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16 Dark Historical Events That Might Have Slipped Your Notice

I’ve been trying to decide lately why it is that people are so fascinated by true crime stories, and I think there’s something about the depths of human depravity that just draws us.

Like, we want to see if there’s a bottom to what we are capable of, maybe, or we want to imagine what we would do if confronted by it in real life.

I don’t know, but I do know that the same fascination seems to apply to dark and twisty historical events, too – so you’re definitely going to be into these lesser-know, but still creepy, real life events.

16. Watch the movie, if you’ve got a strong stomach.

There’s a surprising amount of people that don’t know about the Rwanda genocide that happened pretty recently (like when Bill Clinton was president). Basically there were two “types” of Rwanda natives: the Hutus and Tutsis.

The Hutus believed the Tutsis were invaders of land that was theirs, and after the assassination of the Rwandan leader (who was a Hutu), the Hutus were ordered to “chop down the tall trees” which meant kill the Tutsis. The “differences” between Hutus and Tutsis were that Hutus were supposedly darker-skinned, shorter in stature, and had shorter faces. That’s why the Tutsis were called “tall trees.”

The events that followed killed so many Tutsis, yet the UN was stingy to call it a genocide (they never like using that term because of its association with WWII and the Nazis). It wasn’t until very recently that the killings stopped. To this day, Hutus and Tutsis that survived the genocide speak at events side-by-side speaking about how terrible the events were.

15. I hope they paid for that guy’s therapy.

Once in the seventies, a film crew was filming an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, and they were shooting at an amusement park fun house kind of thing.

A stage hand was moving what he thought was a prop wax figure on a noose, only for one arm to fall off, revealing human flesh and bone underneath.

After an autopsy, it was revealed to be the 60 something year old corpse of an old wild west outlaw that had been taxidermied to an extent.

14. Just ask Cleopatra.

In my family’s region in Africa they used to carry out the death penalty by snakebite.

Just a snakebite to each ankle, and then letting the man spend his remaining time with his family before he died (under supervision).

I thought it sounded sort of humane in a way, like our lethal injections, but apparently they say it was one of the most horrific ways that existed

13. The stuff of nightmares.

The Ideal Maternity Home here in Canada. From the 1920s till the 1940s, they took in babies from unwed mothers and they were selling them especially to desperate jewish families in New Jersey (adoption was illegal in the US back then).

It was later discovered that the people who ran this business would starve the “unmarketable” babies by feeding them only molasses and water (the babies would last around 2 weeks on this diet).

They put the corpses in wooden box often used for butter and that’s why the victims are called the Butterbox Babies. The boxes were either buried on the property or at sea or burned in the home furnace. The parents who gave their child to this maternity home would go back and see how their child is doing but were told the child has died when in fact it had been sold to adopting parents.

Between 400 and 600 died in that home and at least a thousand were adopted but sadly, the adopted babies often suffered from diseases because of the unsanitary conditions and lack of care at the home.

12. Hard to blame him.

The sad case of Ota Benga. He was a “pygmy” boy from the Congo who was essentially captured and brought to the USA to be displayed in freak shows. He had undergone tribal customs such as having his teeth filed into points before his capture.

He eventually got out of the carnivals and dreamed of returning to Africa, then WWI happened, making the trip impossible for the foreseeable future. He committed suicide by gunshot.

11. That whole thing stinks.

The Cadaver Synod

Basically the pope had a previous Pope’s corpse exhumed so the corpse could stand trial for something made up. So they dug up his bloated 7 month old corpse and convicted him, retroactively nullifying his papacy. Then they dumped his bloated and convicted corpse in a river.

The people got pissed and overthrew the pope, who was strangled in prison. The next pope came along and had the corpse collected from the river and its papacy posthumously reinstated.

897 was a crazy year.

10. Why was there no fire gear?

The death of Roger Williamson, at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix.

In the 1970s era of Formula 1, the cars weren’t far off from being an overpriced metal coffin on wheels, surrounded by highly flammable fuel, and during the Dutch Grand Prix, this became painfully obvious indeed.

Roger Williamson crashed out after a tyre puncture, and his car came to rest upside down, with him trapped inside. He was not seriously hurt by the crash, but then the fuel tank ignited and the car burst into flames. Another driver named David Purley was behind Williamson when the crash occurred, and he saw the whole crash unfold. Purley stopped his car on the other side of the track, ran across an active race track, and proceeded to try and save Williamson’s life.

This is where the dark part of it comes in, and depending on your sensibilities, downright outrageous and disgraceful. None of the trackside marshals had any fireproof equipment, which prevented any of them from helping Purley to right the burning car; they also had a grand total of one, yes one fire extinguisher between them, which was incapable of putting out the flames. Additionally, not a single other driver who saw the calamity stopped to help, despite Purely’s frantic waving to them, to try and get anyone to assist in saving Williamson’s life.

Meanwhile, Race Control decided not to halt the race despite a flaming wreck being present on-track, and it took almost 10 minutes before the fire engine arrived on-site, by which point, Williamson had asphyxiated from the smoke and flames. As soon as the fire was out, they simply put a blanket over the burned-out car and continued racing. Later on, other drivers and the race controllers would claim that they assumed Williamson’s car was actually Purley’s, and that there was no-one at risk at that time; something that the many hundreds of people within the grandstands would strongly disagree with, there.

