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“History is little else than a long succession of useless cruelties.”—Voltaire

Aquick look back at our past would make one think that our ancestors had it a tad rougher than we did. Okay, let’s face it: Things back then sucked! Disease. Torture. Victorian England. It’s a wonder we’ve made it this far. So travel back with us now (five miles through the snow, uphill both ways) to a few of the trifling difficulties our forebears endured.

Wife for Sale … Barely Used

Single woman in England during the Middle Ages? No problem! You could own property and sign your name to contracts. Married? Sorry, but you are now property of your husband. As one legal entity, as defined by a legal doctrine called coverture, you would be completely subordinated to your husband.

William Blackstone described it best in the late eighteenth century: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.”

So … if you were the property of your husband, could he sell you? Of course! Toward the end of the 1600s all the way through the early twentieth century, there were numerous stories of men selling their wives at auction. Here’s one titillating glimpse gathered by Ancestors magazine: “Rodney Hall, a labouring man of idle and dissolute habits … led his wife into the town with a halter round her body … he led her twice round the market, where he was met by a man named Barlow, of the same class of life, who purchased her for eighteen pence and a quart of ale.”

The magazine goes on to report that in 1897, a shoemaker “on a drinking spree at Irthlingborough” ran out of money and sold his wife so he and his friends could keep drinking. Nice.

Dying Aid

It was low in calories (not that the Romans were counting), it had a sweet taste, and it killed you. Yes, it seems that in ancient Rome, the perfect diet aid was also the perfect dying aid. A popular way to sweeten wine was to throw in some sugar of lead (lead acetate), which was made by boiling grape juice in lead pots. The resulting syrup, called defrutum, was then concentrated again into sapa— yummy, but deadly. Friends, Romans, and countrymen used sugar of lead in their wine or to preserve fruit. It probably didn’t help that wine was often served in lead cups.

Speaking of Deadly

Mercury is the only metal that’s liquid at “standard conditions,” which is why civilization has always been fascinated with its silvery awesomeness. So even though it’s extremely toxic, it has been used as a medicine for centuries. It has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 3,500 years. In China, it was thought to prolong life, heal broken bones, and prevent pregnancy. (It prevented pregnancies the way it prevented long life.) Other cultures used it as a cosmetic and medicine. “Blue mass,” which was a pill with mercury as a main ingredient, was prescribed in the 1800s for constipation, depression, and toothaches. In the twentieth century, kids were given mercury as a laxative. As far as we know, the only thing mercury cures you of is life.

Favorite Forms of Torture

 The mechanical flagellator, invented in the early eighteenth century in England, could service forty people at the same time. Talk about service!

 Gossip much? During the 1500s, the British had a neat little device called the scold’s bridle or branks. It was a cage that locked around a woman’s head. The cage also had a spiked plate that was inserted in the mouth to curb the tongue, literally. If that wasn’t enough, the gabber was then sometimes led through the streets on a leash.

 During the Middle Ages, if you were told to sit on the Judas Cradle, you were in big trouble. Basically, it was a stool with a wooden pyramid on the top. Guess where you had to sit.

 Need a confession? Nothing was as effective during the Middle Ages as the rack. Place the guilty party (you know he’s guilty!) on the wooden frame, tie his arms to the ropes on the top and his legs to the ropes on the bottom. Turn the handle and wait for your captive to “stretch” the truth.

 The brazen bull was used by the ancient Greeks. Basically, you threw your guilty party in a hollowed-out bronze statue of a bull, closed the trapdoor, lit a fire underneath the statue, and, well, that was about it. When that got boring, the Greeks invented a system of tubes so the victim’s screams sounded like an angry bull.

 The Spanish tickler didn’t tickle. This simple device consisted of a pole and a metal claw, which was used to “dig” for the truth.

 The chair of torture consisted of a chair covered with spikes. Need we say more?

 Devices that need no explanation: the knee splitter, the head crusher, the breast ripper, rat torture, and thumbscrews.

 Finally, good luck if you were a crook in the fourth century. A person accused of a crime would be forced to close his hand around a red-hot poker. However, this wasn’t the punishment. If his or her hands healed after three days, they were declared innocent.

SIDE NOTE: In seventeenth-century France, the remains of executed murderers were considered good-luck charms. After a good hanging or burning at the stake, crowds would swarm over the remains looking for some luck.


The word “bedlam” means a place of confusion and uproar, and it’s derived from the name of England’s most infamous hospital: Bethlem Royal Hospital. It’s been around since the 1300s, and even though today it’s known for its humane psychiatric treatment, it’s renowned for its centuries of cruelty.

