In the early years of the 16th century, one of the most bonkers and truly odd events in history took place. In the Holy Roman Empire, in modern-day France, there was a spontaneous outbreak of….dancing. Seriously, dancing. This wasn’t just a Medieval nightclub though, the dancing spread throughout the towns and countryside, going on for days on end. There was no musical accompaniment, only people dancing around town until they literally dropped. People danced so long and feverishly that they passed out, and legend has it that a few even died. Imagine that folks, people just randomly dancing themselves to death along your local Main Street. It all began on a July morning in 1518, when a young woman in the town of Strasbourg walked outside her home and began dancing. At first it was just the single woman getting down to imaginary music, but soon dozens of people joined the reveler.
The dancing went on for weeks and even garnered local attention by the authorities. The local doctors and priests were at a complete loss about the affliction, the doctors believed that the dancers had “overheated blood” (medical knowledge was lacking during the Middle Ages), while the Priests obviously believed it was a grand demonic possession, which was the standard explanation for any weird behavior for the church. While these explanations are idiotic, the questions remains, just what the hell happened in the streets of Strasbourg in 1518? Unfortunately contemporary accounts are useless in the 21st century because they thought it was bad blood or Satan bewitching the dancers, but there are a few theories that remain. Ergot poisoning is the most likely culprit, the diet of the Medieval townsperson relied heavily upon grains, and ergot poisoning can lead to mental instability (Fun fact, many people believe that the great Salem witch panic of the 1690s was the result of most of the town being out of their damn minds with ergot poisoning). There are some scholars that believe it would have all been a mass hysteria brought on by the crippling stress of living in an area beset by starvation, death and war. No matter what the reasoning, the dancing plague of 1518 remains one of the most insane and truly odd events of our past.
I promise, I never thought I would be the guy sitting in the corner with his tin-foil hat on, but here we are. Asking a young Matt and once I would have scoffed at the idea of massive government conspiracies, why would the government do things behind our backs? My God I was an idiot. Governments from all countries small and large have massive programs running behind the scenes to achieve their goals. One of the most interesting time periods for government-sanctioned espionage and back-handed tactics was the Cold War Era. The Cold War Era refers to the four decades following the end of World War II to the Fall of the Soviet Union. The world was separated between capitalists and communists, with countries on both sides doing everything in their power to get the upper-hand on their adversaries. Full-blown spy networks evolved during the time that led to countless pop culture phenomenons such as James Bond and every fucking spy novel written in the last sixty years. Before the advent of mobile telephones, communication was a problem for these networks; when operatives were in the field it was quite difficult to relay messages and get vital information into their hands. World governments developed a sophisticated method to fix this issue, spy radio stations. I know you are asking yourself, “how is a radio station a secret”? Great question, the station themselves are not secret in any way, anybody with a shortwave radio could listen in to these stations, but to the average listener the broadcast wouldn’t make any god damned sense. These stations, now known as numbers stations, sprung up around the world and broadcast coded messages to their operatives. These codes came in a variety of methods, some came as a series of numbers read off by a live reader, or sometimes a mechanical beep would give off different tones that only a person with the codebook could decipher. The maddening aspect for anyone listening is that the code changed every 24 hours, it was impossible to crack these one time codes no matter how hard a foreign government would try. Some of these stations are still broadcast today and you too can waste your life listening to random numbers being read off in a monotone just like they could in the eighties. World governments don’t even bother with lying to the people about these stations, they are an open secret, because they know and we know that cracking the code is impossible. If you are interested, there are examples of audio from the famous stations like the Lincolnshire Poacher and others in the links at the bottom of the article.
In this chapter we are going to discuss a Holy man and supposed healer from Russia, yea I know it sounds boring, but hear me out. This holy man is not your average praying type, lying prostrate at the foot of a cross or something, this holy man is a drunk womanizer who, quite literally, caused one of the largest political overthrows in world history.