Yeah, Williamson burned to death right in front of a grandstand packed with spectators, who all got a front row seat to watching Williamson die before their very eyes.

So there you have it; a young, promising driver slowly being burnt alive over the course of 10 minutes; a second driver desperately trying in vain to save his life; a group of marshals woefully underequipped for the job; indifferent drivers; incompetent race control and a disaster which shook Formula 1 to its core.

As a result of this debacle, changes were made to try and avoid this type of event occurring again in the future. The biggest change was the mandate that marshals should wear fireproof clothing, and it was also noted that drivers were more willing to stop at accident sites to assist in rescuing fellow drivers; This was most clearly seen during the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, where Guy Edwards, Harald Ertl, Brett Lunger and Arturo Merzario all pulled over to assist in getting Niki Lauda out of his burning Ferrari, after the infamous crash that took him out of the German, Austrian and Dutch Grands Prix.

9. A bit of survivor’s guilt.

The New London School Explosion. On the afternoon of March 18, 1937, the shop teacher at the school in New London, TX turned on an electric sander. Unbeknownst to him, there was a massive natural gas leak under the school. The sander sparked, which ignited the gas and caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 students and teachers. It was absolutely horrific. The force of the explosion was so great that a two ton block of concrete crushed a car parked 200 feet away. This event is actually why natural gas has a smell now. They started adding it after the explosion so that something like this couldn’t ever happen again.

My grandfather was actually one of the survivors of the explosion. He never talked about it, even to his own family, so I didn’t really know too much about it (other than the fact that he’d survived) until after his death. Toward the end of his life, he’d suffered a series of strokes that left him pretty physically incapacitated, so my dad had given him a voice-activated tape recorder and suggested maybe he could record his memoirs for his grandkids to listen to someday. As it turns out, he did. We have hours and hours of cassette tapes of him telling the story of his (actually very interesting) life, including a big section on the New London school explosion. For the sake of everyone’s privacy, I’ll call my grandfather Papa and use an initial for anyone else.

Papa was in eighth grade when it happened, in his English class at about 3:00 PM on a Thursday afternoon. At the beginning of class, Papa and his buddy T had been messing around and being loud in the back of the classroom (as eighth grade boys often do). His teacher, Miss M, had enough of their disruptions and made Papa switch seats with another student. He moved into the girl’s desk in the front row, and she moved back into his desk in the back of the room.

When the school exploded, they were taking a test on the book Ivanhoe. Papa was knocked out for a short time, and when he woke up, he couldn’t see anything because the dust was so thick. He looked down and saw that his pencil had blown clear through his hand. When the dust cleared, he saw that the whole back of the room was gone. I won’t go into details, but there were bodies (and parts of bodies) everywhere. The students in the front half of the room survived.

The students in the back half did not. That included Papa’s friend T and the little girl who’d been forced to take Papa’s desk because of his misbehavior at the beginning of class. If he hadn’t been acting up, he would have been killed and she would have lived. He carried the guilt of her death until the day he died.

Papa’s classroom was on the second floor. There wasn’t any way to get to the room other than the open cavity of the explosion. After the few seconds of initial shock wore off, he and another classmate jumped into action. They were the only two kids in the class who hadn’t been badly injured. They made a tourniquet out of a sock and a shoelace for a girl with a severe injury to her arm and dug out their teacher, who was alive, but badly injured. By then, men were running up underneath the hole, so Papa and the other boy started lowering the injured to them. Then those who could walk, including Papa, climbed down. He ran off to look for his older brother, B, to see if he was OK.

As it turned out, B had been supposed to be in Geometry class. However, he and his buddy had snuck out to go fishing. The explosion happened as they were opening the door to head out to the parking lot. The force of the blast sent them tumbling head over foot across the lot. They were both banged up and dazed, but they survived. The rest of their Geometry class was killed. I don’t know that there’s a moral in the fact that both my grandfather and his brother survived because they were misbehaving that day. I do know that it weighed very heavily on both of them for he rest of their lives.

There’s a lot more to his story about the day and the aftermath (most of it absolutely horrific), but I won’t go into all of it here. A few small tidbits though:

Papa and the boy who helped him rescue the other students from their classroom were both awarded medals and certificates of valor for their actions that day.
Nearly every family in town lost a child – some all of their children. I’m sure you can imagine the extreme toll this took on everyone’s mental health. Papa described New London in the months following the explosion as a “town with no children.” To help with the healing process, the oil companies actively recruited families with kids to transfer in, so that there was some sense of normalcy when school started again in the fall.

Papa had played French horn in the school band. However, when school started up again, he was asked to switch to trumpet, as the entire trumpet section had been killed.

A few years later, my grandfather went on to fight in World War II, and he saw some of the worst conflict in the Pacific (including Peleliu and the liberation of Manila). But he said that nothing he saw during the war was ever as bad as what he saw the day of the explosion. I’m always amazed that more people don’t know about it. It was major international news at the time.