From the time it began accepting inmates … I mean, patients … with mental illnesses in the 1350s until the early twentieth century, the hospital was a veritable madhouse. Patients were often chained to the walls or floor, with one patient having been chained for fourteen years. “Treatment” also including whipping, dunking, and more. Refusing to take your medicine? No problem! The staff at Bethlem had specially designed metal keys they used to force your mouth open. For a time in the eighteenth century, the hospital charged a penny to visitors who could walk past the cells containing the chained patients and view the “freaks of Bethlem.” It was a popular tourist attraction, and many had fun “making sport and diversion of the miserable inhabitants.”

Eat Your Hearts Out, Sports Fans!

 The ancient Aztec and Maya Indians of Central America played a game that looked a lot like lacrosse. Except, if your team lost, your captain had his heart removed and passed around for fans to eat. Another game they played was called ullamaliztli, which was played with a heavy, solid rubber ball. Like soccer, you couldn’t use your hands to control the ball, but neither could you use your feet. Instead teams batted the ball around with their hips and buttocks. What happened with the losing team? See above.

 After ransacking a village, the Vikings would often resort to a game of tug-of-war to decide who got the plunder. The catch? The two teams would face off with a roaring fire between them. The winners would get the loot. The losers burned.

 Pankration was an ancient Greek wrestling match with a twist—there were no rules (or clothes). You could kick, scratch, wrestle, choke, tell your opponent to “Look at that pretty lady in Row B!” and then sucker punch him … whatever. It was considered bad form to kill your opponent.

 Soule was a popular game played by peasants in Normandy, Brittany, and Picardy from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries. The rules were simple: Two teams of up to a thousand participants each had to get a large ball into the opponent’s net or onto their side. The game usually got violent and could last for several days—especially since the goals could be separated by miles of farmland, forests, meadows, rivers, etc.

Whip It Up

Imagine it’s the 1600s and you’re tutor to the heir to the throne. It’s a pretty good gig, but what in heaven’s name do you do if the prince acts up or decides not to finish his lessons? Because of the doctrine of the divine rights of kings, which stated that a monarch has ultimate authority over man (which he got directly from God), you couldn’t exactly spank the royal’s highness. One solution was to assign a whipping boy. This poor kid, usually of high birth, would be raised alongside the prince, and every time the prince acted up, the whipping boy would be physically punished in front of the prince.

Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, if a natural disaster struck (such as a famine, disease, or invasion), they would choose a pharmakos to take the blame. The pharmakos would usually be a beggar or a cripple, and he would be cast out of the community, stoned, or beaten to death so that the disaster would go away.

Cure Nones

These days, the only thing truly scary about going to the doctor is the bill. However, the history of medicine and doctors is full of cures that did more to kill you than cure you. The ancient Egyptians, Africans, and Europeans all thought that epilepsy and mental illnesses could be cured by drilling a hole into your skull. This would release the demons from your head, and if you were lucky enough to survive, you got to keep the skull fragment they removed as a lucky charm. Back in the day, you could go to the barber for a haircut and a nice, healthy bloodletting, which was used to cure all sorts of maladies, such as fevers, colds, cancer, and of course, excessive bleeding!

In February 1685, we have what can be described as the worst cure ever. (And proof that peasants had a better chance at recovering from an illness than the aristocracy.) King Charles II of England suffered either a stroke or some sort of kidney dysfunction. All the royal doctors were summoned, and they immediately embarked on a treatment regimen that would have killed several healthy people. First, the bloodletting. Then they induced vomiting. Followed by an enema. When all that didn’t work, over the course of the five days it took the king to die, the good doctors filled his nose with snuff, let out some more blood, singed the king’s shaved scalp with burning irons, daubed his feet with pigeon poop, drilled a hole in his skull, applied heated cups to the skin (which formed blisters), applied more enemas, let out even more blood, fed him the gallstone from a goat, gave him a dose of forty drops of human skull, and more. And for all that, the king apologized: “I am sorry, gentlemen, for being such a time a-dying.”

What a Pig

Louis XI, king of France in the 1400s, liked animals. When he wasn’t hunting them, torturing them, or having them captured for his large zoo, he had them sing for him. In 1450, having grown tired of dressing up his pigs in clothing and wigs and sticking them with pins, he ordered the Abbot of Baigne to create a new musical instrument that incorporated pigs into its design. The abbot did as he was told, and before you knew it, there it was: a piano-type instrument that, when you played a key, stabbed a pig with a spike, making it cry. The pigs were arranged by the pitch in which they screamed, and by all accounts, the songs played were recognizable and the king and his attendants enjoyed the show immensely.

