Bizarre History: Real Events That Are Stranger Than Fiction

Some things in life are just so unbelievable that it’s easier to write them off as myths. The world is full of strange coincidences, mix-ups, and downright strange occurrences that happen more often than many people might think. These bizarre instances are sprinkled throughout history, and although many of them have been exaggerated over time, a basic truth lies at their core. Prepare to question reality and learn plenty of facts to share at the dinner table, because these are some of the strangest moments in history that actually happened.

A Baboon Worked As An Assistant Railway Signalman

Jack working
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In South Africa, James Wide worked for the Cape Town-Port Elizabeth Railway service where he earned the nickname James “Jumper” Wide. This is because he was known for leaping between railcars, which is what he was doing when he fell and had both of his legs amputated.

Because he was now disabled, Wide purchased a chacma baboon named Jack in 1881, which he trained to push him in his wheelchair and operate the railway signals while under supervision.

Jack Worked For Nine Years

Jack the baboon
Reddit
Reddit

After people caught wind of the news that a primate was aiding in operating the railway, an investigation was launched to see his performance. After careful observation, Jack was deemed competent to perform his duties, and he was officially hired by the railroad.

It was decided that Jack would be paid twenty cents a day and a half a bottle of beer per week for his work. In his nine years as an assistant railway signalman, Jack apparently never made a mistake. Unfortunately, he passed away from tuberculosis in 1890.

The “Plague” That Caused People To Dance

Picture of people dancing
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Otherwise referred to as St. John’s Dance or the dancing plague, “dancing mania” occurred between the 14th and 17th centuries in mainland Europe. It resulted in groups of people, sometimes in the thousands, dancing until they eventually collapsed from fatigue.

While it began in Aachen, in modern-day Germany, it spread throughout Europe. At the time, it was assumed that the dancing was caused by some type of plague, although there is no absolute answer from modern-day scholars.

Theories Behind Dancing Mania

Picture of people dancing
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Over the centuries, people have debated whether dancing mania was a social phenomenon or symptoms of an actual illness. One of the most accepted theories is that the dancing individuals had ergot poisoning, resulting from tainted crops, that could cause hallucinations and convulsions.

Another theory persisted that individuals were dancing simply to relieve stress from all of the plagues and flooding at the time. Others claimed that religious cults organized dancing mania or that participants were physically or psychologically disturbed.

The 1904 Summer Olympic Games Were Different Than Most

Picture of Olympics
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The 1904 Summer Olympics were held in St. Louis, Missouri, making it the first time that the Olympic Games took place outside of Europe. The Russo-Japanese War had a large effect on the games, with only 62 of the 651 athletes that competed coming from countries other than North America.

Also, only 12 to 15 nations were present. While this already made this summer’s games unique, what happened during the marathon event would go down in history.

The Winner Hitched A Ride In A Car

Picture of Fred Lorz
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

During the marathon event, runner Fred Lorz was in fourth place during the race’s nine-mile mark. However, he collapsed due to severe cramping and was given a ride back to the stadium in a car.

Yet, when the car broke down after 10 miles, Lorz felt rested enough to continue the race. He then proceeded to run the last few remaining miles of the race, crossing the finish line in first place. He was even going to accept the gold medal until his joyride was revealed to the public. Claiming it was an elaborate joke, he received a lifetime ban.

A Beer Tidal Wave In London

Picture of brewery -1094429896
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Known as the London Beer Flood, the disaster took place at Meux & Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery, London, in October of 1814. Everything seemed to be in order until one of the brewery’s 22-foot-tall wooden vats of beer exploded.

The weight and pressure from the liquid rushing out then broke one of the valves of another container, bursting several more even large barrels. The result was between 154,000 and 388,000 gallons of beer pouring into the streets.

People Weren’t Cheering In The Streets

Picture of brewery
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While some might assume that a street overflowing with beer would call for a party, that wasn’t the case. The mass amount of liquid ended up collapsing the back wall of the brewery, flooding the living slums of St Giles rockery. Unfortunately, eight people lost their lives, with their cause of death being labeled as “causally, accidentally, and by misfortune.”

The brewery almost went bankrupt over the ordeal, although was saved by a rebate on the beer. After the event, the brewing industry slowly began the transition away from using wooden vats.

Violet Jessop Survived The Sinking Of The Titanic And Her Sister Ships

Sinking of the Titanic
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

As an ocean liner stewardess, her string of tragedies began back in 1911 when the RMS Olympic, the eldest of the Titanic’s sister ships, crashed into another ship. The accident didn’t result in any casualties, luckily.

Jessop continued her work and found a job on the RMS Titanic, which fatefully sank in 1912 and is known as one of the most disastrous shipwrecks in history. Finally, while serving as a stewardess for the British Red Cross during World War I, she was on the HMS Britannic when an explosion caused it to sink. She barely made it out alive.

