55 Facts That Show The Past Was Absolutely Gross
Aren't you happy to live in the modern, hygienic world that exists today? A world where you can easily wash your hands anytime you like, and must disinfect yourself with sanitizer every time you enter a building, and wear a mask to limit germ transmission, and submit to continual temperature checks in order to walk around publicly ... uh, all right, some of this might feel a tad excessive. But wow, is it infinitely better than the alternative you'd have to deal with if you lived centuries ago.
1. Dick Menstruation
Sure, you knew the past had some bad diseases. But did you know these included an ancient Egyptian parasitic worm that made men bleed out of their dicks? It was so common, people thought it was a necessary part of growing up.
2. Cat Piano
Johann Christian Reil arranged cats so hammers hit their tails, and they would cry out. Somehow, this was supposed to jump-start patients back into sanity. Rell, by the way, was not only a German psychiatrist -- he was the very man who coined the term "psychiatry."
3. Impotence Tests
No, not tests to privately discover if you were impotent. Tests to publicly prove you were. Early modern Europe had impotence as grounds for divorce, and the husband had to prove this deficiency in court, stripping and failing to get erect even as naked prostitutes caressed him.
4. Night Soil
People used to collect their feces in bowls and then just dump it out the window. Even kings got hit with the occasional unavoidable turd.
Rules of engagement hadn't been set in the American south of the 1700s. Fights generally involved eye-gouging, going right for the balls, and biting each other's noses, and this was all so common that preachers spoke of it in church.
6. Unemployed Whippings
7. Heppiri Otoko
This was an 18th-century term for a type of artist who'd fart for the sake of public entertainment. The English had flatulent royal jesters too, and if you go a little more recently, you have Le Petomane, the famous Frenchmen who'd play the national anthem using his butt.
8. Syphilitic Scalps
Those goofy white wigs don't look so bad; they just seem like an old fashion trend. Until you learn why they became popular: to hide sores from syphilis. They also smelled terrible and were powdered with white lead.
In other periods, syphilis might lead you to become a pariah, with your only recourse wearing a ninja mask to hide your missing nose. Even mild diseases like psoriasis could be mistaken for leprosy and force you into total isolation -- or even legal execution.
10. Wig Thieves
Despite how gross they were, wigs were prized and expensive. And so highwaymen would steal wigs off people's heads, sometimes cutting their way into carriages, sometimes replacing the expensive wig with a filthy imitation before the wearer realized what was happening.
11. Splinter Butt
Before we settled on toilet paper (or the convenient anal hose), people as recently as the 1930s were wiping themselves with rough stuff that gave them splinters. Still better than the idea written about by one French monk: wiping with a live goose.
12. Bloody Voting
Try voting in 19th-century America if you were eligible, and you might expect a party carrying a tub of blood to squeeze blood on your face with a sponge. Other times, they'd get less subtle and simply stab you with an awl.
13. Ghost Photographers
14. Violent Audiences
The trope of audiences pelting a performer with tomatoes is a sanitized version of what really happened. Audiences would throw steel rivets, pig bones, and even the corpses of cats and dogs.
15. Sex Witnesses
Royal sex was so crucially linked to a nation's political future that it couldn't be left to chance. Attendants had to be present in the couple's bedroom to witness them having sex. Or failing to have sex, as the case may be -- some kings' poor performance was recorded, reported, and the matter of public discussion.
16. Naked Zealots
We're not talking about peaceful nude hermits. We're talking about the Ranters, who ran naked through 17th- and 18th-century England fully erect and had sex in public squares.
17. Fire Toilets
Roman toilets would occasionally erupt in open flames. Incantations on the walls and images of the goddess Fortuna were all you had to protect you from the improperly stored human waste igniting and taking your nether parts with it.
18. Toilet Rats
That wasn't the only threat from Roman toilets. Giant rats lived in the sewers, and the city hadn't yet figured out how to keep them from climbing up pipes. Rats peeking up and snacking on your genitals was a very real concern.
19. One-Legged Aussies
At the end of the 19th century, Australia was home to the Crutchie Push, a gang of one-legged men who'd jab targets with their crutches. They were harder to catch than you might imagine, and the leader, Valentine Keating, easily outran the cops when they tried arresting him.
20. Anti-Vampire Measures
21. Castration Cults
Rome had a cult based on the Greek goddess Cybele, and adherents modeled them after her consort, a eunuch. That meant they had to castrate themselves publicly -- removing the berries and the stem -- with serrated scissors.
22. Nightwalker Nurses
Those few 19th-century nurses who weren't drunk and killing patients were often prostitutes, sentenced to nursing as a punishment. If that sounds kind of fun, note that such nurses had no training and would have sex with patients mostly as a prelude to looting their dead bodies.
23. The Deadly Vomit Trials
The Malagasy people of Madagascar had a method called tangena for determining guilt. You'd swallow poison, and also three pieces of chicken skin. Successfully vomit up all three pieces? You were declared innocent. The trial killed some half of those subjected to it, and in 1838, one-fifth of the entire Imerina kingdom died failing the trial.
24. Cleansing Piss
Urine was a catch-all cleaning agent. Roman laundromats ran largely on urine, which was why launderers created the first public toilets, so they could collect people's precious pee. People would also gargle urine for the sake of hygiene.
25. Phone Braces
The weight of early phones did not stop offices from trying to make them hands-free to increase worker productivity. You'd have to wear a 6.5-pound phone strapped to your head.
26. Cannibal Apocalypse
The Siege of Leningrad killed over a million people. When the Russians weren't dealing with the total cutoff of supplies by cooking sawdust soup, they started eating each other. Parents fed younger children to older ones and kept kids off the street so they wouldn't be snatched by cannibal hordes.