8. Color me not-shocked.

In the 1920’s, the Osage Indians (Oklahoma, USA) discovered one of the largest oil fields on earth. They went from being poor, to being the richest civilization on earth over night. Imagine Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk living on the same street. The Osage were building mansions, hiring servants, driving exotic cars, and the women were marrying white men as trophy husbands.

It wasn’t long before people started moving into town and exploiting them. Slowly, one by one, they began being murdered. By the end, hundreds had died. The men were hiring people to kill their wives. Lawyers were drawing contracts to transfer oil rights and tricking the Osage into signing them. It was so crazy that it led to the birth of the FBI. This was one of their original investigations, and is still largely unsolved.

Martin Scorsese is currently writing/directing a movie about it. It’s going to be based on the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” which is where I learned about it. Super interesting read.

7. Some things never change.

The San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904 was a terrible, scary time when the Black Plague was beginning to ravage San Francisco. California’s governor tried to suppress information about the outbreak and restrict any activities to curtail it because he feared economic damage to the state.

He even tried to get the doctor who was warning people about the outbreak fired. What information did get out was used against the Chinese residents as it was believed that it was a disease of the “unclean.”

Had it not been for the earthquake in 1906 that devastated the city, the plague outbreak would have probably been more remembered.

6. It’s always the scientists.

The Vipeholm Experiment.

Sweden are mostly known as a not very scary country. With good and mostly accessible dental care.

Hey, you are institutionalized and suffering and powerless – let’s make your teeth rot out of your skull. For uhhh science.

5. I wouldn’t put it past them.

During prohibition the government funded and lead an operation to release barrels of alcohol that they had poisoned to make people sick and shy away from bootleg liquor.

Lots of people ended up dying but people still drank more than ever.

4. If executions could be funny.

Anyone who’s familiar with Mary, Queen of Scots most likely knows that she was beheaded, but many people don’t know how she was beheaded. My APUSH teacher told my class this story and it’s probably one of the most simultaneously interesting, funniest, and saddest executions in history.

The first thing to note was that Mary wore a red dress rather than a white one for a very specific reason: after the execution of a royal or high-class person, commoners would often tear off blood-stained fabric from their clothing solely to flex that they got their hands on the blood of a noble. With red fabric, it would be difficult to see actual blood on the dress. Smart move on Mary’s end.

During the actual execution, it was said that Mary’s executioner was not very experienced and actually missed the initial swing, jamming the axe or whatever weapon they used into the back of her head rather than through her neck. This didn’t kill her yet, though, and she instead made some sort of medieval olden-time exclamation that can be roughly translated to “goddamn!”

After the executioner was done, he picked up her head by the hair, not knowing it was a wig, and the head fell out and rolled onto the floor (thanks Plug_5 and moiochi for reminding me)

After Mary was properly killed, her body was left for public viewing, but the audience was surprised to see her red dress start to rustle before allowing Mary’s small terrier dog to climb out from underneath. Tragically, the dog refused to leave the body and eventually passed away after staying at the same spot for a lengthy amount of time.

History buffs, please feel free to make any corrections as I heard this story a while ago and probably made a few errors in my recalling! 🙂

TL;DR: Mary, Queen of Scots avoided crazy memorabilia-savers at her execution with a very intelligent move, got shanked in the head during a failed attempt, the executioner dropped her head onto the floor, and had her dog in her dress with her the entire time

3. I’m sorry, what?

In the early 80’s, Bayer knowingly sold millions of dollars worth of HIV and hepatitis tainted medications to Asia and Latin America.

These countries didn’t have laws to prevent the proliferation of tainted drugs. Thousands of people died as a result.

It was hardly mentioned on any news platforms.

2. It’s pretty messed up.

The Radium Girls. In the 1920s, they worked at a watch company painting the hours on the watches using radium, a radioactive element that glows in the dark. They did this with no PPE and weren’t told radium is dangerous. Meanwhile, the chemists had full PPE and worked in a sealed environment.

Worse, they were instructed to lick the tip of the brush to make a very fine point. Some of them would paint their nails or their teeth with it for fun when they went out at night.

They would develop cancer whenever the paint touched, and many of them had such decay in their jaws that their mandibles had to be held on with bandages.

1. I think those passengers have suffered enough.

The Halifax Explosion.

Regarded by many as the biggest man-made explosion prior to the invention of the atomic bomb. A ship laden with explosives collided with another vessel in Halifax Harbour. The resulting explosion flattened much of the city’s downtown core, killing roughly 2,000 and injuring 9,000.

The blast is said to have temporarily displaced the water in the harbour, forming a tsunami that reached up to 15 metres high, surging over the wreckage of the waterfront.

The following day, Halifax was hit by a blizzard that dumped 40 cm of snow on top of the city, further complicating rescue efforts.

The city is also home to a cemetery where many victims of the Titanic were laid to rest. It is said that the body identification system developed at the time of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 aided efforts to identify victims of the Halifax explosion in 1917.

I didn’t know about some of these, but I’m so glad that I do now!

If you’re a history buff, add your favorite story to this list down in the comments!