The history of the world: Without the boring bits

The story of mankind is one long tale of greed, lust, debauchery and murder – if only you know where to look. Ian Crofton trawls through the annals of history to find all the juicy bits
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'The Day of Creation'

The date of Creation, according to James Ussher, Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, in his 1650 work Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti ("Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world"). More precisely, Ussher calculated – on the basis of his interpretation of biblical texts – that the Earth had been brought into being on the evening preceding 23 October 4004BC. It turns out that the Earth is nearly a million times older than Ussher suggested.

Circa 430bc
'Volcanic Suicides'

The Greek philosopher Empedocles died by throwing himself into the active crater of Mount Etna. His intention had been that people should believe – in the absence of his body – that he had ascended to heaven as a god. His ruse was foiled when the volcano spewed forth one of his bronze sandals. The fate of Empedocles may have inspired the American tourist who, in 1859 – having received unhappy news from home – threw himself into a lava flow on the flank of Vesuvius, and was instantly incinerated.


Having conquered much of the rest of Greece, Philip II of Macedon sent a message to the Spartans: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." They sent a one-word reply: "If." Their boldness paid off: Philip left them alone.

'The Most Expensive Banquet in History?'

When Mark Antony first met Cleopatra, at Tarsus in modern-day Turkey, their political discussions were lubricated with feast after feast. Indeed, Cleopatra wagered Mark Antony that she would lay on the most expensive banquet in history. The next evening, as the banquet neared its end, Mark Antony observed that, though impressive, the meal had been no more lavish than the previous ones. At this, Cleopatra took off one of her pearl earrings, extracted a huge pearl, ground it up and dissolved it in wine vinegar, then drank it down. The bet was won.

Circa 250
'Two Breasts on a Platter'

For following the Christian faith, and rejecting the advances of a Roman prefect, St Agatha of Sicily was placed by the authorities in a brothel run by a madam called Aphrodisia, but all attempts on her virtue proved unsuccessful. She was then tortured on the rack, suffered the lash and had her sides torn with hooks. Subsequently, her breasts were cut off, although these were miraculously restored. She finally expired after being dragged naked over hot coals. In Christian iconography, she is often depicted carrying her amputated breasts on a plate. Agatha is the patron saint of wet nurses, bell-founders (echoing the shape of her breasts) and those suffering from breast cancer.

'Forty Frozen for their Faith'

At Sebaste in Armenia (modern Sivas in eastern Turkey), 40 Roman soldiers of the Twelfth Legion, the Fulminata, or Thunderers, met an icy fate for persisting with their Christian faith. On one of the bitterest nights of the year they were left standing naked in the middle of a frozen lake, and instructed that they could cross over to the welcoming fires that they could see flickering on the shore if only they would renounce Christ. If they did so, warm baths and blankets awaited them. Only one man broke and ran for the shore, but a soldier who witnessed the courage of the remaining men was so impressed that he stripped off and took his place on the frozen waters.

Circa 850
'The Origin of Coffee'

An Arabian goatherd called Kaldi noticed that his flock became very perky when they fed on the berries of a certain bush. Thus was the property of the coffee bean first discovered – at least according to legend.

'A Ruptured Conqueror'

9 September – William the Conqueror died, having ruptured his belly in a fall from his horse. As they attempted to bury him, the monks of Rouen found that William – who had become quite portly – was too large for the sarcophagus that had been prepared. As they tried to force the putrid carcass into its final resting place, it burst open, and even incense and perfumes failed to disperse the stench that filled the church.

'The Extensive Progeny of Genghis Khan'

18 August – The death of Genghis Khan. His philosophy, as attributed to him, is summed up thus: the greatest joy a man can have is victory; to conquer one's enemy's armies, to pursue them, to deprive them of their possessions, to reduce their families to tears, to ride on their horses, and to make love to their wives and daughters. Research published in 2003 based on analysis of Y-chromosomes suggests that 8 per cent of men across a large area of Asia (about 0.5 per cent of the global male population) are descended from Genghis Khan.

'Three Days on the Gallows'

16 August – Henry III of England pardoned one Inetta de Balsham, who had been condemned to death for harbouring thieves. She had been hanged, but reportedly survived after three days swinging on the end of the rope.

'A Curb on Banqueting'

The Sumptuary Act of Edward III forbade any person to eat more than two courses in one meal. The act made it clear that soup was a full course, and not just a sauce. The following year, Edward banned the wearing of fur by any man or woman, even the king.