For roughly 400 years from 1600 to the early 1900s, Russia was ruled by one dynasty, the Romanovs. The lineage of Czars had many impressive leaders and forgettable ones, but everyone remembers the last Czar of Russia, Czar Nicholas II. Nicholas and his wife Alexandria were happily married and had four daughters and one son, the heir to the Russian Throne, Alexei. Alexei was a sickly boy and spent much of his childhood seriously ill from hemophilia which is a disorder where the blood does not clot properly, meaning the smallest injury can lead to massive blood loss. Throughout his young life, Alexei had many scrapes with death that left his mother and father in constant fear for their son and the fate of the Romanov dynasty.
Czarina Alexandria was always looking for people to help with her son’s condition, and in 1906, she had a chance meeting with a Holy Man from Siberia, Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin was an intimidating figure, tall, with dark piercing eyes, Rasputin was a renown healer throughout the country and was in St. Petersburg to meet well-connected individuals. The Czar and Czarina meet the Holy Man and eventually get to talking about Alexei, and soon after that Rasputin becomes the de facto healer to the Romanov family.
Rasputin held power over the Royal couple because it truly seemed like he could heal Alexei. On one occasion in 1912, Alexei was injured in a carriage accident and was near death for days. In desperate need of help, the Czarina telegraphed Rasputin who was away in Siberia, through telegram, the healer told the Czarina what to do and to have the doctors leave the young boy alone. Within days, the boy went from near death, to perfectly fine. Historians have debated and attempted to figure out what exactly happened with Alexei, but it remains a mystery.
What isn’t a mystery though was the power that Rasputin held over the Royal family, they listened to everything he said. This was dangerous because Rasputin was not everything he claimed to be, while he professed holy devotion, his favorite past times were drinking himself into a drunken stupor and sleeping with as many women as he could. His actions around the city caused massive amounts of embarrassment for the Royal Couple, and many times they had a falling out with Rasputin.
After the outbreak of World War I, the Czar turned to Rasputin for guidance, with Rasputin telling the Czar to go to the front and take command. While the Czar was gone, the Czarina allowed Rasputin to make monumental decisions of national importance on her behalf. This was the final straw for many in Russia, and soon three prominent men decided to kill Rasputin. Prince Felix Yusupov invited Rasputin over to his house for wine, food and womanizing one night. The Prince gave Rasputin cakes and wine laced with cyanide, with Rasputin eating three cakes and drinking three glasses of wine.
The cyanide food did nothing do the holy man, which freaked out the three men waiting for him to die. Eventually, the Prince shoots Rasputin point-blank in the chest and runs out of the house. Hours later the three men return and walk down the stairs to the basement where Rasputin’s body was. As the Prince walked in, Rasputin jumped off the floor and attacked him, running up the stairs and out the front door.
This is bonkers stuff here, this crazy healer has had six servings of cyanide and a bullet to the chest with no damage done, he is like the final boss on those hard as hell video games I played as a kid. Well, finally the three killers chase down Rasputin in front of the house, and shoot him in the head, ultimately killing the raging priest. With Rasputin dead, attention turned to the Royal Family and their failure to rule decisively and adequately during the World War. Eventually, all the distrust with the Czar and Czarina led to the Bolshevik Revolution and the execution of the entire Royal Family. The fall of the last dynasty in Russia, and the rise of the Communist regime, all began over the distrust of a crazy holy man and the family he served.
Any loyal follower to this blog and website will notice that the output has been lacking to say the least. First off, I would like to offer my apologies for not writing more often, the last year has put a strain on all of us, and I for one lost all motivation to write while dealing with the bullshit of Covid-19. It’s no excuse really, the creative juices should have flowed being locked up in the house with nothing else to do for many months, but I simply lost all desire to do anything creative. Add into the mix the nightmare of being a public school teacher over the past two school years and you have a shitty blogger to say the least. This post serves as a wakeup call to all followers and myself mostly that this will not continue to be the case. I miss writing about and sharing the weird and wacky side of history with you guys, and over the next few weeks you will see the output greatly increase. Thank you for your continued support and stay odd friends.
