Skip To Content

    21 Disturbing Historical Facts That I Kind Of Wish I Hadn’t Heard

    Yep, there's no way I'm sleeping tonight.

    1. An entire factory crew happily worked with radium in the '20s – and most of them died horrifically of radiation poisoning not very long after.

    Juno Films

    When radium was first discovered, people didn’t realise how dangerous it was for a tragically long time. Its impressive glow-in-the-dark properties made it popular for use in paints, and many female factory workers were hired by the United States Radium Corporation to use it to paint watch dials (a coveted and well-paid job for women at the time). They were obviously unaware of the lethal properties of radium, and part of their job was to sharpen the point of their paintbrush with their teeth – ingesting the poisonous paint as they went. They would even sometimes mess around and paint their skin, teeth, and nails for fun. Years later most of the workers suffered terrible radiation-related ailments like decaying teeth, crumbling bones, and spines that crushed under their own weight.

    2. In the 18th century, a woman actually convinced doctors that she was giving birth to rabbits.

    A woman is laying on her back apparently in labour with rabbits running around her feet while people stand around her and exclaim in shock
    Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    Mary Toft reportedly ‘gave birth’ to up to nine of the fluffy creatures at a time! Doctors were convinced that she was telling the truth until they found pieces of corn inside the stomach of one of the rabbits, proving that it hadn’t developed inside Toft’s womb. It turned out that she had been manually inserting the rabbits to make the ‘delivery’ look as realistic as possible. Ew.

    3. Until very recently it was believed that babies couldn’t feel pain, so often had operations done on them without any anaesthesia.

    A baby sitting up and looking inquisitively at the camera
    Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

    Doctors would instead use muscle relaxers that had a paralytic effect to stop the baby from moving. This meant that while they couldn’t move or cry while they were being operated on they could still see, hear, and feel everything that was done to them. The belief that infants under the age of 15 months couldn’t feel pain was largely accepted until the late 1980s.

    4. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan killed so many peasants that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were significantly reduced as a result.

    Heritage Images / Getty Images

    During his 21-year reign, Genghis Khan’s destructive armies were responsible for the deaths of up to 40 million people. While his intentions for the massacres were anything but pure, with nobody left to farm the lands owned by the peasants they were eventually allowed to grow back into carbon-absorbing forests. It’s estimated that 700m tonnes of carbon were wiped from the atmosphere – around the same amount of carbon dioxide generated in a year through global petrol consumption!

    5. In 1930s London, parents used to hang their babies in cages outside their windows.

    A baby sitting in a cage strapped to the outside of an apartment building window several stories up
    Fox Photos / Getty Images

    To be fair to the parents of the time, with most people in London living in cramped apartments, a regular supply of fresh air (which was considered vital for a baby's development) was hard to come by. The contraptions were designed so that babies could still benefit from fresh air and sunshine despite not having a garden to safely play outside in.

    6. In 1518 the city of Strasbourg was hit by a ‘dancing plague’ where people would dance uncontrollably for days at a time.

    Brettmann / Getty Images

    It began with a single woman dancing solo for a few days, before eventually more and more people became affected. Doctors proclaimed that the illness was caused by overheated blood, and recommended that the inflicted should continue to shimmy and sway the fever away – musicians were even called in and a stage was set up in the town centre to give the ‘dancers’ more room. While the idea may seem funny at first, most of them kept dancing till they fell unconscious, and some died from exhaustion, heart attack, or stroke.

    7. A 7th-century woman gave birth after she had already died – and her case isn’t unique.

    Heritage Images / Getty Images

    Archaeologists discovered the mother’s remains laying face-up (suggesting a deliberate burial) with the skeleton of a foetus in between her legs, and only the legs of the baby still inside her. There have been very few other instances of this happening throughout history. It’s called coffin birth, and can happen when the pregnant corpse releases gasses while decomposing that pushes the stillborn foetus out.

    8. And while we're on the subject of strange occurrences from the grave – being buried alive was way more common than you might have thought in the 18th century.

    Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    At the time the mortality rate was so high that doctors weren’t always present to make sure the patient was actually dead, so witnesses would often take the apparent lack of breathing or a pulse as enough of a confirmation. The problem got so bad that people started taking additional measures to make sure the corpse was dead before burying them, including shouting in their ear, sticking needles under their toenails, and whipping them with nettles. In Germany they went a step further, and set up ‘hospitals for the dead’ to observe the rotting process before the bodies were buried. Some of these were around till the 1950s!

    9. A single tiger killed an estimated 436 people in Nepal and the Kuamon area of India at the turn of the 20th century.

    A tiger baring its teeth menacingly into the camera and climbing out of a pool of water
    Robert Cinega / Getty Images

    Although rare for tigers to attack humans – let alone eat them – it’s believed that over time the 'Champawat Tiger' became dependent on human meat to survive. As her natural habitat of grasslands and forest were destroyed to make room for timber and farmland, and smaller animals migrated or otherwise became scarce due to poaching, there seemed no choice but to attack nearby villages for sustenance. Her reign of terror lasted almost a decade till she was eventually killed in 1907.