'Naughty Nuns'

The nuns of St Helen Bishopgate in the City of London were reprimanded for kissing members of the public and wearing over-ostentatious veils; at the same time the prioress was ticked off for keeping too many lapdogs. This rebuke seems to have had little effect for, in 1439, the nuns were told to desist from "dancing and revelling", except at Christmas, and then only among themselves.

'Vlad the Impaler'

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, had some 20,000 Turkish prisoners impaled on stakes to deter an Ottoman invasion of his realm, earning him the nickname "Vlad the Impaler" and immortal fame as the original Dracula (which was originally Draculea, meaning "son of Dracul" – the byname of his father, and meaning "the dragon"). The episode in 1462 was just one in a lifetime of impaling, and Vlad typically liked to entertain his guests to a banquet while watching his victims slowly slide down their spikes (he made sure that the points were not too sharp, so death should not come too quickly). Among the most prominent of Vlad's victims were the German merchants who had become powerful in his realm, and the accounts of his atrocities largely derive from contemporary German pamphlets – so the extent and method of Vlad's impaling activities may well be exaggerated.

'The Milk of Human Hatred'

Attacking the neighbouring Aztec city of Tlatelolco, the army of Axayacatl of Tenochtitlan was surprised to be met by an army of naked women, who sought to distract their enemies by spraying them with milk from their breasts. However, this ruse did not save Tlatelolco, which was sacked, and many of its people sacrificed.

Circa 1480
'Ode to the Pubic Hair'

The Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain wrote the "Ode to the Pubic Hair" ("Cywydd y Cedor"), a work in which she upbraids male poets for celebrating so many parts of a woman's body, but not the vagina. "Let songs about the quim circulate," she adjures her readers. As to the pubic hair: "Lovely bush, God save it."

'Luther Inspired on Privy'

31 October – Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He said he had come to the conclusion that salvation is granted because of faith, not deeds, while "in cloaca" (while sitting on the lavatory). He was a lifelong sufferer from constipation and piles.

'Curious Occurrences Attending the Beheading of Mary Queen of Scots'

8 February – After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, a contemporary account reported that "her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off". At the same time, Mary's little dog was found nestling under her skirts, and, having been pulled out, insisted on lying between her mistress's shoulders and her severed head.

'The Adventures of Lord Minimus'

At a banquet for Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, the Duke of Buckingham served up Jeffrey Hudson, an 18-inch dwarf, in a pie, from which he burst dressed in a suit of armour. Hudson – aged only seven – was presented as a gift to Henrietta Maria, becoming known as "Lord Minimus" or " The Queen's Dwarf", and was painted with her by Van Dyck (the painting shows that, unusually for a dwarf, he had the proportions of a full-size adult). Hudson eventually tired of his mascot role, and in 1644, while exiled with the queen in France, challenged her master of horse, William Crofts, to a duel, after the latter had made some disparaging remark about his size. They fought with pistols on horseback, and Hudson shot Crofts dead. He was expelled from the court, and soon afterwards was captured by Barbary pirates, spending 25 years as a slave in North Africa, until ransomed. Returning to England, he lived out his days in poverty. He died around 1682.

'Surviving the Gallows'

Anne Green, a servant girl, was condemned in Oxford to hang for child murder. After she was cut down from the gallows, and just as the anatomists were about to begin the dissection of her corpse, she gave a sign of life. She later fully revived, was pardoned, and went on to marry and bear three children. Eight years later, in the same city, a Mrs Cope also survived her hanging, but this time the authorities insisted on mounting a second attempt the following day, which proved successful.

' A Nauseous Puddle of Water'

The anonymous Women's Petition Against Coffee condemned the beverage " as a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous puddle of water", for which people should not trifle away their time or their money.

'Rippingdale vs Rembrandt'

In The Examiner, John Hunt opined that: "Rembrandt is not to be compared in the painting of character with our extraordinarily gifted artist Mr Rippingdale."

'The First Automobile Accident'

The first automobile accident occurred when a steam-powered tractor built by Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot for the French army crashed into a wall. Its top speed was about 4kph (2.5mph).

'The Origin of Quiz'

Around this date, Mr Daly, manager of a Dublin theatre, proposed a wager by which he would introduce a new word into the language and have everybody using it within 24 hours. Accordingly, he and his associates scrawled the word "QUIZ" on walls all over the city, and in no time at all the citizens of Dublin were asking what these letters meant. The wager was won. Sadly, some of our duller lexicographers doubt the veracity of this tale.

