Skip to main content
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell

You won't believe these 10 stories from history

Who said history was boring? These are the most unbelievable stories from all time that you definitely weren't taught in school!

Image: Oliver Cromwell was posthumously executed after dying of natural causes | Public Domain

From a chicken that lived for two years without its head to an American project to blow up the moon, here are 10 unbelievable facts from history.

1. Mike the Headless Chicken

Back in 1945, a chicken destined for the chop miraculously survived the farmer’s axe and ran around without a head for the next two years.

The farmer and his new headless chicken (now named Mike) soon left their farm in Fruita, Colorado and hit the road showcasing the unbelievable sight of a walking, breathing headless chicken to all those willing to pay a fee.

People from across America gawked and stared at Mike, whilst scientists poked and prodded him to try and understand exactly how he was still alive. The answer lay in the positioning of a chicken’s brain, which is situated in the back of their heads. Whilst the farmer chopped off most of Mike’s head, much of his brain was left intact. A fortunate blood clot then prevented Mike from bleeding to death.

In the end, Mike choked to death in 1947 after mucus became stuck in his throat.

2. Wojtek the Bear

For thousands of years, animals have aided humans in the field of combat. However, bears are not always the first creatures to come to mind when thinking of animals in war. A Syrian brown bear adopted as a cub by Polish soldiers during WWII is the standout exception to the rule.

Named Wojtek, the bear grew up within the 22nd Artillery Supply Company and formed a close bond with the soldiers. They even shared their cigarettes and beer with him. Wojtek grew into a 40-stone adult and was officially enlisted into the army to secure his rations.

The bear rose from the rank of private to corporal after his exploits during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in May 1944. Wojtek allegedly helped carry ammunition crates to the soldiers on the frontline.

Wojtek survived the war and lived out his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

3. America’s project to nuke the moon

As unfathomable as it sounds, the Americans really did consider sending a nuclear missile towards the moon. And for what purpose you ask? Well, to prevent the Soviets from getting one-up on them.

Ever since the end of WWII, the two countries were locked in an ever-escalating nuclear arms race that evolved into a Space Race. The Soviets got off to the quickest start with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, Earth’s first artificial satellite.

Fearing they might fall behind further, American top brass wanted a show of strength, so the U.S. Air Force began Project A119, aka Project Nuke The Moon. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible from Earth as the ultimate display of one-upmanship on the Soviets.

Fortunately for all of mankind, the project was canned in favour of the moon landings.

4. Posthumous execution of Oliver Cromwell

History tells us that Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England during the country’s brief stint as a republic, died of complications due to malaria and kidney stone disease. How then, did his chopped-off head end up in private collections and museums for centuries to come?

Well, after his death, the country decided to ditch the republic and asked Charles II to return to England and restore the Stuart monarchy in 1660. Charles returned, but not without a serious grudge against Cromwell and all those who’d executed his father.

Charles put together a kill list with a series of most wanted names on it. One of which was Cromwell but since he was already dead, the next best thing to enact revenge was to have him exhumed and posthumously executed.

Cromwell’s head was stuck on a spike in Westminster Hall for the next 30 years. It then spent 250-odd years being bought and sold by various collectors until it was finally buried in 1960 at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

5. Henry I died after eating too many lampreys

As weird deaths go, this one is right up there. King Henry I, who reigned from 1100 until his untimely demise in 1135, had something of a penchant for eating lampreys. The jawless eel-like fish is as strange looking as it is ancient, with fossils of the creature dating back to the age of the dinosaurs.

Although they have been described as tasty, it's not the kind of dish usually eaten in large volumes. Henry I begged to differ. His insatiable appetite for lampreys impacted his health so much that he eventually died after a night of voracious feasting.

One theory suggests a toxin from the lampreys was the reason for Henry's death since the physician who extracted his brain post-mortem reportedly became ill afterwards and died a painful death a few days later.

6. The Dancing Plague of 1518

Whilst ‘Strictly’ fever grips the nation every winter, back in 16th century France, a dancing plague brought hundreds of people to their feet to dance until they could stand no more.

In one of the strangest episodes in European history, the 1518 Dancing Plague of Strasbourg saw a spontaneous outbreak of dancing grip the local populace. Up to 400 people danced day and night until they collapsed, with some perhaps even dying from exhaustion.

What could cause people to get up and quite literally dance the skin off their feet? Historians have debated the reason behind the dancing plague, but the consensus seems to be that it was caused by stress-induced mass hysteria.

7. Phineas Gage who survived a rod through the brain

In 1848, blasting foreman Phineas Gage was clearing rock in Vermont, as part of the advance team of railway workers prepping the line for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad.

After packing a hole with gunpowder, Gage proceeded to tamper it down with sand. To do that he used a four-foot-long iron rod shaped like a javelin. Unfortunately, the rod caused a spark and ignited the gunpowder, firing said rod through Gage’s left cheek and out through the top of his head.

Although Gage lost a significant amount of blood and brain matter, he not only survived the accident but went on to live for another 12 years. However, his personality changed from an affable, likeable man to an impatient and often violent one.

The case of Phineas Gage proved invaluable to the study of neuroscience, as scientists made the connection for the first time between brain injury and personality change.

8. Franz Reichelt, the inventor killed by his own invention

At the beginning of the 19th century, mankind had finally taken to the skies with the invention of the aeroplane. However, in the early days of flight, there wasn't a way for aviators to abandon their plane safety if it came into trouble.

Austrian-Hungarian tailor Franz Reichelt wanted to find the solution. And so, he invented a suit that he believed could work as a parachute. After many failed attempts on dummies out of his fifth-floor apartment in Paris, Reichelt thought he just needed more height for his parachute to work.

And so, Reichelt donned the suit, climbed to the first platform of the Eiffel Tower and jumped. Sadly, the parachute failed to deploy and he fell 187 feet to his death.

9. When Americans and Germans fought on the same side in WWII

During the dying days of WWII, a small medieval castle in the Austrian Alps became the backdrop to one of the war’s strangest and most unlikely battles. The Nazis had converted Castle Itter into a prison to house a variety of VIP prisoners, including a French tennis star and the sister of Charles de Gaulle.

By 4th May 1945, the Nazi guards had fled, leaving the remaining 14 prisoners free to leave. However, the area was still crawling with SS and as bad luck would have it, one unit was heading their way to execute them.

Help came in the unlikely form of Joseg Gangl, a highly decorated Wehrmacht Major who had become disillusioned with Nazi ideology. When a nearby US tank battalion agreed to help Gangl and his handful of troops defend the prison, Americans and Germans found themselves fighting side-by-side, the only recorded case during the whole war.

The ensuing Battle for Castle Itter saw the defenders successfully repel the SS with just one casualty, Josef Gangl himself.

10. Charles VI who believed he was made of glass

Medieval French King Charles VI suffered from a condition known as ‘glass delusion’, whereby he believed he was made of glass and could quite literally shatter if not careful. Whilst it’s not an affliction we are aware of today, the condition was not uncommon in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Charles would often refuse to be touched by anyone for fear of shattering. He put iron rods in his clothes to protect himself from falling and breaking. On one occasion, he was even reported to have wrapped himself in blankets to prevent his buttocks from cracking.