    10. In the 19th century, a woman was hanged for killing the children that she promised to look after.

    Davidleshem / Getty Images

    Minnie Dean took in unwanted babies in an effort to make money, and many of them became sick and died, or mysteriously disappeared. Investigators eventually concluded that she had been killing the children in her care – it was even suggested she’d been disposing of their remains in hat boxes. She was the only woman to ever be given the death sentence in New Zealand.

    11. In the 1800s a LOT of dentures were made using the teeth of dead soldiers.

    Science & Society Picture Librar / Getty Images

    Dentures were a pretty big deal among the upper classes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Typically high-sugar diets combined with early attempts at teeth whitening (which wore away tooth enamel instead of brightening it) meant that their teeth were in quite a bad way. The easiest and most profitable way to acquire human teeth for dentures was to take them from the dead, and the battlefield at Waterloo presented thousands of recently-killed soldiers whose teeth were – unfortunately – ripe for the looting.

    12. In 1922 an entire family was murdered on their farm under very mysterious circumstances – the killer was never found.

    Roine Magnusson / Getty Images

    Known as ‘The Hinterkaifeck Murders’, the strange case follows the events surrounding five members of the Gruber family and their maid, who were killed in their home by what appeared to be a pickaxe-like object. In the days leading up to the murder there were footprints in the snow leading from the forest to the house but not back, a set of house keys went missing, and the previous maid was convinced the house was haunted due to strange noises coming from the attic. These suspicious events *probably* suggest somebody was staying inside the house – unnoticed by the family – before the murders took place.

    13. In Victorian England, people used to take pictures of their dead relatives in lifelike positions to keep as mementos.

    Netflix

    Since photography was so new and expensive at the time, this was often the only time a person would have had their picture taken – especially in the case of children and infants. Sometimes eyes would even be painted onto the photo after it was developed, to give the subject a more ‘lifelike’ appearance.

    14. Between the '70s and '90s, serial killer Dennis Rader would wait in his victims' homes to ensure they were at their most vulnerable before killing them.

    Handout / Getty Images

    Rader gave himself his own nickname of the ‘BTK killer’ – referring to his method of binding, torturing, and then killing his victims. Waiting in his victims’ homes – sometimes in the closet – and taking souvenirs from the scene of the crime became a part of his modus operandi.

    15. Human remains were a common ingredient in medicine until the 20th century.

    Fratelli Alinari Idea S.p.a. / Getty Images

    The remains were most commonly ground up into a fine powder that could be made into pills or stirred into drinks like hot chocolate! People thought that ingesting a certain part of the body would help to cure illnesses in that part of their own, for example crushed skull powder was believed to cure headaches. Mummy remains were particularly valued as remedies – in fact, there are so few mummies these days precisely because of this high demand for human flesh at the time.

    16. A novel about a seemingly ‘unsinkable’ ship that was hit by an iceberg was published in 1898 – 14 years before the Titanic sunk.

    Universalimagesgroup / Getty Images

    There are lots of other eerie similarities between the book and the real-life event: both ships suffered from an eventually tragic shortage of lifeboats, and the doomed ship in the book was called – wait for it – Titan.

    17. In the middle ages, if someone was hanged for a crime their body might have been left on the gallows for up to a few years.

    Raedwald / Getty Images

    'Gibbeting' – using a gallows to display the body of an executed criminal – was a common practice in the medieval period, often used to deter other people from committing crimes of their own.

    18. Dracula was based on a real person who lived in Transylvania the 15th century and had a similarly violent way of killing his enemies.

    Universal History Archive / Getty Images / Columbia Pictures

    The original Count Dracula was called Vlad Tepes (AKA ‘The Impaler’) whose gory habit of impaling his victims inspired the story of the fictional character. Leader of Wallachia (a small Transylvanian province), his gruesome methods of defending his land included inserting metal or wooden poles either through the perpetrator’s middle or vertically via their private parts till it pierced through their shoulders, neck, or mouth. The pole was sometimes blunt so as to not pierce any vital organs, making the victim’s death slower and even more painful.

    19. In 1929 a man was murdered in his shop and the killer escaped, somehow leaving it still locked from the inside.

    The New York Historical Society / Getty Images

    30-year-old Isidore Fink was shot three times inside his laundry business, which had been side-locked from the inside. No money was taken, and no weapon or substantial clue of any kind was found – except for a broken hinge on the small transom window above his door. Police had managed to get in through the broken window, although they used a child as it was too small for an adult to get through. Whether the baffling crime was committed by a kid or a very small adult, it still begs the question: if the killer had managed to crawl back through the transom window, why would they do this instead of simply unlocking and walking through the door?

    20. Huge ossuaries were set up throughout medieval and early modern Europe, where churches were elaborately decorated with thousands of human skeletons.

    Geography Photos / Geography Photos/Universal Image

    In an effort to save graveyard space, ossuaries were created to store skeletons. After a few years had passed and bodies were assumed to be sufficiently decomposed, they were exhumed to make space for the more recently deceased.

    21. Finally some books created in the 18th and 19th centuries were bound in real human skin.

    Heritage Images / Getty Images

    Called anthropodermic bibliopegy, the books were made much in the same way as regular leather-bound ones are, though using human rather than animal skin. There are less than ten tested-and-confirmed books of this kind that still exist, and their contents are mostly based on anatomy or erotica.