7 moments in history you (might) think are made up but aren’t

There are some moments in history that are so odd, so surreal, that they sound completely made up. Here, historical blogger Jem Duducu rounds up seven of the most curious…

Three women affected by the dancing plague - engraving by by Hendrick Hondius

Ancient Egyptian strike action

Going on strike, you would presume, is closely linked to the history of industrialisation and the formation of trade unions. Wrong! While it was of course the industrialisation of economies that led to better organised work forces, the idea of putting down tools because of a dispute goes back a very long way indeed.

The very first strike recorded in history started in 1152 BC, on 14 November. This was during the reign of Rameses III in ancient Egypt.

It is a common misconception, largely created by Biblical stories, that much of the work on ancient Egyptian monuments was carried out by slaves. While the Egyptians did indeed have slaves, they were by no means the main workforce. Craftsmen, builders and haulers were paid men who took pride in their work – this is evidenced by the quality of the structures, many of which have stood for more than 3,000 years.

In November 1152 BC, trouble was brewing during the construction of a royal necropolis – a group of tombs/crypts – at Deir el-Medina. The workers felt they were being underpaid and that their wages were in arrears, so they organised a mass walkout, halting construction.

The response was very interesting: you might assume that pharaohs would bring out the whips or cut the heads off the ring leaders of the strike, but after discussion the artisans wages were paid – in fact, their wages were actually increased – and the workers returned to finish the job.

The necropolis still stands to this day.
 

Fantasy fight becomes a reality

The film Rocky Balboa (2006) has a strange premise: after the current heavyweight champion sees a computer-generated fight between himself and Rocky, he gets the Italian Stallion out of retirement for a bout. But this somewhat ridiculous scenario does have a historic precedent.

In 1967, radio producer Murray Woroner came up with an idea of how to settle every pub argument about boxing. He said that by putting all the stats and details of each fighter (when they were in their prime) into a computer, it could determine who would win, if they ever met. He used the then-cutting edge NCR 315 Data Processing System and computer with 12 bits of memory (that's not even one per cent of a small update for an app today).

It was a publicity stunt, but it was hugely popular, as each fight was performed as a radio play – as if the fight was taking place live.

One of these radio plays came to the attention of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. At the time he could not box due to his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali was close to being declared bankrupt; his reputation was pretty much his only remaining asset. So when Woroner claimed Ali would lose in a semi-final to Jim Jeffries, Ali threatened to sue. However ever the canny businessman, Woroner instead offered to pay Ali $10,000 to participate in a filmed version of one of the radio fantasy fights: against Rocky Marciano who had retired 14 years earlier.


American heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), training in his gym, 21 May 1965. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 
 

Ali needed the money and agreed; Marciano accepted the challenge. The two men, who had never met before, allegedly grew quite fond of each other as they fought in front of the cameras for days in order to get the right footage. The two fighters sparred for about 70 to 75 rounds, which were later edited according to the ‘findings’ of the computer. Sadly, Marciano died in a plane crash three weeks after filming ended.

The fight footage was shown as a one-off event in 1,500 cinema theatres, and was an instant hit – the estimated takings were $5 million. The ‘computer’ (really Woroner, who knew Marciano was more popular) had determined that Marciano would knock out Ali in the 13th round (in reality this was unlikely).

 

The ‘dancing plague’

Also known as ‘St Vitus's Dance’, choreomania was a truly bizarre medieval phenomenon from central Europe. It involved spontaneous and continuous dancing by crowds of people until they collapsed through exhaustion – or worse, died. Bizarre as it sounds, choreomania was regularly reported by eyewitnesses and was a genuine concern for authorities. It also seems to have been contagious – for example, in June 1374 one of the widest outbreaks began in Aachen, Germany, before spreading to other places such as Cologne, Flanders, Utrecht, and later Italy.

There were still outbreaks more than a century later – in Strasbourg in July 1518 a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street. Within four days 33 others had joined her, and within a month there were 400, many of whom suffered heart attacks and died.

Because no autopsies were carried out and because medical science of the day could hardly be described as advanced, only guesses can be made as to the causes. Perhaps it was some kind of skin infection or muscular inflammation leading to spasms?

At the time some people believed that the dancing was a curse brought about by St Vitus, who was, according to Christian legend, a Christian saint from Sicily, so they responded by praying and making pilgrimages to places dedicated to Vitus. The recovery of some victims further bolstered the perceived connection between illness and the saint.

 

The American invasion of Korea

Nope, not the one in the 1950s – the one in 1871.

In the 19th century a number of Asian nations sealed themselves off from the outside world – most famously Japan and China, but Korea too. America had decided to ‘unlock’ these Asian states and trade with them. It had worked well in Japan, with the diplomatic mission led by Commodore Perry in the 1850s, but the idea was put on hold during the American Civil War. It wasn't until 1871 that a small fleet of American ships returned to the Pacific and travelled to the coastline of Korea. The American diplomatic vessel (which was a merchant ship, not a warship) came in towards the shore and was fired at by Korean shore batteries.

