Weird History
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Weird Historical Stories That Sound Made Up (But Aren’t)

August 5, 2020 18.4k votes 4.1k voters 551.0k views15 items

List RulesVote up the stories from history that really sound fictional.

There's a big difference between actual historical events and how the general public commonly remembers them. It works kind of like a game of telephone. Start with a simple fact, like "Benjamin Franklin once performed a kite experiment to study the electrical properties of lightning." As the story gets retold and embellished, eventually that story becomes "Benjamin flew a kite in a storm, got struck by a bolt of lightning, and proved electricity existed." Maybe that's more exciting, but it's not accurate. 

We all know, or think we know, stories from "history" that are really more like historical urban legends. If you've spent any time trying to investigate the origins of historical stories and found that many of them are exaggerated, you might think that true history is dry and prosaic. But that's not so! Interesting true stories from history can be just as weird as the "popular" versions we're more familiar with. 

Here are some stories from history that sound made-up or exaggerated, but really did happen. 

  • 1

    Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen And Went Missing For Decades

    Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen And Went Missing For Decades
    Photo: Orren Jack Turner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It might sound like the plot of a sci-fi B-movie, but Einstein's brain really was stolen shortly after his passing. In the 19th century, the brains of geniuses were often preserved so that scientists could try to determine the origins of that person's intelligence. For example, half of the brain of Charles Babbage, inventor of the first computing machine, is still on display at the Hunterian Museum at London's Royal College of Surgeons.

    Einstein was aware that scientists might want to study his brain after his passing and explicitly forbade it, knowing that such studies rarely produce useful information. Nevertheless, when Einstein passed at Princeton Hospital in the early morning of April 18, 1955, the pathologist who examined him, Dr. Thomas Harvey, decided to remove the brain on his own initiative for future study. Dr. Harvey took Einstein's brain home, divided it into 240 pieces and stored it in two mason jars filled with celloidin. Shortly after Einstein's cremation, his son Hans Albert found out about the theft and was furious. But Dr. Harvey convinced him to let him keep the brain. 

    Taking the brain of the world's most famous physicist without permission did have professional consequences for Dr. Harvey. He soon lost both his job at Princeton Hospital and his marriage, then moved to the Midwest where he took a series of jobs either practicing medicine or running research labs. He kept Einstein's brain for the next several decades - at one point storing it in a cider box underneath a beer cooler - hoping to unlock the secrets of Einstein's intelligence. The fate of Einstein's brain was mostly unknown until 1978, when a reporter tracked Harvey down in Wichita, Kansas.

    The magazine article about Harvey brought a flood of requests for samples of the brain to study, and starting in 1985, scientists began publishing their findings. Many of these studies did claim to find some differences between Einstein's brain and that of a "normal" person, but they also lacked representative control groups, making their findings suspect. And even if these studies had been conducted more effectively, neurology still hasn't determined whether the physical structures of the brain actually affect a person's intelligence. 

    Today, what remains of Einstein's brain resides at the Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Almost nobody is allowed to see it, not even researchers. But many more pieces of Einstein's brain can possibly still be found across America, thanks to Dr. Harvey's habit of giving away pieces of it to curious friends. 

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  • 2

    Pope Stephen VI Put His Deceased Predecessor On Trial 

    Pope Stephen VI Put His Deceased Predecessor On Trial 
    Photo: Jean-Paul Laurens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The story of the "Cadaver Synod" is kind of like the ninth-century version of the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit: On the surface it sounds silly, but once you learn the facts, it actually makes sense. 

    In the ninth century, the pope had the power to crown the Holy Roman Emperor. This meant that popes were involved with political intrigue, and many of them didn't live long after assuming office. Stephen VI's predecessor, Formosus, reluctantly crowned the Duke of Spoleto as the Holy Roman Emperor and later crowned the duke's son, Lambert. In 896, Formosus reversed course and crowned one of his allies, King Arnulf of the East Franks. Shortly after becoming emperor, Arnulf became paralyzed and returned to his native Germany, and Formosus himself perished.

