balls of fire. The theory behind this was that nobility, having access to the strongest of alcoholic spirits, would start building up inflammable gasses in their bodies. Eventually, these gasses would become so strong that caustic vapors would escape from their bodies and set themselves alight like the most incompetent flabby dragons. 

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And tales of self-combustion became even more popular in later centuries. According to Victorian physicians, over three hundred cases of self-combustion occurred in only two centuries -- mostly elderly women whose hands and feet would spontaneously fall off as well. And like their Renaissance forebears, doctors quickly pointed the finger at alchemical alcohol fumes being the culprit. 

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Now, skeptics could claim that drunk old Victorian ladies who smoked like chimneys and surrounded themselves with oil lanterns, stuffed couches and Persian rugs had plenty of opportunities to set themselves on fire the old-fashioned way. These skeptics include Dr. Joe Nickell, who after an extensive two-year-study concluded that most self-combustion reports seemed to intentionally not mention the ample opportunities for accidental self-immolation in favor of crafting a cautionary tale. At this point, it's probably prudent to point out that Victorian doctors weren't the biggest fans of alcohol (ab)use, and the scary story of someone exploding after one too many cups of gin would serve as a much more potent PSA than the dangers of old biddies falling asleep with a lit pipe next to their booze-splashed doilies. 

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3
The Sea Monk Was The 16th Century Solution To Finding A Holy Merman

In the Age of Sail, that time of great Maritime exploration, legends of the mermaid resurfaced with a passion akin to the passion sailors felt for getting jiggy with this half woman, half fish. But by then, the most enlightened minds posited: If mermaids exist, there has to be a proper mer-society for them to live in. That means mermen to have sex with, but more importantly, also mermen whose job is to make them feel bad about having mer-sex in the eyes of mer-God. And thus, mer-clergy was born. 

Johannes Sluperius, Wikimedia Commons
A face only Mer-God could love.
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In the 16th century, Scandinavia was scandalized by the arrival of the sea monk. Washed ashore on the strait between Denmark and Sweden, fishermen found a fish-like creature that did not just resemble a merman but particularly a mer-holy man. Later sources described the holy diver as having “a human head and face, resembling in appearance the men with shorn heads" but like other merfolk also "bearing a coating of scales, barely indicated the torn and severed limbs and joints of the human body.” Soon, more and more of these alleged deep-sea clergy arrived at the shores, and local kings fought to bring one to court -- probably to learn more about the aqua-adventures of their Mer-siah, Seazus. 

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Even more implausible, like twisted Pokemon, the sea monk also came in two distinct evolutions. There was the regular, tonsured layman of the deep blue ...

Pierre Belon, Smithsonian Institute Libraries
What? Even fish can have bald spots.

But also a 'sea bishop,' differentiated by his fancy squid-like hat...

Conrad Gesner, Smithsonian Institute Libraries
and ability to sell sea-pardons at the seashore...
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Speaking of squids, the reason this bit of creepy fish folklore didn't make into any Grimm fairy tales is that, by the 17th century, people were already very skeptical about the efficacy of the sea monk. The first in-depth study by Danish marine biologist Japetus Steenstrup claimed it was likely a giant squid -- the Age of Reason's favorite kaiju. But modern ichthyologists assume the sea monk was very likely a propped up angel shark, perhaps taxidermied in a curio called a "Jenny Hanniver" -- where hucksters would carve up fish to resemble the highly popular mer-monsters of the time. Whatever its true origin, the sea monk has since sunken once again into murky obscurity, with only a series of the most ridiculous fan art sketches to show for its brief tenure. 

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2
Modern Delhi Was Terrorized By A Half Man, Half Monkey

Did you know that the Indian city of Delhi had a monkey problem? No, I'm not talking about the city's 40,000 primate dwellers or their silly monkey hijinks like stealing food, attacking people or swiping Covid-19 tainted blood bags and smearing them all over the place. The only real monkey problem that Delhi ever had, was that of the dreaded Monkey Man. Half man, half monkey, all bite. 

