In Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year, bestselling author Michael Farquhar revisits some of the most entertaining calamities in history – from the disastrous marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves in 1540, to the mother-in-law that soured Harry Truman’s arrival at the White House in 1945.
Here, Farquhar shares four of his favourite excerpts…
6 May 1983, The Dummkopf “Diaries”
From the diary of a madman: “On Eva’s wishes, I am thoroughly examined by my doctors. Because of the new pills I have violent flatulence, and—says Eva—bad breath.” Certainly it was a rather bland entry, but a tantalising tidbit nonetheless—part of what promised to be a historic bonanza of insight into one of the world’s most evil men.
On 22 April 1983, the German news magazine Stern announced that it had in its possession the personal diary of Adolf Hitler—a long hidden set of some 60 volumes, spanning the years 1932 to 1945, for which the magazine had paid millions. It was a staggering sum, but the prestige that would come from such a scoop was priceless.
Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch was among those who saw huge profit potential in the diaries and wanted to serialize them in his Times of London. To authenticate the documents, he dispatched British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, a specialist in the 16th and 17th centuries who could barely read German. After hearing Stern editors relate the story of how the diaries had been retrieved from a plane crash in 1945 and secretly stashed away by a high-ranking East German officer, and then reviewing the massive pile of volumes, Trevor-Roper was “satisfied that the documents are authentic.”
Even as the world waited anxiously to read the private thoughts of this inscrutable monster, sceptics had reservations. Hitler biographer Werner Maser told Reuters at the time that “everything speaks against it. It smacks of pure sensationalism.’’ The chorus of doubt grew louder when Stern published a lavish special issue heralding the diaries on 25 April, and held a press conference to crow about it.
Instead of the expected huzzahs, however, editors were confronted with unwelcome questions about the diaries’ authenticity. And Trevor-Roper certainly didn’t help matters with his sudden and unexpected about-face when asked to address the suspicious press: “As a historian, I regret that the, er, normal method of historical verification, er, has, perhaps necessarily, been to some extent sacrificed to the requirements of a journalistic scoop.”
It was a disaster unfolding, the crowning blow of which came on 6 May when the German Federal Archives declared the diaries to be “a crude forgery” and the “grotesquely superficial” concoction of a forger with “limited intellectual capacity.”
Stern had been duped by a dope by the name of Konrad Kujau, a “jaunty and farcical figure,” as author Robert Harris described him, who apparently expended very little time or effort on his handiwork. The indications of forgery were obvious, from the paper, ink, and glue Kujau used—all of which were manufactured well after Hitler’s death in 1945—to the passages lifted directly, albeit often incorrectly, from a book of the führer’s speeches and proclamations. Kujau even messed up the Gothic initials embossed on each imitation leather volume, some of which read “FH,” not “AH.”
“We have every reason to be ashamed that something like this could happen to us,” announced Stern publisher Henri Nannen in the aftermath of the diary fiasco. Indeed, they did. The magazine’s editors had allowed their reporter Gerd Heidemann to run amok with the story, without even insisting he name his source. They also ignored the numerous warning signs of fraud that preceded publication. But at least Nannen and his colleagues could take a measure of comfort in knowing that some of what was written in the “diaries” was actually true. The führer really did have what his doctor described as “colossal flatulence . . . on a scale I have seldom encountered before.” And horrendously bad breath, too.
A page of what was thought to be Hitler’s personal diary, which reads: “Henceforth, I will take note of my political thoughts and actions to leave a record for posterity as does every politician”. Stern magazine handed out a reproduction of this page when they made public their ‘discovery’ on 25 April 1983. (AP-Photo/HO Stern. HO/STERN/AP/Press Association Images)
8 May 1632, The Holy (Mis)Writ
Some readers of a 1631 edition of the King James Bible were shocked (or at least pleasantly surprised) when they came across the Seventh Commandment in the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Then there was the apparent blasphemy found in Deuteronomy, chapter 5: “The Lord hath shewed us his glory, and his great asse.” (The proper word was “greatnasse.”)
With these egregious errors, the 1631 version became known as the Wicked Bible or the Adulterous Bible, and on May 8, 1632, the printers were hauled before the fearsome Star Chamber for their blasphemous mistakes—with the additional charge of printing the Bible on bad paper.