Europe in the early 20th century was a gigantic pile of dynamite primed to explode. It was like when your little sibling doesn’t get what they want at the store and you see the rage boiling in their eyes; you know an explosion is coming; the question is only if it will happen in the dairy isle or the checkout lane. Europe was a confusing mess of monarchies (countries led by a king or queen) and inter-marriage that makes little to no sense in our era of republican government. Most of the crowned rulers of Europe were in some way or another related to each other, through inter-marriage (gross) and family ties, the crowned heads of Europe were mostly a gigantic family tree with a few branches but it mostly ran straight up towards to Queen of the largest empire on earth, Queen Victoria of Britain.
Queen Victoria ruled for somewhere around 972 years, all kidding aside she was in the job a long time. During her reign she presided over the colonization (a fancy way of saying stealing land from people who already lived there) of most of the known world. The British tentacles stretched from the tiny island nation south into Africa, west to Canada, and east to Australia and New Zealand with many other holdings spattered across the world map. Queen Victoria was quite intelligent, she was always looking for ways to expand her influence and power, and she struck out on a grand idea, force her kids to marry people from other royal families, that meant, in her mind, that there would be a British influence in all the courts of royal Europe. And it is hard to dispute her brilliance in that regard. After she was finished she did have descendants in many of the thrones in Europe. Not to bore you with a complete family tree. It is important you understand just how far her influence went. Her first kid, also named Victoria, was married off to a Prussian Emperor and their son, William, became the Keiser (German word for Caesar, yea they were full of themselves) in the early 20th century. William would eventually lead Germany into a little conflict known as World War I, more on that later. Victoria’s daughter Alice was sent off to Russia to marry a guy in the Russian court and their eventual son would become Tsar Nicholas II, just the ruler over the largest country in Europe. No big deal. Throw in a few lesser marriages to Dutch royalty and you come to the most obvious descendent, good old George. Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, married a Danish Princess and had a ton of kids, but the first boy is the only kid that mattered to these people.
Victoria died in 1901 after her reign of like two thousand years, Edward took over for ten years, but he spent most of his life just waiting on his mom to die so he didn’t get to rule long. After Edward kicked the bucket in 1910, it went to his boy, the aforementioned George who was coronated George V. So, as you can see, the head of three massive monarchies were all the grandkids of this one woman because of her obsessive urge to force her kids to marry people they didn’t even really like, all that mattered was their royal blood and that sweet, sweet cash.
All of this inter-marrying led to quite a few birth defects, because incest tends to cause such things, and many of Victoria’s descendents would develop neurological disorders (mental disorders), physical maladies, and genetic disorders. It is a certain genetic disorder, hemophilia, that would quite literally lead to the most important revolution of the 20th century. Victoria did all of this match-making to ensure that the crowned heads of Europe would get along and could work their problems out in a family way. Unfortunately for Victoria, she didn’t take into account human greed and the lust for power, so for the first decade or so of the 20th century the relations running the largest and most powerful countries in Europe were on a slow collision course with doom.
It was another empire, the Astro-Hungarian Empire, that was the site of the explosion of that giant barrel of dynamite I mentioned before. The Austro-Hungarian Empire doesn’t exist anymore (spoiler alert), but it was an important empire that comprised Austria, Hungary and many of the countries known as the Baltics in southern Europe. The problem inside the empire was the fact that most of the Baltic States hated being under the control of a foreign power (who knew people like something called freedom?) and there was pure hatred for the leadership in those areas. In 1908, a small county named Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed (friendly way of saying forced) into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and with no chance to fight for their freedom, the Bosnians were forced to live under foreign rule. Obviously, this ticked off pretty much every Bosnian living so the Emperor, Franz Joseph and his second in command, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, were not too well liked in that area of the world.
This mistrust and hatred for the Emperial overlords led to many people looking for a way to fight back and attempt to gain Bosnian independence. The Bosnian Nationalists (people who wanted to break away) were cool with the idea of joining another country, Serbia, but they wanted no part of living under Joe and Franz’s rule. Little groups of agitators sprang up, people who would meet in secret and talk about plans of overthrowing the Austrians. One of these groups became known as Young Bosnia, and as the name suggests, it was filled with young men and women, some still in their teens, who wanted to take down the leadership of the empire.
