Stories From History That Are Almost Too Absurd To Believe, But Really Happened

List Rules
Vote up the moments from history so absurd they don't seem real.

Hindsight is usually 20/20, but not everything in history can be easily explained. In fact, the human past is littered with unbelievable moments that actually happened, even though they sound improbable and unlikely.

These absurd stories from history - like historical stories we hadn't heard before - demonstrate that truth really is stranger than fiction.


  • Church Officials Put The Body Of A Deceased Pope On Trial
    Photo: Jean-Paul Laurens / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The world of the Vatican has historically been as cutthroat as any political arena. That was certainly true in 897 CE when Pope Stephen VI put his predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial. The catch? Formosus had passed the previous year, so it was his corpse standing trial. 

    That little fact didn't seem to matter. Officials removed Formosus's corpse from its interment site and brought it into court for the trial. Stephen sought to discredit Formosus, accusing him of being a usurper who was unworthy of the papal robes.

    Ultimately, Stephen won the case against a man who could not defend himself. Officials cut off three of Formosus's bony fingers before tossing his decaying corpse into the Tiber River.

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    An Ex-Nazi Cult Leader Faked The Assassination Of Santa Claus In Front Of A Group Of Children

    In 1961, Paul Schäfer, who participated in WWII as a Nazi, founded Colonia Dignidad in Chile. Technically a commune, Colonia Dignidad was in reality a 300-person Germanic cult led by Schäfer. Augusto Pinochet even used Colonia Dignidad as a secret prison during his rule.

    The commune was also the site of cruel acts, with many accusing Schäfer of sexually abusing children.

    One of the strangest moments that occurred there took place when he arranged for one of his followers to pretend to be Santa Claus so Schäfer could mock-execute him in front of some children. Schäfer wanted to terrorize the children so that they would be loyal and subservient to him.

    (Colonia Dignidad changed its name to Villa Baviera in 1991 and is now a tourist site with a hotel.)

  • The Austrian Army Accidentally Fought Against Itself
    Photo: G. Hister / Gottlob Eckart / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    The Austrian Army Accidentally Fought Against Itself

    In 1788, Austria was in the middle of a war with Ottoman Turkey. It took a dark and unexpected turn at the Battle of Karansebes, when the Austrian army fought itself.

    Military historian Charles Kirke recounted that the event was the "worst single incident recorded" in the 18th century of an army inflicting casualties on itself. As the Austrian army marched at night near the town of Karansebes, cavalry and infantry members bought wine and got drunk, then started fighting with each other.

    The drunk soldiers jokingly shouted the Turks were firing at them, but the soldiers behind them thought it was for real. According to Kirke:

    Before long the army's orderly march had disintegrated into confusion and panic, and skirmishes had broken out along the route. By dawn, the Austrian army had inflicted thousands of casualties on itself - possible as many as 10,000 killed and wounded - without Turkish forces being anywhere near.

    Some scholars wonder whether the incident was as destructive as stories like this contend; others question if it happened at all.  

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    A Brawl Between Clowns And Firefighters Led To The Toronto Circus Riot In 1855

    In the summer of 1855, S.B. Howes' Star Troupe Menagerie and Circus, an American traveling circus, stopped in Toronto. Some of the circus's clowns decided to visit a brothel where local firefighters were frequent customers - and they weren't friendly to the out-of-town visitors. When a brawl broke out between the Canadian firefighters and American clowns, the clowns won decisively.

    Eager for revenge, the firefighters - who identified as "Orangemen," or members of an anti-Catholic fraternal organization that contributed to social unrest in early Toronto - and other residents tracked down the circus. The crowd set circus wagons on fire and rioted for several hours.

    Historian Ian Radforth described the incident as "one of mid-19th-century Toronto's largest riots," noting it "involved youthful violence fueled by nativism and Orangeism."

  • Frederick Lorz Won The Marathon At The 1904 Olympics After Spending The Majority Of The Race In A Car
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Frederick Lorz Won The Marathon At The 1904 Olympics After Spending The Majority Of The Race In A Car

    St. Louis, MO, hosted the 1904 Olympic Games, and that year's marathon race was among the most ridiculous in memory. American runner Frederick Lorz won, but only because he climbed into a car at mile 10, and rode in it for the next 11 miles. Unsurprisingly, he was the first to cross the finish line. Lorz was feted as the winner of the marathon and even took a commemorative photo with first daughter Alice Roosevelt to mark the occasion. But he soon admitted what had happened and was disqualified.

    As a result, Tom Hicks - who crossed the finish line after Lorz - was crowned the champion. Hicks had to be held up as he completed the race. The marathon took so much out of him that he had to be medicated with various mixtures of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine en route.

    Lorz's deception and Hicks's exhaustion weren't the only problems that plagued the 1904 Olympic marathon. Another runner, William Garcia, ingested so much dust from the dry path that the particles tore the lining of his stomach. He coughed up blood and had to be hospitalized.

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    The CIA Attempted To Use Cats To Spy On Targets

    The CIA, known for subterfuge and clandestine surveillance, once tried to use cats to spy on Soviets and others.

    For a program code-named Operation Acoustic Kitty, scientists installed a microphone, transmitter, and antenna into a cat. Operatives then trained the cat to move to strategic points so agents could eavesdrop on conversations.

    They actually implanted the devices into a cat and took the animal to a park for a test run, but the operation ended in tragedy: The cat was hit by a car

    Ultimately, the CIA realized that the program "would not be practical," and abandoned it.