Here, author and journalist Eugene Byrne rounds up 13 of the most surprising facts from history…


The first proposal for space travel in English history was made by Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law

Theologian and natural philosopher John Wilkins (1614–72), who married Cromwell’s youngest sister Robina, was a polymath of great learning and curiosity, and would be one of the founders of the Royal Society. In two books he explored the possibility of “flying chariots” to carry men to the moon.

He believed, as did many others, that the moon and planets were inhabited, and that we should meet these people and trade with them. People were anchored to the earth by a type of magnetism, and if it were possible to reach an altitude of just 20 miles, travellers would be free to fly, or rather sail, though space. Breathing wouldn’t be a problem as the astronauts would soon grow accustomed to the purer air breathed by angels.

Wilkins appears to have experimented in building flying machines with Robert Hooke, in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, in the 1650s. Some years later, however, with growing understanding of the nature of vacuums, he realised that space travel was much more complicated than expected.

While his Cromwellian connections reduced him to poverty after the return of the monarchy, Wilkins’s fortunes were gradually restored and he ended his life as Bishop of Chester.

Oliver Cromwell. (R Walker/Getty Images)
Oliver Cromwell. (R Walker/Getty Images)

There were ‘more than 600’ plots against Fidel Castro

The former director of Cuba’s intelligence service claims that there were more than 600 attempts to kill or destabilise Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (1926-2016). These were backed by various opponents of the regime, most notably the United States, often operating at a distance by using gangsters or anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

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These have included using thallium to make his famous beard fall out, or LSD to make him sound mad during a radio broadcast. Then there was the poisoned diving suit, the exploding cigar, and the femme fatale who was to seduce him – in the latter case Castro claimed he uncovered her intentions, offered her a pistol and told her to kill him, but she didn’t have the nerve.

There was also a tide-line of exploding seashells, which went off 40 minutes after Fidel's visit to the beach, but which did succeed in fusing Havana's traffic lights. There are also bizarre tales of a plan to beam a holographic image of the Virgin Mary, which was supposed to inspire Catholic Cubans to shun communism, though it doesn’t appear to have been tried.

A lot of these plots are impossible to substantiate properly, though there can be no question that many people wanted Castro dead. “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he said.

A pedestrian collected rocks to build a house

A historical, topographical and descriptive view of the county palatine of Durham, Eneas Mackenzie & Metcalf Ross, dated 1834:

“Simeon Ellerton died here [Crayke, North Yorkshire] January 3, 1799, at the advanced age of 104. He was a noted pedestrian, and was often employed by gentlemen in the neighbourhood on commissions to London and other places, which he always executed on foot with fidelity and diligence. He lived in a neat stone cottage of his own building; and what was remarkable, he had literally carried it upon his head!

“It being his practice to bring home from every journey the properest stone he could pick up on the road, until he had accumulated a sufficient quantity to erect his habitation, by which time, although the motive had ceased, this practice had grown so much into a habit, that he imagined he could travel the better for having a weight upon his head and he seldom came home without some loading. If any person inquired his reason, he used facetiously to answer, ‘’Tis to keep on my hat’.”

A one-legged man reassured London’s first escalator users

The first escalator on the London Underground system went into operation at Earl’s Court in 1911. On its first day of operation, passengers who had never seen such a thing before were naturally apprehensive. To calm their fears, it is said that a one-legged Underground employee, William ‘Bumper’ Harris, rode up and down to demonstrate its safety – although there are suspicions that this story may be a myth.

Harris was later clerk of works on the project to install escalators at Charing Cross when the remains of an ancient oak tree were discovered during the excavations. This was used to make furniture for the admiralty, but also an ornamental walking stick for Harris, which was presented to him in 1913. The stick and Harris’s pocket watch are now housed in the London Transport Museum.

Boston witnessed a ‘toffee-apple’ tsunami

On Wednesday 15 January 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts, a 90-foot wide cast iron tank containing two-and-a-half million gallons of crude molasses (for rum manufacture) exploded, probably because its contents had expanded during a rapid overnight rise in temperature.