SIDE NOTE: When Louis XI was feeling especially cruel, he ordered a game of manhunt in which prisoners were covered with deerskin and then chased and torn apart by the king’s hounds.

ANOTHER SIDE NOTE: The inventor Athanasius Kircher designed a similar device in 1650—except he used cats. Here’s a description in the inventor’s own words (from his Musurgia Universalis): “In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano. The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike into the appropriate cat’s tail. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could not help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy.”

Dangerous Fashion Statements

As I write, today’s most popular fashion statement is skinny jeans. And as with any fad, it must soon be followed by the medical condition it causes. Skinny jeans are said to cause meraligia paresthetica, which is also known as tingling thigh syndrome. The New England Journal of Medicine also warns of jeans folliculitus, which is a skin rash. Well, fashion throughout the course of history has been dangerous, as well as deadly. But remember, before you laugh at our ancestors, remember those skinny jeans.

 Shoe fashion throughout history seemed more about danger than anything else. In Europe during the 1300s, the aristocracy began wearing shoes with long, pointed tips. (The best were shaped to look like male genitals and stuffed with fabric.) As the nobility were always seeking to outdo one another, the shoes got longer and longer until everyone at court was tripping all over the place. Instead of coming to their senses, however, they took care of the problem by tying the tips of their shoes to their legs with rope.

 High heels have been around for quite some time. In sixteenth-century Europe, women’s heels reached the incredible height of two to three feet! These shoes, called chopines, proved useful since they kept women’s dress hems clean when walking along the poop-filled streets. (Where do you think the maids emptied the chamber pots, anyway?) The Catholic Church also approved, since if you can barely walk, surely you can’t dance … and if you can’t dance, well … This fashion statement fell out of favor eventually as women needed something to hold on to (a maid or a long cane) at all times, and they kept falling over and severely hurting themselves.

 Louis XIV reigned France from 1643–1715. At the height of his powers in the early 1700s, the diminutive Louis wore high heels to make himself appear taller. Soon, it was all the rage, and all the aristocracy was wearing them. Louis’s heels were often up to five inches high, and as the royal court made theirs bigger, so did he. Soon everyone was tottering around until Louis decreed that no one else’s heels could be bigger than his.

 Foot binding was utilized in China for around a thousand years to emulate fashionable tiny feet. It involved breaking the arch and then wrapping the foot, resulting in an approximately three-inch foot from toe to heal, as well as a lifelong disability. By the nineteenth century, nearly 100 percent of upper-class women had bound feet. It was outlawed by the Communist party in 1949.

 France loved Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod so much that a Parisian designer in the 1770s began making hats with lightning rods attached to them—complete with grounding wire.

 The ancient Egyptians and Romans used cosmetics containing mercury and lead.

 It was fashionable during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for women to have pale white skin and red rouged cheeks. They achieved the pale look with white lead, which caused skin eruptions. They then covered up the eruptions with more lead. Lady Mary Coventry, a famous London society hostess, died at the age of twenty-seven of lead poisoning. In the early twentieth century, women used arsenic to give their skin a luminous glow and the deadly nightshade to brighten their eyes and enlarge their pupils.

 Eighteenth-century Europe saw the advent of gigantic wigs decorated with all sorts of things: stuffed birds, fruit, sculptures, and more. These wigs often attracted bugs, mice, and other critters. The highlight was most probably Marie Antoinette’s giant, four-foot high ship wig.

 Corsets have been used for hundreds of years. In the 1550s, Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, ordered her ladies in waiting to keep their waists extremely thin. They used corsets made of steel, wood, or ivory to keep their queen happy. According to many historians, the whole myth of women as the weaker sex was due to the fact that their corsets were restricting their lung capacity. So when excited, unable to breathe adequately, they fainted. Lungs weren’t the only body parts affected by waist-reducing corsets. The stomach, bladder, ribs, and more were all compressed—causing great discomfort and poor health.

 The Padaung tribe of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand view long necks as beautiful. Beginning at age five, a brass coil is added to a girl’s neck. Over the years, the coil is replaced with longer ones, as it slowly pushes the collarbone down and compresses the rib cage. This gives the illusion of the giraffe neck that’s been all the rage there for hundreds of years.