'Experiments as to Whether a Severed Head Maintains Consciousness'

8 May – The great French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, was guillotined during the Terror. A dedicated scientist to the last, he wished the world to know for how long one is conscious following decapitation, so determined to see how often he could blink following the fall of the blade. Acting according to his master's instructions, Lavoisier's manservant promptly picked up the severed head, and counted between 15 and 20 blinks. This, at least, is the story, but it seems that it originates with Jean-Josephe Sue, a French physician who believed the guillotine was a far from painless and instantaneous instrument of execution, and regretted that he had not suggested this last experiment to the great scientist. It appears that the experiment was suggested to a condemned murderer called Lacenaire in 1836. But he did not even blink once after decapitation.

'The First Chocolate Bar'

The first ever bars of chocolate were made by the Swiss confectioner François-Louis Cailler.

'A Custard Without Eggs'

Alfred Bird invented custard powder. As his wife was allergic to eggs, his powder did without them.

'The First Package Holiday'

5 July – Thomas Cook, the travel agent, organised his first excursion: a day trip for temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough.

' The Ring Doughnut is Born'

The ring doughnut was invented by accident, when a baker's apprentice called Hanson Gregory pushed out the soggy, uncooked centre of the conventional doughnut that he had just pulled out of the deep fryer.

'An Experiment in Free Love'

The utopian Oneida Community was established in New York State. The community practised "complex marriage", in effect free love, and the women on average had "interviews" with three different partners every week. To avoid unwanted pregnancies and the "waste" of seed, the men aimed to avoid ejaculation during coitus, which could last for up to an hour. Pubescent boys trained to achieve this degree of control by engaging in intercourse with women who had just passed the menopause. Those who wished to bear children had to appear before a committee, which would determine their spiritual and moral fitness for breeding. All children were raised communally. The community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes, was obliged to flee to Canada in 1879 when he was warned that he was about to be charged with statutory rape. He wrote to advise his followers to abandon complex marriage, and within a year many community members had contracted conventional marriages.

'The Spending of the First Pennies'

British public lavatories began charging a standard 1d (one old penny) for admission, a charge that remained until decimalisation in 1971. Hence the euphemism "to spend a penny".

' Mount Eve-rest'

Andrew Waugh, Surveyor General of India, proposed that the newly measured Peak XV, thought to be the highest peak in the region, should be named after his predecessor, Sir George Everest. The latter pronounced his name " Eve-rest" (as in Adam and Eve), but his eponymous mountain has been mispronounced ever since.

'A Fickle Twist of Fate'

August – Otto von Bismarck, Prussian ambassador to Paris, was swept out to sea with his mistress, Katharina Orloff, while swimming off Biarritz. The couple were rescued with some difficulty by a French lifeguard, Pierre Lafleur, who had to revive the unconscious Bismarck. Lafleur was drowned four weeks later, while Bismarck went on to mastermind the creation of the German Empire and the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. However, he did become godfather to Lafleur's orphan son

'An Eccentric Vicar'

The Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, author of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" , married Grace Taylor, an illiterate 16-year-old mill girl. The marriage, which lasted for 48 years, inspired George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Baring-Gould was said to teach with a pet bat on his shoulder. At a party for his own children, he asked a guest, "And whose little girl are you?" The girl burst into tears and sobbed, "I'm yours, Daddy."

'Tit for Tat'

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was taken aback when, having asked for an opinion of his latest poem, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, replied, "I shouldn't publish that, if I were you, Tennyson." Tennyson responded, "If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy."

'The First Striptease'

9 February – At the Bal des Quatre Arts, Paris, students witnessed the world's first striptease, when an artist's model called Mona, apparently under the influence of champagne, disrobed to music. She was subsequently arrested and fined 100 francs, causing the students to demonstrate. Some claim that the world's first striptease was performed by Salome, nearly 2000 years previously. The striptease developed in the burlesque theatres of the 1890s, and a popular early theme was that the woman shed her clothes one by one in search of a flea.

'Prince Swears'

In Brussels, a young anarchist made an assassination attempt on the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII). His Royal Highness reputedly exclaimed, "Fuck it, I've taken a bullet," although he was in fact untouched.

'A Bad Review'

22 October – The Times Literary Supplement dismissed The Wind in the Willows thus: 'As a contribution to natural history, the work is negligible.'