The tank, belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was set 50 feet above street level; its entire contents spilled within a few seconds and with no warning. The resulting thick, sticky “wall of molasses”, which at times was up to 15 feet high, ran through the streets, reaching a speed of 35mph.

It demolished buildings, tearing them from their foundations; it carried off vehicles and drowned horses. People who tried to outrun the wave were engulfed and drowned where they fell. In all, 21 people were killed and 150 injured (arriving at hospital, according to eyewitnesses “looking like toffee-apples”). The clean-up took weeks, and for decades afterwards the locals claimed they could distinctly smell molasses in hot weather.

This image depicts the widespread damage in Boston's North End caused by the explosion of a molasses tank in January 1919. (The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
This image depicts the widespread damage in Boston's North End caused by the explosion of a molasses tank in January 1919. (The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A best-seller was written by a nine-year-old

In 1890, nine-year-old Daisy Ashford wrote a novel and forgot all about it. She gave up writing fiction for good at the age of 13. Some 28 years later, upon going through her mother's house after she had died, Daisy and her sisters found the pencilled manuscript in a drawer. They showed it to a friend, who passed it on to an acquaintance who worked in publishing, and so the book – The Young Visiters – came out in 1919 with a preface by Peter Pan author JM Barrie, who many people wrongly believed was the book’s author.

The novel was praised for its clever plotting and keen observation of Victorian manners, and went into several editions. The author, by now Mrs James Devlin, bought a farm with her earnings, commenting, “I like fresh air and royalty cheques”.

The Duke of Montague placed a bet on the gullibility of the public

At 6.30pm on 16 January 1749, according to an advertisement in London newspaper the General Advertiser, the most amazing magician would appear at the Theatre Royal. The conjuror would perform such feats as giving the name of any masked member of the audience; he would play music on an ordinary walking stick; he would turn himself into any person, dead or alive and finally, he would climb into an ordinary-sized wine bottle.

By 7pm the theatre was packed out, with crowds still trying to get in. At this point, they were told that the magician hadn't turned up and that they could get their money back. A riot ensued when it dawned on them that they'd been made fools of.

In the shadows, the Duke of Montague looked on with a certain amount of pleasure; he'd just won a bet with Lord Chesterfield that he could fill a theatre by promising the public the impossible.

Horoscopes were once linked to a serial killer

“Absolutely free!” said the advertisement, “your personal horoscope. A ten-page document,” it went on. It was 16 April 1968, and the advert, published in a French newspaper, invited readers to take part in a special experiment. All you had to do was send in your name, address, date and place of birth, and you'd receive your 10-page personalised horoscope and personality profile.

Many of the takers were so impressed by the uncanny accuracy of the personality profile that they wrote back to say so. In all, 94 per cent of the respondents pronounced themselves satisfied with it – even though everyone had received the same document.

The man behind it all, psychologist Michel Gauquelin, had commissioned a professional astrologer to do a chart and interpretation for a real person who had been born in Auxerre at 3am on 17 January 1897. That very special person grew up to become Dr Marcel Petiot. Petiot is chiefly remembered as a serial killer in wartime France who murdered more than 60 people.

A Parisian was given a small fine for ‘getting medieval’ on his wife

In the 1930s, Paris baker Henri Littière had a major marital problem: his wife was desperate to be faithful, but just couldn’t help herself. She had three affairs in as many months before he decided that something must be done. He visited a museum and came out with sketches of medieval chastity belts (like that pictured above). These he gave to a man who made false arms and legs for veterans of the First World War, asking him to knock him up a secure means of keeping Mme Littière from consummating her infidelities.

He brought his wife to the final fitting, and she pronounced herself satisfied with the comfort of the velvet-covered steel contraption and joked with her husband that he mustn’t lose the key. Some time later, however, one of her former lovers came to visit. One thing led to another and he saw the apparatus she was wearing. He went straight to the police, and Mr Littière appeared in court on 21 January 1934 on charges of cruelty. Although Mrs Littière testified that she found it impossible to be faithful, the judge gave the hapless baker a three-month suspended sentence and a 50-franc fine.