27. Lover's Eyes
28. Exploding Skulls
The volcanic eruption at Pompeii was horrific, of course. But it turns out ash suffocation wasn't the worst way to die. Before the ash came superheated gas, which literally boiled people's brains, causing their skulls to explode.
29. Filthy Baths
Attitudes toward bathing varied widely across the centuries and different cultures. Medieval bathhouses were communal and also functioned as dinner venues and brothels, so they weren't terribly hygienic. By the 18th century, home tubs were still used by the whole family, with dad going first and everyone else then soaking in his used water.
Someone had to clean out medieval cesspits. That job fell to the gong farmer, who would have to jump into the pit to shovel the stuff into a bucket. Many died young from disease, plenty suffocated down there, and at least one gong farmer drowned to death in the poop.
31. Vagina Fish
Some old cultures highly valued virginity, and they figured that a bride's wedding night should come with bleeding. To satisfy expectations of what a ruptured hymen should look like, many brides would insert a fish bladder into their vagina beforehand. Bird intestines were another option.
32. Marital Combat
Disputes between husbands and wives sometimes took the form of trial by combat in the Middle Ages. As a handicap, the man had to stay in a pit and lash out with clubs. The woman stood aboveground and fought with a sack of rocks.
33. Werewolf Trials
Along with the very reasonable fear of witches, Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries suspected people might be werewolves. Thousands were executed for this offense. Circumstantial evidence included proximity to tomatoes.
No, we're not talking about the modern spa practice. We're referring to the 17th-century Dutch practice, in which doctors held you underwater till you stopped struggling and then tried to resuscitate you. The goal was to shock you out of mental illness.
36. Tranquilizing Chair
Here's another old treatment for mental illness. Strap the patient into a chair and cover their head to limit outside stimuli. Then, cut them open, so all their bad humors can drain into a bucket.
37. Horse Corpses, Horse Poop
Before cars, cities had to deal with a more visceral form of pollution: horse droppings. New York got covered in 100,000 tons of manure a year, and 10 million gallons of horse piss. They also had to deal with removing some 40 dead 1,500-pound horses from the streets every day.
38. Anal Surgeries
A 14th-century surgeon named John of Arderne devised a way of treating anal fistulas. He'd stab through the fistula, thread a rope through the opening and out through the anus, then draw the rope tight so he could start hacking. The procedure only killed half of patients, so good for him.
39. Bootlegger Bombers
Prohibition would have been difficult to live through. Not just because of the lack of alcohol. Also because those gangs who bootlegged alcohol would attack one another with homemade tanks and bombs dropped from planes.
40. Tied-Off Foreskins
Greeks were cool with athletes getting naked, as you may well know. They weren't so cool with erections, though, or with exposed glans, so men wore something called a kynodesme, which tied the foreskin shut. The name translates as "dog leash."
41. Smoke Up Your Ass
42. The Big Stink
In 1858, the Thames got clogged with sewage, a heatwave set in, and the smell was so bad, Parliament had to relocate to a rural area upstream. It took a disaster this big to convince the city to install modern plumbing.
43. Vomity Love Potions
In the Middle Ages, love potions used ambergris, which is either whale vomit or comes out of whale's butts. Actually, even some modern perfumes have used ambergris, so here are a few other old-timey love potion ingredients: hyena eyes, worms, and menstrual blood.
44. Wife Selling
What if you couldn't get a divorce in 18th-century England? The accepted upon alternative was for the man to sell his wife to a new husband in a public market.
45. Pee Wheat
Ancient Egyptians had a surprisingly effective method of testing for pregnancy. You'd pee on a sack containing a wheat seed, and if the wheat sprouted, someone was growing in your belly. The resulting bread was delicious, one assumes.
46. Animal Testicle Transplants
A French doctor first came up with the idea of making people stronger by transplanting into them the testicles of executed convicts. He quickly ran out of convicts, so he moved on to transplanting monkey testicles.
47. Hatpin Stabbings
19th-century women faced such regular sexual harassment that they took to using their hatpins to stab transgressors. Editorials encouraged women to stab men directly through their balls, and the offenses worthy of stabbing quickly moved from sexual attacks to simply rude questions.
48. Poison Candy
49. The Bone Flute
In India, 1,500 years ago, yogis created flutes out of human leg bones. You can listen today to what these sound like.
50. Gross Dentistry
Toothpaste used to be made of lizard livers or mashed-up mice. Sometimes, dentists would try implanting animal teeth to replace the ones you lost, which wouldn't be so bad, except they hadn't quite figured out how to make this actually work and not leave your mouth an infected mess.
51. Sealed In A Sack
In the 17th century, teenagers were allowed to spend the night together, but, to prevent full-on intercourse, the girl was first tied into a sack, which was sealed tight around her waist. Then both were tucked into a bed, with a wooden plank separating the two of them.
52. Poena Cullei
That's not the worst way you could be sacked. This ancient Roman punishment would leave you sewn into a leather sack with live animals -- snakes likely, or maybe dogs or monkeys. Then they'd throw you in the river, which would both kill you and appease the gods.
A rich family in the 18th century might pay you to go to hell on their dead loved one's behalf. Sadly, this did not pay very well, and you couldn't offer the service many times.
54. Cop Molestation
As much as people object to cops now, at least we don't have the plague of fake policemen that 17th-century London had. These men kept coercing women into sex, and one tried pressing his target's husband into the Navy to get him out of the picture.
55. Execution Plays