Now THAT’S a Curse

In March 1657, a Japanese priest cremated a cursed kimono that had been owned by three girls—all who died before wearing it. Instead of releasing the evil spirit in the kimono, however, strong winds blew the kimono to the floor and the house caught on fire. And before you could say “Don’t play with fire,” the “Long-Sleeved Kimono Fire” destroyed 75 percent of the city of Edo (now Tokyo), and more than one hundred thousand residents perished.

The Real Dracula

Yes, Virginia, there was a real Dracula, but he was much, much worse than a vampire. Vlad Drakulya III, Prince of Wallachia (a region in what is now southern Romania) ruled on and off from 1448–1476. If listing his attributes, “nice” wouldn’t crack the top thousand. Cruel, sick, and murderous? Getting warmer.

We have to remember that times were different then, and rulers needed to be tenacious in order to hold on to what was theirs. After ruling for a mere two months in 1448, Vlad was overthrown. He returned in 1456, killing the man who had taken his place. At this point, Vlad realized he needed to make some changes. Crime was rampant, his castle nearly in ruins, and political intrigue was everywhere. One of his first steps was to enslave the boyars (local aristocracy) who had opposed him and force them to rebuild his castle. The ones who didn’t die from exhaustion were killed. For his fight against crime, he devised some simple deterrents. If you were caught stealing, you had the skin of your feet removed and then your feet were sprinkled with salt. Goats licked the salt off. One story reports that Vlad was so confident that his punishments worked that he placed a golden cup in the central square of Tirgoviste … where it remained untouched for years.

Vlad also enjoyed burning or boiling people, hammering nails into heads, and cutting off limbs; however, his preferred method of torture was impalement. Vlad the Impaler would attach each of his victim’s legs to a horse, place the tip of a sharpened stake where the sun don’t shine, and say, “Giddyap!” He would impale thousands of people at a time and arrange the stakes in geometric patterns around one of his cities. One of the most famous woodcuts of Vlad shows him feasting with dozens of impaled victims in the background.

Vlad also thought it important that everyone contribute to the welfare of the kingdom. So one day he invited all the vagrants, beggars, and cripples of the land to a great feast. After the meal and a short speech from Vlad, he had the hall boarded up and set on fire. That’s one way to eradicate poverty …

SIDE NOTE: In Romania, he is considered one of its greatest leaders, and in 2006, Vlad the Impaler was voted one of the “100 Greatest Romanians.”

Inferiority Complex?

In the late 1600s, Peter the Great of Russia wanted his traditional, long-bearded countrymen to look more like smooth-faced Europeans. When banning beards proved difficult (some believed you couldn’t get into heaven without an untrimmed beard), he instead imposed a beard tax. Nobles were required to pay one hundred rubles per year. Commoners paid less. He also taxed long Russian coats, trying to encourage the shorter French style, and changed the Russian calendar to follow the Julian one. (Imagine thinking the year was 7207, only to have your king change it to 1700.)

Bad Fad

On February 12, 1933, a twenty-one-year-old Japanese student (some sources place her age at nineteen) killed herself by jumping into the crater of Mount Mihara, an active volcano on the island of Izu Oshima. This started a trend in Japan, and suddenly tourists were flooding the island not to see the crater, but to witness the suicides. Hundreds killed themselves before authorities thought to put up a fence around the crater.

Rotten Religion

“How many evils have flowed from religion!”—Lucretius

 The ancient Aztecs believed that the sun would disappear without food. What did the sun eat? Human hearts. Lots of them. Meanwhile, priests sacrificed crying children so their tears would appease the rain god. And not to be outdone, their maize goddess required a virgin be killed and skinned. A priest would then dance wearing her skin.

 In the thirteenth century, a young shepherd claimed to have been visited by Jesus, who told him to go on a Crusade to liberate the Holy Land. Thousands of French children followed him to the docks, where French merchants agreed to take them all to Jerusalem. The merchants then sold all the children into slavery.

 In 1096, thousands of Christians marched to free the Holy Land from infidels. They weren’t led by a child, however; they were, instead, following a goose. There’s no word on whether or not the goose of God approved of the army killing all the Jews they met on the way. Thousands were brutally murdered.

 Back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church decided it was immoral for women to sing or act on stage. So who would sing the girl parts? No problem! The Church castrated young boys so their voices wouldn’t change as they grew older.

 What did William Tyndale do to deserve both strangulation and being burned at the stake? He was arrested by church authorities in 1535 for translating the Bible into English, which was against the law. Only Latin translations were legal, meaning only educated people could read it. A lot of Tyndale’s translation was eventually used to create the 1611 King James version of the Bible, which is still in use today.

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