The Americans landed 10 days later with 650 marines and sailors. They made contact with the local Korean officials but the Koreans wanted to avoid the discussion about opening fire on a diplomatic mission. It was a classic case of cultural misunderstanding. The Koreans did not want to lose face over the error and the Americans mistook this for arrogance and decided to teach the Koreans a lesson.

The marines then assaulted and captured Ganghwa Island's forts, the batteries that had (probably) fired on the diplomatic mission. The series of clashes were one-sided – Korea had not moved with the times and was using virtually medieval technology and tactics against well-trained and equipped American troops. By the end of the day the Americans had captured all the forts with the loss of just three men, while the Koreans had suffered losses of 243.

The Koreans had the last laugh, though: not only did they not apologise, they refused to speak to any member of the US government and didn't reopen diplomatic negotiations for 11 years, maintaining its isolationist policy (only thawing a little to Japanese trade). The American expedition was, in a way, like the British Suez incident in the 1950s – militarily it was a success, but politically it was a complete failure.

 

An underwhelming WW2 battle

Castle Itter is a small fortification in Austria used by the SS during the Second World War as a prison for high profile detainees. It is also the site of one of the most curious battles of the conflict.

On 6 May 1945, peace was on the horizon and the Third Reich was collapsing. With the German commander (also in charge of Dachau) committing suicide, and some of the Waffen SS soldiers retreating, one of the prisoners, Zvonimir Čučković, a Yugoslav freedom fighter, escaped and went looking for some Allied troops to rescue the rest of the prisoners.

He found an American armoured column and got them to come with him. At the same time a Major Josef Gangl (an Austrian in the German Army) had collaborated with Austrian resistance in the closing days of the war, also with the intent to free the castle prisoners, but had decided instead to surrender with his men to the Americans. With the arrival of Čučković a strangle agreement would take place – the major and his Wehrmacht troops would fight alongside the Americans against the SS guards.

The resulting battle of Castle Itter was hardly pivotal, but the SS faced not only their fellow countrymen and Americans (with a Sherman tank), but there were also Austrian partisans and French prisoners joining in. It was a wonderful symbol of the unifying effect the Allies had compared to the polarising effect of the Nazis.

The battle may not have been big (a maximum of 100 men were involved), but it was vicious. The Sherman tank was destroyed and Major Josef Gangl was killed by a sniper. It was, however, the only time the American army fought alongside the German army in the entire war. The SS were defeated and surrendered, and the rest of the prisoners were released unharmed.

 

The immovable interest rate

Britain did not invent banking as we know it today – many of the concepts were copied from Holland – but with a growing empire, England rapidly became the master of what today is termed as “modern banking”. The Bank of England was founded in 1694 and was given exclusive possession of the government's balances. It was additionally given permission to be the only corporation (rather than the government) to issue bank notes. What the bank also did in the same year was set the first national interest rate at six per cent.

While today we are familiar with a changing interest rate, interest rates didn't start moving around regularly until the late 19th century. In 1719 the Bank of England moved the interest rate from four per cent to five per cent, but it didn't move again until 1822, when it went back down to four per cent. That interest rate lasted 103 years – the longest fixed rate in British history.

This is even more surprising when you consider what happened during that time frame: while there were a number of smaller conflicts during these 103 years, three wars during this period were really big deals. There was the Seven Years’ War (fought between 1754 –1763 and the main conflict in the seven-year period from 1756–1763), which shunted Britain to the top of the heap in terms of empires, taking Canada from the French and making it a British realm. But this huge change in Britain's fortunes did not impact upon interest rates.

Then, a decade-and-a-half later, there was the American War of Independence (1775–83), fought between the Kingdom of Great Britain and 13 of its former North American colonies, which had declared themselves the independent United States of America. You might have thought this would prompt the Bank of England to change the interest rate, but no.


Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, American War of Independence, 1781. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
 

Finally there were the years of war with France from the 1790s to 1815. This involved sending fleets to places like the Caribbean and Egypt; soldiers were landed in America, Argentina and Spain; France threatened invasion, and at one point had a trade war (called the Continental System), which led – for a brief time – to a big slump in the London stock market. But again, this failed to prompt any interest rate adjustments.

 

The sack of Baltimore

In southern Ireland there is a small village called Baltimore. It had little to contribute to history until the summer of 1631, when it was attacked – but by whom?

Was it the French planning an invasion of England via the Emerald Isle? Or perhaps it was some kind of pro-Catholic uprising leading to a vicious English assault, or the Spanish up to their old tricks?

You might be surprised to learn that the perpetrators were about as exotic as it gets for the 17th century – Barbary pirates from North Africa led by a Dutch captain (and Muslim convert)-turned pirate, Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, also known as Murad Reis the Younger.

The attack was quick and unexpected. The villagers (mainly English settlers, but some native Irish too) were put onto the ships and forced into slavery. There were, however, different types of slaves: some prisoners were destined to live out their days as galley slaves (a brutal and short life), while many of the younger women would spend long years in the seclusion of the Sultan's harem or within the walls of the Sultan's palace as labourers. Sadly, it is thought that only three of the settlers ever saw Ireland again.

Jem Duducu is known as @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter, and he is the author of The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2015).

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