“I knew the time when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially,” declared the appalled Archbishop of Canterbury. “Good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the best, but now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned.” Worse, he said, even the dreaded Catholics took better care with their “superstitious books.”
The printers were heavily fined and banned from their profession, but were lucky enough not to have been mutilated or dealt a similarly gruesome punishment of the day. Meanwhile, history has no record of how many marital beds may have been violated with blessings from the Wicked Bible.
19 May 1884, Filet Mignonette
When young Richard Parker boarded the yacht Mignonette on 19 May 1884, it was if his fate had already been eerily determined. Nearly 50 years before, Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym – a tale of maritime adventure and disaster in which the starving survivors of a shipwreck draw straws to determine who among them would be sacrificed and eaten to nourish the others. A character by the name of Richard Parker comes up with the short one and is duly devoured by the rest.
In a remarkable echo of Poe’s story, the Mignonette was battered by storms while sailing around the Cape of Good Hope en route from Southampton, then England, to Sydney, Australia, and sank. Richard Parker survived the wreck, but not for long. The young man and his three companions drifted for weeks aboard a flimsy dinghy, fending off sharks and sustaining themselves on the two tins of turnips they had managed to salvage. Just as in Poe’s tale, the men did capture and eat a sea turtle, but starvation still loomed. Desperate for nourishment, the survivors began to eye one another. A maritime tradition known as the Custom of the Sea provided the solution for such situations: cannibalism. But not until straws were drawn to determine which man would become the meal.
The men of the Mignonette neglected this key provision because Richard Parker, dangerously ill from having consumed seawater, appeared very likely to die. Rather than wait for the inevitable, and risk eating corrupted, diseased flesh, the three other survivors instead killed the young man by stabbing him in the neck. Then they ate him.
“I can assure you,” one of the survivors recalled, “I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal. We all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason.”
Four or five days after this murderous act of necessity, the three survivors spotted the sails of the German ship Moctezuma. Salvation came, one of the men later said, just “as we was having our breakfast, we will call it.”
20 September 1884: a member of the crew of the Mignonette using a sea anchor in an open boat during stormy conditions at sea. Original Artwork: engraving by J Nash after sketches by Mr Stephens. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)
22 May 1856, Sumner’s Violent Schooling
In the decades before the Civil War — when sectional differences over slavery and state rights began to intensify to a dangerous degree — edgy lawmakers roamed the halls of Congress armed with pistols and daggers, practically daring any political opponent to defy them. The House of Representatives “seethed like a boiling caldron,” one observer wrote, as “belligerent Southrons glared fiercely at phlegmatic Yankees.” Lawmakers challenged one another to duels, took to the floor with scathing orations, and, in one scene reminiscent of a Wild West saloon, reacted like threatened cowboys after one member’s gun fell to the ground and accidentally discharged.
There were instantly “fully thirty or forty pistols in the air,” Representative William Holman of Indiana reported.
The tension was punctuated by one particularly violent episode in 1856, after Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, delivered his rousing “Crime Against Kansas” speech, in which he argued vehemently against the expansion of slavery into that territory and attacked in particular Andrew Butler of South Carolina, one of the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
“The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage,” Sumner thundered. “Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot slavery.”
Representative Preston Brooks, a nephew of Butler’s, was infuriated by Sumner’s inflammatory, sexually suggestive speech, and retaliated two days later, on 22 May. As Sumner quietly worked at his desk in the near-empty Senate chamber, Brooks approached him. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Without warning, Brooks then began whacking Sumner over the head with his cane. The assault didn’t stop, even after Sumner collapsed on the floor in a bloody heap, and his injuries were so grave that it would take him years to recover and return to his Senate seat.
Northern reaction to Sumner’s bludgeoning was one of horror. “The crime is not merely against liberty but civilization,” editorialised the Boston Evening Transcript. In the South, however, Brooks was hailed as a hero. “Sumner was well and elegantly whipped,” gloated the Charleston Mercury, “and he richly deserved it.” Southerners sent Brooks commemorative canes, with “HIT HIM AGAIN” inscribed on them. Meanwhile, the country careened ever closer to civil war.
Michael Farquhar is the author of Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year (National Geographic Books, April 2015). To find out more, click here.