Franz Joseph was old, like really old, so everyone knew that he would die soon, and the Archduke would take over any time now. The Archduke wasn’t a bad guy, all things considered, and he had even lobbied for the Bosnians to be treated better in the government. In 1914, the Archduke, in his infinite stupidity, thought it would be a great idea to take a trip to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to oversee a military parade, and an overall excuse to wear his fancy uniform and parade in front of the conquered Bosnians.
The Archduke and his wife Sophie arrived in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, to public fanfare. In the days preceding their arrival, the newspapers in the city had detailed to exact plans and route that the Archduke and his wife were to take through the city. A group of young assassins including 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip placed themselves along the parade route. It is unclear how many members of Young Bosnia were in the crowd that day, some sources say over a dozen people were armed and ready to attack the Archduke. They made the first attempt with a hand grenade when a would-be assassin launched the explosive towards the Archduke’s car. The Archduke was able to fend off the grenade, and it exploded a car behind him, injuring over twenty people in the explosion. Police quickly arrested the attacker, and it seemed that the chance for assassination was over. The Archduke’s car sped off towards city hall and the parade was immediately cancelled.
The assassins were bummed out, their big chance to take down the Archduke had sped off into the afternoon sun, and they were left on the side of the road trying to pick up the pieces. Gavrilo Princip decided to walk to a nearby cafe and gather his thoughts, as he was sipping on a drink and having lunch, the wheels of history were turning. The Archduke went to city hall to yell at everybody about the terrible security and the fact that his car was nearly blown to pieces. After chewing out the Mayor, the Archduke and his wife decided to go and visit the injured citizens at a local hospital. The Archduke’s driver had no idea where he was going in Sarajevo and began driving around the city looking for the correct road. The Archduke’s car turned down the road where Princip was sitting and having his lunch and the car stalls with the engine shutting down. This is crazy guys; all of these events had to fit in perfectly for the Archduke to be sitting on the same street corner as a Young Bosnia assassin. Princip was shocked, this was his chance! Standing on the corner, the Archduke and his wife were just below him on streetlevel, Princip pulled a revolver out of his coat pocket, aimed, and fired. Princip’s first shot hit Sophie in the chest, with the second shot striking the Archduke in his throat. Sophie immediately fell to the floor of the car, while security tried to stop the Archduke’s throat from gushing blood. The Archduke could only think of his wife, begging the love of his life to “Not die, stay alive for the children”, but the damage had been done. The Archduke and his wife Sophie died shortly after being shot.
The police surrounded and arrested Princip and quickly threw him in a jail cell. He made no excuses; he killed the two royals and was proud of it. Immediately word spread throughout Europe of the assassination and people speculated about who did it and why. When it was discovered the Princip was a Bosnian, it sent Europe into a tailspin. The Austro-Hungarians believed that the assassins were given weapons and money by the Serbian government. While they have never proven this it is quite likely the killer was given aid by Serbia. Austria Hungary immediately demanded that Serbia pay for the crime, and issued a threat to the country. Serbia had no intention of giving in to the Austro-Hungarians and immediately sent telegrams to their biggest ally in Europe, Russia.
At the same time that Serbia was asking Russia for help, the Austro-Hungarians asked their European BFFs Germany to back them up. Once Russia and Germany backed their allies, the doomsday clock began. Eventually, Germany would tell Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia while the Germans invaded Belgium to get into France. This set off a chain-reaction of Britain and Russia coming to the aid of the Serbians and the French. The leaders of these countries, all first cousins, abandoned their family ties and the attempts at diplomacy, they went to war for the supremacy of Europe. After the dust settled in November 1918, 20 million people were dead, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed, they forced Germany to pay millions of dollars to the other countries they fought, and the world plunged into three decades of darkness. All of this because of the actions of one 19-year-old kid, and the deaths for two members of royalty.