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In 2001, dozens of Delhi locals were severely attacked in the streets and marked by bite and claw marks. But this wasn't like the other roughly 850 people who get attacked by monkeys in the city every year. All of them allegedly reported being attacked by some kind of were-monkey, an unholy cryptid standing five feet tall with a "monkey like face" wearing a black outfit, sports helmet and … roller skates?

Delhi Police Department
Monkey man's got nards!
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And the Monkey-man's reign of terror sure was devastating; not because there were any more attacks but because of the city-wide panic that ensued. The homeless fled to the roofs, police hotlines were flooded with fantastical reports and any mention of the mysterious macaque-man caused stampedes through the streets, resulting in 35 serious injuries and two actual deaths. Soon after, mobs armed with sticks, axes and swords started patrolling the streets, with one particularly tiny holy man being attacked by such a vigilante gang. And while the sticks and stones definitely broke his bones, being told he fitted the description of a horrifically ugly monkey monster must've hurt the holy man's feelings at least a little.

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It didn't help the panic-stricken people of Delhi that the local police took the Monkey Man sightings very seriously. And the force was split on what to believe: that these were simply the attacks of some very hirsute madman with iron monkey teeth, or that an actual Missing Link was roaming the streets looking for victims. Whatever this Monkey Man was (and let's state the obvious for a moment: it was just a large monkey) the perpetrator of the bite attacks was never apprehended, leaving this urban legend to expand exponentially over time much like a regular monkey expanding to the size of a monkey man. 

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1
A 20th Century Family Was Haunted By Gef, The Shit-Talking Ghost Mongoose

People from the past had a habit of blaming a lot of things on ghosts. An old manor creaking and groaning at night? Ghosts. Crops withering? Ghosts. A woman knowing how to read? Possessed by a male ghost. But even in their utter willingness to accept the spectral into their lives, it's hard to believe just how many people in the recent past bought into the tale of not just any ghost, but that of a friendly ghost who also happens to be a talking mongoose

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Meet Gef (like Geoff, not gif), the oh-so-adorable name of the Ghost of Dalby. In the 1930s, an odd family living on the Isle of Man started reported sightings of a very peculiar apparition. For this visitor was no man, but a mongoose. At least, that's what Irvings told the tabloids, despite describing this so-called mongoose as being the size of a small rat, having a bushy tail, gold-yellowish fur, oh, and having the ability to say in perfect English: “I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!” 

But this wasn’t just some talking rodent like Mickey Mouse. No no, that would be silly. This was a dead talking rodent brought back to life by unholy magic, deformed to the point of having wretched hands and feet like a human. Not that Gef minded, of course, because it helped him perform his favorite brand of helpful haunting. Instead of rattling tiny chains or making the walls drip with mongoose blood, Gef preferred to use his spectral presence to put out stoves at night and wake up people who forgot to set their alarm clock. How nice is that?

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Not that Gef was a spectral saint by any measure. The Irvings claimed his temperament could turn on a dime, one moment being jovial, another becoming an effing and jeffing Gef. Of course, no one else could verify this, as the ghost mongoose only showed himself to the Irving family. This attracted both skeptics and bona fide ghost hunters (and almost cost a BBC reporter his job in his "mad" pursuit of the truth), attracting a lot of attention -- and a bit of money to boot.

Sadly, the tale of Gef 'ended' with a bang and a whimper. Despite the dubious evidence that the Irvings provided (and, it should be noted, Voirrey Irving's talent for ventriloquism), Gef sightings couldn't pay the bills for their failing farmstead and the family had to leave in 1945. The house was then bought by actor Leslie Graham who, in a bit of publicity mongering of his own, claimed he had hunted down and shot Gef to death, not realizing that the ghost of the ghost of Gef would now haunt him forever.

For more far-fetched tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: Conrad Gesner, Wikimedia Commons

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