She Didn’t Seem Fazed By These Disasters

Picture of Jessop
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the three shipwrecks that she survived, Jessop continued to work for White Star Line, as well as the Red Star Line and the Royal Mail Line. After her retirement in Great Ashfield, Suffolk, she received an unexpected phone call from someone claiming they were a baby that she had saved on the Titanic.

When her biographer, John Maxtone-Graham, suggested that it might have been a joke, Jessup responded, “No, John, I had never told that story to anyone before I told you now.” Today, Jessop is known as “Miss Unsinkable.” She died in 1971 at the age of 83.

Three People Died As A Result Of One Surgery

Picture of surgery
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

During the early 19th century, Robert Liston was considered to be one of the fastest and most skilled surgeons in Britain. However, during one procedure, something went terribly wrong. While performing a leg amputation, Liston was working so fast that he sliced off two of his assistant’s fingers.

Both the assistant and patient would later die of sepsis. The third person to die as a result of a procedure was a witness who believed they had been sliced by Liston’s knife on his way out and they reportedly died of shock.

He Was A Respected Surgeon

Picture of Liston
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Considered to be a revolutionary surgeon during the 19th century, Robert Liston worked before the introduction of anesthetics, which mean that operations needed to be performed with great haste for the patient’s pain and chances of survival.

He was described as “the fastest knife in the West End,” with the ability to perform the amputation of a leg in just under three minutes. For his work, an award was created in the medical field known as the “Liston Medal.”

A Bear Was An Enlisted Soldier In The Polish Army During World War II

Picture of bear
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

During World War II, when the Polish II Corps were evacuating from the Soviet Union, they purchased a Syrian brown bear as a cub at a railway station in Hamadan, Iran.

The soldiers went on to name it Wojtek, and so they could pay for his food and transportation, he was officially enlisted into the army under the rank of private. Over the course of Wojtek’s military career, he was eventually promoted to corporal in the army.

He Served Among The Ranks And Carried Ammunition

Statue of the bear
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Upon being purchased, Wojtek traveled with the majority of the Polish Corps II to Italy, where he served with the 22nd Artillery Supply Command. Because he was an enlisted soldier, he had his own paybook, serial number, and lived among the rest of the soldiers in a tent or wooden crate.

He carried artillery shells with the ability to transport boxes that would normally take four men, reportedly never dropping a single one. After the war, he was given to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life.

Nuclear War Was Prevented By One Person…Twice

Picture of explosion
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In the decades following World War II, the world was on the verge of nuclear war. The world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down, waiting for the other to make the first move.

Incredibly, a nuclear strike only happened on two occasions. Two other times, an all-out global nuclear holocaust was prevented by one person. If they hadn’t acted, who knows how things would have turned out.

The Two Men That Saved The World

Picture of flags
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

The first instance occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Soviet Admiral Valisi Arkhipov was on board a nuclear submarine near Cuba. Unable to find a radio signal, they were unsure if war had started and if they needed to act. There was a vote among the three officers to fire the weapon. Arkhipov voted no when they needed a unanimous vote to proceed.

The second happened in 1983 when Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov prevented nuclear war by identifying a false alarm in the Soviet nuclear missile detection system. Against military orders, he refused to engage and was right.

The Man That Survived Two Nuclear Bombs

Picture of a bomb
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

On the days of August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshiman and Nakasaki to end World War II. At this point, nuclear weapons had never been used, and their effects were devastating.

It’s estimated that besides the complete destruction of both cities, more than 9,000 people died, not to mention the horrible effects that survivors and their descendants suffered after. Yet, one man survived not one, but two of the blasts.

Meet Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Picture of Tsutomu Yamaguchi
Jemal Countess/WireImage
Jemal Countess/WireImage

In 2009, the Japanese government confirmed that a man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi managed to survive both of the blasts. On August 6, he was in Hiroshima on a business trip when he witnessed the first bomb being dropped, managing to escape with his life.

Returning to his home in Nagasaki on August 9, he underwent the horrible experience for a second time, once again surviving. Despite this horrendous stroke of bad luck, Yamaguchi lived to the age of 93.

Pepsi Once Had The Sixth Largest Military In The World

Picture of navy
Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance via Getty Images
Berliner Verlag/Archiv/picture alliance via Getty Images

During the “American National Exhibition” in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon got into a heated argument with Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev, which ended with him offering Khrushchev a bottle of Pepsi. Having enjoyed the beverage, Khrushchev wanted to bring Pepsi’s product to the Soviet Union.

Because Soviet Money was not recognized around the world, the Soviets offered to trade vodka for Pepsi. However, they couldn’t provide enough. So, they agreed to exchange a naval fleet for Pepsi drinks in 1989.

Pepsi’s Fleet Didn’t Last

Picture of Pepsi sign
Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

After the transaction, Pepsi had a total of 17 submarines, one cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer for three billion dollars worth of Pepsi product. Once the trade was made, the soft drink company had the sixth-biggest navy in the world.

