14 Bizarre History Facts That Sound Made Up, But Aren't

List Rules
Vote up the strange but true history facts that sound like a bunch of baloney.

Some historical information might be classified as trivia, maybe even too silly to be taken seriously. Sometimes the reaction will be along the lines of, “Nah, that didn't really happen.”

But as strange as they might seem, the examples in this article, including a 61-year-old potato farmer who smashed a record at a sporting event, and Kevin Bacon paying off wedding DJs, have really happened. Check out these bizarre facts!

  • 1
    603 VOTES

    The Discovery That Lemons Cured Scurvy May Have Led To The Sicilian Mafia

    Scurvy, which is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, is a rare disease in the 21st century, especially in developed countries. But for about 300 years (up until the early 19th century) it was a serious plague, estimated to have killed around 2 million sailors.

    In 1747, British doctor James Lind was among the crew of the HMS Salisbury when the ship embarked on a voyage on the Mediterranean Sea. About two months into the excursion, a dozen crew members came down with scurvy. Lind decided to perform what is now widely considered the first clinical trial in the history of medicine, in which he tested treatments for scurvy including lemons and oranges.

    Lind's conclusion that some mystery element in the citrus was vital in curing scurvy met with great opposition at first (it wasn't until 1932 that the element was confirmed to be vitamin C). But in the 1790s, the British Fleet adopted regulations in which all ships carry a large supply of citrus fruits and/or lemon juice on any voyage.

    This policy all but eradicated scurvy in sailors, and led to a huge boost in the economy of Sicily, an island replete with citrus trees. In 1815, the island exported approximately 740 barrels of lemon juice, but during the 1850s that amount grew to approximately 750,000 barrels, and some 30 years later was up to about 2.5 million cases of citrus fruit.

    At the same time, Sicily's citrus production brought about the rise of the organization later dubbed the Sicilian Mafia. Italy had taken control of the island from the House of Bourbon in 1861, and the newly unified government was too weak to enforce laws, so citrus growers hired crooks to protect their property.

    Using data from reports done in the 1880s and around 1900 that detailed Mafia activity in different parts of the island, a 2017 survey discovered that the presence of citrus crops in an area raised the chances of Mafia presence in a village by 54%. But the data found no such correlation when looking at Sicily's other large export industries such as olives, grapes, or sulfur.

    603 votes
  • 2
    1,071 VOTES

    A 61-Year-Old Potato Farmer 'Shuffled' His Way To First Place In An Ultramarathon

    In 1983, 61-year-old potato farmer and shepherd Cliff Young showed up to compete in a Sydney to Melbourne (Australia) ultramarathon. No one other than Young, who competed wearing his first-ever pair of real running shoes, believed he would be able to finish the grueling 544-mile race, let alone keep up with younger, more experienced runners. 

    But as Young told curious reporters prior to the race:

    I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race.

    The start of the race seemed to contradict Young's confidence, as he was quickly left in the dust by the younger and more experienced runners. Young's technique seemed to be problematic, because instead of a fluid running stride, he had an awkward-looking shuffle, barely lifting his feet. 

    During this grueling ultramarathon, many of the competitors ran for 18 hours, then slept for six hours before starting up again. Young was able to stay up with his competitors because instead of stopping to sleep, he just kept shuffling along. 

    By refusing to stop to sleep until he crossed the finish line, Young's plan paid off; he won the race, finishing 10 hours in front of his nearest competitor. In fact, his time of five days, 15 hours, and four minutes broke the previous record for running between Sydney and Melbourne by two days.

    Young earned $10,000 in prize money. But instead of keeping all the money (of which he reportedly said, “That's a lot of potatoes”) for himself, he split $7,000 among the other competitors.

    His legacy already secured, Young returned the following year to defend his title and finished seventh. He continued to race competitively well into his 70s, even setting an age record for a six-day race in Melbourne in 2000.

    Young passed in 2003 at the age of 81; a memorial to him, featuring a work boot, is pictured here. He once explained to a reporter why he had kept running competitively as he aged:

    The doctors once told me I had arthritis in my joints and to take it easy, so I said, “I’ll fix that up, I’ll run it out.” So I kept running and it disappeared. It is like rust that gets into a vehicle… I reckon you have to keep your joints moving. Absolutely. No matter what you do, you have to keep moving. If you don’t wear out, you rust out, and you rust out quicker than you wear out.