One aspect of the past that often goes overlooked by modern people is just how absolutely disgusting life was during the past for our ancestors. During the classical period, there were modern advancements to sanitation in cities such as Rome and Athens where they had running water and proper toilets, but when the Roman Empire crumbled, so did the cleanliness of Europe. In the period known as the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, filth surrounded people who lived in larger cities daily. Everything from human poop and animal droppings to discarded animal carcasses was a part of everyday life for the citizens. Every person in town had their own little pot under their beds, they used this pot as a bathroom during the black of night. In the morning, people opened their doors and emptied their bodily waste into the streets or out of their backdoors. The waste would run throughout the city and enter the water supplies of the town. This meant that when citizens had a nice, refreshing drink of water, they would drink the waste of countless people and animals. Our ancestors did not know what germs were, germ theory did not become common knowledge until the early twentieth century. The idea of tiny, unseen bacteria swimming in water would sound insane to all citizens before the discovery of germ theory. Little did our ancestors know, they were ingesting dangerous bacteria daily. According to multiple sources, including the BBC, the average life expectancy of an adult in the Middle Ages was a mere 33 years old, meaning I would be an old man by those standards. The low life expectancy is no surprise though, the people of the Middle Ages were in the petri dish of bacteria and germs, and any of the countless diseases brought about by these germs could kill.
Keeping the filth in mind, it is no surprise that citizens of middle ages cities, both big and small, were ripe for the picking for a disease. If you think COVID-19 is scary, it can’t hold a candle to the destruction and death that was unleashed on Middle Ages Europe and Asia, the Black Death. Scientists are to this day still at odds about what exactly the Black Death was, but the most prominent theory is that the Black Death was a combination of diseases with the most deadly being Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague was a disgusting and deadly disease that killed nearly 80% of all people who contracted it. The disease began with flu-like symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea. The first step was dangerous enough, but in step two of the disease the afflicted knew they were in deep trouble. Puss-ridden and stinky Buboes began appeared on the bodies of the sick, the lymph nodes of the afflicted swelled to double and triple of their normal sizes, causing extreme pain and internal bleeding. These buboes were extremely painful and could even explode shooting puss and bodily fluids all over the sick person. The plague was dangerously contagious, and by the time these buboes appeared, doctors and family members wouldn’t go anywhere near the sick. It is hard to blame the family members for peacing out on their loved ones, but it is a tragic story to read about the dying being left all alone in their final days. People left the victims of the plague on their own, in excruciating pain and slowly dying. The sickness usually took around three weeks from the onset of symptoms to death, with the final cause of death usually being respiratory issues such as pneumonia.
The plague spread rapidly throughout western Asia and all of Europe, beginning in the middle of the fourteenth century. Even though the world was not connected like we are today, there were dozens of trade routes that connected both east and west. Fleas riding on the backs of rats that traveled on trade ships throughout Asia and Europe carried the plague. When the ships docked in harbors in places such as Italy and Britain, the rats fled off of the ships and spread throughout the city. All it took was one flea from one rat to jump onto a human and bite it for the disease to begin. The terrible conditions in the cities led to citizens having terrible immune systems, so the plague had easy access to bringing down entire towns and most of the citizens of the large cities. By 1347 the plague was a full-blown pandemic, leaving the citizenry terrified of death. The sickness was so terrifying that even the Pope refused to leave his house, deciding instead to sit around blazing fires daily to burn away the sickness and praying for his health. Who knows if fire actually killed bacteria or if his self-isolation worked, but the Pope did manage to survive the plague.
Life in Europe came to a standstill. It was all about survival, leading the era to earn its moniker, the Dark Ages. Doctors refused to visit patients, priests refused to administer last rites to the dying, families left their sick relatives alone to die. The Middle Ages was an era of devout Christianity, church was everything to these people, and the idea that they would die without a priest giving the last rites was nearly a fate worse than the disease. The plague traveled rapidly between the cities of Europe, leaving many feeling that this was the end of the world. The Black Death lasted nearly a decade through Europe and Asia, and the final statistics are staggering. While exact numbers are hard to estimate because of poor record keeping, historians generally believe that the Black Death killed about half of the entire population of Europe, numbering near 100 million people. Imagine that, half of the population of your town or city would be alive one day, and gone the next. When seeing the Black Death through these statistics, it is miraculous that Europe survived; it took nearly a century, but Europe recovered and would later thrive as a center of culture and economics for centuries to come.