    When Stephen VI took the papacy, the crowning was still in dispute. Stephen had closer ties to Lambert and wanted to reinstate his ally, and the Cadaver Synod was a means to deligitimize Formosus and all of his decisions as pope. 

    Stephen ordered Formosus's nine-month-old corpse be clothed and actually brought to the courtroom, and he appointed a deacon to speak on the departed's behalf. During the sham trial, Stephen accused the cadaver of everything from perjury to violating canonical law.

    What was left of Formosus was found guilty and thrown into the Tiber River. But the trial itself was so controversial that Stephen's reign only lasted a few more months, until he was stripped of his papal seal and executed. 

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  • 3

    Thousands Of Southerners Moved To Brazil After The Civil War And Continued The ‘Confederacy’ For Decades

    Thousands Of Southerners Moved To Brazil After The Civil War And Continued The ‘Confederacy’ For Decades
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Thanks to movies like The Boys from Brazil, it's somewhat common knowledge that several members of the Third Reich fled Germany after WWII and took refuge in South America. It's less commonly known that thousands of Confederates did the same after the American Civil War. 

    When the Civil War ended, much of the South was in ruins. Rather than rebuild in a unified America that had abolished slavery, many Southerners preferred to move to entirely different countries where slavery was still legal, like Brazil. The Brazilian emperor, Dom Pedro, who had supported the Confederacy, enticed Southerners to relocate to his country with cheap land and by subsidizing their transport.

    It's estimated that between 8,000 and 20,000 Southerners left the United States for other countries, and most of them ended up in Brazil. Many of these Southerners specifically chose Brazil because they wanted to continue enslaving people. For the Brazilian government's part, American Southerners were desirable because of an official policy to make Brazil's population more white by enticing Europeans and their American descendants to immigrate. 

    These Southern immigrants came to be called "Confederados," and they built five or six settlements across Brazil. Most of the Confederados found Brazil's climate too hot and soil too inhospitable for cultivating the crops they were accustomed to growing. Others failed to assimilate into Brazilian culture. In 1888, Brazil outlawed slavery and many Confederados returned to the United States. However, a few hundred Confederados remained, and their descendants still live in Brazil and celebrate their Confederate heritage today. One Confederado settlement, Americana, grew into a large city and still has that name. 

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  • 4

    The US Discussed Taking Out Fidel Castro With An Exploding Cigar

    It sounds like a gag from a Peter Sellers comedy, but exploding cigars really were one of the methods the CIA considered while plotting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. The United States has regularly engaged in regime change throughout its history, and Castro - after establishing a Communist government just over 100 miles from its border - was a particularly irritating thorn in the nation's side.

    It's unknown exactly how many times the CIA tried to eliminate Castro, but one of Castro's security officers estimated that there were 634 attempts on Castro's life. Many of these were conventional assassination plots, like a 1963 plan to shoot Castro with a sniper rifle at the University of Havana, or a 1964 plan to throw grenades at Castro while he attended a baseball game, or a 2000 plot to plant explosives under a podium where Castro was due to give a speech. 

    But when conventional plans failed, the CIA was more than willing to think outside the box. Many of these plans tried to take advantage of Castro's personal life. Multiple plans involved his love of cigars, like the plot to plant explosives in a cigar that Castro would smoke, or a 1960 plot to lace a box of his favorite cigars with botulinum. Since Castro was an avid scuba diver, the CIA considered poisoning his diving suit, or giving him an exploding seashell. The CIA found a seashell large enough to hide a lethal amount of explosives, painted it to make it stand out, and tried to leave it in a swimming spot where a curious Castro would find it.

    There were also plans to take him out with a poisoned fountain pen and a poisoned milkshake. (The milkshake plot apparently came the closest to success.) At one point, the CIA sent one of Castro's former lovers to take him out. She hid poison pills in a jar of cold cream, but they melted. Castro supposedly guessed that she wanted to end his life, and offered his pistol to let her finish the job, but she couldn't work up the nerve. 

    After the exploding cigar plot failed, the CIA again tried to slip Castro a cigar, this time laced with LSD. The hope was that Castro would start tripping during an interview and ruin his reputation. Castro dodged that one, too. 

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