    1,071 votes
  • Van Gogh’s 'Café Terrace at Night' Can Be Precisely Dated Due To The Accuracy Of The Stars
    Photo: Vincent van Gogh / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Although Café Terrace at Night, a painting by Vincent van Gogh, is not signed, the artist mentioned working on it in letters sent to his brother Theo and others while he was in Arles, France, in September 1888.

    Van Gogh was careful to portray the sky and stars as they actually appeared at the time he worked on the painting. According to art historian Albert Boime, the location of the constellation Aquarius in the painting meant Van Gogh had created the work in early September 1888 at around 11 at night.

    763 votes
  • Abraham Lincoln Reportedly Had A 'Shrill,' High-Pitched Voice
    Photo: Alexander Gardner / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In 2021, C-SPAN did a survey of presidential historians to determine which US president was the most popular. The answer? Abraham Lincoln. The result was the same in three previous C-SPAN surveys (in 2000, 2009, and 2017).

    Because Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, decades before any of the survey participants were born, it's unlikely his speaking voice had any real impact on this poll. But according to journalist Horace White, a contemporary of Lincoln's:

    …He [Lincoln] had a thin tenor, or rather falsetto, voice, almost as high-pitched as a boatswain's whistle. 

    Others described his voice as “shrill,” and in February 1860, a story in the New York Herald reported that it had “a frequent tendency to dwindle into a shrill and unpleasant sound.”

    Still, Lincoln was widely considered a powerful speaker. So perhaps the messages he conveyed were rightfully considered more important that the sound of his voice.

    802 votes
  • Longyearbyen, a town in Norway on the archipelago of Svalbard, is the northernmost settlement in the world with a population of more than 1,000 people. It was founded by an American, John Munro Longyear, in 1906 as a mining settlement, and has some unusual laws.

    Because hundreds of polar bears live in the surrounding area, residents are required to carry and be able to use a high-powered rifle if they leave the settlement. However, guns are not allowed indoors.

    To protect the Arctic bird population on the archipelago, another law bars anyone in Svalbard from having a cat as a pet. 

    The purchase of alcohol is heavily regulated. Anyone who resides in Svalbard has a monthly quota of alcohol they can purchase. All alcohol must be purchased on the archipelago; no tax-free alcohol can be imported from the mainland.

    Also, no one can be buried in Longyearbyen. The settlement has a small graveyard, but no one has been interred there in approximately 70 years because the soil is permafrost, which means a corpse does not decompose after it is buried.

    The law has given rise to the saying that it's illegal to die in Longyearbyen. While not technically true, anyone with a terminal illness would be sent to the mainland. It's also not a place for anyone to be born. As a tour guide explained:

    When a woman has three weeks left of her pregnancy, she must go back to the mainland to have her baby.

    727 votes
  • 6
    573 VOTES

    In 18th Century Scotland, Margaret Dickson Was Reportedly Hanged, Survived, Then Allowed To Go Free

    Historical records are murky about Margaret “Maggie” Dickson, and more than one version of her story exists. But according to legend, the Scottish woman in the 1720s was detained on charges of murdering her baby, although she claimed that the child had been stillborn. 

    As the story goes, she was spotted trying to bury the child, then put on trial. Based on questionable medical evidence that the child had been born alive, she was convicted and sentenced to perish by hanging. On September 2, 1724, her execution took place at the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, where crowds sometimes as large as 20,000 people gathered to observe public executions. Afterward, her body was cut down, put in a coffin, and transported back to Musselburgh, the fishing town where she lived, for interment.

    But a strange thing happened on the way to Musselburgh. When he resumed his trip after stopping at the Sheep Heid Pub in Duddingston for lunch, the driver heard strange noises coming from inside Dickson's coffin. When he opened the box, he was stunned to discover that Dickson was still very much alive.

    According to the legend, Dickson's miraculous survival resulted in a mixed public opinion; some thought she should be returned to Grassmarket and hanged again, while others believed she couldn't be punished twice for the same offense. The judges of the High Court agreed with the latter opinion, so Dickson was freed and allowed to live.

    According to some versions of the historical record, Dickson - who became known as “Hauf hangit Maggie” or “Half-hanged Maggie” - went on to live another 60 years and had several other children. The High Court judges, meanwhile, immediately changed the law to read that the punishment would now state “to be hanged until dead."

    573 votes