A woman’s right to smoke in public was a hard-won freedom

On 22 January 1908 a New Yorker named Katie Mulcahey was arrested for striking a match against a wall in the Bowery district and lighting up a cigarette.

Katie's crime was violating The Sullivan Act, a city law sponsored by one Alderman Sullivan banning women – only women – from smoking in public. Sullivan was responding to pressure from a Christian anti-smoking lobby that identified tobacco with immorality. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (whose main business was trying to get booze banned) campaigned against women smoking and thought they'd scored a big success with the Sullivan Act. Katie Mulcahey was arrested the day after it was passed.

Hauled before the district court, the feisty Miss Mulcahey told the (male) judge: “I've got as much right to smoke as you have. I never heard of this new law, and I don't want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.” Mulcahey was fined five dollars.

The Sullivan Act was vetoed by the city's mayor two weeks later. The case was seen as a cause celebre for women's rights; just as they should be allowed to vote, reasoned feminists, women should also be allowed to smoke.

Mary did have a little lamb

Mary did indeed have a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow, and yes it did follow her to school one day. Mary was Mary Sawyer, an 11-year-old Bostonian whose lamb followed her to school one day in 1817. But who wrote the poem?

There's some dispute here. A manuscript of the poem signed by Sarah Josepha Hale of Philadelphia and dated 23 January 1823 is still in existence, though it was written much earlier. It was first published in 1830 in an American children's magazine.

In the late 1860s, Mary Tyler (née Sawyer) was trying to raise money to save an old church in Boston and took a pair of woollen stockings that had been made from the famous lamb, unravelled the wool and sold small pieces of it attached to commemorative cards at 10 cents a time.

Mary claimed that it was not Mrs Hale who had written the poem, but a man named John Roulstone. When Henry Ford bought Mary's school in 1926 he had researchers look into the whole business, and on the commemorative plaque they attribute the first three verses to Roulstone and the last one to Hale.

A mathematician’s life work was reduced to 40 seconds

Schoolmaster and amateur mathematician William Shanks (1812–82) spent the greater part of his life working out the value of pi (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter) to 707 decimal places. More than 60 years after his death, mathematician DF Ferguson, using a mechanical calculator, pointed out that he had got the last 180 of these decimal places wrong.

In the late 1940s an ENIAC computer took 70 hours to calculate 2,037 digits of Pi. In 1958 an IBM computer did in 40 seconds what Shanks had done in a lifetime. The millionth digit of pi was found in 1973 and the billionth by 1995.

7 November 1946: a utility model of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) being built at Welwyn Garden City by Dr Andrew Donald Booth. (Keystone/Getty Images)
7 November 1946: a utility model of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) being built at Welwyn Garden City by Dr Andrew Donald Booth. (Keystone/Getty Images)

A king made everyone pay homage to a corpse

King Afonso IV of Portugal was a strong ruler, used to having his way in all things. When his son, Don Pedro (aka Peter I of Portugal), fell in love with Inês Piras de Castro, he forbade marriage because Ines was illegitimate.

Pedro carried on the relationship, later claiming that he and Inês were married. Afonso tried to end the relationship, but failed and had her confined in a monastery. Here, in January 1355, he had three of his henchmen murder her. Two years later Afonso died; Pedro became king and pursued his wife’s killers. Two were caught and brought before him, and he had their hearts ripped out – one from the front, the other from the back. In Portugal, those who think themselves descended from the third killer celebrate his escape with a picnic every June.

According to legend, King Pedro then had Inês exhumed, ordered the corpse dressed in a style appropriate to a queen and had her crowned. Pedro sat on a throne next to her as all the nobility of Portugal filed past, lifted her hand and kissed it as a mark of their fealty.

Eugene Byrne is an author and journalist.


This article was first published by History Extra in August 2015.