'A Caring Employer'

15 April – As soon as the Titanic went down, the White Star Line, the ship's owners, stopped the wages of the crew.

'Peg Leg Bates, the One-legged Tap Dancer'

A 12-year-old black boy called Clayton Bates lost his left leg after it was mangled by a conveyor belt in a cotton mill in his native South Carolina. Undeterred, "Peg Leg" Bates had, by the age of 15, become " the undisputed king of one-legged dancers" (according to the Tap Dance Hall of Fame), bringing new life to such steps as the Suzy Q by exploiting the contrast between the metallic tap of his right shoe and the wooden note of his peg leg. He was still pursuing a successful career in vaudeville in the 1960s, and died in 1998. "Life means do the best with what you've got," he used to say.

'Prime Minister Demands Report on Tits'

Having just returned from Munich bringing "peace for our time", Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain requested an update on the long-tailed tits nesting in the Treasury.

'Fiddling While Rome Burns'

Gadsby, a novel by E V Wright, is published, which entirely eschews the letter "e". Thirty years later the French writer Georges Perec publishes La Disparition, which achieves a similar feat.

'Run, Rabbit, Run'

16 March – after an air raid on the British naval base at Scapa Flow, Orkney, the Germans claimed to have caused massive casualties. In fact, the only fatality was a rabbit, and it was to this that Flanagan and Allen referred when they sang "Run, Rabbit, Run" (the song itself dates from the previous year) to wartime audiences, apparently accompanied by the creature's corpse.

'Publisher Rejects 'Animal Story'

The American publishers, Dial Press, rejected George Orwell's political allegory Animal Farm on the grounds that it was "impossible to sell animal stories in the USA".

'Nazi Legacy in Bournemouth'

The Bournemouth Evening Echo carried the following story: "Mrs Irene Graham of Thorpe Avenue, Boscombe, delighted the audience with her reminiscence of the German prisoner of war who was sent each week to do her garden. He was repatriated at the end of 1945, she recalled. 'He'd always seemed a nice friendly chap, but when the crocuses came up in the middle of our lawn in February 1946, they spelt out Heil Hitler.'"

'Pigeon Suffers Indignity'

A Nigerian was fined £50 for committing an act of indecency with a pigeon in Trafalgar Square, and a further £10 for taking it home and eating it.

'Rock and Roll Bakery'

The cake on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Let It Bleed was created by a then unknown Delia Smith.

'Studies on the Chemistry of Arsoles'

Publication of 'Studies on the Chemistry of Arsoles', a paper by G Markl and H Hauptmann, in J. Organomet. Chem., 248 (1983) 269. Arsole is the name of a ring-shaped molecule, the arsenic equivalent of pyrrole, and, contrary to expectations, is only moderately aromatic. Dr Paul May comments: "The structure where arsole is fused to a benzene ring is called 'benzarsole', and apparently when it's fused to six benzenes it would be called 'sexibenzarsole' (although that molecule hasn't been synthesised yet)."

' Aurora or Flying Saucer?'

Chris Gibson, who had served for 12 years with the Royal Observer Corps, sighted an unusual triangular-shaped aeroplane high above Galveston Key oilrig in the North Sea. It was being refuelled in midair, and was flanked by two USAF fighters. It is thought that this may have been the covert US spy plane known as "Aurora", whose existence has been denied by the Americans. The following year there were sightings in the north of Scotland of an object flying overhead at great speed. It is believed that Aurora (if it exists) can fly as high as 40km (25 miles) and may be capable of speeds up to Mach 8 (8500 kph/5300 mph), which would take it from London to New York in less than 40 minutes. An MoD report from 2000 says: " Certain viewing angles of these vehicles may be described as saucer-like."

'Foundation of the World Toilet Organisation'

The World Toilet Organisation was established, and a World Toilet Summit was held in Singapore. This has become an annual event, and 19 November is now World Toilet Day. The WTO is a serious group, dedicated to improving ublic facilities around the world.

'Rejection of a Dead Man's Hand'

Surgeons were obliged to amputate the world's first transplanted hand, because the recipient, a 50-year-old New Zealand man, found it "hideous and withered", and could not face having a dead man's hand on the end of his arm. Similarly, in 2006, a Chinese man asked surgeons to remove a penis transplant that had been grafted on to the 1cm stump he had been left with after an accident. Although the transplant was a success, neither the man nor his wife found they could live with another man's penis.

'Santa Moves to Greenland'

The 40th Father Christmas World Congress declared that Santa's home was in fact in Greenland. No delegate from Lapland was present.

Ian Crofton, 2007. This is an edited extract from History Without the Boring Bits by Ian Crofton (£16.99), which is published by Quercus Books. To order a copy for the special price of £15.29 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit