4 Creepy Ways History Was a Never-Ending Horror Show
As much as we like to complain about all the bullshit the world is throwing at us today, our Internet-less, video-game-free ancestors had it way, way worse. For instance, did you know that just a couple of generations ago, so many countries were at war that basically the whole world was fighting? Twice. Someone should come up with a catchy name for that.
But we're not talking about global combat today, nor are we discussing that time Baron d'Ickead stole your great-great-grandpa's fields and, as it turned out, your great-great-grandma. Even if everyone had been peaceful and prosperous throughout human history, just the most mundane activities of yester-century were more than enough to knee the modern man's common sense right in the dick. For instance ...
Poop Used To Be A Cure-All Medicine
Let's say you're a young Egyptian living in the Ptolemaian age. You've managed to score a pretty sweet and well-paid gig in the pyramid-building field and are just figuring out how to pull off that torso-sideways walk, when a terrible ailment strikes you: You're too hungover to show up at the building site. Fearful that your daily motivational lashings will be upgraded to "let's make an example out of that guy" ones, you head for the doctor in the vague hope that ancient wisdom had the whole hangover-cure thing figured out. And it's your lucky day: The doc totally gets you and prescribes you a vial of some strange, no doubt effective ointment. It's just that, when you open the bottle, it smells a lot like your house six hours after your dog managed to find and eat several sticks of butter.
Which may or may not be because your groundbreaking hangover medicine is poop, with some herbs and stuff mixed in. Turns out, ancient Egyptians were massive fans of the medicinal use of shit for a vast variety of illnesses and ailments. Of course, they didn't just prescribe a turd Snickers for a broken arm. Unfortunately, this is because that would have been too sane. Poop medicine was almost an art form for Egyptian doctors. Feces from various animals -- up to and very much including humans -- was used to cure ailments ranging from burns to eye disease.
Sometimes, the prescribed treatment was to fumigate the patient externally with poopy ointments, aka a literal shit shower, aka the absolute worst thing to subject someone weakened by a disease and/or wound to. Yet doctors habitually touted the health benefits gained from treatments such as, and I quote, smearing feces "all over the parts of the mouth and throat and then swallowed down the belly." Even sex wasn't safe; they had a crocodile-shit pessary for contraceptive purposes.
Presumably, roughly 120 percent of all ancient Egyptians had permanent pink eye.
The fact that most Egyptians died before they reached their 40s is probably just a coincidence.
While Egyptians are generally considered a fairly advanced lot, their medical coprophilia managed to raise a few eyebrows in their peers and later generations. Even the Greeks, who were no strangers to poop-related medicine themselves, wrote about Egyptian medical practices in saucer-eyed, unbelieving terror. Luckily, poop was just one biological element of the Egyptian doctor's arsenal.
Unfortunately, some of the others included menstrual blood, urine, and sweat.
We Used To Dick Around With Horrifying Radioactive Substances Without A Second's Thought
OK, let's leave the poop medicine as quickly as possible, Quantum Leap-style. Now you're in the body of a woman in the year 1917, looking forward to spending some time in an industrialized, marginally less poop-tainted era. Eager to check out the nightlife of this notoriously jazzy time, you set out to earn some party money by working in a factory with a number of other young ladies. Your job is pretty sweet, as instead of the heavy machine operatin' bullshit you were dreading, you're tasked with painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on the faces of watches. As such, the atmosphere in the factory is cozy and relaxed. Many of the girls start fooling around with the paint, painting their nails and even teeth with it and scaring each other by creeping around dark corners like rave Nosferatus.
Joining the fray and wanting to be accepted among your clearly Burning Man-oriented new friends, you grab your brush and give it a big ol' lick, coating your tongue in this awesome new glowy material.
Called radium ...
Wait, shit, what? Radium is the opposite of harmless. Its chemical composition is 15 percent whatever bullshit, 85 percent all the cancer. And you painted your fucking teeth with it.
"Uh, yeah. Totally just the teeth."
Congratulations! You just became one of the Radium Girls, a group of factory workers that were told that the paint they were working with was totally harmless and soon developed all sorts of horror-symptoms thanks to licking their brushes to keep them sharp and generally treating the paint as such. I'm not going to recap their frankly horrifying symptoms, because comedy article, people, so let's just state for the record that the words "rotting jaws" feature in the description and leave it at that.
Not that you'd necessarily have been safe from radium bullshit even if I hadn't arbitrarily placed you in the worst place to experience radioactivity before Hiroshima came along. As we've mentioned before, this was an era that sported a massive boner for all things radium and precisely zero thought re: whether this shit that glows in the dark we haven't really scienced through yet might maybe have some harmful effects. As such, the 1920s featured scores of gleefully radioactive consumer products, from facial cream to chocolate and even freaking children's toys.
I'm pretty sure Daredevil's origin story featured one of these.
And that, dear reader, is why your grandfather has a tail.
Corpse Medicine Used To Be A Common Thing
Corpse medicine is exactly what you suspect. We've already told you how ground-up mummies were a popular medicine among people lacking the "what the hell, seriously?" bone in their body, which back then was everyone. However, that was just one of the many, many cannibalistic medications doctors of had in their arsenal. From the anecdotal and possibly fictional "mellified man" (an elderly dude turned into super-medicine via complex honey-ingestion suicide and 100 years in honey marinade) to the sweat of a dying man (a patent cure for hemorrhoids!) and gladiator blood (a fallen gladiator could be swarmed by folks seeking to drink his blood for its magical healing purposes!), the old cannibal chorus has been sung through an uncomfortable amount of eras.
Even royalty got in on the action; Charles II of England, an alchemy enthusiast, used to peddle a popular cure-all medicine called "King's Pills," a novel mixture of opium and the powdered skull of a violently deceased man.
Frighteningly, this would not be a huge deal if you were equipped with the moral and intellectual values of the era. After all, the medical elite once used to think corpse medicine was legitimately the tits, sometimes literally. They used that shit like ibuprofen. But even taking into account the natural bell curve of stupid in relation to decreasing-year numbers, you have to admit that's pretty fucked up. It's impossible to imagine why one person, let alone an entire society, would agree that the human-ingredients version of hot dogs would make good medicine.
Water Used To Be A Video Game-Style Death Sentence
Remember all those video games where the otherwise invincible hero is so susceptible to water that the merest contact instantly murders him so hard a puddle stalks his family to the seventh generation and shanks them in a dark alley as they're hobbling home from the pub? That's not video game designers being dicks; it's them giving in to ancestral memory.
The Tudor era was suffering from a strange dilemma: Cities were getting bigger and luxuries like water pipes were becoming a thing, which hitched up the water consumption of those without pipes as well, because trends, man. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people still had to fetch their water from rivers, ponds, and whatnot, which was bad fucking news. Getting water from potentially perilous sources daily eventually became routine, and you stopped paying attention to every step, which is the exact opposite of how you should behave near water when you almost certainly can't swim for shit and are wearing extremely heavy woolen clothing. As a result, an estimated 40 percent of all premature deaths in Tudor England were due to drowning (as opposed to the 2 percent or so today).
And it wasn't just that one area and period. During the settling of New Zealand, so many settlers drowned that it was commonly known as The New Zealand Death. You can find examples all throughout history, which is just plain weird to me, because you'd think that swimming would be one of the most basic survival skills ... in an era where survival was your daily short-term goal.
But hey, at least they weren't drinking poop.
Pauli is a Cracked weekly columnist and freelance editor. Here he is on Facebook and Twitter.
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For more from Pauli, check out 5 Creepy Murder Mysteries From History We'll Never Solve and 5 Real Advanced Weapons Clearly Designed By A Toddler.