The head of Pepsi even joked to the U.S. National Security adviser: “We’re disarming the Soviets faster than you are!” Unsurprisingly, Pepsi ended up selling its fleet to the United States, although Pepsi is still huge in Russia today.

Stopping For A Sandwich Helped Spark World War I

GPicture of Ferdinand and his wife
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist while visiting the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Ferdinand was there to inspect the Bosnia and Herzegovina forces, which had annexed Austria-Hungary in 1908.

Angered by this, a group of nationalists devised a plan to take out the archduke during his visit, in which they were successful. His death is credited with sparking World War I, which would end four bloody years later. Yet this could have all been avoided if it wasn’t for a sandwich.

A Coincidental Encounter

Picture of 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The initial assassination plan had been to use a bomb. However, the bomb ended up hitting the car behind the archduke’s, allowing him to escape. Annoyed by the failure, 19-year-old nationalist Gavrilo Princip stopped by a nearby cafe for a sandwich.

As the archduke was getting away from the scene, his car happened to stop right in front of the cafe that Princip was inside. This allowed him to shoot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at point-blank range, leaving them both dead and spiraling the world into war.

The Shortest War In History Lasted Under An Hour

Picture of destroyed building
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

The shortest war in history was the Anglo-Zanzibar War, a conflict that lasted between 38 and 45 minutes on August 27, 1896. The fighting resulted from the death of pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on August 25, 1896, and the succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash.

Barghash’s succession did not follow the treaty signed in 1886 that stated for a candidate to ascend to sultanate, they must first be permitted by the British consul. So, after a military standoff, the British began a bombardment that lasted under an hour.

The British Got Their Way

Picture of destroyed building
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

After the fighting had ceased, the British had killed around 500 individuals, with just one British sailor being injured. Suffering the quickest military defeat to date, Sultan Khalid received asylum in the German consult before finally fleeing to German East Africa.

Before anything else could happen, the British established their preferred Hamud bin Muhammad as the sultan in power, establishing a puppet government. This small yet bloody conflict was the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and the beginning of Britain’s control over it.

One Man Brought 24 Rabbits To Australia That Turned Into 10 Billion

Picture of rabbits
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Today, rabbits are considered to be an invasive species in Australia, wreaking havoc on the ecology of the land for more than 150 years. This issue with the rabbit population can all be traced back to one man named Thomas Austin.

Austin imported 24 rabbits for breeding in 1859, and introduced them to the land. While this may have been innocent, by the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that the rabbit population was over 10 billion.

It Didn’t Take Long For Them To Become A Problem

Picture of rabbit
Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Just years after Austin released the furry creatures in Australia, they began to multiply and migrate across the land, destroying an estimated two million acres. Their grazing damaged the vegetation, which then had negative effects on the surrounding ecosystem.

During the 19th century, fences were put up to protect as much of the natural land as they could. Then, by the 1950s, the Australian government took more drastic measures and began to keep the population under control through biological methods.

A WWII British Army Officer Was Known For Going Into Battle Wielding A Sword, Longbow, And Bagpipes

Churchill playing the bagpipes
Pinterest
Pinterest

Nicknamed “Mad Jack” Churchill, John Churchill was a British Army officer during World War II. Considered to be out of his mind by most of the soldiers that fought alongside him, he was known for going into battle wielding a longbow, a Scottish broadsword, and bagpipes.

Prior to some engagements, he would play his bagpipes for the troops to boost morale before jumping into the fray himself. He lived by his motto: “Any officer that goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed,” and was highly decorated for his bravery for his service during the conflict.

He Led A Pleasant Life After The Military

Picture of Jack Churchill
Sunday People/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Sunday People/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Later in his career, Churchill was stationed as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia. There, he developed a passion for surfing, becoming the first to surf River Severn’s tidal bore. He even designed his own surfboard.

Retiring from the military in 1959, he would spend his days sailing coal-fired ships on the Thames along with radio-controlled model warships. He was also known for frequently tossing his briefcase out of the train window. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 89.

Ernest Hemingway’s Brother Started His Own Country

Postage for New Atlantis
Pinterest
Pinterest

In 1964, Leicester Hemingway towed a large barge made of bamboo to the coast of Jamaica, where he declared it as a micro-nation, being half independent and half part of the United States. Young Hemingway believed this was possible by citing the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which said a US citizen could take ownership of unclaimed islands that had guano bird droppings.

Dubbing his nation “New Atlantis,” he drafted a constitution and created postage. Unfortunately, New Atlantis was destroyed in a storm two years later. Supposedly, the nation was going to serve as a marine research headquarters.

Leicester Hemingway Was A Writer, Too

Picture of Leicester Hemingway
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Although most people know about Ernest Hemingway and all of his antics and accomplishments, fewer people are familiar with his younger brother, Leicester. On top of his New Atlantis, Leicester was also a writer, authoring six books, including one about his experiences during World War II, The Sound of the Trumpet.

Leicester would also later go on to write his brother’s biography, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, which gained him credit in the writing world and was successful financially.